On Saluting and Resisting Like Unseen Immigrant Women Changemakers for International Women’s Day

Mar 8, 2021
9:46 AM

Seventeen-year-old honor student Angélica is even prouder to speak in Spanish in public after widely publicized disparaging remarks about people from her parents’ country, Mexico. She proudly displays her Mexican heritage, identifying as mexicana and refusing to assimilate to mainstream cultural practices. Drawing strength from her marginalization, she translates in her community and advocates for transgender people, though she is not, through her school journalism.

Angélica resists discrimination against herself and others through her everyday actions.

The global celebration of International Women’s Day ignores the critical importance of immigrant women resisting oppressive systems to produce change today for tomorrow. As literacy and language professors, we offer new perspectives of everyday resistance by documenting how women #ChooseToChallenge through language preservation, honoring cultural legacies, and building movements.

The past few years have brought new vitriol toward people speaking languages other than English in public places, including restaurants, grocery stores, and schools. However, women in our studies, although they speak fluent English as multilinguals, purposefully choose to speak their native language in public, with family, friends, or members of their ethnic communities.

Chitra praises her Pakistan-born mom for speaking to her in Gujarati to pass on their language despite a childhood memory of harassment for their personal language use at a fast-food restaurant. As a fierce mother, Carmen protects her daughters from language loss by guarding their communication in Spanish at home and when shopping, choosing to ignore people who stare at them.

Similarly, Berenice, a daughter of Mexican-born parents, explains the importance of her higher-level Spanish courses in high school and college. She purposefully seeks to improve her Spanish writing and speaking abilities to honor her home and heart language.

In addition to speaking their languages, the women in our research are deliberate to maintain their families’ cultural practices, even amidst the pressure to adopt the majority culture. Culture includes one’s language but also beliefs, traditions, and ways of expressing meaning. In addition to language, their music, clothing, cuisine, and celebratory choices are often tied to their cultures, such as Verónica and Carmen’s altar honoring deceased family members for Día de los Muertos.

A notable way these women practice their culture is through peaceful displays of their religion. Chitra could easily assimilate into mainstream U.S. society as a citizen from birth and as a Persian-American who experiences marginal whiteness. However, as a young professional, she chooses to remain highly involved in the Zoroastrian Center close to her home.

In this community, Chitra teaches children about their Persian heritage, participates in religious ceremonies, and regularly celebrates cultural events such as the Persian New Year while using Gujarati, Hindi, and Farsi among other languages. For her and the other women in our research, practicing their cultures is another form of resisting a national rhetoric that serves to marginalize non-mainstream beliefs and traditions.

Finally and most strikingly, these women resist through their advocacy for others, building a movement that resists the narcissism epidemic in Western societies.

Unlike a traditional capitalism that views one’s capital as primarily personal and economic in nature, they employ their language and cultural resources to benefit their communities and beyond. As a bilingual teacher who emigrated from Mexico as a child, Mía is quick to volunteer her translation services as well as emotional and navigational support for people newly arrived to the U.S., knowing first-hand the struggles immigrant families face.

Notably, the women we’ve studied also advocate for people unlike them, people with whom they purposefully seek relationships. They inform themselves on injustices in the world, past and present, reading about the Holocaust and #BlackLivesMatter movement. Angélica advocates for the LGBTQ+ community, imploring classmates towards active allyship through writing an essay of solidarity.

Despite the intersecting oppression they face as women of color from immigrant communities, they recognize the privileges they have. And they leverage their privilege for others.

As women and men alike participate in #IWD2021 and #ChooseToChallenge gender discrimination, they should look to expert resistors and challengers that go unnoticed. There is much to learn from first- and second-generation immigrant women who resist through their everyday actions of speaking their language, expressing their cultures, and advocating for others.

Their lives speak back to not only gender discrimination but lies about their immigrant communities and other marginalized groups.

Following their lead, you might also bravely speak your languages (or support those who do), express your marginalized cultural practices in peaceful ways (or learn about others’ rich cultural expressions), and advocate for people in your communities as well as people who are different from you to co-create the world you wish to see.


Mandy Stewart and Ale Babino are professors of literacy and language at Texas Woman’s University and Texas A&M-Commerce respectively. They are the authors of Radicalizing Literacies and Languaging.