Mexican Women, Immigration, and the Consequent Transformation in Identity

by Ian Brusenhan

decorative image: woman with face paint for the day of the dead

This essay focuses on the transformation of the identity of the Mexican woman as she migrated to the United States in the 1980s. By identifying the traditional American and Mexican woman, this essay reveals the economic, social, and political changes the Mexican immigrant women faces, in light of the feminism movements occurring in both countries at this time. As her life transforms, the Mexican immigrant woman faces racism, sexism, changes in societal expectations, among many other challenges. She has no choice but to adapt to her realities and to reconstruct her identity that embodies a woman conscious of her past, while aware of who she is now. She is no longer a Mexican woman; she is not an American woman; she is not a Mexican- American woman. The Mexican immigrant woman transforms to a Chicana Feminist, someone who prioritizes unity of all women, embraces the differences between two cultures, and recognizes her identity is grounded by the differences in those two cultures. This Chicana feminist guides the third-wave of feminism, which is noteworthy for the inclusivity of all  women, regardless of class and race.

Keywords: feminism, Chicana, immigration, identity

When describing the feminist movement, it is important to understand its inherent varying waves. The first wave occurred in the early 20th century and concentrated on suffrage, while the second wave took place in the mid 20th century and stressed civil rights for minorities in North America. By the 1980s, the third wave of feminism was in full progression. During this time, feminism in the United States and in Mexico possessed some similar characteristics, while each of these simultaneously maintained their differences. To make a specific distinction, the American movement emphasized how women as wives, homemakers, and workers fell second to the man in society. The Mexican movement began after the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and shed light on the normalization of violence against women (Knapp and Muller and Quiros). In an effort to connect the two movements, the American and Mexican women envisioned a shared goal: liberation and unity among all women (Vidal). However, the Mexican and American feminist movements were not absolute parallels of one another, and as a result, the identity of some Mexican women transformed in a physical way through the migration to the United States in the 80s.

Eventually, her transformation cultivated into a cultural change to progressively become the Chicana feminist: a unique, fluid identity which absorbs her new realities, while preserving her prior beliefs. I aim to analyze the role of immigration to the United States as it relates to the construction of the Chicana feminist identity within Mexican women. Although women might be seen as static subjects, and their roles in society perceived strict, this  assumption could not be further from the truth. By comparing the role of traditional women in both societies, in the light of feminism, this article notes how the role of female Mexican immigrants in the United States in the 80s changed economically, socially, and politically to reconstruct the self.

In terms of American society, the traditional American woman in the 80s became more educated and started working outside the home for a more equal pay. This is when the level of economic discrimination between the American man and woman was re-evaluated by women and activists. The change in economic dynamics for American women is evidenced by the fact that by 1985, the percentage of women holding professional jobs jumped from 44 to 49 percent (Guilder), with the implication that more women were graduating college and having more opportunities to leave the house and hold a job. In this case, the discrimination arose from a place of societal expectations, such that the average expectation for an American woman involved becoming a mother. Furthermore, studies in the 80s demonstrate that success rates of single men and women in the working world are equal in terms of “earnings capacity” (Guilder). The married woman, however, was not in the same situation: the married man was twice as successful as the married woman. This study also included the preferences of working hours; in general, men wished to be employed full time, while women sought fewer hours or wished to be employed only part-time. Thus, this preference to work less hours signaled that the majority of working women are likely also married. From this economic perspective, it can be shown that American women in the 80s traditionally were not only wives and mothers, but they were also workers, though society did not recognize them as providers.

decorative image: woman walking down sidewalk

The traditional Mexican woman has been defined by the construction of Machismo ideologies. Nevertheless, she has similar objectives as American women in terms of familial expectations. In relation to work, the girls, mainly rural and poor women, were expected to provide and help the family in whatever way possible. Many young women started working early on and with partial or minimal education. Machismo or macho, means “to be male”, while it is also “a learned behavior” that is typically negatively perceived because men are under the impression that “I’m bigger, I’m better” (Anaya 66). This conception of a Mexican man as superior hinders the possibility for Mexican women to pursue education or work outside the home. Although machismo teaches men to be prideful and strong, it is oftentimes carried out in a way that diminishes the capabilities and opportunities of women. It is important to realize that because the societal environment in the 80s in Mexico and the United States differed, plans for marriage also differed. Because of the legal, economic, and social incentives marriage brought to these women, many Mexican women opted to marry young (Arrom). In this way, Mexican men had a natural attractiveness to women who sought economic stability. Moreover, it is for the same reason that the Mexican feminist movement was not completely established until much later: because women were more concerned with day-to-day necessities (Arrom).

