Metropolitan State University of Denver and the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department was honored by the presence of Dr. Christine Sierra, Professor Emerita from the University of New México. Selected as the 2017 Richard T. Castro Distinguished Visiting Professor, Dr. Sierra, is one of three women in the United States with a doctorate in political science. She is also co-author of Contested Transformation: Race, Gender and Political Leadership in the 21st Century that dissects the politics of gender as this country moves forward into the 21st Century while the demographics keep changing and Latinas continue to enter the political arena at higher rates.
One should never make the theoretical quantum leap that having more People of Color legislators will automatically strengthen the communities’ political power and automatically result in equal representation for Latinas/os. The shibboleths of the political system requires finesse at building relationships as politicos attempt to penetrate the inner circles of power groups in governments. Dr. Sierra shares that there are over 12,000 Persons of Color in political offices; yet, issues of “power distribution, narrow self-interest and personal ambition,” are ever present, causing the balancing of ethics in legislative circles as legislators haggle over public policy decisions. Overcoming obstacles such as gendered and discriminatory institutionalized practices is always an uphill battle. In her book, Dr. Sierra uses intersectionality theory, that is, the effects of being a woman of color, growing up in a working-class family, and being brown as she analyzes the many challenges Latinas encounter as they enter political offices. One interesting result in her research is that women use intersectionality to build bridges and political coalitions to the advantage of Latina/o communities.
The character of the Richard Castro visiting professorship took a different twist this year as several noted current and past legislators participated in a panel discussion, sharing personal stories regarding their respective legislative journeys. The panel included Polly Baca, whose history includes terms in the Colorado House and Senate; Laura DeHerrera, former State Representative; Crisanta Duran, current speaker of the House of Representatives; Lucia Guzman, Senate Minority Leader; Paula Sandoval, past City Councilperson and State Senator; Celina Benavidez, former State Representative; and Virginia Castro, widow of Richard T. Castro and longtime community activist.
The personal stories shared during the morning panel, were excellent narratives consistent with the findings of research in Sierra’s book. They were filled with the shadowy side of Chicana/o history when segregation was the norm and signs were hung up stating that Mexicans and Dogs were not allowed in public spaces. At times, they had to overcome stringent role definition within the Chicana/o culture and learn how to turn “hot anger into cold anger,” with passion and determination. As Virginia Castro noted, “the whole family got elected,” and served in the legislature. Experiences included walking on the campaign trail and overcoming historical stereotypes that were rampant at the time.
Celina Benavidez welcomed the audience “to the West Side,” taking the audience on a historical stroll when police brutality plagued the community. Incidentally Rich Castro was a victim of one of those police beatings. Ya Basta became the battle cry as communities took the scrimmage into the streets. She honored the struggle of the Chicano Movement as a motivating force that helped push the Chicana/o community into another epoch of the movement that lives today. Past issues of educational segregation, bussing, and the use of eminent domain to displace residents were shared with audience participants. One of the legacies left by the Movement included learning how to engage in legislative battles using words as weapons. Other stories included turning “pain into passion,” movement and activism. Benavidez challenged DACA students to pick up the banner, get involved and create social change. Resiliency was one of the key factors that catapulted many of the women from poverty, alienation, racism, patriarchy and sexism into powerful positions within the state legislature.
Dr. Christine Sierra has walked down the same path that esteemed panelists have walked. Memories of kitchen conversations with family members coupled with a passion for social change, inclusion and equality were the driving forces that motivated her to continue the struggle. Dr. Sierra examines her findings through the lenses of “multiple jeopardy.” She poignantly asks the question: “To what extent and in what ways has the American political landscape been transformed by the increasing numbers of elected officials and populations of color?” Sierra and her co-authors state that “women of color work harder, are better at building consensus, avoid the limelight to get the job done, and are more persuasive and more transparent when developing public policy,” thus, arguing that gender does matter in issues such as leveraging power in politics.
The legacies that the panelists leave include serving the greater good, often times, at the expense of self-deprivation, turning dreams into reality, learning how to organize, never giving up, volunteerism, and developing a passion for politics. Women will continue to penetrate the dominant male and white privileged political circles with experience, wisdom and a tenacious desire to continue the struggle for social justice. Latino communities should be in communion with these brave women; together we can overcome.
By Ramón Del Castillo, PhD
Dr. Ramón Del Castillo is an Independent Journalist. © 9/24/17 Ramón Del Castillo.