Author encourages Latinas to burst out of the traditional cocoon

March 09, 1994|By Mike Hale | Mike Hale,Knight-Ridder News Service

Bettina Flores has been called the Latina Betty Friedan. But with her new haircut, she looks more like the Latina Sally Field -- same bangs, same intrepid air. You can imagine her as Norma Rae, climbing on a workbench and holding up a sign saying, "Latinas, take charge of your lives!"

Then she'd turn the sign around and on the other side it would say, "Buy my book!"

Ms. Flores is the author of "Chiquita's Cocoon" (Villard, $13.50), a combination of autobiography, self-help book and Latina feminist manifesto. She self-published it out of her suburban Sacramento, Calif., home in 1990 and spent the last four years hawking 20,000 copies of it, donning her green foam Statue of Liberty crown ("I'm freeing the Latina woman, right?") and selling it at barely publicized signings, backyard parties and Cinco de Mayo festivals.

Message of liberation

"Chiquita's Cocoon" -- subtitled "The Latina Woman's Guide to Greater Power, Love, Money, Status and Happiness" -- became an underground classic, a crucial text in a slowly emerging Latina feminist movement. Copies made their way across the country, handed on from woman to woman, and the book made its way onto college reading lists. Now it's being released by a mainstream publisher. But Flores is working hard still, selling her book and its message of liberation.

In "Chiquita's Cocoon," Ms. Flores calls on Latinas to break out of the cocoon of their traditional culture -- to overcome the oppressions of poverty, pregnancy, machismo and Catholicism while holding on to the "useful" parts of their heritage: history, language, music, art, folklore, food.

"You have to become aware," she says. "You have to let go of some of the past -- decide you're not going to live the type of life your mother lived."

At a gallery in San Jose, a dozen women crowd into a small room to hear Ms. Flores' message. They listen intently as she tells them, "Why be the nurse, when you can be the doctor? Why be the baby sitter, when you can own the day-care center?"

Everyone nods.

"Most of us are very young, you know -- the average age of Latinas is 22," she continues. "There's no excuse for you not to leave the cocoon. You have a lot more energy than I have." That's clearly untrue, but no one calls the 51-year-old Ms. Flores on it.

"All of you gals can do it!"

Most of them appear to have done it already. One runs a support service for Latinos with AIDS in Santa Clara County, another is a project coordinator for a gang-prevention program. One leads self-esteem workshops for women, another hosts a women's radio show. What Ms. Flores teaches they've learned on their own. But they're still hungry to hear her say it out loud.

Juanita Pena-Franco of Palo Alto, Calif., coordinator of the county's Narvaez Latino AIDS Project, discovered "Chiquita's Cocoon" two years ago during a training session. "They used Bettina's book as inspiration," she says. "All of us went looking for it."

The book that has inspired this excitement among Latinas is chatty, personal, easy to read. "I wanted a small book that would reach the average woman," Ms. Flores says between appearances. Chapter headings such as "Tell Your Old Man to Get His Own Beer" and "How Cultural and Religious Conditioning Keeps Us Pregnant Again and Again" reflect the book's tone.

The first half breaks down the elements of the "Latina dilemma," drawing on Ms. Flores' life and interviews she conducted with more than 200 women. Of the interrelated obstacles Ms. Flores says Latinas have to overcome -- including submission to men, the conditioning of the Catholic church and ignorance about sex and birth control -- she thinks the worst is poverty. Hispanic women are, on average, the lowest-paid ethnic-gender group in the country.

"When you're poor you can't do anything. You're depressed, you're in a stupor, you're not living a life," she says. "You're just existing."

Set goals, take control

And everything ties together in Ms. Flores' view of how traditional Latino culture keeps Latinas down. "We're conditioned to accept poverty because the Catholic church has taught us it's good for us. We don't know the word prosperity."

The second half of the book is about solutions, all of which come down to "taking control of your life."

"Set goals, and stick to them. Get some education, whether it's formal or informal. Look out for yourself."

Ms. Flores knows that young, poor Latinas, often struggling to support children, may find her advice impractical. She has news for them.

"She may feel she can't stretch herself anymore. I say she can," Ms. Flores says, her voice rising. "There's no such thing as a mother being so tired that she can't go to a job interview or a class or a PTA meeting."

Ms. Flores began taking control of her own life at the age of 12, when she left her home in the barrio of west Fresno for a job as a mother's helper on the white, east side of town. She never went back.

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