This presidential address was delivered at the 130th annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held in Atlanta, on January 8, 2016.

Class Acts: Latina Feminist Traditions, 1900–1930

“[W]omen are capable of everything and anything,” declared labor radical Luisa Capetillo in her landmark feminist treatise, Mi opinión sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer (My Opinion on the Liberties, Rights, and Duties of Woman).1 Published in 1911, this manifesto articulated a radical vision that promoted a variant of republican motherhood alongside free love and proletarian revolution. Capetillo emerged as a passionate labor leader in Puerto Rico at the turn of the twentieth century. She would later extend her reach into the Caribbean and the United States.

Less bold in her pronouncements, Guatemala-born feminist Rosa Rodríguez López in 1925 stressed the importance of education across class: “the woman continues to be attached to ignorance; her emancipation is necessary. Feminism will make her become Conscious … , and … by obtaining an adequate education, she will be prepared [for] … a much more ambitious future.” Mirroring her generation, Rodríguez López stressed the importance of reaching the “proletarian woman who continues to live miserably in darkness with no other light than a vague reflection of love“—a striking statement from a young woman who twenty years later would be an influential leader in the California labor movement.2 Known by that time as Luisa Moreno, having changed her name after her move to the United States, she was the first Latina vice president of a major Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union and applied her considerable skills to spearheading the 1939 el Congreso del Pueblo de Habla Española (the Spanish-Speaking People’s Congress), the first national US pan-Latino civil rights conference.

The genealogy of Latina feminist traditions has typically focused on Mexican women, beginning with the seventeenth-century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and then fast-forwarding to Chicana feminists of the 1960s and 1970s (with maybe a nod to Tejanas Sara Estela Ramírez and Jovita González). Remembered in Latino history for their prowess in organizing farm and factory workers, Capetillo and Moreno were also pathbreaking feminist intellectuals whose writings expand our understanding of transnational feminist ideas emanating from Latin America. Literally and figuratively, they acted as bridges across the Américas, representing rich historical connections between women in Latin America and US Latinas. Despite a florescence of Latino American historiography over the past forty years, Latino narratives remain on the periphery of US history. Capetillo and Moreno are no exception. The lack of familiarity with available secondary, archival, and community sources accounts for some of the silences. For example, not until 2004 did Luisa Capetillo’s Mi opinión become accessible for an English-language audience; and beyond a single dissertation and one journal article, the writings of Luisa Moreno have languished in the Biblioteca Nacional in Guatemala, where they are housed.3 Though these two iconic figures in Latino labor history never met (Capetillo died when Moreno was fifteen), their legacies intersect in multiple ways, especially in terms of their unwavering commitment to a radical labor politics predicated on the dignity and self-determination of the working class. Starkly divergent but at times hauntingly similar, their feminist writings reveal threads of a Latina transnational consciousness that reaches across nationalities and generations.4

On October 28, 1879, Luisa Margarita Perone and Luis Capetillo Escheverría, a common-law couple, welcomed their only child, a daughter they named Luisa. Both parents were relative newcomers to Puerto Rico; Margarita had arrived from France, Luis from northern Spain. Their European heritage and education, however, provided no guarantees of social mobility, as Luis did odd jobs and Margarita took in laundry. Though she grew up in modest circumstances, Luisa was surrounded at an early age by great books. Margarita, in fact, had elbowed her way into a local tertulia (literary salon), setting a path for her daughter to follow. As an adolescent, Luisa became romantically involved with Manuel Ledesma, a member of an elite, politically powerful family. By the age of twenty she had given birth to two children with him. But two years later, in 1901, the relationship ended when Ledesma bowed to maternal pressure and assumed the patrimonial roles expected of him, which included a suitable marriage. While he provided financial support for their children, Manuela and Gregorio, Luisa placed them in the care of her mother and went to work. Given her rich home-school education, she secured a coveted job as a reader in cigar-making factories in the city of Arecibo. She would use this position throughout her career, and in several locales within and beyond the island, in order to cultivate and reinforce workers’ consciousness of trade unions, socialism, anarchism, and women’s rights.5

In the midst of the social and economic upheaval that followed the Spanish-Filipino-Cuban-American War, a militant trade union movement emerged in Puerto Rico, one with strong anarchist leanings. Its standard-bearer was the Federación Libre de Trabajadores (Free Federation of Workers), whose principal organizers included Luisa Capetillo. For a decade she traveled across the island mobilizing workers in agriculture and cigar factories, as well as writing essays on proletarian and feminist issues. Capetillo’s homilies were unconventional, especially those on free love (a pillar of anarchism), but by 1908 the Federación had adopted women’s suffrage as part of its platform. Three years later, Capetillo published Mi opinión, a collection of her itinerant essays. Ironically, the book’s appearance coincided with the birth of her third child, Luis, by a married lover.

Driven out of Puerto Rico by a government crackdown on anarchists, Capetillo departed for New York City in 1912. She would spend the rest of her days as a truly transnational labor radical and feminist intellectual: she moved a number of times, organizing workers in Florida, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. In Tampa, Florida, in 1913, she was welcomed to the multiethnic cigar community of Ybor City, which was heavily Latino, but as historian Nancy Hewitt points out, Capetillo stood out not only for her feminist and anarchist beliefs, but also for her appearance. Whether out of expediency (to blend in with male workers), comfort, safety, or a deliberate political statement (like the “Lady Zooters” of the 1940s), she dressed in men’s clothing, complete with a vest and necktie. In Cuba she was arrested for “causing a public disturbance” by wearing manly attire, but a judge acquitted her of all charges. Charismatic and passionate, Capetillo proved to be a fearless labor organizer, helping tens of thousands of workers secure significant wage increases, including during Puerto Rico’s Great Sugar Cane Strike of 1916. Before her final return to the island, she ran a New York City boarding house and adjoining restaurant, dishing up revolution and vegetarian fare. At some point during her many journeys, she contracted tuberculosis, to which she succumbed in 1922, at the age of forty-two. A radical intellectual who challenged the ramifications of empire in the day-to-day, Luisa Capetillo was far more than a Spanish-speaking Emma Goldman, though the parallels seem obvious. More importantly, she embodied a “decolonial imaginary,” as a transnational feminist unmoored from nation, race, or gendered convention.6