It was not until decades later that the feminist movement was transformed into individualistic goals. Historically, gender studies show that the street (world outside the home) “represents men’s space” while “la casa symbolizes a female space,” thus constituting a perspective that limited individual opportunities as it relates to women becoming independent (Knapp and Muller and Quiros). Due to the subconscious attractiveness of economic stability through marriage, men maintained a foundation of control over women, yet in terms of familial relations, “the Mexican mother raises the male child and has a great influence on the learned macho behavior of the child” (Anaya 67). In this way, both Mexican men and women held a portion of power. As such, it is evident that machismo and feminism come full circle: the traditional Mexican woman is a mother and heart of the home, thus possessing her own realm of authority.

In addition to escaping poverty and political violence, Mexican families in the 80s [i] would migrate to the United States to seek better education, decent wages, freedom of speech, among other privileges. In considering opportunities, the United States was seen as the home of the free and land of the brave, and in economic crisis, migration only makes sense. While migration obviously implies change, when dealing with the Mexican woman, what sort of change is to be expected? Because of the better opportunities for women in the labor force in the United States, there was an astronomical economic shift for Mexican women who had just migrated. In the new country, Mexican women began to work outside the home because their “counterparts” in the United States were working outside the home (Knapp and Muller and Quiros). In the 80s, the Mexican women encountered the reality that they needed to work in order to boost family income, and this pressure created a domino effect (Knapp and Muller and Quiros). Because these women had greater economic influence at home, they became providers, consequently shifting social dynamics within their families and power relations within society.

decorative image: woman with shopping bags.

The economic empowerment gained by Mexican women as a result of migration allowed her identity to transform; a reality typically invisible within gender studies concerning immigrant women. Socially, the traditional Mexican woman becomes the Chicana feminist when she migrates. This type of feminism is a result of the Chicano movement [ii], which fought for  Mexican American rights starting in the 60s, and is also a reflection of the third wave of feminism. Relatedly, it is important to understand that although the third wave certainly differed in the United States and Mexico, in general it highlighted “personal narratives” that were “in response to the collapse of the category of the [traditional] ‘woman’” (Snyder). Essentially, this Chicana feminist recognizes “class, gender, and culture”, and between these themes, “[does] not think that one was more important than the other” (Lambers and Kieft). Also, she prioritized the restructuring of the family and relocation of gender roles (Lambers and Kieft). The Chicano movement, which fought for Mexican American political representation, and Chicana feminism, which advocated for the inclusivity among women of different races and classes, differed in a major way, however.

Mirta Vidal was a writer and a leader of the Chicano movement. She wrote about La  Raza Unida [iii] and about the Chicana feminist. La Raza Unida is political party concentrated on Chicano nationalism. According to Vidal, the Chicano movement is founded upon unity within La Raza, though there is a disconnect because “when Chicano men talk about maintaining La Familia and the ‘cultural heritage’ of La Raza,” in reality they just want to continue “the age-old concept of keeping the women barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen”. Vidal later asserts that  “on the subordination of women, there can be no real unity” (Vidal 6). Chicana feminists separated from the Chicano movement because they wanted to, as did white and black feminists, in order to properly address issues on sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, and equality. The migration of the Mexican families created a new identity for the woman, one that is not American, it is not Mexican, it is not Mexican-American, but it is Chicana. The difference is described by Gloria Anzaldúa as the mestiza consciousness. There is a level of ambiguity within this consciousness that refuted assimilation into a new country because the Chicanas (mestizas) created something new with the capacity to be something no one had seen before. The Mexican migration transformed the traditional Mexican woman into the Chicana feminist. With this transformation and individuality of a minority in the 80s, there were political changes and consequences as well (Anzaldúa).

