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Luis Valdez’ Actos and El Teatro Campesino

In 1965, Luis Valdez ushered in a new movement of civil rights protest with his formation of El Teatro Campesino, or the Farmworkers’ Theatre. Valdez’ theatre movement served as the cultural ambassador to Cesar Chávez’ civil rights activism by creating actos and performing them for other farmworkers in an attempt to bolster the strength of the union.

El Teatro Campesino was a troupe of striking farmworkers who performed brief actos, or commedia dell’arte-style sketches as a form of agit-prop theatre. This was a political theatre firmly based on improvisations of socio-political issues of the time. Nothing was traditional about this movement; these were Mexican-American/Chicano farmworkers who were eager to develop theatrical statements about their condition in an effort to ignite change.

On the surface, actos are essentially skits, but they transcend the simplicity of skits due to their social justice background. Valdez states, “We could have called them ‘skits,’ but we lived and talked in San Joaquín Spanish so we needed a name that name sense to the Raza.” Valdez’ actos were for the people by the people created to both educate and entertain. Its roots are in Bertolt Brecht’s lehrstucke (learning pieces) and agit-prop theatre of revolutionary Russia. Chicanos had issues that need to be expressed and the acto was the most efficient way to make a political statement and demonstrate the growing dissatisfaction with the status quo in the United States.

According to Valdez, the 5 goals of the acto are:

  1. Inspire the audience to social action
  2. Illuminate specific points about social problems
  3. Satirize the opposition
  4. Show or hint at a solution
  5. Express what people are thinking

Perhaps most notable is that the actos were created primarily through improvisation based on the experiences of the participants. Therefore, there was hardly a distinction between the worker and the actor; they were one in the same. By utilizing the personal experiences and stories of the workers, El Teatro Campesino was capable of creating theatre that accurately reflected its participants and audience. Valdez affirms, “In a Mexican way, we have discovered what Brecht is all about. If you want unbourgeois theater, find unbourgeois people to do it.” This aspect helped the Teatro to be more effective.

The acto in its most basic form only needs 2 characters and a conflict – information about who they are, where they are, and what they are doing. The conflict is the essential element that is necessary; through the acto, the participants seek a solution to the conflict. The actos worked to expose the problems of Chicano/Mexican-American workers. For decades, if not centuries, they had been an important workforce in the United States, especially in California. Far too often, their struggles had gone unnoticed or ignored. The Chicano Teatro Movement sought to eradicate their absence from history by giving the group voice. El Teatro Campesino marked the birth of the contemporary Chicano Theatre Movement and inspired other similar groups to follow their lead and illustrate the problems surrounding the farm workers.

El Teatro Campesino would travel around California and perform their actos at farms, fields, college campuses, churches, theaters, and community halls in an effort to create a cathartic experience for theatergoers.

Book Review: Thirty an’ Seen a Lot – Evangelina Vigil

Evangelina Vigil was one of the first writers to offer an intimate perspective of daily life in a Chicano barrio/neighborhood. This unique viewpoint is seen in her poetic series of barrio snapshots, Thirty an’ Seen a Lot. First of all, I love the title and picture of Vigil on the cover. It says it all. She is a confident Chicana decolonizing Hispanic women formerly seen as passive wives and girlfriends. The neon sign reads “Ladies Welcome,” inviting Vigil’s audience to join her and break free of patriarchal social constraints.

Thirty an’ Seen a Lot, published in 1982 by Arte Público Press, is a collection of bilingual poetry written during the years she lived in Houston, San Antonio, and Galveston. Subsequently, it demonstrates her growth and evolution as a poet. The principle themes of the work include daily life in the barrio, criticism of machismo, and the culture of the working class.

Notably, Vigil, as a poet, occupies a place formerly dominated by her male counterparts during the height of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Through her poetry, she is able to impose herself on Chicano Culture and take over a space typically reserved for men. She inverts stereotypical gender roles by embodying an aggressive persona. She acts, demands, orders, speaks, and decides; she is active.

One of my favorite poems from the collection is por la calle Zarzamora. This poem is well representative of Vigil’s active and aggressive style of poetry; she fully occupies the domain typically closed-off to Chicana women.

                entro a una cantina

                y como ciega busco mi lugar

                eso es muy importante

                luego ordeno una cerveza

                y me acomodo

After ordering her beer, she goes on to describe her fellow bar-goers: “los batos y señores.” Her presence here is completely normal and accepted by the male majority.

                y de rato a mi presencia se acostumbran

                y siguen con su onda natural

While Vigil breaks traditional feminine stereotypes, thus forcing her audience to question traditional Chicana femininity itself, the poem includes two other women who seem to typify a more stereotypical version of Hispanic women. Nevertheless, it appears that Vigil is celebrating who these women embody. She writes:

                entran por la puerta dos mujeres

                muy arregladas –

                o como decían más antes, bien ‘jitis’

                con olores de perfume

                y de aqua net hairspray:

                pues, se ven bien

Rather than relegate these women to second-tier status behind her own confidence existence, Vigil presents these women as strong ones. In fact, when a man hits on these women and offers them a drink, they kindly decline his offer. Similarly to ¡es todo!, Vigil is able to create a snapshot through her poetic language. In 30 or so lines of poetry, she paints a complete portrait of this particular aspect of life in the barrio while breaking down gendered stereotypes about who a Chicana woman is and can become.

