Lisa Treviño Roy-Davis

January 2000

This paper was originally presented at:
The Modern Language Association Meeting
December 29, 1999
Chicago, IL

Working Race: Speech, Silence and Women's Work as Racial Politics in Denise Chávez and Ana Castillo

     Large family dinners often bring tense moments. This past Thanksgiving at my in-laws was a bit more strained than normal, since my father-in-law recently remarried after my mother-in-law's death. But for me, the precariousness of the new family situation paled in comparison with the moment when my new mother-in-law announced during Thanksgiving dinner that she had been very impressed with the Mexican workers their building contractor had hired to help build her new house. "They are such good workers," she proclaimed with grave seriousness. "Efficient, quiet, diligent, and willing to do difficult tasks. You just don't often see those kinds of hardworking people any more " She let her sentence trail off, and my stomach jumped into my throat. What was my responsibility here? Should I launch into my racial stereotypes that perpetuate racial thinking speech? Bite my tongue and keep eating? I glanced uncomfortably at my husband whose face indicated he knew my thoughts already. Not to be left out, her daughter then chimed in on how she had noticed this too, since her husband had hired Mexicans in his contracting business. When my new mother-in-law glanced at me for reassurance on her proclamation, I was only able to squeak out "Well, I'm Mexican " and my voice trailed off, betraying, I was sure, my inner turmoil. Both mother and daughter fell silent and glanced uneasily at me and then the conversation moved elsewhere.

     Aside from the startling realiszation that stereotypical racialized thinking is alive and well in my newly extended family--I keep returning to this holiday moment as a window into the problem of how racism and sexism are perpetuated in the workplace and on the job. By now, the assumption that we live in a racist society is nearly implicit in academic thought, even taken for granted. We've gotten to this point by a definite increase in racial awareness--more speech and more rhetoric on the race issue. But we are also subjected to constant reminders from the press about how far we have come. Even mainline publications such as this week's issue of Newsweek declare the war on racism to be largely won. Ellis Cose, writing for the magazine declares:

The color line is fraying all around us. The American future certainly will not be circumscribed by one long line with whites on one side and the "darker" races on the other; there will be many lines, and many camps, and few will be totally segregated. Disparities will remain. But with the rudest reminders of racism washed away, it will be a lot easier to tell ourselves that we have finally overcome. (30)

But when my new mother-in-law made her announcement at the Thanksgiving table, I went back to wondering about who is really listening. What was most revealing to me about her comment was how impervious this supposed increased racial awareness had been on her thinking (it had obviously had zero effect) -- and by extension, to the many people similar to her. After all, it's not that large of a leap from her mentality to the manager of the local Denny's. But the other aspect of this occurrence that has since bothered me was my partial silence in the face of an overtly racist statement. Racism breeds silences--and as my Thanksgiving experience indicated, if we continue to think we have dealt with the most devastating effects of the problem, then racism moves into these silences where its effects are more likely to be overlooked. Thus, my Thanksgiving experience has opened for me a new dynamic worth exploring in literature and classrooms -- the changing and evolving appearance of racism in the workplace, on the job, and the silences it inhabits.

     The workplace is a particularly noxious environment for racist rhetoric to occur for two main reasons. First, the inherent power dynamic of the supervisor versus the supervised is already in place with its attendant difficulties. Thus, when racism happens in this power structure, it always tips that relationship more definitely to the side with the most power--usually toward the one in the supervisory role already--and this imbalance of power often wreaks disastrous results. It is important to note here that this imbalance in power through racism may occur even when the two positions are not held by completely different races--the power structure in this dynamic has more to do with privilege in the dominant culture than opposition between races. Secondly, racialized rhetoric on the job is often harder to identify since overtly racist statements are not always present as an identifying factor. What Cose argues in Newsweek is that as a society, we've become more aware of overt racism and have become more adept at stigmatizing those who are obviously racist. But racism on the job is not always overt, since as a culture, we've learned to be more subversive and less implicit in our racist remarks. Overt racism on the job gets recorded as 'evidence,' and is used against the offender. With more racially motivated incidents occurring below the radar of obviousness, racist rhetoric on the job has become much more tricky to pinpoint and overcome. Instead, it often has more to do with job type, available benefits, chances for advancement and the circumstances that led that individual to take the job in the first place. What the novels and stories of Ana Castillo and Denise Chávez reveal about the effects of racism in this particular power dynamic is that women (in this case, Mexican women) are not only susceptible to racialized speech in the workplace--their lives are materially and specifically affected by it. Two of Chávez's characters--Rocio Esquibel from the story Last of the Menu Girls and Soveida Dosamantes in her novel Face of an Angel as well as Fe in Ana Castillo's novel So Far From God--are negatively affected by racialized workplace rhetoric and silences.