American politics has a history of perpetuating improper treatment of minorities, which is still evident today. Because many times the signature of legislation does not induce immediate change, instead of defining American politics as laws in the 80s, I thought it was more important to discuss politics in terms of discrimination. Discrimination has many spheres but, in this situation, it refers to racism, and people who migrated to the United States in the 80s were victims of it. Because people were migrating to the United States and did not look like the average American, typically there was a certain level of judgement. This judgement developed into stigmas and stereotypes, like ‘wetbacks’, ‘beaners’, ‘illegals’, etc. Cherrie Moraga and  Gloria Anzaldúa divulged their battles that women of color encounter in their piece, “This Bridge Called My Back.” They wrote, “in a white-dominated world, there is little getting around racism and our own internalization of it. It’s always there embodied in someone we least expect to rub up against” (33). The discrimination that the immigrants endured made them feel small  and less important. The barriers that were created with this stigmatism also created a layer of isolation because the migrated women were scared to accept “how we have taken the values of our oppressor into our hearts and turned them against ourselves and one another”, later admitted they were not ready to acknowledge how deeply-rooted a man’s influence has had within them (Moraga and Anzaldúa 32). In other words, with the lack of acceptance, the women doubted one another. In addition, the objective of Chicana feminism was evident when Anzaldúa and Moraga separated the American woman and the Mexican woman: “I have come to believe that the only reason women of a privileged class will dare to look at how it is that they oppress, is when  they’ve come to know the meaning of their own oppression. And understand that the oppression of others hurts them personally” (33). Because the social politics ran deeply to divide women, we can understand the structural discrimination that occurs in the 80s (that is also still present today).

decorative image: dividing line

While it is easy to say that feminism is a movement that advocates for the rights of women in every way, such a notion is incorrect given the awareness of the Chicana and migrated woman. For example, migration entails many changes involving obstacles that one cannot envision or expect. Additionally, the Mexican woman had her own surprises, some of which included economic opportunity, changes within family dynamics, identity change, Chicana feminism, discrimination, and much more. The Mexican migrated woman might evolve into the Chicana feminist. Moreover, due to the fact that her environment changed drastically in many ways, the Mexican woman created her own identity, one that resisted assimilation while correspondingly accepted a new world. As such, the Chicana feminist was fluid; she could be in  a place that is different to her, yet not let it define her. This ability to create something  individual, but to include aspects from both the past and the future, all the while knowing exactly who she is, is the foundation of the Chicana feminist.

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. “Borderlands La Frontera.” How to Tame A Wild Tongue, 1987. Aunt Lute Books.

Arrom, Silvia Marina. “Mexican Women.” ReVista, Harvard University,

Guilder, George. “Women in the Work Force.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 1 Sept. 1986,

Knapp, Jenna, et al. “Student Research Series.” Women, Men, and the Changing Role of Gender in Immigration, vol. 3, no. 3, 2009, pp. 1–14. Institute for Latino Studies University of Notre Dame,

Lambers, Erin, and Kelly Kieft. “The Chicana Movement.” Chicana Feminism – History, University of Michigan,

Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzalduá. This Bridge Called My Back Writings by Radical Women of Color. 2nd ed., SUNY Press, 2015.

Snyder, Claire R. “What Is Third-Wave Feminism? A New Directions Essay.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 34, no. 1, 2008, pp. 175–196., doi:10.1086/588436.

Vidal, Mirta. Chicanas Speak Out. 1st ed., Path Finder Press, 1971,


[i] For more information refer to Challenging Authoritarianism in Mexico: Revolutionary Struggles and the Dirty War 1964-1982 By Fernando Herrera Calderón.

[ii] For more information, refer to Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement by Carlos Muñoz, Jr.

[iii] For more information, refer to United We Win: The Rise and Fall of La Raza Unida Party by Ignacio M. Garcia


Many special thanks to Evelyn Autry for not only teaching and inspiring this relevant theme, but also for guiding and encouraging me to perfect my essay! I would not have gotten this far without you!