Evangelina Vigil represents one of the many Chicana voices that emerged during the 1980s in a movement to include women in the greater Chicano Movement. Women such as Vigil, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Norma Alarcón, Sandra Cisneros, Carla Trujillo, etc. revolutionized the way we looked at the Chicano Nation. No longer was this a male dominated, exclusive patriarchy. While there still remains issues of sexism and inequality to this day, these women paved the way for other Chicanas to have agency and voice. This is a history that is still being written today. Writers Gwendolyn Zepeda, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, and Josefina López, among others, are still working on decolonizing Chicana women and including “her” story in “his” story (history).

To German Grammar or not to German Grammar?

To German grammar or not to German grammar? I have been constantly asking myself this question since I amped up my Deutsch lernen this summer. The grammar question always seems to come up in language learning circles. Even though I always stress Spanish grammar in my classes, I do believe that my students don’t need to possess excellent grammar to be understood in Spanish. Sure, they need to understand it to perform well on tests, but if their goal is to simply speak Spanish, then it can be done without mastering the grammar. On the other hand, if someone wants to achieve perfection, then grammar is essential.

Seeing as my main goal in learning German is to pass a reading exam, I’m not worrying too much about grammar. Thus far, I haven’t found the majority of German grammar to be too difficult, but there are a few things that I simply don’t have the time, energy, or desire to master – the different cases and their corresponding endings and prepositions (!!!). Oh, and I tend to guess on noun gender (oops!). At first I tried to understand the cases, but after puttering along I quickly realized that if my ultimate goal is to pass a reading exam in German then it isn’t necessary to be able to produce them to perfection. All I need to do is understand what is being said or on the page and, thus far (fingers crossed), this hasn’t been an issue. For example if I see “ein, eine, eines, or einen,” I know it is some form of “ein” and means a or an in English.

Furthermore, if I want to order an apple strudel or a beer in Salzburg or Munich, I don’t need to know the accusative case. I will be understood regardless of my grammar. I know this might sound lazy and make me come across as a poor speaker, but that does not bother me. As long as I am eating that apple strudel and drinking beer form a stein then I will be satisfied.

Nevertheless, I like grammar far too much to completely disregard it. I hope to someday come back and relearn everything in its entirety. While I don’t need to know every single aspect of German grammar to pass a reading exam, I still am far too interested in it to never truly learn it. As long as I maintain my level while I finish my PhD, there will be “more time” later. Grammar is important. There is no denying this. The more grammar you possess, the more proficient and more fluent you become. It is too much of a disservice to myself to know tons of German without being sound grammatically and not sounding uneducated when I order that beer and apple strudel.

For now, I’m learning as little German grammar as I need to in order to read. I look over the explanations of grammar and practice using it in exercises, but after that I move on to the next thing. Building vocabulary and understanding verbs is more important at this point. Therefore, I am focusing on vocabulary and verb conjugations while constantly upping my reading level and length. It is working so far and that makes me happy. I’m probably never going to write an academic paper or even a blog post in German so I’m choosing not to worry about the little things at this point. I’ll just wing it for now and that’s ok.

Houston: It’s Not What You Thought It Was

When we picked up Daniel and Cristin from the airport on Friday afternoon, I never in my wildest imagination expected us to make pit stops at a Blockbuster Video (mind blown) and a nightclub on Richmond Avenue, but we did! I should have seen this coming. After all, I had officially told our guests that this trip was called “Houston: It’s NOT What You Thought It Was.” Other people have been given a similar Houston experience by Kayla and I (Kristen! Kelsey!), and all of them can attest that on their way to the airport they understand that Houston isn’t what the rest of the country thinks it is. Sure, it is an oil boomtown that is growing at a rapid clip while the rest of the country sputters through a recession, but Houston has character. Houston has weird stuff. Houston has art. Houston has diversity. Houston has the Astros….errr….the Astros!

We were thrilled to have Daniel and Cristin staying with us for the weekend and getting their first taste of Houston. Cristin and Kayla grew up and went to high school together (Fallbrook what what). They go way back. They were in show choir together in 8th grade (before Glee made it cool – they were pre-hipsters in a way) and that pretty much says it all. Cristin and Daniel have been living in Boston for a few years after moving for work so we don’t get to see them as much as we’d like to, but when we do we always end up having a great time.

