THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Norma Elia Cantú
“I am forever grateful to have grown up in a working-class family on the border because I have learned so much and have been offered opportunities to grow in incredible ways because of that reality.”
Interviewed by VFA member, Suzanne Tuckey, May 2022
ST: Hello, I have Norma Cantú with me today to tell her story as part of the Veteran Feminists of America Pioneer Histories Project. Norma, thank you so much for being with us.
NC: It’s my pleasure.
ST: What were you doing, what you were involved in and what were your experiences during the second wave feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s?
NC: I graduated from high school in 1965. It was a struggle, I wanted to go to college, and we didn’t have any funding. We didn’t have a college or university in my hometown in Laredo. I worked in an office, I was a clerk at a utilities company, Central Power, and Light Company, from ‘67 to ‘73.
When I graduated, I did have a scholarship because I had good grades and I was pretty smart so I thought I would go to college. But the reality was that I couldn’t. I went for one year on a Rotary Club scholarship so if you’re a Rotary member, thank you and also support scholarships. After that one year was over, I started working.
I’m the oldest of eleven children and in 1965 my father was working as a smelter, below minimum wage. My mom was a stay-at-home mom with all those kids and making do as best we could. I worked there and went to school at night at Laredo Community College, which was then called Junior College, now it’s Laredo College.
In ‘73 I went to get my master’s because we did eventually get a university in town. I’ve got my bachelor’s in English. English and Political Science were my double majors. I was undecided whether to go into law school or pursue teaching. I wanted to be a teacher since I was a kid. But at the master’s level I went on retreat and considered the options, as it were, and decided that law school was not for me and even though it might take longer, I want a PhD. That’s what I did. I went on to University of Nebraska in Lincoln and received my PhD.
During the second wave I was in the forefront of all kinds of activities like marching for the ERA, which we really had hopes for. And being pretty active in Chicano politics at the time. Sissy Farenthold, here in Texas, was running and I was involved with that campaign. My father had always been very political, he was a union man in the smelters, so I kind of inherited that and my grandparents were involved too. There was always this wanting to do something.
My community had been under the control of a few powerful families for a long time, and I felt I needed to do something. By leaving Laredo I thought I could come back and change things. In the office where I worked as a clerk, I firsthand experienced all the usual sexual harassment stuff. I didn’t know what to call it at the time. I didn’t call myself a feminist at the time, but I was doing things like questioning why somebody was getting more pay when they were doing the same job, only because it was a male.
The answer was, “He’s head of household,” but my friend who had come in at the same time as this guy was getting less money and was also head of household as a newly divorced woman. There were so many other instances of jokes that were sexually explicit and all kinds of things that would go on in the office that I knew we were wrong. Again, I didn’t have a word for it. I resisted as much as I could.
Even in the university, in graduate school, I had an American Poetry class, and the professor did not have a single woman poet on the syllabus. There were three or four of us who were female in the graduate program who approached him and complained, and he said there aren’t any women poets worth studying. Now, that’s shocking. At the time, in 1974-75, that was pretty much how men who taught in these programs felt.
I was in Nebraska, so I read Willa Cather, and the professor who was teaching, a woman, was pretty much oblivious or chose to be oblivious about Cather’s sexuality. A couple of other grad students and I confronted that issue and were told it was not relevant to what we were studying. There was a lot of inherent bias and sexism. There was ghosting of things that were so obvious and blatant and could have informed my education.
The other part about that second wave feminist movement was that there were opportunities. In Nebraska I was involved with the very first move to establish a women’s studies program, which we did! And a Chicano studies course that I was teaching. At that time, we did not say Chicana or Chicanx. It was Chicano. I taught one of the first courses in that literature there, trying really hard to make it 50-50 men and women. Even that was difficult because the books were simply not there, we were scrambling around trying to find books.
I read books about feminism and was involved on several levels: at the community level, at the university level, in the political arena; but always feeling like I wasn’t doing enough. I think a lot of us felt like that, no matter how much we did, it was never enough. It’s the ‘60s. There was a sense of revolution, and that word says evolution too. We were evolving, we were changing things, and there was room for that. It wasn’t easy, the struggle has always been difficult, but it opened up other possibilities. Despite all of the horrendous stuff that we were facing, there was possibility.
ST: It’s interesting that you say you didn’t have a word for these things, but you have this sense of inequity that you could feel and see, the things that you kind of just knew weren’t right.
