It’s no secret that history textbooks tend to spend the majority of their pages documenting the triumphs and failures of white men. A U.S. History textbook, for example, will take a chapter to discuss a short recap of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and offhandedly mention the Trail of Tears in a sidebar, and a science class might be lucky enough to learn a couple of factoids about Marie Curie after weeks of lectures about men making discoveries. The typical student (assuming they don’t take elective courses about a more diverse telling of history) won’t know much about the invaluable contributions to mathematics made by Middle Eastern scholars, and they certainly won’t hear about matriarchal societies throughout history. In their lack of knowledge regarding the achievements of different types of people, they might assume that white men have made the majority of contributions to science, literature, or social reform. That is why I make it a point to study incredible people whose accomplishments might not be widely recognized. As a Spanish major and a writer, women like Violeta Parra, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, and Maria Irene Fornes pull my attention.
Violeta Parra was an incredible Chilean artist, songwriter, and more, born in 1917. I was lucky enough to visit a museum dedicated to her when I studied in Santiago, Chile. Listening to the music she wrote, sang, and played guitar to was enchanting. Her musical style led a movement to renew interest in Chilean folk music called “Nueva Cancion Chilena.” Her visual art in mediums such as painting and embroidery challenge the eye and the mind in their depth. Her works aren’t aesthetically pleasing fields of flowers; they mean something. Her art has been on display at the Louvre in France, where she traveled to study art. Being a successful woman, she faced a lot of adversity. Her daughter, who lived with her family in Chile, died unexpectedly while Parra was in France. During this period of immeasurable grief in her life, many criticized her for having left her child. This is what happens when a mother selfishly abandons her family, they argued. It is unclear whether this backlash contributed to her suicide in 1967 or if she simply had won too many battles against her depression and no longer had the strength to fight. She faced problems with mental illness throughout her life but managed to become one of Chile’s most noteworthy artists anyway and was all-around an incredible person.
Rewind to the 1600s. Mexico, then a colony of Spain, was ruled by viceroys and vicereines on behalf of the Spanish king. The average woman had three options for her life: Get married and have children, live in poverty as an oft-exploited prostitute, or join the local convent as a nun. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz chose the third option. As a small child, Juana showed signs of genius. She taught herself to read at a very young age from books her somewhat affluent family owned. As a teenager she joined a convent as it was the only way she would be allowed to continue her education. She wrote beautiful poetry and profound philosophy which was seen as unacceptable for a woman in accordance with the views of the Catholic Church during that time period. One of her dearest friends, a vicereine, offered her Juana some political protection until she moved back to Spain. After that, Juana’s work faced increasing challenges, namely the threats of a bishop who didn’t approve of her ideas that didn’t perfectly follow his standards of religion or of her intelligence despite being a woman. Her poetry was denounced as nearly erotic and potentially homosexual, and her philosophical writings were blasted as heresy. Much of her writing was destroyed, although we are lucky that some of it has been preserved. Juana was eventually sent away to care for the sick in an outbreak, where she soon fell ill and died. Her intelligent, passionate writing is well worth reading today, and in reading it we can help make sure this woman’s enchanting work does not fall through the cracks of history and become lost.
For this final inspirational woman, I finally get to write about her life without discussing a tragic death. Maria Irene Fornes was a Cuban-American playwright born in Havana in 1930. After immigrating to the U.S. at 15, she rapidly learned English and became a translator because she found working in a shoe factory difficult and, more importantly, boring. She didn’t find her passion in translation and began studying art at age 19. What she is really known for is playwrighting, and her first journey into writing showcased her determination and impulsivity in charming way. She sat down to write a short story using a cookbook as inspiration to goofily help her friend overcome writer’s block. Within a few years Fornes had published plays and won her first of many awards. She would write about social issues such as poverty, feminism, and refugees. As a Hispanic woman who preferred relationships with women to those with men, she overcame prejudices about various aspects of her identity to become an incredibly successful woman with a unique spirit and a sharp sense of humor and remains so today as she grows old. I highly recommend watching The Rest I Make Up, a documentary filmed recently. It gives a firsthand understanding of how dynamic and inspiring Maria Irene Fornes is.
Understanding how diverse people have contributed to our world is an essential part of equality. It is much harder to justify the oppression of a group if you see them as valuable. Though I believe that every person is inherently valuable, it is easy to subconsciously feel like certain people are worth more than others if they are the only ones having their accomplishments acknowledged. Since the majority of mainstream history classes put a heavy focus on white men, it is important to find information on people who belong to other groups and give them credit for their achievements. Within the fields of art and literature, Violeta Parra, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, and Maria Irene Fornes are powerful Latina creatives who deserve acknowledgement for their fantastic contributions to their fields.