Tag Archives: Susan Mendez

Women of Color and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)

May 14, 2012

By Susan Mendez

Photo by javacolleen on Flickr

Photo by javacolleen on Flickr

This past academic year, I have served as the Women Studies liaison to the Women’s Center on my university campus. In this capacity, I had the privilege of working with work-study students on a variety of issues, one of which being gender-based violence. The culmination of programming and events on this issue was our “Take Back the Night” rally in April. To prep for this event, the work-study students and I read “Domestic Violence Policy in the United States: Contemporary Issues” by Susan L. Miller and LeeAnn Iovanni, which brought our attention to the timely issue of the congressional debates surrounding the reauthorization of the “Violence Against Women Act” (VAWA).

The “Violence Against Women Act” was a federal law passed in 1994. It was groundbreaking at the time because it was national-scope recognition of the problem of gender-based violence; it acted as an agent of social change and had the large budget of $795 million dollars a year. It targeted underserved and rural populations and ultimately saved on future victimization costs over the years. It was renewed in 2000 and 2005 and consistently had congressional bipartisan support at all these times. Back in November 2011, the Act was up for reauthorization and this process started with a bipartisan bill written by Senators Michael D. Crapo, Republican of Idaho, and Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. The bill attracted fifty-eight sponsors including Republican Senators from Maine, Illinois, and Massachusetts. Although the new version of this Act passed the Senate on April 26, by a vote of 68 to 31, the House Republicans are not pleased with the Act as is and are drafting their own version that will be submitted for a vote at the House of Representatives level during this month.

So just what has made House Republicans so upset? The new version of the VAWA is ground-breaking yet again for it expands efforts to reach Native American lands and rural areas, increases the availability of free legal assistance to victims of domestic violence, expands the definition of domestic violence to include stalking, allows more battered “illegal” immigrants to claim temporary visas, and includes same-sex couples in programs for domestic violence. These very points that would rejuvenate the VAWA in its efforts to target underserved populations, one of its original goals, are the ones most objectionable. House Republicans believe the new VAWA unfairly expands immigration avenues by allowing “illegal” immigration survivors to claim battery, dilutes focus on domestic violence by expanding protections to new groups like same-sex couples, and fails to place safeguards to ensure domestic violence grants are well-spent. Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa phrased Republican opposition to this new version of the “Violence Against Women Act” best when he stated that this legislation “creates so many programs for underserved populations that it risks losing the focus on helping victims, period.” Other critics of the Senate-passed version of the VAWA explain that their reservations lie in the fact that the VAWA takes away from the state and local levels’ abilities and resources to address domestic violence; such efforts should not rest solely with Washington as this would go beyond constitutional limits. Lastly, a fear of fraud and abuse of the U.S. Immigration system is another specific reason for some to object to the Senate-passed version of the VAWA.

Needless to say, Democratic Senators and Representatives have come to defend the Senate version of VAWA and oppose the House-revised version of the VAWA, which strips away protections given to Native American women, the gay and lesbian community, and “illegal” immigrants who are battered. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and Representative John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, are just two Democrat congressional members who have labeled the House-revision of the VAWA as the latest evolution of the Republican War on Women, where rights and services provided to women are systemically being cut-back. Moreover, those active in the Native American community are taking issue with the House-revised version of the VAWA. According to Karla E. General and Robert T. Coulter’s “Violence Against Women Act: Overdue Justice for Native Women” in Indian Country Today, “Tribal Authority to prosecute non-Indians for crimes against tribal citizens was removed by the Supreme Court in 1978, creating an Indian country landscape where non-Indians violate Native women with impunity…. Because 77 percent of residents of Indian lands are non-Indian, and because 88 percent of these offenders are non-Indian, the long-standing jurisdictional loophole creates a human rights crisis where some of the most heinous crimes go unpunished solely because the victim is Native and was assaulted on an Indian reservation.” There is a desperate need to close this legal loophole on Native lands so as to ensure that those guilty of domestic violence are punished. Relying on federal and state law enforcement agencies in the past to prosecute these crimes has not worked well; General and Coulter assert that federal and state authorities have failed to properly address 67 percent of sexual abuse and related matters that are referred to them from Indian country.

Notably, the revision of the Senate-passed “Violence Against Women Act” does not honor its original goals: to be national in scope and to serve underrepresented populations who experience domestic violence. It appears to regard domestic violence as a crime that only happens to heterosexual, “legal” white women. Notions of wanting to handle the problem of domestic violence in a “clean” Act does not leave room for dealing with the “messy” intersectional aspects of life such as race, class, gender, legal status, and sexual orientation.

Thus, the ultimate fate of the “Violence Against Women Act” should be on the minds of all of us who deal with and care about the rights of women, especially women of color.