NC: Yes, and another example: at the community college, we couldn’t wear pants to the library. We could wear pants to go to class, but there was a dress code for the library. I never understood that, and I knew that wasn’t right.
ST: Yes, but a lot of people go through life without question. They just accept whatever hand they’re dealt. That makes me interested in hearing more about your story leading to that. Having a mother, a father, and grandparents that were socially conscious activists – does that explain why you were more aware than many people? Or did you have other influences that really stand out that you haven’t talked about yet?
NC: That’s a really good question. I haven’t examined the roots of that. One’s life formation impacts who you are and how you see the world and how you see yourself in the world. I’m the oldest of eleven and my name is Norma, which is the “norm.” So I always saw myself as a role model for my siblings. It was a heavy responsibility because I knew whatever I did would shape what they were going to do and how they were going to look at the world. I think all of that is in there in some way.
Moreover, the idea that if you see something isn’t right, you say something, you do something. If you want to see something that isn’t there, you create it, you make it happen. There are many instances of that. When I came back to Laredo in 1980, one thing I saw that needed to happen was a literacy program. We didn’t have one for adult literacy, and I started one and became part of a national organization called Literacy Volunteers of America.
I felt we needed some kind of structure linking us to a wider world than just our little Laredo group. Plus, I have no idea how to do this, that was not my area. I had not studied how to do this, so they provided resources and training, and it was a way to make something happen because I knew it needed to happen.
Another instance of that was there was no feminist group in Laredo and yet we had a rich history of feminist action in Laredo. I started researching and reading and found a poet in 1911 writing about women and how strong they are and how valuable they are. I thought, this is a feminist poem, how come I didn’t know about this? It was a poem by Sara Estela Ramirez, it was a wonderful poem.
Jovita Idar and her family had a printing press. She had been a teacher, and she quit teaching to become more activist through the press. This is during the time of the Mexican Revolution when people are coming from Mexico and there’s great turmoil, political upheaval and all kinds of things happening on the border in Laredo. In a way, they’re like role models for me, because I saw that we had a legacy of feminist action, and here we were not doing anything.
We started a group called Las Mujeres that established several things. We became known in the community; we acknowledge and recognize the women who have done things in different areas like education and medicine. We also did transnational work with the women in Nuevo Laredo at an annual event that celebrated the women on both sides of that border. The archives are in the Texas Women’s University. For about 15 years we were very active and then things changed, as they always do. Some of us left and some of us moved on.
I left and went to Spain and came back and tried to start it again. It wasn’t the same. I think the conference is still going on, I’m not positive. At the university, we had an annual conference on women and also invited the community to come. Whenever I saw that something wasn’t there that I knew needed to happen, I would do it. How I knew, I’m not so sure. Definitely by reading what was going on outside of Laredo and comparing the literacy.
After living in Spain and doing my Fulbright, I came home and realized people weren’t reading. In Spain I would see people reading in the bus, at a cafe, and here we weren’t. What’s going on? Why is there this disparity? And as a professor of English, I couldn’t imagine not having the capacity to read and to enjoy that, which for me was a lifeline.
ST: Do you think a lot of it was literacy, cultural or both?
NC: Obviously not cultural, because these were Mexico and Spain – they’re the same culture. I think it’s a sustained oppression against people having literacy because literacy is power. One quote that I love to cite is that when you teach women to read and write, you reduce the infant mortality rate. There is a link.
It’s incredibly important that we know literacy is power. In the larger world, the Chicana movement was fast and furious right there and resisting the erasure from the white feminist organizations and movement by establishing our own links, publications, and spaces where could be feminists. We were attending to feminist issues that the larger feminist movement were not attending to.
ST: You mentioned as a child wanting to either be an attorney or a teacher and then you went to get a PhD and you work at a university, so you’re a teacher?
NC: I guess so! I’m just not teaching English in high school or junior high. I did my student teaching at a middle school and decided that was not for me. It was really hard.
ST: But was wanting to be a teacher what motivated you to get a PhD, or any thoughts around what was driving you?
NC: Not necessarily, I graduated with my BA at Texas A & I at Laredo, it was a branch of a university that’s about 100 miles away. I had to choose because I was student teaching and decided I didn’t want to just get certified to teach high school in Texas. It was a professor who suggested that I might want to teach at a university level, and that seemed very appealing. I love to read, I love to write, so I could work by reading and writing and teaching others how to do that.