Blanca Rosa Rodríguez López, by contrast, advocated a more conventional path to women’s emancipation. Like other middle-class and elite Latin American feminists, she anchored her hopes on education as the key to securing equal rights for women. Born on August 30, 1907, she had a most unlikely childhood for a future trade union leader. She grew up surrounded by wealth and privilege in her native Guatemala, the daughter of a powerful coffee grower, Ernesto Rodríguez Robles, and his socialite wife, Alicia López Sarana. Educated by nuns in a California boarding school and by private tutors at home, she desired a university education in Guatemala, but discovered that women need not apply. So she organized her elite peers into la Sociedad Gabriela Mistral (the Gabriela Mistral Society, named after a famous Chilean education reformer and poet) to push for greater educational opportunities for women. Despite some success in that effort, however, Rodríguez López was gone by age nineteen, having left for Mexico City. Enrolling as a student at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México (UNAM) and working as a journalist for a Guatemalan daily, she participated in a burgeoning cultural renaissance taking place in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, enjoying the heady avant-garde atmosphere and consorting with the likes of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In 1927 she published a poetry collection, El vendedor de cocuyos (Seller of Fireflies), and married Miguel Angel de León, an artist sixteen years her senior. The next year would find the artistic couple in New York City, searching for their own version of the American dream. It was not a particularly propitious time for such a move, given the looming economic calamity. When their daughter Mytyl arrived in 1929, their fortunes had declined to the extent that they were living in a crowded tenement in Spanish Harlem, where Rosa found employment as a seamstress. The death of a work friend’s infant from rat bites compelled her to do something to change the material conditions of her fellow workers. She organized a small garment union local and joined leftist community groups, and by 1930 she was a member of the Communist Party.

In 1935, leaving a tattered marriage, Rosa Rodríguez de León accepted a job with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to organize cigar workers in Florida. Arriving with Mytyl, she chose yet another transformation—she changed her name, becoming “Luisa Moreno.” Deliberately distancing herself from her privileged past, she adopted the alias “Moreno” (Dark) as a surname, one diametrically opposite her given name, “Blanca Rosa” (White Rose). For her new first name she selected “Luisa,” perhaps to honor Capetillo, who had preceded her to Florida two decades earlier and whose legacy she undoubtedly knew and built upon in her daily work as a trade union organizer. Moreno placed her daughter with a pro-labor family, a practice that would continue until Mytyl was a teenager.7

In Florida Moreno honed her skills, negotiating a contract covering 13,000 cigar workers. Given her organizing experience in New York and especially Florida, the newly formed United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), an arm of the CIO, hired her in 1938. Moreno quickly asserted leadership in the new union, taking charge of the Pecan Shellers’ Strike in San Antonio, Texas. She also became a driving force behind el Congreso del Pueblo de Habla Española, a civil rights assembly attended by more than 1,000 delegates. They hammered out a comprehensive platform that called for an end to racial segregation in public facilities, housing, education, and employment. During World War II, Moreno mobilized cannery workers in southern California, many of whom were Mexican and Jewish women, earning the nickname “the California Whirlwind“ Union members achieved significant improvements in their working conditions, wages, and benefits, and Moreno became the first Latina to serve on a state CIO council. In 1945 she faced her biggest professional challenge, going head to head with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in organizing northern California canneries. After a campaign of sweetheart contracts, red-baiting, and physical assaults, the Teamsters emerged victorious. Though she retired from union life in early 1947, Moreno could not escape the Cold War’s chill. A year later she found herself facing deportation proceedings on the grounds of her former membership in the Communist Party. Together with her third husband, Gray Bemis—a fellow radical whom she had met during her years in New York as a self-described “junior organizer”—she left the United States in 1950 and returned to her native Guatemala, signaling in her words “the death of Luisa Moreno.”8

While Moreno and Capetillo both made their mark on the US labor movement, they came to their meaning of feminism within a Latin American context. However, they were not part of the Pan-American networks that fostered exchanges between US feminist leaders and their Latin American and Caribbean counterparts.9 Their capacious education and intellectual appetites seem to have fed their transnational feminist imaginaries, for they drew upon European, US, and Latin American examples in their essays outlining the paths to women’s equality. While Luisa Capetillo combined the grinding work of labor organizing with her unconventional feminist and anarchist essays, there was a distinct separation between Rosa Rodríguez López, the sheltered adolescent intellectual, and Luisa Moreno, the fearless labor leader. Though writing feminist essays ended with her adolescence, Moreno always cultivated women’s grassroots leadership and made sure their issues were at the forefront in collective bargaining.10


For a fuller understanding of the transformation of Blanca Rosa Rodríguez de León into Luisa Moreno, we must look to her early life. The 1920s marked the first period of reform in Guatemala, and a group of young urban elites took advantage of this opening to advocate for women’s rights and educational uplift. La Sociedad Gabriela Mistral was formed in November 1925, with Rosa, who was only eighteen years old at the time, at the helm. During its short life, according to Latin American historian Patricia Harms, la Sociedad would represent “the most recognizable women’s group” of its era in Guatemala.11 Laden with noblesse oblige, the pronouncements of these adolescent feminists cut both ways, taking aim at women of their own class as well as the plight of the downtrodden. In essays published in Guatemala’s national newspaper, El Imparcial, and the literary journal Vida, they decried the intellectual poverty prevalent among their peers. Their articles featured role models of womanly achievement who reflected their own expansive education—from the Greek philosopher Hypatia to the French novelist George Sand to the Uruguayan physician Paulina Luisi to the famed Polish scientist Marie Curie.12 Moreover, they railed against the impact of Hollywood and popular fiction on their generation’s cultural tastes. “What sort of future awaits Guatemalan youth, especially the women, for today they are nothing but puppets who care only about their friends, their boyfriends, the movie stars, fashion, and dancing. We still have time to be educated, to be worthy of something better than just looking pretty,” wrote Graciela Rodríguez López, Rosa’s sister. Indeed, she would go so far as to characterize such cheap amusements as “Westerners’ opium.”13

