No FilterFinding Chicana Empowerment, Community, and Art on Instagram

Collage art by Maribel Falcon of the Cósmica art collective

Looking through my Instagram feed, I scroll past images of crystal and herb healing, Drake memes, genderqueer punk-rock designers, and vintage photos of Selena (the late Tejana superstar, not Gomez). I find makeup tips and trends from girls with my skin tone, Rupi Kaur’s feminist poetry, and photographs from obscured parts of history like Brown Beret protesters during the Chicano Movement. I receive daily affirmations of body positivity from accounts like @thebiggirlscode, run by a Chicana PhD student who promotes radical self-love for women of all sizes and shares personal anecdotes from her daily life. Before the arrival of these Instagram accounts, my visual and cultural interests were scattered across the Internet on Tumblr or random blogs. Now my feed is a treasure trove of girls who look like me and a reminder of feminist ideas and histories rarely championed in traditional media. 

The user @thebiggirlscode is just one of many Latinas online merging self-love, culture, art, and politics with an unambiguously intersectional feminist voice. Users like her are carving out spaces for community building and political dialogue within the varied Latina community, and many are doing so on photo-sharing apps like Instagram. Though Instagram started as a purely aesthetic app—often derided for shameless selfies and adorable cat photos—it now functions as a way to share news, political opinions, and even art that has traditionally been accessible only in museums, libraries, or other archives. With 400 million users, it’s one of the most popular social-media apps, and corporations, institutions, and media sites are using it to reach users in ways conventional media can’t. 

However, with control over which accounts they follow, users can bypass brands and corporations (to an extent—there is built-in advertising on the app now), and Latina users can fill their feeds or timelines with images that speak directly to their experiences and identities, with user-generated images addressing everything from interpersonal politics to Hillary Clinton. Tahnee Udero, a Chicana from New Mexico, runs the account @highmija, where she curates a mix of political art, tv references, and pot culture, and promotes her zine of the same name. Another account, @mujeresdemaiz, promotes their work as a women’s activist organization out of East L.A. that works to revive ancestral knowledge about health and wellness. Forums like these are spaces where people can learn about forgotten wisdoms and untold histories with the swipe of a finger, while connecting with others with similar interests or backgrounds from across the globe.

The account @xicanisma_ popped up on Instagram in 2014, and in one year amassed more than 15,000 followers. Cassandra, the owner of the account, gives credit to the hashtag #xicanadaily for her initial boom of followers. Scrolling through the hashtag—which allows users to “tag” their image with the word, thereby adding their picture to a broader community—you’ll find a Cal State student with an impeccable lip-liner technique, a photographer with a mound of gorgeous black curls, and a radical poet wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with “Chingona” (which roughly translates to “badass girl”). Cassandra created the hashtag to connect with and amplify users who identify with Xicana politics. Xicanisma itself is a movement named by scholar Ana Castillo that represents a Chicana, feminist, antinationalist ideology that honors Indigeneity. With #xicanadaily, Cassandra supports her followers’ achievements and praises their flawless eyebrows, but mostly she’s just thanking them for existing. #xicanadaily is just one way that users express a desire to see their cultural aesthetics, their people, and their political concerns reflected in the media they access.

Before she began @xicanisma_, Cassandra found both politics and community on the social-media platform Tumblr. But she didn’t know of an Instagram account specifically geared toward Xicanas. So she began using the medium to post about topics relevant to her life and soon found there was a whole community waiting for it. Her posts include memes, news, and history snippets paired with compelling images; one features an arresting photograph of border-patrol agents beaming flashlights on a mother and her children with the text “Immigration is a feminist issue” overlaid on it. Another features a video of Sophie Cruz, a little girl who recently asked Pope Francis to help with immigration reform. Some of her most intriguing posts are those on underexposed cultural histories: One photograph of smiling Mexican-American women railroad workers in front of a steam locomotive is captioned “Xicana workers on the Southern Pacific Railroad during WWII. Rosita la Riveter.” Below the vintage photograph, a follower commented, “File under ‘things that they didn’t teach you in school.’” 