Looking at what’s missing, the teachers we had overall were pretty dismal. There were some fabulous teachers, but there were others that were not so fabulous: racist, low expectations because we speak Spanish, things like that. I went away to get my higher education so I could come back and remedy that, and I did. I taught teachers in the teacher preparation program at a University in Laredo and at my alma mater for 20 years after that.
I don’t think I knew when I was in high school I wanted to be a professor, definitely not. Teacher? Yes, I have been teaching since I was in 7th grade. I had a little escuelita and taught my siblings and the neighborhood kids things before they went to first grade. The teaching has always been there. The university of teaching, that came later.
And it was also another professor in my master’s program, Dr. Hildegard Schmalenbeck, who suggested I get a PhD. She said I could go back to Laredo and teach at a community college with a master’s, but with a PhD, I could teach at a university. That made a big difference, no one had ever told me I could do that or suggested it, and it changed my life.
ST: We’re several decades beyond the Second Wave women’s movement now and you’ve mentioned working as a professor for decades so tell us more about your involvement since the ‘70s.
NC: When I came back to Laredo in 1980, I didn’t have a PhD yet, it took me a couple more years to get it and to finish the dissertation and start the women’s group. I was also involved with NOW, was a member of the National Women’s Studies Association, went to meetings or other organizations as well, and a member of the Forum of the MLA Modern Language Association. Always with that kind of focus on women.
The MALCS: Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social is an organization that started in the ‘80s after this period but is definitely tied to what was going on in the ‘60s and ‘70s with civil rights movements. I became active in those organizations because I needed some kind of refuge outside of Laredo where I could still feel there was a space to do feminist work. In the academy as a professor, it wasn’t always so.
Going to teach at a very small university where it was mostly men, and some of them had been my professors, you can imagine what I was facing. I needed that. That’s why I kept active and engaged with these other organizations, many of which came after the second wave movement. I would read women’s review of books: definitely read Sisterhood Is Powerful, Our Bodies Ourselves; all of these feminists’ books that shaped our ethos at the time as feminists. I was connecting on that level with the literary and teaching women writers, which other professors were not doing. I’m not sure if I’m answering your question, I’m just rambling.
ST: Well, yes, and in social movements things are always changing, but they go through periods of shifting more quickly, shifting slowly, sometimes going backwards. It’s not always a straight, clean line. We’ve come several decades now since the second wave movement where there was a lot of energy and activity. A lot of people have different perspectives on how things have evolved, especially lately with what’s been in the news so I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the trends in general since the ‘70s.
NC: If you live long enough, you have the benefit of having a vantage point. Things 50 years ago gave us a lot of hope for change and possibility like I was saying earlier. 50 years later, wait, what’s going on? We’re going back instead of forward. It’s a backlash that has been long coming and it has been sustained throughout politically. The gains, both in terms of women and people of color and LGBTQ, have taken a backside. We’re going back and I’m not sure we’re going all the way back, but enough to really dismantle many of the things that we were able to build and to institute during the last 50 years.
Personally, I feel like a lot of that has to do with the lack of vigilance. We haven’t been as vigilant as we could have been to ensure that that would not happen. I’m talking political action: getting involved, being there, and not necessarily just marching in the streets for the ERA, which is a struggle that continues 50 years later, but in terms of training and teaching the young people. I just told a group of young women that they’re not as radical as we were. They think they are, with all the piercings and tattoos, and there’s a semblance of being real radical.
But I remember real diehard lesbian separatists who had nothing to do with men and would shun anything having to do with men. I don’t see that. That’s not our reality now. That may be the way it should be, maybe that was kind of an extreme reaction. Now we’ve swung back to another one. I could go on forever about what I think the left has not done and how they have failed us both as women and as people of color. But I don’t blame anyone but ourselves. We should have been more vigilant, like I said, and more proactive in safeguarding what we did achieve and making sure that we wouldn’t be where we are otherwise.
When we were doing things like starting poetry groups, it was all about the collective, it was for all of us. It wasn’t so I could get ahead, so I could publish, it was for all of us. I don’t see it happening – here and there you’ll have some groups that are still adhering to that, but in general there’s this individualism, like you’re saying. I think that may be cultural, that’s going away from many of our cultural ways of being in the world, which are about taking care of each other. It takes a village; we are not doing it for ourselves.
