Island Feminism

Noralis Rodriguez-Coss, Ph.D.

June 23, 2021
Kate Vanskike, Gonzaga Magazine Editor

From Gonzaga Magazine's Summer 2021 feature, "A Critical Eye on Gender & Power Dynamics" 

Spotlight: Noralis Rodríguez-Coss, Ph.D. | Assistant Professor, Women’s & Gender Studies

It was a fortuitous encounter that stirred curiosity about women’s studies as a discipline in Puerto-Rican born-and-raised Noralis Rodríguez-Coss. As she completed her undergrad degree in office administration at the University of Puerto Rico, the National Science Foundation (NSF) on campus needed a coordinator for grant-funded efforts to support the advancement of women in science.

“When we brought a professor to talk about women in science, Dr. Ángela B. Ginorio, I noticed that she was a professor in women’s studies. I didn’t know that was actually a field. I told her, ‘I want to work with you. I want to do this.’”

The next step was pursuing a master’s at Southern Connecticut State University and eventually to University of Washington for a Ph.D.

Naturally, her specific research interests lay in Puerto Rican women’s issues, in hopes of beginning to answer the questions she’d had as a young girl about why men and women were viewed and treated so differently.

What did you learn about women in the sciences?

One time while working at the NSF, we were trying to explain why we have so many women – there’s a huge representation, like 60%, in science, but mostly in biology. These women were not going to graduate school because that meant that they would have to do research, and research might require them to do late night research in a laboratory,  for that they needed permission from their parents because this is a cultural practice that many families follow in Puerto Rico. If you’re a “respectable” woman, you’re not late at night outside of your house. So we found that professors have to negotiate with parents and assure them that they are not alone in the lab, for example.

Our program actually helped with those kinds of negotiations, including offering research during the day to students and also to female faculty in sciences. Creating these spaces of possibilities opened a window for female students to go to graduate school.

What led you to choose research on violence toward women’s bodies?

When I was in college, just a few miles from the campus where I studied, a very violent crime happened in which a woman was tortured for hours and eventually her vagina was burned. She survived and was able to identify the three men that did this to her. One of them was obsessed with her, and she hadn’t been responding to his advances.

It had such an impact on me that I started questioning why this happens to women’s bodies, because there is so much symbolism in burning a vagina, in torturing a woman’s body just for being a woman. And the fact that there was so much silence around the topic on campus, that it was so normalized, that people were not reacting in the same way that I was.

It was so passionate to me that I went all the way through Ph.D. trying to answer those questions.

Did you find the answer you wanted?

I think I found a way to articulate potential answers. I think it doesn’t have one answer; it’s not as simple as that. It’s complicated with historical contexts of how womanhood is socially constructed, and how women’s bodies have been historically targeted by colonial and neocolonial projects.

I cannot explain the case of this woman in particular if we don’t include the history of colonialism in Puerto Rico, if we don’t examine a society that is highly heterocompulsive and patriarchal, and other larger processes that are shaping general perceptions about women’s bodies and their lives.

At the time, I decided to look at street performances in which women are denouncing gender-based violence using their bodies, using body painting, using silhouettes on the floor when a person is killed, to make visible these women’s personhood, in order to stop the normalization of these cases. That was kind of the other side of the story, how women are not letting themselves be defined by these colonial narratives of themselves as weak, or as always available for sex or targets of abuse. Women are using their bodies to fight for their rights. They are also raising intersectional questions and public discussions about racism, about classism in relationship to heterosexism.

As you dug into that, what was the response of fellow islanders?

I think it has been significant for many feminist activists in Puerto Rico to see how I am analyzing their work, but I also write from an academic perspective, and sometimes that can be a limitation to reach out to more people. I try to use this as a medium to make their work visible, but also to legitimize how they theorize and how they practice that theory, which helps me not to romanticize their work. It’s seeing feminist activists as redefining who we are as a society, and building a different life for women and for men in the island, for everybody.

But, academia is not necessarily readable for the people that I’m trying to make visible, and that is one of my frustrations. It’s important to me for my mom to read my work, but she doesn't speak English, and so I struggle with these identities of being a scholar activist in that sense. I aspire to publish more in Spanish, in a way that still articulates what I'm trying to say academically and also is readable for people that are not in academia – that's a challenge.

