Dislocating Decolonial Feminist Genealogies and the Making of a Chi’xi Feminism
Indigenous, peasant and Afro-descendent women in Latin America have fostered enormous contributions not only in terms of their diverse actions upon and against long-standing patriarchal regimes within the region, but also in terms of re-conceiving and re-making the deeply entrenched structures of oppression that still rest upon colonial exclusions. Indeed, an increased militarization directed by imperialist security agendas as well as the insurmountable wars pertaining to both national and transnational actors have been at the forefront of their current struggles. In this sense, speaking about feminisms within the region implies recognizing these landscapes, the historical processes of their contemporary assemblages and the epistemological stances from which they are both produced and received.
Out of this concern, contemporary feminist scholars from the United States such as Nancy Fraser and Florence Babb, among others, have been working on the recuperation and recognition of decolonial feminist genealogies. They have claimed the importance of tracing the organizational processes as well as the knowledge production of the different feminisms in Latin America. Despite the importance of these contributions, their projects have not escaped the already historical tensions between feminists of color and white feminists. The current materialization of such tensions needs to be read through the geopolitical conditions rendered by capitalist globalization and radical anti-neoliberal projects.
This essay is the result of several months of conversations between two Latin American feminists, one from Perú and the other from Colombia, who live in NYC. We have embarked upon the critical exercise of interrogating the place from where we speak. We know that our locus of enunciation is crossed by geographical and epistemological boundaries. Situating ourselves in this debate implies recognizing that we are both within and outside the tensions that emerge from it. Our aim is not to (re)present ourselves as a voice of the anti-colonial feminist projects that will be discussed through this paper; yet instead of remaining silent or dismissing them, we aim to embrace the contradictions and complexities that arise when one talks about struggles from the comfort zone of academia in the so-called Global North. In this sense, our main assumption is that the only possible site from which we can speak about decolonizing genealogies of feminism without re-colonizing them, is through our very relation to them, from the meanings that we have negotiated in various dialogues with women currently in countries such as Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia and most importantly, from the ways in which their voices have affected and transformed our daily feminist praxis.
Decolonial feminist genealogies and geopolitical tensions
We will start by posing two issues that need to be critically considered in the light of the current efforts to recover such alternative genealogies. First, the epistemological field in which they are being produced has a particular historical moment, and thus, a specific way of operating in different geopolitically situated contexts. Western epistemologies have been centered on a tacit division between theory and praxis, as well as on a non-porous fault line separating “women” from “women of color” or “third world women”. On the other hand, Latin American women in indigenous, peasant and Afro-descendant movements are producing knowledge out of praxis and in the performance of praxis. We will argue that the inseparability of both processes or rather, the enmeshed spatiality and temporality in which both theory and practice occur, produces another perspective with which to approach epistemologies. This leads us to the second issue that relates to the very conditions of the circuits that theoretical works produce and within/through which alternative epistemologies circulate.
The theoretical considerations produced by feminists from the so-called “third world” have been described, analyzed and even used by many scholars in the U.S. in significant ways that seek to destabilize hegemonic conceptualizations of humanity defined in opposition to “third world” subjects. From this perspective, their voices have served as a bridge through which the main concerns of women in Latin America can be heard in the Global North. Nevertheless, the possibilities of “Third World women” to access mainstream circuits of legitimate sources of feminist knowledge are still extremely limited. One can say that this limitation has been overcome, to a certain extent, through social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter, for they allow the configuration of territorially unbounded connections that do not rest upon juridical and administrative definitions of borders for civic participation and political action (Sassen, 2007). However, this presence in media comes along with the fact that activism as a mode of producing knowledge is hardly considered within the bounds of academia´s legitimate circuits of knowledge, in the sense that third world activists are rarely decoded as authors.