The members of la Sociedad Gabriela Mistral also targeted their mothers’ generation, those “useless women” caught up in society soirees and petty intrigue: “women gossip with our mouths … with our thoughts, with our eyelashes, with our hands, and even with our feet.”14 Rosa Rodríguez López leveled even harsher criticism in the pages of El Imparcial for all to read: “These are mothers by name only, for they have no conscience of their maternal condition. How many of them abandon their children to stupid servants for a life of frivolity or laziness?” For the Rodríguez López sisters, these observations struck home. In an interview later in life, Rosa remembered her father as “a real person,” but her mother as “a peacock” who never emerged from her boudoir until eleven o’clock in the morning.15

To promote “The Educated Woman,” the members of la Sociedad opened a small library filled with classic literary texts that would instruct and inspire. “La Sociedad Gabriela Mistral aims to educate the woman, to train her so that she can take part in the great game of life. Why should there exist an educational difference between women and men?”16 To prepare themselves for “the world and the household,” women should have knowledge of proper grammar, literature, and foreign languages, as well as child development and “hygiene” (an umbrella term that included sex education). On a more abstract level, education would “purify” women and make them companions, not objects or property, of men.17

As young adult women, they understood the potential impact of their transgressive writings and responded to criticism that their activities might decrease their value on the marriage market. In the words of Josefina Saravia, “I firmly believe that a man will never attain relative happiness … unless he is next to a well-educated woman of very strong moral convictions.” And with confidence, she predicted that “every special woman, morally and intellectually, will find her corresponding kind of man.”18 Cloaking their efforts in a rebozo of enlightened motherhood, these young feminists emphasized the value of education from literature to child development as essential to creating “noble citizens for the homeland.”19

Fusing maternalism and feminism, Sociedad members claimed and valorized their place and their obligations as well-educated women. Perhaps with a twist of irony, daughters of ladino coffee planters, men who ushered in a “caffeinated modernism,” would themselves gravitate toward a tangible imaginary of a benevolent modern state where properly educated women as citizen-mothers would exercise considerable moral authority for their children’s welfare and for national progress.20 Such a vision was not new, but it reverberated throughout Latin America.

What role would “proletarian women” play in this bourgeois feminist future? Here is where Sociedad members made their boldest statements. In addressing the deplorable conditions of the poor, they blamed the state: “It is the Government’s obligation, the same moral and material obligation that a father has with regard to his sons, to deal with the progress and culture of its people.”21 Moreover, workers should be paid a living wage. These were strong claims coming from a very privileged group whose words dripped with a sense of responsibility to the less fortunate. While urging the government to provide instruction in nutrition and sanitation, they also called for greater access to education for proletarian women and expressed a “passionate desire” to do their part. Recognizing the importance of vocational training, la Sociedad Gabriela Mistral began a small-scale secretarial school that would prepare women “for business employment, the new cutting edge in Guatemala.” Classic books and clerical work were two avenues for moral uplift, social equality, and national progress.22

Calling for “the destruction of all social prejudices, of all absurd fanaticism,” Rosa Rodríguez López understood that the fates of rich and poor women were inextricably related. Blaming “ignorance” for women’s slavery, she launched biting critiques of the double standard and predatory men (“ravenous wolves”).23 In her essay “The Problem of the Fallen Woman,” she notes how “the glitter of jewelry” or “the wonders of love” could seduce an “ordinary” woman, while “gold also works as a discreet shield for the prostitution of elite women.” In calling for compassion, Rosa viewed meaningful employment or “the temple of work” as critical to Guatemala’s advancement.24 In a rare display of essentialism, she dismissed “that so-called practical feminism of the North American woman, which would be inappropriate to our … romantic race.” She believed that Guatemalan women did not yet possess the education required for suffrage. Yet, in the same breath, she called for “the abolition of the woman’s ‘inferiority,’” asserting that women were as “worthy and capable” as men, and they deserved “justice and political and social equality.”25 This tension between the ideal woman and the women they knew runs throughout the writings of these feminists. As self-anointed leaders, la Sociedad’s young women drew upon their rare capacious education to exhort, to uplift, and to dream.

La Sociedad Gabriela Mistral existed for at most two years, reaching its zenith of activism within its first six months. When its charismatic president abruptly left for the cultural and intellectual lights of Mexico City in 1926, the group began to flounder. As Guatemala’s first explicitly feminist organization, la Sociedad had brought issues of women’s rights, economic disparities, and racial prejudice to the pages of the national newspaper. Through petitions and informal lobbying, members had played a part in opening up, albeit ever so slightly, educational opportunities for women, with Rosa herself scheduled to enter the university before her departure. More importantly, some members of la Sociedad, including Rosa’s sister Graciela, would emerge after the 1944 revolution to expand on what they had started as young adults. Indeed, two years later, women in Guatemala gained the right to vote. In a 1949 interview, Graciela reflected on the decline of la Sociedad Gabriela Mistral, explaining that after the initial burst of enthusiasm, many of its young members lost interest and “the society simply quietly faded away.”26 There are several layers of meaning one can read into that simple statement. First, as adolescents, they grew impatient for results, perhaps in their privilege not recognizing that reform rarely occurs overnight. Also, they did not anticipate the level of criticism they would receive from educated elite men, who they had assumed would be their allies. It was one thing for the men of “la generacion de 1920” to encourage women to become more well read, but quite another to support their budding aspirations of social and political equality. Indeed, these feminists, like their counterparts in other parts of Latin America, went out of their way to assure their readers that they were not (in Rosa’s words) “smug women of letters” or “mannish suffragists.”27 Perhaps, too, their resolve buckled under familial or political pressures given their pronouncements on poverty and government culpability. Catholic priests no doubt looked askance at the not so lightly veiled anticlerical observations that cropped up in their published essays. In addition, the organization did not appear to replenish its membership, relying solely on a tight cadre of friends. Nevertheless, la Sociedad Gabriela Mistral laid the foundation for future work.

