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Other research product . 2019

Doing Dignity Work: Alicia Escalante and the East Los Angeles Welfare Rights Organization, 1967-1974

Bermudez, Rosie Cano;
Open Access
Published: 01 Jan 2019
Publisher: eScholarship, University of California
Country: United States

“Doing Dignity Work,” examines and analyzes the struggle for economic justice and human dignity waged by single, Chicana mothers in East Los Angeles. For Escalante, being able to lead a dignified life as a single mother receiving welfare entailed having adequate nutrition, clothing, a decent home, medical care for the family, and an honest job with a livable wage. It also meant being respected for the labor of raising children and caring for the elderly at home and not being subjected to demeaning, racist, and sexist policies and practices, as she and many others had experienced continuously at the welfare offices. As a political biography of gender and leadership and a social history, “Doing Dignity Work” excavates a grassroots genealogy of Chicana feminisms rooted in the struggles of single Chicana welfare mothers, sheds new light on the development of social and political consciousness among urban poor women of color, and disrupts the historiographic compartmentalization of social movements by bringing to the fore the multiple insurgencies and inter-organizational dynamics of this era. Employing the oral histories of Alicia Escalante and six of her activist contemporaries in conjunction with rich archival analysis, “Doing Dignity Work” forces us to reconsider women’s activism in the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. What is significant about the activism that Escalante practiced was that it was broadly based and multi-issued and cut across multiple constituencies. Escalante understood that to fight for economic justice and self-respect, you had to fight racism, classism and sexism. She realized, too, that these interlocking systems of oppression did not just affect low income, single Chicana and Mexicana mothers, but all impoverished women and people generally. Building on the integral research of scholars who have centered Mexicanas, Mexican American women, and Chicanas as workers, cultural producers, organizers, activists, and intellectuals, my work calls attention to the class perspective and militant dignity politics of poor Chicanas in Los Angeles. My research attends to an understudied aspect of Chicana/o history and the development of a militant grassroots Chicana feminism rooted in struggles for economic justice and human dignity that went beyond la familia and the Chicano community. Escalante embraced poor, single, unmarried, often divorced and abandoned, mothers who suffered shame and invisibility in larger struggles for la causa, the Chicana/o people. She brought their voices and struggles to the forefront when few others dared. By making room for unrecognized complex historical actors and organizations who do not fit neatly into established histories of the welfare rights movement and the second wave of feminism, my research contributes, too, to the fields of women’s history, women and gender studies, and social movements by moving beyond black-white binaries. It explores how impoverished, Spanish-speaking women came to the fore and in solidarity with other women of color and poor women to transform the social and political agendas of the welfare system.


History, Ethnic studies, Women's studies, Chicana Feminism, Chicana History, East Los Angeles, Economic Justice, Multiracial coalitions, Welfare Rights

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