Discovering and Living Feminism Changed This Cuban’s Life
Ileana Alvarez, founder of the Cuban feminist magazine Alas Tensas (Tense wings) is a hard-working woman who loves what she does. She works at her home in Ciego de Avila and enjoys every moment greatly. Ever since we discovered that she was being harassed by State Security, we have tried to bring this interview to life as we believe it’s the best way to show who Ileana is.
HT: How and when did feminism come into your life?
Ileana Alvarez: I was born in a marginal neighborhood and I saw how men treated women: like an object, a piece of property. I saw how they were beaten and I even had the awful experience of being close to the murder of a dear neighbor of mine who was killed by her partner. I grew up with these wounds. Then, I felt helpless knowing that these crimes were simply called “crimes of passion”, something which hasn’t really changed after so many years. From an early age, I discerned that this violence against women was because of the simple fact that they were women and that this was a very bad thing.
On the other hand, we had a kind of matriarchy in my household and my mother wouldn’t get tired of telling my sister and I that we should value ourselves, and that the first step to doing this was to be independent in everything. “Study and work, become somebody,” she used to say in her words, “so that what happened to Milagrito doesn’t happen to you.” She was referring to our neighbor who was murdered.
When I began studying Language and Literature at the “Marta Abreu” University of Las Villas, I became interested in women’s art and writing. The literary canon suffered from great gender inequity as very few women were included, in spite of the many values they exhibited in their work. Something wasn’t right, even in that space. So I began to read and study women’s writing, putting my critical skills to the test. I realized, with my theoretical tools, that patriarchal power wasn’t only limited to private spaces, but was also present in other social spheres. I gradually became more and more convinced that a feminist standpoint was the only thing that could help in the face of so much injustice.
HT: When some people try to defend their rights they just move the axis of power to the other extreme and reproduce the same patterns they used to criticize. We know that we should be talking about feminisms now, in the plural. So our readers can get to know you a little better, can you clarify your position?
IA: Of course. Right now, we can’t be talking about feminism as a single discourse, the problems women suffer today are very complex and have a lot to do with different contexts. Lots of different types of feminism have emerged, especially after the ‘60s, (poststructural feminism, difference feminism, radical feminism, cultural feminism, postcolonial feminism, ecofeminism, lesbian feminism, Black feminism, cyberfeminism, among many others). The divides between these and infighting has sometimes led to a theoretical standstill as well as meddling in the socio-political arena. These divisions have been used by patriarchal power to carry on. However, today, it presents itself as a new movement, with a greater focus on all of feminism’s most important objectives (putting any differences aside), which is the struggle for real equality, to eradicate gender-related discrimination and stereotypes and to fight against the violent structure of patriarchal societies.
Therefore, even though my own interests and experiences can make me lean towards one kind of feminism or another, I prefer to reinforce the elements that unite us. Nevertheless, I particularly value the so-called “intersectional feminism” movement, which stems from the term “intersectionality” which was coined in the late ‘80s by Black feminist lawyer, Kimberle Crenshaw. She proposed we rethink discrimination, not from “above”, but on different and various levels of discrimination which oppressed peoples experience. It understands the fact that gender crosses over with other identities which help to perpetuate these oppressive relationships within society. More than a branch of feminist thought, it’s a methodology, a tool, to explain gender-related discrimination and violence and to then find solutions.
HT: Alas Tensas has been publishing for two years. What is the magazine’s purpose? Who is it targeted at? What is this audience’s feedback?
IA: In the magazine’s first edition, we set out our wish to become a purposeful platform which would spread awareness about pending gender equality problems in our country and to give visibility to women’s work in the arts and other environments. We want to continue the feminist movement here in Cuba which was very strong during the Republic (1902-1958), but was drastically overshadowed after 1959. I believe that we would have made great progress when it came to gender equality if that whole feminist movement which ensured our right to get a divorce and vote hadn’t been cut short. It also played an important role in our country’s struggle for freedom and for women to study and have a life outside of the domestic space and traditional roles.