Why did Rosa Rodríguez López leave, especially when her goal of a college education in Guatemala was within her grasp? Despite her youthful activism, she understood her family’s place in Guatemalan society; its cultural and class expectations weighed heavily on her own future. When one of her siblings married, her father had the fountain in the family compound filled with expensive Veuve Clicquot champagne. For Rosa, there was no retreat, no returning to the life she had so passionately critiqued. But her departure was more than an act of rebellion; she sought to pursue her gifts as an intellectual and poet in Mexico City. Motivation aside, traveling unchaperoned was a radical act that would mark her as a prodigal daughter for the remainder of her life. One admirer considered her a bright light in women’s literature both in her home country and throughout Latin America, even comparing her with Gabriela Mistral. Like most writers, Rodríguez López treasured her good reviews, and throughout her many journeys, she kept a small bundle of news clippings and correspondence. On the occasion of her twenty-first birthday, one newspaper article made reference to her beauty, poetry, and vanguard feminism.28

In the course of her transnational feminist journey, Rosa Rodríguez López would invent and then reinvent herself. A decade after leaving Guatemala, she would take Luisa Moreno as her professional name as she fashioned a new persona. In doing so, she conjugated her identity. Conjugating one’s identity entails a self-reflexive and purposeful invention or inflection of one’s sense of self, taking into account such constructions as race, class, culture, language, and gender. Simply put, Rosa made strategic choices regarding her class and ethnic identification in order to facilitate her life’s work as a trade union and civil rights advocate. With her light skin, education, and flawless English, she could have “passed” as a white woman of ambiguous heritage. Instead, she took a very risky job as a trade union organizer working with African Americans and Latinos in the anti-union Jim Crow South.29 Rosa Rodríguez López was a woman of privilege; Luisa Moreno was a woman of the people.


While Moreno’s work as a labor leader echoed the legacy of Luisa Capetillo, Capetillo’s “anarcho-feminism,” rooted in the politics of the body, could not be replicated.30 For Capetillo, women’s autonomous control over their bodies was essential for liberation. In Mi opinión she argued that “women get married only to follow the custom. And men do so to have a helper or a slave.”31 Quoting French feminist Madeleine Vernet, she wrote: “The slave can never love the master.”32 In her utopian view, men and women would come together as virgins and establish loving, committed relationships without the sanction of church or state. Perhaps her parents’ example influenced her thinking, which was also in line with her anarchism. Nancy Hewitt offers another explanation: that Capetillo’s disappointment with Manuel Ledesma “fueled her critique of traditional … marriage, motherhood, and family.”33 Indeed, in a letter written to Ledesma a decade later, she reveals her “yearning” for him, which she said “destroyed my illusions, and cruelly mortified me, beset by desire to have … the one who made life bloom in me, sprouting into two souls, product of my spontaneous love without fetters.” Speaking from her own experiences, Capetillo claimed that women were ultimately responsible for their own happiness.34

By turns feminist manifesto and advice manual, Mi opinión has a cadence reminiscent of nineteenth-century prescriptive literature, in which scenarios are presented and guidelines for behavior offered—gendered parables, so to speak. If a woman has a neglectful spouse, for example, and “in her solitude” she finds comfort in the arms of another man, she should not be blamed or punished for “following her natural impulses.”35 Though Capetillo did not always practice what she preached, she warned women about getting involved with a man “who is in a committed relationship, without demanding that he … give up his wife or lover.” With a dash of melodrama, she continued, “if this wife … does not want to leave him, she will have to admit … that her husband has another woman, because she cannot force him to love her if she has not had the charm or persuasiveness to keep him herself.”36 This latter statement seems rather uncharitable and not very feminist, even bordering on conventionality. It also seems a bit self-serving, given her own relationship with a married lover. Indeed, Capetillo’s pronouncements on free love did not extend to same-sex relationships, which she deemed “criminal, odious, and shameful against nature.”37 These blind spots in her writings notwithstanding, we cannot discount her courageous stands against women’s exploitation across all facets of their lives.

Demonstrating a level of pragmatism, Capetillo also endorsed reforms familiar to feminists across the hemisphere, including women’s suffrage, protective legislation, and temperance. She broke with other anarchists, such as Emma Goldman, in her support of suffrage. Her experiences as a labor leader seem to have steeled her conviction that women would join their compañeros as workers and vote in the interests of their class, not their gender. Like most feminists of her day, she put her faith in an “enlightened,” educated motherhood as the foundation for social progress. In addition to hygiene, women should have a thorough knowledge of “Physiology, Geology, Geography, Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, Engineering, Agriculture, Geometry, History, Music, and Painting.”38 Yet Capetillo emphasized that someone could “be learned but not educated.” In her words, a proper education extended to “cultivating patience, tolerance, [and] a sweet disposition.” In seeking feminine perfection, she even offered beauty advice: “Women must strive by all natural methods to become more beautiful, but it must be a true beauty … achieved by a healthy diet, without eating meat or drinking alcoholic beverages, by practicing gymnastics, and taking walks in the open air.” Like the young feminists of la Sociedad Gabriela Mistral, Capetillo rebuked women who indulged in conspicuous consumption, describing one apocryphal figure as “so loaded with bracelets and lace that she looks like a bazaar.”39

