They are workers and mothers who mobilize their communities. They march at the front of the line. They are willing to risk it all to provide for their families. As research on labor mobilization and Latinas has shown, Latinas are not passive as is oftentimes assumed, they are truly peleoneras, or fighters, with an active voice in union campaigns and grassroots organizations in the United States and beyond. For instance, in the U.S., struggles by Chicano and Latino farm, cannery and garment workers, among others, have always included strong women as have other movements in El Salvador, Argentina and Mexico, to name a few.
According to Associate Professor of Gender and Feminist Studies and Chicana Studies Maria Soldatenko, who has followed the Justice for Janitors (JfJ) campaign in Los Angeles since 1994, “Women are the expressive voice of the union; they integrate their families and children into labor mobilizations and become radicalized in the process of participating in the struggle.”
Beginning in Pittsburgh in 1985, Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) Justice for Janitors movement, has worked to provide better wages, basic benefits and job security for janitors by pressuring building owners to improve conditions. More specifically, Latinos in the janitorial occupation dominate the private sector in L.A. where lower wages are the norm and benefits are rarely granted. They are often made to feel as if they are merely part of the background, so JfJ campaigns strive to bring about improvements by reclaiming public spaces when they march and asserting a Latino presence. Based on her fieldwork beginning when she observed janitors in their campaign at the Warner Center in Woodland Hills, California, Soldatenko has found that Latinas participate differently in politics. She noted that they, unlike men, are not afraid to tactically employ their emotions at meetings to yield the desired result. In other instances, Latinas have invited priests to bless their marches and thereby have a moral authority condone their actions.
“Women not only led and made decisions, they also learned to negotiate with cleaning contractors and became impassioned public speakers. Many women are at the forefront of union campaigns, and they assert themselves with poise. In some instances, women transformed themselves from silent submission to outspoken militancy in all aspects of their lives,” Soldatenko said.
With Latinas occupying key leadership roles in the JfJ campaign, they have helped to craft effective strategies that incorporate their cultural repertoire in demonstrations. “This does not necessarily mean that union leaders have outlined a plan with the use of that repertoire in mind,” Soldatenko pointed out. “However, the end result has been to make use of a long tradition of marches, processions, fiestas and carnivals in Latin America. By using language and music familiar to the union membership, JfJ mobilizes Latinos effectively.”
Demonstrators create a spectacle that includes street theater, dance and humor as well as chants, slogans and songs (in both Spanish and English)—all of which invite spectators’ attention and media coverage. In particular, Soldatenko has seen how the media loves to capture images of women and children at these marches and the women in turn use this to their advantage. “Women know that pictures will be taken and that the video cameras will be focused on them, and they also know how to respond,” she said.
Through her fieldwork with JfJ in L.A., Soldatenko has witnessed first-hand the Latinas’ initiative and dedication to securing better working conditions and thereby a better way of life for their families and others. While some may have been shy when she first met them, Soldatenko saw how once Latinas discovered their true power, there was no stopping them.