The magazine is targeted at a wide audience, not just women but anyone who has a good heart and wants a more inclusive and equal Cuba. The feedback we receive is quite rich in spite of all our problems with connecting to the internet. Social media is used, emails, we reply to comments and we also take on the critique we receive. We recognize the fact that feminism is stigmatized in our country and that other women also attack feminists quite strongly. We have to fight to wipe out this stigma because feminism has contributed to humanity more than the moons someone can point out to you. Many of the advances we enjoy today in my country and in other parts of the world wouldn’t have been possible were it not for feminist struggles.
HT: Many people ask: “But… are there feminists in Cuba?” What would your response be to them?
IA: Of course there are. Recently, feminism has experienced a rebirth and we see this in academic and cultural circles, especially in cities. There is still a long way to go before it is seen in society spontaneously, which is manifested, like it appears now in other Latin American countries, in education and public life. Here, the movement is very fragmented, very localized and activism is quite rudimentary, institutional and directed. However, at least there is something germinating which, as author Lezama says, “could become a power.” And feminism exists because there are inequalities, gender violence and stereotypes which need to be eradicated.
HT: How has Alas Tensas transformed Ileana, the woman?
IA: I’m a different Ileana after Alas Tensas. I have been learning about the movement; the history of feminist ideology is very complex because of so many theories and it reveals many divides which can’t entirely be grasped. The knowledge that feminism centers on can be unintelligible and sterile for some people. However, the most important thing is to capture its essence, what it has to offer, what good is has done in the history of humanity. Building on that foundation, we have tried to develop ourselves as a platform which isn’t perfect, which can have its absurdities, be inconsistent theoretically-speaking, but grow with these mistakes to bring the stories that move, or shock people, to life; stories about ordinary women who strengthen a family’s life and even the country. The lives of women who don’t normally appear in official history books, but whose testimony could be just as heroic, or even more so, than the most famous heroine. I identify with the majority of these testimonies. I have opened my mind and soul to try and understand the causes for this inequality better and to find a way to try and eradicate them. Yes, because talking about inequality, and recognizing these problems exist is the first step towards eliminating them.
HT: What are the most pressing matters that need to be resolved in order to have a more just and equal society? Fo you believe feminism is a road to this end?
IA: Today, Cuba’s pending problems aren’t only gender-related, they are also linked to race, the economy, ideology/politics, the Constitution, creating a dialogue between different civil institutions… The country needs to open itself and accept that differences and plurality of thought helps societies to make progress. As a result, feminism would be one of the important paths towards creating this more just and equal society we wish for, but it isn’t the only road; it would join and work hand in hand with other social sectors which need to be taken into account, but it would hold a main space, and couldn’t ever be excluded from any present or future social project.
HT: What consequences has being a feminist activist brought you?
IA: Feminist activism has reaffirmed my female identity, clarity about using my time responsibly, as well as a lot of joy feeling that Alas Tensas is necessary and that it gives a lot of women who couldn’t normally express themselves, a voice. I have also had some bitter experiences. Sometimes, some women in my own family even, who have been educated in a patriarchal system, don’t understand the feminism I try to put into practice in my own home, by splitting up domestic chores and inverting traditional roles (I must clarify that I am the only woman in my household, along with my two sons and my husband); maybe the most adaptable.
In the world of culture, I’ve heard expressions such as “here she comes with her feminist crap”; I have been prevented from speaking at certain forums, as well as workshops about women’s writing, or about the history of feminism which I have wanted to give. The lack of awareness about what feminism is in Cuba and how much it has evolved has given me the label of a “gender essentialist” which has nothing to do with me at all, or with what Alas Tensas extols.
Lastly, patriarchal power has bared its teeth and is harassing me in many different ways so I abandon my independent feminist and creative project. The most explicit have been bans on me traveling abroad on two different occasions as well as false accusations.
I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, nor how many hurdles I will have to jump, how much bitterness will fall upon me, but I do know that the time is now, no matter how vulnerable I am, and I think that Alas Tensas is something that society needs, and while I have strength and breath in my body, I will defend it.
Translation: Circles Robinson.