In order to understand how these two issues affect the project of tracing alternative feminist genealogies, we will start by describing the south-to-north bridge as one that requires a translation process, not only in terms of language but also a translation from an entire “field of production” to another “field of reception.” Bourdieu provides a clever starting point to think about the ways the circulation of ideas operates in transnational social processes. He uses the concept of “field of production” to denote the structure in which an idea emerges, and the concept of ‘field of reception” to denote the structure in which that idea is received. He argues that through the various mediations amongst which an idea circulates, that idea is necessarily deformed, transformed and re-appropriated. This re-shaping of the idea occurs because it does not circulate with its “field of production”, and in its various mediations for entering into a “field of reception”, there are misunderstandings that are part of the social operations of this transfer:
“There is a process of selection (what is to be translated, what is to be published, who it will be translated by, who will publish it, a process of labeling and classification (often the placing of a label on a product that previously has no label at all) by the publishers, the question of the series in which it is to be inserted, the choice of the translator and the writer of the preface (…) and finally the reading process itself, as foreign readers are bound to perceive the text in different ways since the issues which are of interest to them in the text are inevitably the result of a different field of production” (Bourdieu 222)
The previously stated conditions open up a fissure within the established notions of what should enter into a genealogical account. Counteracting that limitation implies examining closely the process of translation on the ground, namely one that could consider clashes and encounters between different epistemologies in the making, between concepts and ways in which struggles usually defy determinations and dialects. This dialogism restrains any attempt of cooptation or a claim to a decolonizing project only from the realm of academicism. M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2010) argue that concepts as result of radical feminist practices both by chicanas and black feminist movements have been coopted and institutionalized in diverse contexts. In that sense, feminists from academia should ask themselves what the intellectual, political and institutional context that informs their own shifts and commitments to radical feminist practices is. Academia can work as a epistemological machinery, profoundly articulated with the politics of consumerism: demands enter into a market circuit and are materialized both from within and through broader representational regimes, apparatuses of visual economies that constitute entire market sectors. Under such conditions, we might ask: At what cost can feminism be conceived as a transgressive paradigm, way of living or even practice?
Dislocating theory/praxis and other binaries
Let us expand these issues with some examples that have caught our attention in terms of the debates on feminisms and feminists. A controversy was raised when Nancy Fraser, in an article published in October 2013, expressed her concern “that our critique of sexism is now supplying the justification for new forms of inequality and exploitation.” She argues that feminist critique of capitalism has been instrumentalized by neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society. Fraser makes a call to recognize the contribution of the second-wave feminist to neoliberal development “but not because we were passive victims of neoliberal seductions.” Brenna Bhandar and Denise Ferreira da Silva reply to Fraser, arguing that the latter reveals “the innate and repetitive myopia of While Feminists to take account, to converse and think along with Black and Third World Feminists.” Bhandar and Da Silva disavow the universalization of the term “feminism” and raise issues on how “race” has been made invisible in allegedly post-racial societies. Fraser, instead of dismantling the neoliberal society she critiques, contributes to it when she explicitly erases “race” from her article and with it the intellectual labour of feminists of color.
In a 2013 conference entitled “Feminist Constellation: Intercultural Paradigms in the Americas”, another discussion over using or defining oneself as “feminist” was raised. Two indigenous intellectuals, Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj & América Millaray Painemal Morales (the first a K’iche scholar from Guatemala and the latter a Mapuche woman from Chile) commented on the dangers that labeling themselves as “feminists” within indigenous women’s struggles for land, cultural diversity and against neoliberal economics implied, for these as these have been carried out under different cosmological premises. For Velásquez Nimatuj, for instance, there is a class origin in the position defined by “feminist”, which connotes privilege from those inhabiting the realm of upper-class women with access to education, and whose agenda prioritizes political participation, sexual and reproductive rights. As a label, “feminism” totalizes an experience by making little to examine debates on gender differentiations and strategies outside Western worldviews, as well as to identify internal fractures that multiple dominations have produced.
While to them the construction of an honest or genuine approach to different epistemologies requires a constant battle against the boundaries between theory and practice, there is a work of translation that renders the position of “feminist” as a linguistic matter and puts the language uses among indigenous people to the front. As Velásquez Nimatuj pointed out, “feminist” is not a familiar term among indigenous women. We should then ask what equivalent — if such exists — could be found in Aymara, Quichua, Guaraní, among others. Peruvian indigenous activist Hilaria Supa Huamán, for example, prefers the word “equilibrium”, for it linguistically describes and represents betterment for Andean women’s life. We thus contend that a critical both practical and theoretical work on translation is a necessary for a horizontal co-production of knowledge with the potential of expanding, intervening and constantly problematizing “feminism” as one-sided-perspective agenda. That is why it is important to ask to us — feminist militants — about our own place when talking in terms of “solidarity” or “transnational feminist organizing”; for whom are those terms beneficial? Are they beneficial for the academic business that organizes conferences, research projects and book publications or for the women and activists dealing with complex tensions and issues in-situ?
