Chicanas in Iowa
By Janet Weaver
The tradition of Latina activism, handed down through tight-knit neighborhoods and barrio communities in Iowa, became increasingly visible over time. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mexican American women in Iowa used the experience gained through their participation in LULAC and community-based advocacy groups to fight discrimination in housing, education, and employment. Since the earliest days of LULAC in Iowa – whether in Fort Madison, Des Moines, Mason City, or Davenport - women held leadership positions in their councils and always worked behind the scenes organizing conventions, writing and editing newsletters, and coordinating fundraisers. As they battled for opportunities made possible by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they moved beyond Mexican American organizations to hold leadership positions in local, state, and regional organizations.
In 1967, Des Moines activist and former migrant worker Irene Guzman spoke in support of the migrant child labor bill at a joint hearing before the Iowa House and Senate committees on human and industrial relations. The same year, Mexican American public health nurse Sister Irene Muñoz, born and raised in West Des Moines, arrived in Muscatine to provide healthcare to 1,000 migrant workers living temporarily on farms around Muscatine. Her advocacy work put her at odds with growers who at first welcomed her visits to the homes of migrant workers living temporarily on their property, but later opposed them as it enabled her to inspect the camps and report violations of Iowa’s migrant housing law. Over time, some growers grew increasingly hostile toward her. “Rabble rousers, they called us,” Sister Irene remembered. “I think about when we first arrived, my sister [Sister Molly Muñoz] and I, they called us the good nuns and then we left, they called us the damned nuns.” One farmer had a shotgun to ”throw her off” and, on one occasion, Sister Molly was arrested for “criminal trespassing” on private property.
Looking back at her years in Muscatine, Sister Irene Muñoz noted, “We really pushed for a lot of changes in the state of Iowa.” In 1969, she testified at a public meeting in Davenport called by the Iowa State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Her testimony helped lay the groundwork for the creation of the Iowa Spanish Speaking Peoples Task Force, on which Des Moines LULAC leaders Ila Plasencia and Paula Campos served. The report of the task force, published in Conóceme en Iowa (Know us in Iowa) led to the formation of the Iowa Spanish Speaking Peoples Commission in 1976, the forerunner of the Iowa Commission on Latino Affairs.
Between 1968 and 1975, momentum generated by the national boycott of California table grapes nurtured a groundswell of grassroots organizing often initiated by women. In 1970, when a group of local activists, led by Dolores Carrillo, decided to picket the Oscar Mayer plant in Davenport, Iowa, Carrillo built on a tradition of community activism in her local LULAC council. Through her recent experience supporting the grape boycott campaign by picketing local supermarkets, Carrillo understood the power of public protest. “That’s what I learned from that, fight for your rights,” she explained. “You have the same right as anybody else. Fight for it. If you don’t get it, you can picket until you do get it.”
An experienced factory worker, Carrillo had expected to be hired by the Davenport Oscar Mayer Company on the many occasions that she submitted her employment application. She suspected discrimination because although the company stated that it was not hiring, Ernest Rodriguez, employed inside the plant at that time and a member of both LULAC and the Davenport Human Relations Commission (HRC), confirmed that Anglos were being hired. Carrillo collaborated with Rodriguez to file a complaint with the Davenport HRC. The commission found that the Oscar Mayer Company used a culturally biased test, known as the “Bendix test,” in its hiring process. Because of the women’s protest, the company discontinued its use of the test. The Oscar Mayer boycott illustrates the multi-faceted approaches adopted by working-class Mexican American women as they confronted the dual oppression of race and gender discrimination.
Second-generation Mexican American women forged their way to full economic citizenship through the complex intersection of race, class, and gender. They built on a rich tradition of women’s activism exemplified by their mothers and other strong female role models in the neighborhoods and barrios where they grew up. Their activism was informed by their grassroots experience in civil rights organizing and their involvement in the farmworker movement for justice during the 1960s and 1970s. They identified with La Raza and el Movimiento Chicano, and their contributions to feminist advances took place in part through the labor movement. As a result of their community, labor, and civil rights activism from the 1940s through the 1960s, Mexican American women from Iowa and Illinois were able to demand, and in many cases secure, rights as workers and as U.S. citizens during the 1970s. Their identities as mothers, housewives, breadwinners, and nuns informed their approach to community organizing and workplace advocacy. Their early and little-noted contributions to the women’s movement demand a more expansive interpretation of feminist history, one that encompasses family and faith, idealism and bread and butter issues.
Note ~ This page includes excerpts from the previously published essay: Janet Weaver, “Barrio Women: Community and Coalition in the Heartland” in Breaking the Wave: Women, Their Organizations and Feminism, 1945-1985, edited by Kathleen Laughlin and Jacqueline Castledine (New York: Routledge, 2010), 173-188.