Dr. Ivonne Wallace Fuentes: History as Argument, X-ray, and Weapon

(The following are Dr. Ivonne Wallace Fuentes’ remarks as delivered to Roanoke Valley Democratic Women Membership Meeting attendees on March 22, 2024.)

Thanks to Barbara and Priscilla for inviting me to speak to you for Women’s History Month.

As a professional historian, and a feminist historian, every day is women’s history month for me, but I do love how March offers us all an opportunity to reflect on the historical impact of women.

Dr. Ivonne Wallace Fuentes (Photo credit: Megapixie.com/A. Tonken)

Too often, I think, we tend to think of history in the way we might think of antique china and crystal — lovely, in its pristine cabinet, where its mostly admired in passing; treasured — maybe it was passed down to us by elder generations of women we loved. Maybe something we might even think to use, pulling it out for important ritual occasions like Thanksgiving, but not really a part of our daily life, like the rough and tumble Target dishes that go into the dishwasher every night. But history, and historical thinking, is not china we pull out once and twice a year. It is part of the air we breathe every day, whether we recognize it or not. As I teach my students, it’s not an empirical list of facts about the past — it’s not a long CVS receipt of names and figures. History is an argument, it is an x-ray, and it is a weapon.

Let me tell you a little bit about the chapter I am writing now about the Guatemalan revolution in 1944. In Latin American history, this is a pretty big deal — much bigger than you might imagine for a small Central American country, about the size of the state of Tennessee. As some of you may remember, in 1954, the Guatemalan democratic and progressive government was overthrown by the CIA, and this launched the Cold War chess game in Latin America. The coup is one of the most studied events in twentieth century international relations in the region, but not as much attention has been devoted to the revolutionary decade that preceded it, which in Guatemala is called the October Revolution of 1944.

As I have started writing about this moment, however, I learned something quite startling. The October Revolution refers to when a group of military and civilian leaders take over in October, but the key moment had actually happened months before — in June of 1944, which was when the hated dictator who had ruled with an iron fist, resigned. And as I dug deeper into the sources, I learned that the key players then were not military and civilian leaders — they were everyday women; they were teachers. Teachers who were being forced to march in support of the dictator, and instead chose to use that march to protest him. His forces brutally attacked them, and several died in the streets. It was the chaos that resulted from that teacher’s protest that forced him to resign. We should absolutely call this pivotal event in Guatemalan history the June Revolution, not the October revolution.

What did these women do in June, after they were the spark that toppled the dictatorship? They immediately started forming revolutionary parties and working for suffrage. But with the dictator gone, many exiles streamed back into the country, and soon wrested control of the revolutionary parties from these women. They were essentially pushed out of the revolution they ignited. And eventually, in the books these men would write, the “historical origin” of the revolution would shift to October, with these male military and civilian leaders. The new Constitution of 1945 was radical within Guatemalan history — for the first time it required mandatory suffrage for all men, including illiterate men — which overnight made illiterate male peasants the most important new voting bloc in the country, since peasants, almost all of them illiterate, were 2/3 of the country’s population. They would be the voting power that would allow the next two democratic governments to imagine a radically more egalitarian and just society. But it excluded illiterate women — they could not vote, and for literate women, it made the vote optional. So it won’t surprise you to learn that women were then not considered a vital new electoral interest, and that many of their concerns were not at the forefront of revolutionary politics.

So this moment, for me, highlights why March is an important month for all of us, and not just professional historians, to pause and dig a little deeper into the marquee moments of our shared past. Because, actually, women are everywhere, and if we dig around the books and monuments that men erect later, we often find that women were key players in some of the most important moments of our collective struggles, even if men later don’t choose to memorialize them.

If we look around at our current moment, I see a little of the same dynamic at play. When we see the presumptive presidential candidates, we see two white men. But I would argue that right now, one of the two main sources of political and electoral energy in our country is women. And the politics of women are shifting, mostly because of the Supreme Court decision on Dobbs and the Right’s continued attacks on reproductive health care and on women’s sexual agency. Right now, its women like those gathered in this room that are the main defense to the radical vision of the Republican Party.

Women like us, organized in groups like this, already know what needs to be done, in a broad sense. We need to mobilize, we need to knock on doors, we need to canvass, we need to GOTV.