     Fe, in Ana Castillo's So Far From God is the starkest example of how racialized rhetoric on the job affects women specifically. Fe's speech is indelibly marked by her long episode of screaming after her novio abandons her and their marriage plans early on in the book. After she quits screaming and resumes her place in life, her speech patterns are marked by a consistent absence of sound--represented by a sequence of blanks sprinkled among her spoken words--suggesting that there are places and moments when her voice just 'gives out' or is not heard. But since her family still understands her, she does not comprehend how deeply her speech problem has affected her life until she realizes it is keeping her from becoming successful at work. After working for years at the savings and loan institution in Tome, Fe suddenly realizes that she is getting nowhere in her job. Castillo writes:

Fe considered herself the steady and dedicated worker type, always giving her one hundred percent to the job, even when she was passed up twice for promotion at the bank and remained in New Accounts without so much as a prospect to get a real raise. What she was finally told was that although the company did not want to discriminate against her "handicap," her irregular speech really did not lend itself to working with the public. "What do __ mean, handi___?" she asked the manager but was only advised to go to speech therapy and that was that. (177)

While race here would only seem to serve as an intensification factor for Fe's inability to climb the corporate ladder, the issue of advancement is deflected from where it probably lies--her race and sex--to her most obvious impediment; she can't be understood, therefore she doesn't advance. Literally, the silences in her speech patterns are the most objectionable to her employer. Fe then takes action into her own hands, quitting her bank job for one at the industrial corporation Acme International where she's promised extra pay for being willing to take on difficult tasks and work hard. Castillo doesn't mince words about Fe's tenure at Acme, noting before even relating the complete story that it was this job "that killed her" (170).

     Fe's time at Acme is marked by a steady downward progression in the types of jobs that she's assigned to handle. With each job she agrees to--cleaning parts with suspicious fluids, being relegated to the depths of the company to scrub parts with a solution her boss calls 'ether,' and enduring the long hours of time alone, her health worsens. She suffers a miscarriage, ringing in her ears, and a suspicious odor of glue clings to her. But what is most striking about her steady progression towards her death from her job is the attitude of her superiors. When she asks the foreman about the feasibility of working with 'ether' and avoiding unconsciousness when using it, he answers "with a bit of a smile as if as usual a subordinate was asking a stupid question" (182). The foreman also becomes indignant when Fe doesn't dispose of the toxic chemical as she should. "He instructed her then, like she was stupid instead of having only been following the order given by all the other supervisors," the narrator notes (185). Although Castillo doesn't give us the content of the supervisor's speech to Fe on disposing of the substance, it's not hard to project what types of language the lecture might have contained.

     While Fe's time at Acme is marked by her steadily worsening working conditions, the other striking fact about her existence there is the lack of information she receives regarding the hazardous materials and fluids she uses in her work. This absence of information--a highly racialized form of silence--is undoubtedly connected to the inherent patriarchal bias against women in the workplace as well as Fe's race and position in society. Working women of color feel this bias most acutely--Fe even dies as a result of it--since racial rhetoric impacts their lives more openly and often blatantly shapes the attitudes and demeanor of their employers. While Fe's death is the strongest evidence for how her life is materially and specifically affected by her job, one shouldn't overlook the fact that by being trapped in this position, her potential as a complete citizen and societal participant has been denied largely due to her race and sex.

     Denise Chávez presents a less obvious, though more nuanced picture of how race often traps women in degrading jobs in her book Face of an Angel. The narrative follows the life of Soveida Dosamantes, a waitress at the Mexican restaurant El Farol, in the border town of Agua Oscura. Soveida's waitressing career starts accidentally at age 15 when she agrees to a job while merely accompanying her cousin to the restaurant for an interview. As time goes by and she finds herself unable to leave and break away from the routine of her work, the job becomes an integral part of her identity and her co-workers become her family. But no matter how well the boss says he treats her--and his meddling in his workers lives reaches quite high levels--the atmosphere of racial tension and privileging through the dominant culture is still charged and apparent just below the surface of the action. For example, just a few days after the boss, Larry Larragoite, takes over daily operations from his wife who leaves to pursue other interests, Soveida corrects Larry's pronunciation of the word empanada. She notes to him that Preddie Pacheco the dishwasher has slyly thrown Larry's pronunciation off on purpose in order to make Larry look ignorant. The way Larry's been pronouncing it, empinada (or empinarse) really means "to squat" in the New Mexican dialect, Soveida explains. Larry explodes:

Dammit Soveida! Here Preddie Pacheco the dishwasher, that little prick, had me calling them empinadas for so long! Some Spanish tutor! Never trust a dishwasher, that's what I say. What do you expect from a Mexican who washes dishes for a living? Shit! The food slush is part of his brain already. But it isn't only the food slush, it's more than that. It's the years of food slush, years of soapy, watery congested dreams. In fact, whatever dreams the guy must have had, probably still has, are floating in front of him, suspended in that filmy, greasy, reddish-colored water that clogs and traps him. The problem is that Preddie Pacheco is definitely what my mother would call a Mexican Mexican. (150).

