Photo: Kashfi Halford

Women We Read This Week

Derecka Purnell’s “A New Civil Rights Movement is Already Growing at the Grass Roots” in The New York Times

As a country we like to honor the Civil Rights Movement, but I am not sure that we recognize the kind of community organizing that was hard work and an integral part of the movement. Derecka Purnell, a Harvard Law School student and a political organizer, reflects on a woman at a Ferguson protest she attended that shouted, “Go to school! Get a job!” at four black men. The men, as it turned out, were Purnell’s colleagues from Harvard, and they formed part of a grassroots movement trying to change systemic inequalities in the justice and educational system. Purnell did not respond to the woman at the protest, but she writes, “If I had talked to that woman on that cold December night, I would have told her that addressing the issues brought to light by Ferguson is a full time job. People must keep working.” They must and maybe in another 50 years we will look back and remember their work with respect.

Jenny Diski’s “Doris and Me” in London Review of Books

It’s the flatness of Diski’s piece that stuns. It contains a suicide, a rape, mental illness, the jarring coldness of one human to another, all starkly rendered or rather not seemingly “rendered” at all, just laid out, with the slightest touch of wryness almost as an afterthought. And yet it’s moving, in an unsettling way – moving not for any overt emotions in either the writing or between the characters, but rather in spite of them. It gets at a strange, pragmatic, determined kindness, in lieu of the innate kindnesses one expects of family or friends, and this is what makes it so unique. It evokes an old-timey quality of honor or duty, and one that grates on my sensibility. I realized this after finishing the piece at midnight, thinking at first I’d hated it, then finding myself unable to stop thinking about it. I went on to read another companion piece to it, “What to call her?” equally mesmerizing though slightly less barefaced in tone. This kind of writing is a rare find: at once entrancing and harsh, moving and alienating, and demanding more than one read. — Sarah

Ada Limón’s “An American Sound” in Oxford American

Ada Limón’s essay “An American Sound” is an homage to Lydia Mendoza, a Mexican-American musician who captured the sometimes hopeful but often painful narratives of her fellow immigrants. Limón writes of her grandfather—a man born just days before Mendoza in 1916, a man with his own complicated history to tell—and how his voice would rise with pride as he recounted tales and sang songs in his native tongue.

I didn’t know then that Grandpa’s songs were traditional Mexican ballads, corridos, that connected an entire community of Mexican-American immigrants. And that so many of them were songs made popular by one phenomenal woman: Lydia Mendoza.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Mendoza was—and Limón argues, should remain today—a cultural touchstone for many Mexican-Americans. Having learned at sixteen to play the 12-string guitar, Mendoza gained popularity after winning an amateur competition at a radio station in San Antonio. Familiar with the “heartbreak and rage” of many families split by borders—Mendoza was once doused in gasoline upon reentry to the U.S. to rid her of non-existent lice—her “songs were saturated with stories about the darker side of human love, the hardships of working life, and the isolation experienced by the outsider… much of her music reflected a larger sense of loss—that of an entire country—with a relatable austerity.”

The Mexican culture, writes Limón, has long esteemed women as storytellers and iconic figures. It is here, in this tradition, that Mendoza belongs. Referred to as La Cancionera de los pobres (The Singer of the Poor) and La Gloria de Texas, Mendoza was the “Mexican-American woman who was more than willing to go onstage for everyone.”


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