The Mexican-born American activist Martha Cotera (born 1938) was one of the pioneers of the Latin American feminist movement in the United States. Although she first became known for her grassroots activism, she has kept an eye on the future, working to strengthen bilingual education programs and also as founder of Austin, Texas's Chicana Research and Learning Center.
American activist Martha Cotera was present at the founding of several important feminist organizations at a time when feminism had a limited presence in Latin American communities. An influential Chicana (Mexican-American) author, she was one of six women featured in a documentary titled Las Mujeres de la Caucus Chicana, which recounts the experiences of Chicana participants in the 1977 National Women's Conference. These efforts led to the increased political participation of Latin American women and Latin Americans in general, in Texas and beyond. Active for many years as an educator, Cotera is the author of several books.
Cotera was born Martha Piña in Nuevo Casas Grandes, Mexico, in the state of Chihuahua, on January 7, 1938. She was raised mostly by her mother, Santagracia Valdez Martinez (who later used the surname Catano or Castaños), and her grandparents, Don Miguel Valdez Martinez and Doña Romanita Martinez de Valdez Martinez. Cotera's father abandoned the family when she was two years old, crossing the U.S. border to work in California. Her grandparents exerted a strong influence on her, instilling in her the beginnings of a political orientation. As Cotera told Mary Ann Villarreal in a contribution to Las Obreras: Chicana Politics of Work and Family, her grandparents “were very revolutionized…. My grandfather taught me to read when I was four. Being a revolutionary and a progressive, he became a preacher. He was a very progressive person, so he converted to Protestantism. That was the progressive thing to do in the thirties.”
Cotera's mother moved with her two daughters to El Paso, Texas, in 1946, but Cotera continued to visit her grandparents in Mexico during the summer months. Her mother's background in Mexico had been middle class, and she worked 16 hours a day in a clothing factory so that her children could grow up in a middle-class neighborhood in El Paso. Cotera and her younger sister went to school “starched, ironed, and curled,” as she recalled to Villarreal, and the family placed a high value on education. Good grades were not a problem for Cotera, who was still an enthusiastic reader. She won a reading prize worth $166 and maintained a perfect attendance record through the seventh grade. Despite facing taunting from several Mexican-American children, Cotera learned English quickly, skipped two grades, and impressed her teachers in elementary school.
Inspired by Mexican writers Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez and Elena Vicarro, whose books her grandparents had encouraged her to read, Cotera dreamed of a career as a writer. Journalism seemed the most direct route to this goal, but while attending Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso), she became dissatisfied with the journalism program. She majored instead in English, with a minor in history, and graduated in 1962. The following year she married U.S. Air Force veteran and architecture student Juan Cotera. As a couple, the Coteras worked their way through college, Martha as a librarian, and the partnership was one of equals. “We were probably one of the first totally modern marriages,” Cotera later recalled to Villarreal. “It didn't start out that way, but it became that way very early, because I was just like a total bitch. He tried to put on some real reactionary stuff on me, and I just always responded in a joke. I always made him see how silly it was. He became very supportive.”
The supportive nature of their relationship became important after the Coteras had their first child in 1964 and Martha started to divide her time between working and continuing her education. After the couple moved to Austin, she got a job in a local library, and in 1964 she was hired as director of documents and information at the Texas State Library. In 1968 Cotera advanced to director of the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. Experiencing discrimination in Austin, including from the city's police force, helped fuel Cotera's growing sense of injustice and her determination to combat it.
In 1964, the Coteras co-founded Texans for Educational Advancement for Mexican Americans (TEAMS), which established a network of sympathetic educators across the state. This group was one of the moving forces behind the 1970 founding of Jacinto Treviño College, an activist school with the mission of educating Mexican Americans. That same year the couple moved to the Mexican border city of Mercedes to teach at the school, which entered into an agreement with Antioch College of Ohio to help them offer a master's degree program training teachers for bilingual education programs. Cotera enrolled in this program, earning her M.A. in 1971 while also setting up the school's library. Disagreements among the staff eventually caused Jacinto Treviño College to split into smaller entities; one of them became Austin's Juarez-Lincoln University.
The activists who converged on Crystal City at this time formed the nucleus of La Raza Unida, an organization and soon a political party. In 1970 Cotera attended the organization's first meeting, held in San Antonio. La Raza Unida fielded candidates for governor and lieutenant governor of Texas in 1972, getting more than 6 percent of the vote, and also competed for lower-level offices: Cotera ran for a state board of education seat. She was, as she recalled to Villarreal, “a very reluctant candidate. My son was eight months old. I had to train him to hand out literature.” Still, she received 28 percent of the vote. La Raza Unida elected several candidates at the county level before fracturing and dissolving in the late 1970s; one point of tension was the role of women within the organization, and Cotera was active for a time in a subgroup called Mujeres de la Raza Unida, or Women of la Raza Unida.
By the time of her board of education campaign, Cotera and her husband had moved to Crystal City, and she became director of the city's library while Juan was hired as its urban renewal director. The couple also served on the faculty of Jacinto Treviño College until 1975. During her time in Crystal City, Cotera compiled and published the Educator's Guide to Chicano Resources. By the second half of the 1970s, they had returned to Austin, where Cotera founded Information Systems Development (ISD), a company involved in both publishing and consulting. In the years since, ISD has published a bilingual Austin Hispanic Directory as well as other practical volumes, and it has been featured in an issue of Texas Business magazine.
Cotera has also used ISD as the publisher of her histories and her pedagogical works. Her most widely known books include Diosa y Hembra: The History and Heritage of Chicanas in the U.S. (1976) and The Chicana Feminist (1977); others include Chicanas in Public Life (1975) and Doña Doormat No Estâ Aquí: An Assertiveness and Communications Skills Manual for Hispanic Women (1984). Cotera has also issued several volumes of curriculum-related and educational training material. Diosa y Hembra is thought to have been the first survey devoted to the history of Mexican-American women.
During her career, Cotera has also been involved with creating other pioneering feminist organizations and was an early member of the Texas Women's Political Caucus and the National Women's Political Caucus. She participated in the 1977 National Women's Conference in Houston, Texas, and her role there was later spotlighted in the documentary film Las Mujeres de la Caucus Chicana. In 1980 Cotera co-founded the organization Mexican American Business and Professional Women in Austin.
Cotera and her husband continued to live in Austin and have remained politically active. She has worked as a special staff consultant in the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas Library, has taught history at Austin Community College, and conducts workshops addressing topics such as gender equality and information access for community groups. Cotera was profiled in the 2009 film A Crushing Love: Chicanas, Motherhood and Activism.
Ruiz, Vicki L., editor, Las Obreras: Chicana Politics of Work and Family, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, 2000, pp. 273–295.
University of Texas Library website, http://www.lib.utexas.edu/ (August 6, 2016), “Martha Cotera.”❑