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These posts are crucial: Neither popular news media nor history textbooks acknowledge or give justice to the communities of color who built the United States. Resurrecting histories left out of the American canon is an act of media activism, and accounts like @xicanisma_ are using the power of the image to rebuild a body of history for underrepresented people in an accessible format. By preserving microhistories and providing access to information denied to our communities by assimilation and structural oppression, Cassandra affirms and strengthens our cultural identity.

The Instagram account @veteranas_and_rucas offers a similar lens on these microhistories. A virtual archive of 20th-century Chicana culture in Southern California, the feed includes snapshots of badass feathered-hair girl gangs; a candid photo of Downey, California, MC Jennifer Velarde (a.k.a. “JV”) from Lowrider magazine; and vintage family photos from the ’40s. The feed is a free and living collection built by user-submitted photos. Not only does @veteranas_and_rucas honor a culture and history left out of popular media or archival institutions, it brings to life a vibrant past for a new generation. 

Latinos and Native Americans in the United States have a history stained with colonialism, including centuries of English-only language laws, Mexican repatriation that forced many American citizens to be deported, and the long-standing xenophobic political rhetoric. These discriminatory and racist practices erected barriers to Indigenous and ethnic histories while violently enforcing cultural assimilation, leading to a loss of inherited knowledge among our communities. It has been a never-ending struggle to compel institutions and media to acknowledge and include Indigenous and Latino perspectives in U.S. historical narratives—even more so the perspectives of women. 

And lest Native American boarding schools or Mexican partition seem like bygone concerns, consider contemporary knowledge erasure in Arizona’s banning of ethnic studies, Texas textbooks whitewashing slavery and Jim Crow history, or the missing media coverage of femicide in Mexico, ongoing since the 1990s. But via Instagram, a user can post an image of a pink altar dedicated to the murdered women of Juarez, or link to a story about draft resistance during the Chicano Movement, bringing these issues to light and planting seeds of history that open a space for conversation and storytelling.

Another account that discusses feminist issues relevant to Latina communities from a brown woman’s perspective is @latinarebels. Although their community is spread across Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, Instagram is where they have the most followers. (They just hit 12,000.) Catchall identifiers like “Latino” and “Hispanic” are problematic for some who don’t see the terms sufficiently acknowledging their Indigenous or African roots. Some people prefer identifiers such as Xicana, Chicana, Afro-Latina, or Indigena, while others identify with nondomestic terms like Mexicana, Puertorriqueña, or Nicaragüense. By having four moderators from Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba, and Guatemala, @latinarebels offers a range of Latina feminist angles on sex, body image, relationships, and more. The account aims to include the perspectives of Black women, trans women, Indigenous women, and women who identify as “sluts”—all of whom have historically been sidelined from mainstream feminist priorities. 

@latinarebels founder Prisca created the account in part because she didn’t see herself represented in regular Latino news outlets, which are often male oriented. Even Latina-targeted magazines are generally advertisement heavy and focus exclusively on beauty and fashion. Of course, these aren’t the only things Latinas care about—they also care about slut shaming, education, sexual politics, immigration, sexual violence, abortion laws, and healthcare. Instagram accounts like @latinarebels function as an alternative media platform by fearlessly challenging respectability politics with every post. One post features a collection of three buttons, one with a picture of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, the other two reading “Gorda, Nalgona, y Chingona” and “F*** Your White Beauty Standards.” Established Latino news sites would never post these affirmations, but @latinarebels aims to be humorous while taking body and sexual politics seriously. Their voices are accessible, their rage is relatable, and with no commercial or corporate ties, they can speak plainly.  

“My page is for Xicanas and [is] about the intersectionality of being brown and being a woman,” Cassandra told me. So while some of her posts on @xicanisma_ address concerns like Black Lives Matter, fat positivity, and gender politics, others reference inside jokes or identity issues that come with being Latina, Xicana, or Indigena. A photo of an egg that says, “[Place] this egg on your timeline so it soaks up all bad energy, white tears, and brujería [witchcraft] in your mentions,” encourages users to repost the image on their account and alludes to the cultural practice of rubbing an egg all over the body to protect or cure you from curses or bad energies. You can’t satisfy Xicana feminists without a little cultural humor. 