But I’m going to offer that we also need to use history to help others understand this dangerous moment. I told you earlier that I teach my students that history is an argument. What do I mean by that? Here is an excellent example: MAGA. That 4-word slogan is a great example of history as an argument. It argues that this country has lost something, never explicitly identified, that once made it great. It is a reactionary argument identifying a loss, and a call to action to remake the future in the mode of the past. The fact that it does not identify the missing ingredient is part of its power — because everyone can fill in what they think is missing — is it a patriarchal model when women knew their place in the hierarchy? Is it getting back to before the New Deal messed everything up for the plutocrats? Is it Jim Crow? I would argue its all of that, but that the nostalgic vision of an unquestioned social order where women played supporting roles to men as wives and daughters, where they were socially and economically dependent, where their sexuality was tightly controlled and not their own individual journey to explore and enjoy — I think that’s at the very top of the list.

Let’s use another historical thinking tool — history is an x-ray. The historian of eastern Europe, Tim Snyder, had a powerful editorial at the start of the Ukraine war that argued that without history everything is a surprise. In other words, the Russian advance into Ukraine was a perfectly foreseeable possibility for people who had been studying Russian and Ukrainian history, whereas for many of us, we may have had to look Ukraine up on a map.

The world around us— its institutions, its ideas, and ideologies — all of it was created by human choices and actions in the past. None of it had to happen this way; all of it was crafted, really — sometimes over centuries. That means we can use history to understand our moment — it is an x-ray that allows us to see how we got here, what choices and ideas in the past led to the institutions and dilemmas of the present. The reason I choose x-ray instead of map as my metaphor when I teach, is because you need an X-ray to fix a broken bone. Without an x-ray, you feel the pain, but you won’t know where and how to fix the hurt. We can identify all sorts of things that are wrong in the world today, but without a historical perspective, our remedies are likely to fail. We can’t “fix” race relations in our country today by telling people to get over it, no matter how many time Musk tweets that. We need to understand the hundreds of years of choices that people in the past made to fully be able to identify how to fix this national wound. And mostly what that historical perspective teaches us, in powerful texts such as the 1619 project, is that we currently are using Band-Aids to treat really critical and deep wounds.

And that, of course, is why there are now powerful forces that are telling our educators we can’t even really look at the x-ray because it may make some students today feel bad about the past. So, while those of us living now may enjoy the political, social, and economic benefits of racist choices made by our ancestors in the past, we shouldn’t examine them closely enough in case such “divisive” concepts may hurt our feelings. This is what I mean by history is a Weapon. If we don’t even study divisive concepts, which by the way in some way or another, is all historical concepts, then we are shutting doors to discovering not just the broken bones, but the heroic actors — like those Guatemalan women in June of 1944. Like our own suffragist tradition today. Like those who laid a life on the line so that others might vote.

We are also choosing to hobble our children, who then enter our body politic with simply incorrect ideas about who this nation is and how we got here, ideas that will lead them astray in a dangerous geopolitical future, and ideas that will make strangers of their fellow citizens, increasingly not the white protestants that MAGA keeps raging are the only “real Americans.” It’s worse, actually, than not having an accurate x-ray — laws like those passed in Florida, now just passed in Alabama, which Youngkin tried to install here — these mean to give our children fake x-rays, x-rays that say everything is alright, no broken bone here, why are you twisting in anguish? That’s why we fight to stand with teachers and librarians today.

So, I want to end with a great thank you. Because I see you all, fighting that fight as you organize and work for the future we can have. The work you do is not always visible — it may not be memorialized in the monuments of the future. When we inaugurate President Biden next January, it is not just his victory. It will also be your victory, and the victory of all the women all over the country who saw through the lies of MAGA, who chose to look with clear eyes at the past to see how we all really got there, who identified the broken bones, and said enough Band-aids, we can and we must do the real work to make a better future. And for that we are all so grateful.

Dr. Ivonne Wallace Fuentes, Roanoke College, is a distinguished professor of History with a focus on Latin American history, gender, and revolutionary movements. Her book “Most Scandalous Woman: Magda Portal and the Dream of Revolution in Peru,” is available on Amazon.)

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