In the resonating Rios Montt trial, Guatemala’s mainstream media was, for the first time, witnessing indigenous women speaking in Maya languages. Such a powerful representation implies that even though the mechanisms to reach justice are provided by the State — conceived from and within a western idea of governmentality — the indigenous voices that have claimed for justice, fought and resisted injustice opened up other possibilities of resolving profound social crisis. Indigenous women giving their testimonio in their own language is just one step forward in the Guatemalan process to recognize — as Julio Solorzano stated — “its pluricultural conditions not as a problem but as a reality.” Having said this, struggles for cultural rights (for language recognition and demands for own representation) are linked to a broader issue regarding the defense of their vital territories, where an ultimate question of the limits of state sovereignty in alliance with neoliberal interests is at its underscore. This scenario claims an international solidarity that is being made, one that does not fall into a patronizing attitude that locates Maya women as victims without any intellectual and practical agency. Moreover, contradictions and encounters between the dynamism of the local/global spheres embed the density of these claims, where “feminism” would not necessarily be the standpoint for bringing together Guatemalan and non-Guatemalans, Maya and not-Maya people.
The goal here is not to disavow academia nor to dismiss the valuable endeavors carried out by various scholars, but rather, to push borders of thinking, doing and building agendas that are compromised with a better understanding of the intersections between decolonial/anticolonial gender practices and academic enterprises. In the talk “Feminism, Abolition and Radical Reconstruction in the 21st Century” delivered in March of 2014, Angela Davis criticized scholars for not being able to release thoughts without the constraints of theorization. Instead, she argued to let room for a knowledge that is born in the temporal moments of struggles, when there are still no words to name whatever is to come as a result of resistance. What is at stake here is that to be able to speak from the interregnum between theory/practice and academy/activism there needs to be a historical consciousness so that we can place “gender” as a space of relations of power — as Maria Lugones stated with her discussion on the “coloniality of gender.” Davis invites us to see, to feel through the cracks that struggles create into the patriarchal, capitalist system, so that a new social, cultural and political grammar can emerge.
Claiming for Anti-colonialism: towards a Chi’xi feminism
According to Smith (2010), the practice of self-reflexivity that emerged from antiracist organizational and contemporary processes in the United States had one crucial failure: Despite its initial attempt to understand how different structures of oppression intersected and factored into specific mechanisms of discrimination towards specific subjects, it produced a cutting instantiation of the colonizer/colonized subject positions. Evoking the colonial apparatus of domination through confession, self-reflexivity also required an individualizing procedure in which those who had the opportunity of confessing their privileges upon those who were perceived as the most oppressed became better and more civilized humans. She says: “the settler/white supremacist logics of confession and self-reflexivity rest on an epistemological understanding of the self as being constituted over and against other selves” (Smith, 2010: 270). The settler/white supremacist subject position, thus, is constituted through the ritual practice of confessing privilege; performing repentance or even remorse for those who suffer the devastating consequences of inequalities.
Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui (Arteaga and Muñoz, 2014) and Smith (2010) raise an important issue about how to deal with the daily contradictions that we, as Latin American women in New York live in. We can support all actions and organizational processes of resistance that are happening in the global south, yet we cannot deny that we have a privilege in terms of our current geopolitical location and its possibilities of entering “first-world” circuits of knowledge production. Smith says:
“(...) the genealogy of the projects of liberation must be constantly changing. Our imaginations are limited by white supremacy and settler colonialism, so all ideas we have will not be “perfect”. The ideas we develop today also do not have to be based on the complete disavowal of what we did yesterday, because what we did yesterday teaches what we might do tomorrow. Thus, as we think not only beyond privilege, but beyond the sense of self that claims privilege, we open ourselves to new possibilities that we cannot imagine now for the future” (Smith 2010).