Susan Mendez is on the faculty at University of Scranton.


Mujeres Talk Moderator  June 2, 2012 at 6:10 AM

Thanks Susan for this update on where VAWA stands. You’ll be happy to know that the week of your post there were 311 visits to the page so many were interested in reading more about this!

Latinas/os in Film and Television?

March 19, 2012

By Susan Mendez    

            Another Oscar season has come and gone and for anyone interested in the representation of people of color in mainstream visual culture or the dramatic arts, it has been a disappointing season once again. This year, the talk was all about how The Help was the controversial film to watch. Yes, this movie did provide the only two African-American actors/actresses up for awards in this year’s Oscar season, but the reality is that the roles that they played were ones of domestic servants. And the larger reality is that The Help was most likely the best choice for finding meaty, starring roles for these actresses. African-American actors and actresses have long dealt with the challenge of making stereotypical near racist roles and stories compelling and worthwhile. This problematic position just highlights the lack of interesting, complex roles for African-American actors and actresses due to the economic reality of supply and demand. Stereotypical stories of hardship are what people will pay to see; thus, they are what movie production companies will financially back. Recently, the backstory on the difficulties that George Lucas had in getting his movie RedTails made became public knowledge as part of the publicity for this film. Red Tails, not the first movie to honor the Tuskegee Airmen and featuring a near-all African-American cast, still faced so many obstacles in production that not even having the name George Lucas attached to the project was enough to get investors. Finally, Lucas became the main financial backer himself. Yet, with all these very public and well-known problems facing the African-American community in getting proper representation in the mainstream visual culture or the dramatic arts, I cannot help but think that the Latina/o community has much work to do even to get to this public and problematic stage in the world of mainstream visual culture.      

            When I think of recent mainstream films that highlight the Latina/o experience in the United States, I come up with a very short list. This is possibly because I do not get to teach visual cultural texts often in my classes so the impetus to keep abreast of the latest films is not great in my work. Also, I live and work in a relatively small and not so-diverse town so even just flipping through the local news or arts paper will not keep me up-to-date on Latina/o film. The latest mainstream film related to the Latina/o experience that I can remember was the release of the action parody Machete (2010) with its very clear political commentary on the immigration issue. But other than that film, in the recent past, these are the films that I can recall: QuinceañeraAngel RodriguezWashington HeightsRaising Victor VargasA Day Without a Mexican, El Cantante, Maid in ManhattanGirlfightSelena, Mi Vida LocaThree Burials of Melquiades EstradaPiñero, LonestarAmerican MeMi FamiliaStar Maps, SalsaLa BambaBorn in East L.A., Stand and Deliver, El Norte, and Zoot Suit. These are the movies that I can remember either easily seeing in the theatres or getting a copy of at a local store; this is not meant to be a comprehensive list at all. But even in this sampling of mainstream films that highlight the Latina/o experience in the United States, one can see two patterns: the emphasis on the Chicana/o community in the southwest and the Dominican/Puerto Rican communities in the northeast and the general lack of commercial and/or critical success.  The end result is a grouping of films that do not cover the diversity of the Latina/o community in the United States and that are not successful in any common measurable way. Yet, this discussion, this well-founded lament for complex and diverse roles and stories for the Latina/o community is not as public as it is for African-American community. Why is this so? Furthermore, few recent Oscar seasons have included Latina/o actors, actresses, or films that focus on the Latina/o experience in the United States, with the notable exception of Demián Bichir’s Best Actor nomination this year for A Better Life. It seems that we as a community are behind in having these significant discussions, questions, and concerns brought into the public light. Independent film endeavors and projects are fantastic and worthwhile in getting more critical representations of the Latina/o community circulating, but it is important not to undervalue mainstream visual culture. This is the arena in which various representations of the Latina/o community are easily proliferated and become accessible. This arena includes the world of television but even here, the number and variety of shows and roles that feature Latinas/os and their stories have been disappointing. Television shows such as I Love Lucy, Chico and the ManI Married DoraResurrection BoulevardGeorge LopezCane, and Ugly Betty have been pivotal in gaining representation for Latinas/os, but these stories, for the most part, do not stray far from familiar tales of exotic entertainment or hardshipThe majority of the United States population learns of the different communities within this nation from the world of television and mainstream film. Therefore, the same questions and concerns that dominate the African-American community in the realm of visual culture need to have a central and public presence for the Latina/o community as well.      

Susan Mendez is on the faculty of the University of Scranton and serves as an At-Large Representative of MALCS. 


Mujeres Talk Moderator  June 2, 2012 at 6:38 AM

Your blog essay is a also a resource on Latina/o film and television programs. Has anyone written about Resurrection Boulevard? It was a fascinating drama that provided Elizabeth Peña with a meaty part.