Close readings of selected passages in Mi opinión, however, should not overshadow Capetillo’s commitment to proletarian revolution based on anarchist principles. As a grassroots activist, she encouraged working-class men to accept women into their ranks as full partners in the struggle against exploitation. Both Luisa Capetillo and later Luisa Moreno believed in the dignity of the working poor, who by their labor enriched the wealthy. In her only surviving speech, “Caravans of Sorrow” (1940), Moreno spoke passionately about the rights of Mexican immigrant workers:

Long before the “grapes of wrath” had ripened in California’s vineyards, a people lived on highways, under trees or tents, in shacks or railroad sections, picking crops—cotton, fruits, vegetables—cultivating sugar beets, building railroads and dams, making a barren land fertile for new crops and greater riches … These people are not aliens. They have contributed their endurance, sacrifices, youth, and labor to the Southwest. Indirectly, they have paid more taxes than all the stockholders of California’s industrialized agriculture, the sugar beet companies and the large cotton interests that operate or have operated with the labor of Mexican workers.40

Shades of Luisa Capetillo, who thirty years before had penned the following lines:

Don’t beg, you destitute workers, you victims of … exploitation; exploited by political parties, by religions, by commerce, you are the eternal mine, from which the bourgeoisie and the religions extract enormous treasures.41

Fiercely anticlerical, Luisa Capetillo imagined a world where “[c]hurches can become schools and libraries. And the worthy images in them will be consigned to museums.” Without class distinctions, society would reject nationalism and the state (“the absurd and idolatrous respect shown to governments”). She continued: “The religious ideal to be established in the schools will be brotherhood as supreme law, regardless of national boundaries or divisions of race, color, or language.”42 Feminism would play a vital role in such a revolution, and Capetillo set the stage not just on the shop floor or at home, but within the individual: “The woman who feels wounded in her rights, liberties, and womanhood has to recompose and reclaim herself, change her situation, no matter how high the cost.”43

Scholars have disagreed on the reception of Capetillo and her writings during her lifetime. Eileen Suárez Findlay characterizes her as a lone wolf who routinely alienated multiple constituencies: working-class women, middle-class feminists, and her male union colleagues: “Despite her call for women’s alliances, judgment seems to have come more easily to Luisa Capetillo than did empathy.” Calling women idiots, slaves, or just plain stupid because they remained in unhappy marriages out of economic necessity and social convention certainly did not further her cause. Suárez Findlay asserts that Capetillo “fought an extremely steep uphill battle” in her daring feminist campaign. She astutely points out the fears of proletarian women, who believed that without marriage, men would feel fewer obligations toward their children.44 Two further points accounted for the skepticism Capetillo encountered among the women she organized. First, most working women wanted a measure of respectability, to be viewed as gente decente (decent people), and raising children alone would taint such standing. Second, the power of religion in influencing Latina worldviews cannot be underplayed given the vital role that Catholicism played in women’s daily lives, from home altars to church clubs.

Cavils aside, Luisa Capetillo had exceptional gifts as a labor leader, and as scholars Félix Matos Rodríguez, Nancy Hewitt, and Ivette Rivera-Giusti emphasize, she inspired a generation of Latina feminist union organizers, with perhaps more than twenty women having followed in her footsteps. According to Hewitt, Capetillo proved “the lynchpin in a vast network of Latina anarchist and socialist feminists who sought to advance the interests of workers and women internationally.” Matos Rodríguez places her legacy on a philosophical level: “Mi opinión shows that Capetillo as an author was convinced of the power of humanistic thought—in her case based on anarchism and feminism—as an effective tool to bring about change in the world.” Capetillo’s impact as a labor organizer and writer reached beyond Latino communities in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and the eastern United States. A year before her death, one of her essays appeared alongside those of more familiar radicals Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxemburg in a feminist collection from Argentina, Voces de Liberación.45


With all of their tensions, the writings of Luisa Moreno and Luisa Capetillo reveal a thirst for women’s equality. Well-educated, las dos Luisas placed their faith in an enlightened womanhood for either national progress or proletarian revolution. In their writings, they valorized motherhood, but they themselves did not practice what they preached. By the time she published Mi opinión, Capetillo had lived apart from her older children for ten years, while Rosa Rodríguez López and her peers waxed poetically (and presumptuously) about maternal duties purely in the abstract, given their own positionality as sheltered adolescents. As an organizer who was always on the move, Moreno was an absentee parent throughout most of her daughter’s childhood. Exile, whether forced or self-imposed, figured prominently in the two women’s life scripts. While Capetillo integrated her writings within her world as an organizer, Moreno compartmentalized her life, believing that her poetry and feminist essays belonged to her adolescent past. As she fostered women’s rank-and-file leadership and incorporated their issues at the bargaining table, she practiced a labor citizen model, a feminism grounded in their experiences rather than hers. Perhaps she understood that as the youthful Rosa Rodríguez López, she had borne much of the responsibility for the demise of la Sociedad Gabriela Mistral, but as Luisa Moreno, she no longer placed herself front and center, preferring a team approach that downplayed her own contributions. In her words, “One person can’t do anything; it’s only with others that things are accomplished.”46

Luisa Capetillo in man’s attire, ca. 1919.

Luisa Capetillo in man’s attire, ca. 1919.