But when the content is so diverse in theme, and your following is so large, conflicts can arise. In terms of class demographics, Cassandra’s followers range from ivory-tower academics to working-class Latinas, some of whom may practice their own brands of feminism but see the term as a white woman’s ideology. She says people will follow her because of something funny—like a quote that reads, “Yeah brown girls have privilege, they’re called eyebrows”—but then get offended by a political post about trans womens’ rights. However, she knows the mingling of users with different perspectives and clashing opinions can make way for enlightenment—one of her ultimate goals. She has received threats and hate mail from angry followers but much more often gets messages of gratitude from followers who say she has helped them identify problematic language or hidden prejudices. 

The interaction encouraged by these moderators is part of the community-building aspect that makes both these accounts popular: Cassandra and Prisca have both found that their followers answer and discuss one another’s questions in the comments section before they have a chance to step in and moderate. “I want them to talk to each other. I don’t want to come in and be the authority. I want it to be a free space,” Prisca says. As for Cassandra, “Before creating @xicanisma_ I never knew a lot of Xicana feminists at all, but now I do.” Some of that community has even connected in real life—five followers from Oakland met up because of a post and still hang out today. They tag @xicanisma_ in photos, giving the account credit for the friendship. 

Latinas, Xicanas, and Indigenas have always used an array of techniques to organize their communities for feminist causes. In the 1970s, Xicana feminists created women’s community centers, formed organizations for Xicana academics, poets, writers, and artists, and published print publications like Hijas de Cuauhtémoc and Encuentro Femenil. The content of these publications, particularly the former, is strikingly similar to the content we see on Instagram—a collection of journalism, art, poetry, photography, social critique, and womens’ histories uncovered without the help of traditional gatekeepers. 

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These platforms are using collaborative, bottom-up principles and work from the notion that there is power inherent in community building. Reposting art, accomplishments, or any form of work from your pool of followers, or featuring everyday Xicanas with the hashtag #xicanadaily are examples of sharing space and uplifting a community’s voice. It’s why people are attracted—why I was attracted—to the medium and the accounts; we feel engaged and represented. 

Of course, many people still see online community building as armchair activism—people complaining about society’s problems without doing any work to combat them. Not only is this critique ableist, classist, racist, and misogynist—Instagram is used by women and people of color in the largest numbers—but grassroots operations like Black Lives Matter and Arab Spring show the potential of online organizing.

Political artist Melanie Cervantes says, “Social media is a tool in our liberation but not the end in and of itself.” Since 2010, Melanie has worked with Alto Arizona, a campaign that uses political graphics to push back against the anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona. She says social media was crucial with her work at Alto Arizona and her current job, but there are bigger questions to ask when thinking about the effectiveness of Internet activism. “For me, Instagram provides an opening to potential and existing relationships of care and concern that live and breathe off of the Internet and our devices. These platforms are an invitation to something more, something bigger, something much more powerful.” 

“Being an activist and standing in a picket line is necessary, but we need to also think about how we get thousands to be in the same train of thought with the same goal,” says Prisca. “Political Instagram posts can make a person reflect and say, ‘Oh, I never thought about it that way’ or ‘That’s a name for something I’ve felt before.’” Online organizing forges connections across state lines, across borders. There’s a community-building aspect that you can see in the art, zines, shows, and ideas being produced with various intersectional feminisms as their root ideology. Prisca, who holds a masters of divinity in liberation ethics, counters critiques of online activism saying, “A big thing in academia is ‘Oh you’re just writing books. You’re not doing anything.’ For me to be where I am today took me reading important writers who ‘just wrote books.’” 

Accounts like @xicanisma_, @latinarebels, @mujeresdemaiz, @thebiggirlscode, and @veteranas_and_rucas are providing a community service that’s activating political consciousness and raising a critical awareness about the histories that have been hidden from us. And they’re not only preaching to a choir of academics or educated followers. “My audience is those girls who don’t have that language—girls who have never heard of feminism in a positive light,” says Prisca. “It’s giving people the tools to direct their fuck-yous. And that’s a start.”  

by Barbara Calderon-Douglass
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Barbara Calderon-Douglass is a Tejana writer and artist living in Brooklyn with her kitty, Peach. You can find her making glittery collages and girl-power zines with her homegirls from Colectiva Cósmica. 

 
This article was published in Nerds Issue #69 | Winter 2016

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