The indigenous notion that what you do is for seven generations to come, that is lacking. Most obvious to me for that is climate change and the way we’re not taking care of our planet. That’s for all of us, whoever you are, whatever party, whatever race, it’s all of us that’s at stake. And that’s not to say that the young people are not doing what they can, because so many of them are. That’s the future, they’re the ones that are going to have to carry the baton forward and institute the change that we need and keep what we have gained and build on that. That’s the way it is.
I don’t want to sound like the old fogey who’s going on about how we were so much better. That’s not what I’m saying. But I am also saying that we who were there and who managed to gain some semblance of equity, have dropped the ball, and haven’t done as much as we should have. I’m not sure what that was either. I’m not in a position to shape public policy, I’m not a politician. But as an intellectual and thinker I hope that in my work, I’ve done and contributed to some of that, and I think that’s all we can hope for.
Talking to some of the feminists from back then, that was what we wanted. We wanted a world for all of us. We need to look at that too, and I haven’t even touched on race, because that’s another big one. We have marriage equality, but for how long? Back then we didn’t believe in marriage, so it was more at that level.
ST: Or at least the cultural norms around the institution of marriage.
NC: Exactly. Thank you for clarifying that. My partner and I got married right after 45 got elected because we didn’t know what was going to happen. There was fear in the LGBTQ community about what would happen once we had someone like that in the White House. Sure enough, all kinds of hell broke loose! And things did happen, not enough to dismantle that, but other things, I think I have changed.
You were asking about how I see things changing, but I think I have changed in my own way of being a feminist back then and now. And at 75, that’s how old I am, I think my feminism is perhaps more cynical because I see what’s happened and how it’s happened. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop being that, that I’m going to stop speaking and talking. Whenever I hear somebody talk about a woman as a girl, I’m going to point it out.
Back then, we were trying to have people change from referring to women as girls. Language is powerful, and that’s a real minor example, but I think it’s an example of a deeper truth. If you see women as girls, they’re not important. They’re girls, they’re not full human beings, and you don’t treat them as such. And acknowledging the role of women.
I was the president of the American Folklore Society. I just stepped down – I’m now the past president. One of the projects we instituted was recognizing Folklorists of color who had been absent from the record, and they had been doing the work, they had been there, and many of them were women. Just even acknowledging, reclaiming, putting them up there, already is a feminist action. It’s to reclaim our history.
ST: Several decades ago, the ERA passed in the house and the senate – overwhelmingly bipartisan – but failed to be ratified in ¾ of the states. In recent years, the last one in 2020, we have three additional states that have ratified the ERA. In many ways, it’s kind of a different world, though. Theoretically, if certain people would approve certain things, it could get added to the constitution. What are your thoughts on that?
NC: That we should be added to the constitution as I believed then, I believe it now. The constitution is a piece of paper, it’s a document, but it is a governing document that our society has chosen to live by. In earlier amendments when we secured suffrage for ourselves and for others, all of those have been shifts in the way the society works. Definitely, I believe we need to put that in.
More currently, the LGBTQ community and the trans community. You give license to violence against groups when you don’t have protection under the law. That is critical. There is a crisis in our country. There is violence against people of color, there’s violence against the trans and LGBTQ community. That can only change when we have full access to protection under the law and the constitution guarantees that. For me, that’s unquestionable, you just have to do that.
Then how do you change society? Because of the internet, because of all of the social media, everything else that is going on, we have a different playing field. We have to be smart about where things happen and how they happen, how the narrative is played out. You have Tucker Carlson denouncing the shootings in Buffalo and at the same time, blaming the administration for it – he has millions and millions of followers who believe that, and already you’re shaping how the society is going to see that event: that horrendous, racist attack.
That young man who did it is sick, I have no doubt. But how and why is he sick? What caused that to happen? What drove him to believe those things? I think that’s at the core of the solution. How are we going to change so that we don’t have more and more of these incidents? He was doing this because he feels that his white race is being replaced or displaced. That is sick, really. At the same time, it’s true. The demographic change and shift in our country and in the world, is going to happen whether this man does that or not.
I just don’t get it, the logic behind some of these claims. And I know that Tucker Carlson must be pretty smart to be where he is and to have a following like he does, but he’s using his smarts for the wrong end, in my view. I wish him well, I’m not going to wish him ill, but I wish he would change. Look at the impact that he has, the power that he has. I’m not sure that it can happen because a lot of it is tied up with money and greed, and that overwhelms everything else.