Luisa Capetillo certainly fits within a decolonial imaginary as defined by such scholars as Emma Pérez, Alicia Camacho Schmidt, and Patricia Schechter. Indeed, the fiercely anticolonialist Capetillo challenged “the dominant ordering schemas of modern society, especially the binaries of colonizer/subaltern and citizen/alien,” writes Schechter, who further elaborates that “the decolonial can name resistance to racialized categories of state and empire.”47 The young women of la Sociedad Gabriela Mistral fall outside of this decolonial paradigm, but within the constraints of 1920s Guatemala, their pronouncements were quite radical. In interviews given later in life, Luisa Moreno underscored her feminist identity as a leader in la Sociedad, but claimed that she did not consider herself “political” during her youth in the capital cities of Guatemala and Mexico. In the United States, her advocacy for the rights of workers, especially immigrants, certainly challenged the state, a fact that was not lost on the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which began tracking her movements in the late 1930s because of her work as a labor leader, a civil rights activist, and for a time a member of the Communist Party. In preparing for her deportation hearings, which resulted in her departure from the United States in 1950, Moreno clearly articulated her own legacy:“They can talk about deporting me … but they can never deport the people that I’ve worked with and with whom things were accomplished for the benefit of hundreds of thousands of workers—things that can never be destroyed.”48

Though they shared a common vision of labor empowerment and gender equality, Capetillo and Moreno embodied divergent styles of self-representation. Capetillo, whether as an act of camouflage or as a deliberate political statement, at times wore men’s clothing. Her bold pronouncements were thus not limited to her words and deeds, but also found expression in her public appearance. In contrast, Moreno could never quite escape her upbringing, as reflected by the terms cannery workers used in referring to her (“a real lady,” “a classy dame”), which suggest a cosmopolitan bearing. A romantic woodcut depicts Moreno in action—carrying union leaflets into the fields, she sports a fashionable, immaculately coifed hairstyle, a business dress, and kitten heels. More than a selfless labor heroine, Luisa Moreno was above all an elegant radical.49

A woodcut illustration from “The Case of Luisa Moreno Bemis.” Labor Committee for Luisa Moreno Bemis pamphlet (in author’s possession).

A woodcut illustration from “The Case of Luisa Moreno Bemis.” Labor Committee for Luisa Moreno Bemis pamphlet (in author’s possession).

In No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women, Estelle Freedman breaks through the familiar episodic approach to women’s activism, one defined and confined by region or temporal period, by her deliberate global framing of issues and her construction of thematic cross-cutting conversations. Conceptualizing feminism as circuits of knowledge resulting in generative connections as well as fissures opens up the field in exciting, creative ways. “Historically, Latin American feminists have also had ties with other cultures that served as inspirational beacons,” explained the distinguished historian Asunción Lavrin. “Latin American feminists developed a strong vocation for internationalism, not only as an intellectual orientation, but as a validation of their aspirations for a political and juridical personality.”50 Though they worked outside of established Pan-American and pan-Latin American feminist networks, these two radical intellectuals were influenced, nonetheless, by these international circuits, especially by the feminist writings and deeds emanating from (or filtered through) the Américas. They framed their advocacy in their own circumstances and in their hopes. Luisa Capetillo and Luisa Moreno are powerful examples of the many Latina transnational feminists who have contributed to a more expansive view of gender equality on a global stage.51

Looking to the past to inform our present and future—what the late Peggy Pascoe referred to as the conversational nature of history—is a time-honored feminist tradition. Despite belonging to the largest racial/ethnic group in the United States with a history dating back to the 1500s, Latina narratives barely appear in the historiographical register. Over the past thirty years, I have felt privileged to belong to an ever-growing number of scholars involved in this reclamation and reinterpretation of the past. Pushing beyond the nation-state, trans-hemispheric perspectives offer a fuller recounting of Latina feminist traditions. In the words of Rosa Rodríguez López (aka Luisa Moreno), “[I]f we kept searching, we could find an extensive list of audacious and determined feminists … We could see them planting seeds on stones, the same seeds that have today flourished and will tomorrow give the world the sweetness of its perfect fruit.”52

Vicki L. Ruiz served as president of the American Historical Association in 2015. She is distinguished professor of history and Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine. She earned her PhD in history from Stanford University in 1982. She is the author of Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930–1950 (University of New Mexico Press, 1987) and From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Women in Twentieth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1998; 10th anniversary ed., 2008), and co-author of Created Equal: A History of the United States (Longman/Pearson, 2003; 2nd ed. 2005, 3rd ed. 2008, 4th ed. 2013, and 5th ed. forthcoming). She and Virginia Sanchez Korrol co-edited the three-volume Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia (Indiana University Press, 2006). On September 10, 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Ruiz the National Humanities Medal.



I thank Valerie Matsumoto and Asunción Lavrin for their incisive comments. I also appreciate the editorial care given this manuscript by Alex Lichtenstein and Jane Lyle. I refer readers to Lavrin’s foundational work Women, Feminism, and Social Change in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, 1890–1940 (University of Nebraska Press, 1995). Note: I use the term “Latina” as distinct from “Latin American” to denote nativity or long-term residence in the United States and its commonwealth, Puerto Rico.