Here, Larry's outburst is technically not directed at Soveida, since in this case she is the one to set him straight on an important issue. In fact, the racial dynamics of the situation are complicated even more by the fact that Larry is himself of Mexican descent. But his light skin features and privileged upbringing have afforded him a position of power that he clearly uses to his advantage. Through this comment and Larry's general behavior towards his employees--at one point he even demands that they write their wills and file a copy with him in order to keep their jobs--the power hierarchy of boss versus employee is clearly evident and distinctly manipulated by Larry.

     But Soveida's response to Larry is even more telling. After Larry finishes, Soveida can only say "Jesus, Larry! What's your problem?" and the chapter ends. In the face of this racial diatribe from her superior, Soveida is rendered silent, reduced to only trying to deflect the issue back onto her boss by asking what his problem is. Once again, racial constructs and overt racism conspire to silence Soveida. She is prevented from expressing her real feelings through the inequity of the power division between them. Instead, she must continue doing her job, reaping her portion of identity and well-being while knowing that her boss harbors racist tendencies and feelings towards her and his other employees. While Larry's outburst flashes racism, it's in the silence after the outburst that the real damage from racism flourishes and grows.

     In her work Violence, Silence and Anger: Women's Writing as Transgression, Deirdre Lashgari considers the natural progression from violence to anger in women who have had to bear unjust living conditions, abuse from partners and life-changing silences. There is a progression, she argues, from bearing the abuse to becoming angry at it, and the main catalyst in this change is the silence that women endure as a part of this cycle (11). One further example will serve to prove this point. In Chávez's short story "The Last of the Menu Girls." Rocío Esquibel is literally the last of the menu girls, hospital workers who take the patients' food orders. Her tenure in this position comes at the tail end of the current system of having an employee go to each patient's room to find out what food they want for the day, and then delivering those orders to her superior in his basement office. The job often requires her to endure humiliating situations--the patients often take their frustration and anger at their own conditions out on her, since she is a convenient target. Rocío endures this part of her work with the requisite muteness and respect required of her, but her job takes its toll on her ability to perceive herself as someone with value. One day, while sharing tea with her friend Arlene, Arlene announces she's leaving for another job. Rocío instantly feels bad, since Arlene is the only one who ever complimented her at work. In the conversation that follows Arlene's announcement, Arlene asks:

"You never get angry, do you?" she said admiringly.
"Rarely," I said. But inside, I was always angry.
"What do you want to do?" (34).

While Rocio's stated answer to Arlene is that she wants to major in drama, she thinks to herself "I want to be someone else, somewhere else, someone important and responsible and sexy" (34). Rocio's anger develops as a clear symptom of her enforced silence in a position that demands subservience, self-sacrifice and complicity. It was the only job she could get at the hospital, and the resulting silence it demands has clearly changed her and her perceptions of herself.

     In his article "On the Rhetoric and Precedents of Racism" Victor Villanueva notes that more speech and rhetoric on racist issues doesn't necessarily mean that more people are listening. In fact, as one of his students notes during a departmental meeting on racism and racist rhetoric in the system, "if one is constantly speaking but is never heard, never truly heard, there is, in effect, silence, a silencing" (653). It is these silences that still remain despite more speech and speechifying about racism that should concern us as academics and learners in this system. More speech on racism might leave less room for silences and lead us to believe that more people are listening and understanding. But it is still in those silences where racism still blooms and flourishes.


Works Cited

Castillo, Ana. So Far From God. New York: Plume Books, 1993.

Chávez, Denise. The Last of the Menu Girls. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1986.

---. Face of an Angel. New York: Warner Books, 1994.

Cose, Ellis. "Our New Look: The Colors of Race." Newsweek. 01 Jan. 2000: 28-30.

Lashgari, Deirdre. Violence, Silence and Anger: Women's Writing as Transgression. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Villanueva, Victor. "On the Rhetoric and Precedents of Racism." The Journal on the Conference on College Composition and Communication. 50 (1999): 645-61.

Buy works by these authors:

| Home | Fiction | Listserv | Creative Archives | Scholarly Archives |
| Book Review Archives | Critical Essays | Contribute | Search the Site |

Contact Us