A lot of it is fear: fear of the unknown, fear of losing power, fear of change basically and being a different country. We already are. 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, we were a different country, and we hadn’t gotten into war. My brother was killed in Vietnam, in that senseless war. Eisenhower warned us against the military industrial complex. I have a nephew in the Navy.
It’s embedded in our social structure that we have to have a military and we have to be at war. I’m now going beyond the national and looking at a worldwide status of where and how we can erase and eradicate the violence and the violence against women that I think is symptomatic of a larger issue in our society.
ST: To me it’s culturally tied to cultural orientations around hierarchy. One power over the other, which is the opposite of the feminist perspective and to keep the other suppressed requires aggression and often violence.
NC: Yes, and I’m glad you mentioned that about what is the feminist’s perspective, because it isn’t about women being better or higher. It’s about being equal. That should be underscored and repeated, but that’s not how it’s perceived.
ST: Before we close, is there anything you’d like to share, that you’d like people to hear, passing on to the younger generation?
NC: Oh gosh, there’s so much. Every semester when classes are over, I talk to my students about setting goals and about the power of words. I also bring up a quote from Edgar Cayce, of all people, “Knowledge not lived is sin.” I’m not talking sin in the religious sense, but sin as a violation against what you know. I can’t imagine people don’t know when something is not right, there’s something in you and listen to that instinct of doing what is right.
The other part I always tell my students is about listening, for sure. You have to listen if you’re going to have communication and also to talk things out. There was a move here in San Antonio when The Black Lives Matter was happening at its apex, about having difficult conversations with people you may not agree with and engaging and having conversations.
The lesson is that we learn by living and how we live, but we also teach by living and how we live. You embody it, you live that knowledge. If you’re not living it, that’s a violation in my book. I go through seven levels especially with my graduate students about what they’re going to do in the world, how they’re going to exist, is what they do work that matters? How is it going to be?
I started the society for the study of Gloria E. Anzaldúa when she passed away in 2004 and it’s taken off. We have a pretty solid base, and scholars, and artists, and activists who come together and celebrate Anzaldúa, but also use the principles and the ideas from her work in their work. The last thing she published, has a quote in there that says, “The work that matters, vale la pena, is worth the pain.” It’s not going to be easy to do work that matters, and it’s going to be a struggle, but it is worth the pain. That’s something that most of us shy away from, pain. I don’t like pain, and so we’d rather not go there.
In my creative writing classes I tell students the writing that they don’t want to do, is the one they need to do. When you want to shy away from just totally being vulnerable and writing about something, that’s where you need to go. That’s where the power is going to come from, the best writing. Those are things that I hope transcends everything, whether it is people who are listening or watching this in 2022 or in 2032 or 2042, that holds true. That you are con conciencia, with awareness of the power that you have, the power of words and the power to make things be better for all of us. Not just for me, but for everyone.
I think those are lessons I would love to impart to anyone. I tell my students to do it. Whether it takes root or not – and years later a student will come back talking about that exercise where we laid out our goals. I have them write the goals at the seven levels: at the physical level, the mental, emotional, social, financial, spiritual, etheric, and political. I’m starting to add political to the list because we are physical beings, mental beings, emotional beings, financial beings, political beings.
Maria Lugones talks not about intersectionality, but about embenchments [building things up] and things coming together and then we can resist anything. We can be the best we can be and help others be the best they can be, which I think is what a professor does or a teacher. You want the next generation to benefit from your experience and your learning, you just pass it on. Then those people will build on that and create new, better things.
The greatest success a professor can have is to have the students go beyond what you have achieved. It really is amazing. As feminists, yes, the focus is on the women, but as Anzaldúa also says, don’t forget the men, because they need to be feminists too. They need to also believe in equity and being part of that change.
ST: Is there a particular quote, saying, phrase or something that you feel like captures who you are?
NC: I could go back to Anzaldúa and doing work that matters, because that is what I try to do anyway. But I think gratitude is a good word to end with, and that I take away. I am forever grateful to be the oldest of eleven children, I love my siblings. I am forever grateful to have grown up in a working-class family on the border because I have learned so much and have been offered opportunities to grow in incredible ways because of that reality.
I’m forever grateful to my teachers and professors, the good and the bad, learn from all of them. And I think I’m forever grateful to my students without whom I couldn’t do the job I do. With my creative writing, I’m just grateful to the readers. Gratitude is the one word that encompasses all of those feelings and the positionality that I have inhabited over the last 75 years. I’m 75. I think each stage has been an incredible gift that I’m very grateful for.