  1. Luisa Capetillo, A Nation of Women: An Early Feminist Speaks Out/(Mi opinión sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer (My Opinion on the Liberties, Rights, and Duties of Woman, as Companion, Mother and Independent Being), ed. Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, trans. Alan West-Durán (Houston, TX, 2004; original Spanish ed. 1911), 103. []
  2. Rosa Rodríguez López, “La necesidad del feminismo en el orientaciones para la mujer guatemalteca,” El Imparcial, November 21, 1925. El Imparcial is Guatemala’s national newspaper, published in Guatemala City. []
  3. Patricia Faith Harms, “Imagining a Place for Themselves: The Political and Social Roles of Guatemalan Women, 1871–1954” (PhD diss., Arizona State University, 2007); Marta Elena Casaús Arzú, “Las redes teosóficas de mujeres en Guatemala: La Sociedad Gabriela Mistral, 1920–1940,” Revista Complutense de Historia de América 27 (2001): 219–255. I owe an enormous debt to Patricia Harms for sharing with me her primary materials on la Sociedad Gabriela Mistral. []
  4. Examples of this transnational turn include Emma Pérez, The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History (Bloomington, IN, 1999); Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and US Imperialism in Puerto Rico (Berkeley, CA, 2002); Alicia Schmidt Camacho, Migrant Imaginaries: Latino Cultural Politics in the US-Mexico Borderlands (New York, 2008); Patricia A. Schechter, Exploring the Decolonial Imaginary: Four Transnational Lives (New York, 2012). []
  5. For biographical information on Capetillo, see Yamila Azize, La mujer en la lucha (Río Piedras, PR, 1985); Norma Valle Ferrer, Luisa Capetillo: Historia de una mujer proscrita (San Juan, PR, 1985); Nancy A. Hewitt, “Luisa Capetillo: Feminist of the Working Class,” in Vicki L. Ruiz and Virginia Sánchez Korrol, eds., Latina Legacies: Identity, Biography, and Community (New York, 2005), 120–134; and Ivette Marie Rivera-Giusti, “Gender, Labor and Working Class Activism in the Tobacco Industry in Puerto Rico, 1898–1924” (PhD diss., State University of New York at Binghamton, 2004). []
  6. Hewitt, “Luisa Capetillo,” 128–132; Schechter, Exploring the Decolonial Imaginary, 3–5; Shirley Aldebol, “Luisa Capetillo Was Early Puerto Rican Labor Leader[;] She Lived Life on Her Own Terms,” The Lucy Parsons Project,, including quote. For politicization of young women in the 1940s, see Catherine S. Ramírez, The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory (Durham, NC, 2009); and Elizabeth R. Escobedo, From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front (Chapel Hill, NC, 2013). []
  7. Vicki L. Ruiz, “Of Poetics and Politics: The Border Journeys of Luisa Moreno,” in Sharon Harley, ed., Women’s Labor in the Global Economy: Speaking in Multiple Voices (New Brunswick, NJ, 2007), 28–45, here 29–34. []
  8. Luisa Moreno, interview by author, August 3, 1984; Luisa Moreno, interview by Albert Camarillo, August 5, 1976. From that time forward, she became Rosa Rodríguez de Bemis. []
  9. See, for example, Schechter, Exploring the Decolonial Imaginary; and Katherine M. Merino, “Martha Vergara, Popular-Front Pan-American Feminism and the Transnational Struggle for Working Women’s Rights in the 1930s,” Gender and History 26, no. 3 (2014): 642–60. []
  10. Vicki L. Ruiz, “Una Mujer Sin Fronteras: Luisa Moreno and Latina Labor Activism,” Pacific Historical Review 73, no. 1 (2004): 1–20, here 10–19; Ruiz, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930–1950 (Albuquerque, NM, 1987), xiii, 78–79, 103–13; Luisa Moreno, interview by author, September 6, 1979. For more detail on El Congreso del Pueblo de Habla Española, see David G. Gutiérrez, Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity (Berkeley, CA, 1995). []
  11. Harms, “Imagining a Place for Themselves,” 97. []
  12. R. Rodríguez López, “La necesidad del feminismo en el orientaciones para la mujer guatemalteca”; Graciela Rodríguez, “La mujer y la ciencia,” Vida, January 23, 1926. Incomplete copies of El Imparcial and Vida are housed at the Biblioteca Nacional de Guatemala. Importantly, while the 1920s mark the “doldrums” for women’s rights in the United States, on a global stage, women from Latin America, India, and the Middle East were at the forefront of truly transnational exchanges facilitated by the League of Nations. See Ellen Carol DuBois, There Are No Waves: International Feminist Flows from 1923 through 1950 (forthcoming). []
  13. Graciela Rodríguez López, “La falta de cultura intelectual entre la gente bien de Guatemala,” Vida, January 30, 1926. []
  14. Marta Josefina Herrera, “Civilicemonos,” Vida, December 19, 1925. []
  15. R. Rodríguez López, “La necesidad del feminismo en el orientaciones para la mujer guatemalteca”; Luisa Moreno, interview by author, July 27, 1978. Their barbs against their mothers’ generation clearly differentiate them from their counterparts in other Latin American nations and the world. []
  16. G. Rodríguez López, “La falta de cultura intelectual entre la gente bien de Guatemala.” []
  17. Ibid.; Rodríguez López, “La mujer culta,” Vida, December 2, 1925; Herrera, “Civilicemonos.” []
  18. Josefina Saravia E., “¿Puede la mujer participar en los nuevos campos del trabajo social sin dejar de conservar por ello la esperitualidad y attractivos peculiares de su sexo?,” Vida, January 9, 1926. []
  19. Herrera, “Civilicemonos,” including quote; Casaús Arzú, “Las redes teosóficas de mujeres en Guatemala,” 232–33.The influences of Southern Cone feminists seem striking in these writings, especially the work of Uruguayan feminist and health reformer Paulina Luisi. Asunción Lavrin, Women, Feminism, and Social Change in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, 1890–1940 (Lincoln, NE, 1995). []