How receptive are people to the discussion of colonialism’s impact?

When you talk about colonialism in Puerto Rico, it becomes very divisive. I tend to be very careful when I address these issues because it’s hard for many people to see the connections between colonialism and heteropatriarchy without assuming one is from a specific political party whether that is those that pursue statehood, or the continuation of the commonwealth, or to be independent. I confess that sometimes it is easier to communicate feminist issues separate from Puerto Rico’s political status, when talking with my family, for example. Talking to them has really helped me to understand the many decisions that my dad and my mom made based on what they knew in terms of gender roles and their social location in Puerto Rico as a working class family. Nevertheless, I find it easier to articulate the discussion of colonialism and how it affects women and other historically marginalized communities through my writing and teaching. Why? I am not sure, but it must be the training one receive as academic and the privilege position that professorship entails.

How do you see your own students grappling with those family conversations?

As soon as students come to my introduction class and start thinking critically, they analyze their family relationships almost immediately. They think about who they are as human beings, their role in reproducing oppression such as racism or sexism, etc. And they start having conversations about feminism with their parents, questioning how they were raised.

I tend to be very clear when they question decisions they parent made while raising them: Parents tend to raise children with the information they knew. Students began to read critical works addressing parenting in a patriarchal society, where children are understood as property, and how women tend to be the ones that pass on patriarchal beliefs. I try to also help students see this questioning as a privilege, because they are also accessing information and a space to think about these issues that their parents not necessarily had. An so, with this perspective they learn they can make a difference within their families (in not reproducing sexist beliefs, for example) and have a better understanding of their own realities.

What is the Island Feminism Project you help lead?

This is in collaboration that began in 2016, when I was trying to articulate how to talk about feminist activism in Puerto Rico using feminist studies theory. I found this piece based on indigenous island studies that made me think ‘island feminism might be the thing I’m trying to put together here.’ I searched the term in the Internet and found a professor in Hawai’i who was teaching a class on island feminism, Marina Karides. I contacted her and now we are collaborators.

This project is a space for scholars and activists to engage in conversations in island and feminist studies to spark collaborations and interdisciplinary dialogue on social justice for islands and islanders. Right now, we are doing a virtual series with eight speakers mostly interested in islands in the Pacific. We are also proposing a special issue in an academic journal. From my part, my dedicate my research to uncover islands knowledge of feminist and cultural resistance supporting their existence and preserving local and global practices. My goal is to advance transnational feminist pedagogies and praxes that can lead to new ways of articulation and actions that address gender, racial, and class inequality and discrimination in island geographies as a worldwide site of social crisis.  

Tell us about a time you learned about Puerto Rico from a new lens. 

I was living in Puerto Rico, still in college, when I met a group of Nuyoricans – that is, Puerto Ricans living in New York who were born and raised in New York. There has been a tension between those in the island those in New York: Who is really the Puerto Rican, what is more legitimate?

These Nuyoricans were adults visiting the island, some of them for their first time. We took a boat from the mainland to Vieques, an island municipality of Puerto Rico, for the weekend, and it is the first time I’m exposed to Puerto Rican-identified people that have never been to Puerto Rico. They knew much more about the history of the island than me, saw the island with so much love and in a way that I never have questioned before. I remember prior to this being exposed to poetry written by Puerto Ricans about loving the motherland, and really not feeling that connection. It was not until I met them that I saw Puerto Rico from a different perspective, and I felt betrayed, never seeing all of the stories that we had been denied to know in our public school system. Since that moment I started thinking about Puerto Rico differently.

There are these narratives that we learn living in an island that make us see ourselves as isolated, as small, as poor, that I didn't find until I read Epeli Hau'ofa’s “Our Sea of Islands” in 2016, where he talks about how the ocean has been seen by indigenous people as something that connect islands. But colonizers began to create narratives about islands as separated territories that were too small, too isolated, too poor, in order to keep them away from centers of power. It is the same narrative that I was completely reproducing when I talked about Puerto Rico – that we were too isolated, backwards, too small. I kept reproducing that ‘too small’ narrative until I read that piece. Being exposed to various perspective can transform us significantly, in this case, my identification as a Puerto Rican woman.

See research by Sara Díaz on women's health in "Fat Zebra"