Similarly, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui describes the Aymara concept of Ch’ixi as a creative energy that is released once the clash of two contradictory worlds not only occurs, but is recognized as such. Even if this energy does not materialize as an imaginary representation of what a different society would look like in the future, the Ch’ixi concept does open up an imaginary of the future in the form of “surprise”, a surprise that can only become material and experiential through the present act of doing.
Further, we could begin to describe a Chi’xi feminism as an intentionally woven theoretical and practical project that creates its relational structures and modes of operation according to situated contexts. By doing so, it would necessarily imply the construction of momentary, yet recyclable mappings of the fissures of fixed colonial and neocolonial ideological structures. As a result, embodying a Ch’ixi feminism would go beyond any polarization between external and internal separations, as well as colonizer/colonized universal enunciations. This is precisely why Rivera Cusicanqui (Arteaga and Muñoz, 2014) takes distance from the term “de-colonizing” — a notion that would imply denying or removing something and replacing it with something new — and calls for embracing the uncomfortability of contradiction and using it as a possibility for creative action.
From this perspective, we argue that those mapped fissures need to be first and most importantly defined in our daily micropolitical practices of constituency as entities traversed by colonial ways of thinking and embodiment. Seen in that way, what would summon up intellectuals and activists or intellectual/activists in political encounters is not an identity — be it racial, social or gendered — as or even a particular condition of physical legibility of their bodies. Since we assume that communities of resistance are made in the doing, in the process per se, we would describe a Chi’xi feminism as one that is built “in relation”, as opposed to a solely individual self-reflexive consciousness prioritized as strategic praxis. The ability to be surprised by the other, going against predictions and assumptions that we already know everything about him or her, constitutes in itself an anti-colonial and practical pedagogy. It leaves a space for unfinished conversations from which we push boundaries to constantly redefine our agendas and to avoid placing ourselves in unnecessary opposition to others. Once there, we can begin to dance through the hegemonic relational patterns, forging alternative relational epistemologies, dialogical knowledge and grammars.
Alexander, M. Jacqui and Chandra Talpade Mohanty. “Cartographies of Knowledge and Power. Transnational Feminism as Radical Praxis”. Critical Transnational Feminist Praxis. Eds. Amanda Lock Swar and Richa Nagar. New York: SUNY Press, 2010. pp. 23- 45. Print
Arteaga, Claudia and Gerardo Munoz. “La disponibilidad de lo ineÌ�dito: entrevista a Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui”. Lobo suelto. Web. 13 June 2014
Babbs, Florence.”Gender, Race, and Indigeneity in Latin America: Provocations from Decolonial Feminism.” Stories of El Salvador: The Civil War and Its Aftermath Exhibition Series. New York University. 30 April 2014. Guest Lecture
Bhandar, Brenna and Denise Ferreira da Silva. “White Feminist Fatigue Syndrome. A reply to Nancy Fraser.” Critical Legal Thinking. Law and the Political. n.p., 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 June 2014
Bourdieu, Pierre. "The Social Conditions of the International Circulation of Ideas." Bourdieu: A Critical Reader. Richard Shusterman, ed. Oxford, Blackwell: 1999. p. 220-228. Print
Davis, Angela. “Feminism, Abolition and Radical Reconstruction in the 21st Century.” Angela Davis Scholar-in-Residence. New York University - Institute of African American Affairs. 4 March 2014. Keynote
Painemal Morales, América Millaray and Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj. “Indigenous Feminisms Hemispherically.” Conference Feminist Constellations. Intercultural Paradigms in the Americas. New York University.12-13 April 2013. Keynotes of Panel
Fraser, Nancy. “How feminism became capitalisms handmaiden - and how to reclaim it.” The Guardian. The Guardian News and Media. 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 June 2014
Sassen, Saskia. A Sociology of Globalization.W. W. Norton, 2007. Print
Laura Vargas completed her M.A in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at NYU in 2013. She works as an independent filmmaker and is a queer latina feminist activist.
Claudia Arteaga is a PhD candidate in Spanish at Rutgers University. She researches representations in film and writing about indigenous struggles in Perú and Bolivia.
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