  20. For the larger context, see Francesca Miller, Latin American Women and the Search for Social Justice (Hanover, NH, 1991), especially chap. 4, “Feminism and Social Motherhood, 1890–1938.” K. Lynn Stoner, From the House to the Streets: The Cuban Women’s Movement for Legal Reform, 1898–1940 (Durham, NC, 1991); Lavrin, Women, Feminism, and Social Change in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. Greg Grandin, Deborah T. Levenson, and Elizabeth Oglesby coined the term “caffeinated modernism” in The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, and Politics (Durham, NC, 2011), 107. It is not inconceivable that a few of the members of la Sociedad had participated as children in the academic competitions associated with the Minerva festivals of the 1900s. See Catherine Rendón, “Magical Modernism,” ibid., 162–66. The term ladino means an individual not of indigenous background or a Hispanicized native. []
  21. Magda Mabarak, “Por la mujer del pueblo,” Vida, January 2, 1926. []
  22. Ibid.; “Escuela feminina de artes y oficios empeño de la Sociedad G. Mistral,“ El Imparcial, April 12, 1926; Harms, “Imagining a Place for Themselves,” 102. Quotes from Mabarak, “Por la mujer del pueblo,” and Harms, “Imagining a Place for Themselves,” 102. []
  23. R. Rodríguez López, “La mujer culta.” []
  24. Rosa Rodríguez López, “El problema de la mujer caida,” Vida, February 27, 1926. []
  25. R. Rodríguez López, “La mujer culta.” Though a self-styled modern woman, Rosa Rodríguez López invokes a nineteenth-century cliché with the phrase “romantic race.” []
  26. Harms, “Imagining a Place for Themselves,” 104–107, chap. 6; Moreno interview, July 27, 1978; Moreno interview, August 3, 1984; Patricia Harms, e-mail to author, April 5, 2004; Azul, September–October 1949, as quoted in Harms, “Imagining a Place for Themselves,” 104. []
  27. R. Rodríguez López, “La mujer culta,” including quote; Saravia E., “Puede la mujer”; Harms, “Imagining a Place for Themselves,” 102–103. The influential intellectual Epaminondas Quintana bluntly asked, “Now tell me, women, if you have a single reason to be jealous of men. Tell me if your unique and sublime mission is not that of giving to mankind another Muhammad, another Jesus Christ, a MahatmaGandhi … or an Einstein.” Epaminondas Quintana,“Trascendenica de la puericulturaenla educacion de la mujer guatemalteca,” El Imparcial, January 16, 1926. []
  28. Ruiz, “Of Poetics and Politics,” 30; letter from unknown sender to Rosa Rodríguez López, October 23, 1927 (in author’s possession); Marco Augusto Recinos, “El vendedor de cocuyos,” Almamérica, n.d. (in author’s possession); “Cumpleaños” (unidentified news clipping, ca. August 30, 1928). []
  29. Moreno interview, August 3, 1984; Moreno, interview, August 5, 1976; and interview with Luisa Moreno, August 12–13, 1977, conducted by Albert Camarillo. This concept of conjugating identities derives from interviews with Luisa Moreno and her daughter Mytyl Glomboske, as well as my reading of the scholarship of Rebecca Lester, Michael Kearney, Chela Sandoval, Stuart Hall, Paula Moya, and Ramón Gutiérrez. I also thank my colleagues in the University of California Humanities Research Institute “Reshaping the Americas” Residency Group (Spring 2002). Moreno’s transformation occurred in an environment that was marked by an element of danger. The Ku Klux Klan in Tampa had murdered a labor sympathizer shortly before she arrived. And in “On the Road,” one of her few surviving poems in English, Moreno addressed the exploitation of African American workers in the American South. (Unpublished poem in author’s possession.) To close friends she remained “Rosa,” and by identifying myself as a friend of Rosa’s (not Luisa’s), I created an almost instant rapport with her colleagues in the labor movement whom I interviewed. []
  30. Lisa Sánchez González, “Luisa Capetillo: An Anarcho-Feminist Pionera in the Mainland Puerto Rican Narrative/Political Tradition,” in Erlinda Gonzales-Berry and Chuck Tatum, eds., Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage, Vol. II (Houston, TX, 1996), 148–67. []
  31. Capetillo, Mi opinión, 25. []
  32. Ibid., 39. []
  33. Hewitt, “Luisa Capetillo,” 122. []
  34. Capetillo, Mi opinión, 8, quote from 124. []
  35. Ibid.,11. []
  36. Ibid., 17. []
  37. Ibid., 28. Capetillo’s sentiments about same-sex love mirrored such prejudice across Latin America. []
  38. Hewitt, “Luisa Capetillo,” 126; Capetillo, Mi opinión, 15. []
  39. Ibid., 8–9, 15. []
  40. Luisa Moreno, “Caravans of Sorrow: Noncitizen Americans of the Southwest,” in David G. Gutiérrez, ed., Between Two Worlds: Mexican Immigration in the United States (Wilmington, DE, 1996), 119–23, quotes from 120, 122. []
  41. Capetillo, Mi opinión, 87. []
  42. Ibid., 98, 119. []
  43. Ibid.,18. []
  44. Eileen J. Suárez Findlay, Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870–1920 (Durham, NC, 2000), 164–65, quotes from 165. []
  45. Hewitt, “Luisa Capetillo,” 133; Félix Matos Rodríguez, “Introduction,” in Capetillo, Mi opinión, vii–li, here xxii, xliv; Matos Rodríguez, “Capetillo, Luisa,” in Vicki L. Ruiz and Virginia Sánchez Korrol, eds., Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia (Bloomington, IN, 2006), 119; Voces de Liberación (Buenos Aires, 1921). []
  46. Moreno interview, August 12–13, 1977; Moreno interview, August 3, 1984. []
  47. Schechter, Exploring the Decolonial Imaginary, 4. []
  48. Pérez, The Decolonial Imaginary, 5–7; Schmidt Camacho, Migrant Imaginaries, 12–17; “The Case of Luisa Moreno Bemis,” Labor Committee for Luisa Moreno Bemis pamphlet (in author’s possession); Steve Murdoch, “A Question of Deportation,” Our Times, September 9, 1949, Robert W. Kenny Papers, box 7, file 53, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, Los Angeles, Calif. Steve Murdoch was a San Francisco–based labor journalist who wrote for local labor periodicals like Our Times. []
  49. Carmen Bernal Escobar, interview by author, June 15, 1986; Lucio Bernabé, interview by Patricia Zavella and the author, August 29, 1980. []
  50. Asunción Lavrin, “International Feminisms: Latin American Alternatives,” Gender and History 10, no. 3 (1998): 519–34, quote from 520. []
  51. Estelle B. Freedman, No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (New York, 2002); DuBois, There Are No Waves; Merino, “Martha Vergara, Popular-Front Pan-American Feminism and the Transnational Struggle for Working Women’s Rights in the 1930s.” []
  52. Peggy Pascoe, Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874–1939 (New York, 1990), xxiii; R. Rodríguez López, “La necesidad del feminismo en el orientaciones para la mujer guatemalteca.” []