We started off the weekend at El Tiempo Cantina for their first taste of Tex-Mex. Kayla and I went there the night before with some of our family (Ciolinos) that was in town. No lie, every person that visits us wants to go to El Tiempo and I can’t blame them. The place is the best Mexican in Houston and maybe anywhere in the States. Daniel put on a fajita-eatingdevouring clinic with the help of his Aggie sister Erin (A A A A…she stayed with us Friday night). After dinner we saw some odd Houston sites such as the Beer Can House. Inspirational? Perhaps. Then we took them to Burp the Bayou. Burping the Bayou is so much fun it is sick. Right on the bayou next to the Wortham Center there is a red button. You press it and….I don’t want to give it away, but it is so wrong it is right. Post bayou-burping, we went to James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace at Rice University. I’ve blogged before about this place and I have to say that it never disappoints. Each subsequent visit adds a new layer to the experience. Daniel, Cristin, and Erin seemed to really enjoy it. The docent told Daniel that he was pissing her off because he had out his cell phone. It was a real friendly Texas welcome!

Things we learned Friday night – Kayla is not as good at Mexican Train Dominos as she believes. Collectively, we can quote the entirety of Pitch Perfect. Daniel is pitch perfect. I have absolutely no resistance to red velvet ANYTHING.

On Saturday morning, Kayla and I cooked a big breakfast for everyone. We learned who is ok with letting their food touch and who needs multiple plates (me). Daniel and Cristin were doubling up this weekend. Daniel’s boss is from Houston and got married Saturday afternoon. While they were living it up at the wedding, Kayla and I were missing them. When we got the phone call at 6:30 that they were coming back, we did a metaphorical Bryan Brothers chest bump.

Who knew there was a Blockbuster Video in the Heights? We were at the corner of 20th and Main when Cristin spotted the relic of a time gone by. We immediately lost all control of ourselves. We had thought that Blockbuster went completely out of business a few years ago. Therefore, we were convinced that we had done some form of hot tub time travel. However, we were in my car so it was probably more Back to the Future than anything else. The inside of Blockbuster could have been the strangest place in Texas. Everything was faded and looked like 1999 (or maybe 2000 if Y2K had gone as planned). They had a “Now Hiring” sign. Interesting. From there, we went to a 24-hr Shipley’s Donuts and Daniel and Cristin lost their Shipley virginity. Daniel told the woman working that he had never had one before and she looked at him like he was insane. An adult Shipley’s virgin? You better believe it!

And then the night took an interesting turn. Apparently, they like to country line dance and two-step and where better to do that (Thanks, Yelp) than Wild West on Richmond. Yes, we went out to a club on Richmond Avenue. The whole time I felt like I was in a Gwendolyn Zepeda short story. “For one more song, dollar fifty Tequila shots. Get your picture taken with Ashley the sexy shot girl as she pours it into your mouth.” Oh dear Lord, I wish I was joking. I wrote that quote down. We didn’t get shots, but not because of Ashley. She seemed wholesome enough. She really knew how to pour a tequila shot. Daniel and Cristin showed us how to two-step and we TORE IT UP. I had to pull Kayla off of the dance floor a few times. She was a woman possessed….with a newfound love of country music!

Things we learned – The Wobble is a line dance. It isn’t the best line dance. Jack n’ the Box at 2:30am is delicious! We like when our friends come in town, but we miss them when they go to weddings. Blockbuster Video does exist, albeit in a strange way. Parking at Wild West is difficult, but Kayla handles adversity well.

Needless to say, we woke up at 10am on Sunday. I got up and Kayla begged me to go back to sleep because it was “too early.” We decided to take them to our favorite breakfast place (and maybe just favorite in general), Empire Café. There was a line out the door, but it moved along just fine. Breakfast was absolutely delicious. We ordered Italian Toast for the table!!! We had wanted to try it and saw this as the perfect occasion. Delicious.

Root root root for the Astros! We went to see the ridiculous (in a bad way) Astros. Wow. If you want to know what it looks like for a professional baseball player to miss routine ground balls and generally suck then please, without hesitation, make your way to Minute Maid Park! I knock them, but we had a lot of fun and there were a lot more people than we expected. We bought the cheap seats, but moved to better ones. This is when I learned that Cristin has some acting chops. She pulled out her ticket and had a mini conversation with herself about how these were the right seats. The Astros lost. Kayla kept cheering for the Mariners and I had to remind her that we live in Houston. It was Kayla Classic. Love that woman!

Houston, It’s NOT What You Thought It Was Trips are never complete without a visit to the Art Car Museum and the David Adickes’ giant president heads near Target in Sawyer Heights. First, we went to the Art Car Museum. We love love love this place and I think this exhibit was one of their better ones. There were animal heads along the wall and the 3 cars being showcased were so cool. One had garden gnomes all over it. Love it!

They seemed to really get a kick out of the Art Car Museum, but the president head sculptures seemed to be one of their favorite things from the weekend. This place is so random that most locals don’t even know that it exists or at least don’t know where it is. Essentially, it is a barnyard of sorts with 30+ statues/busts of US Presidents that are about 20-30 feet high. There is a 60 foot Beatles statue(s) as well. We spent a good 20 minutes wandering around the place and at one point I parkoured off of George W. Bush’s shoulder. Daniel and I climbed up on W’s shoulders and took an “ironic yolo” picture. Good times!

Things we learned Sunday – Kayla and Cristin are convinced that the police will come when you climb onto George W. Bush’s shoulders. If you run at a cat, it will run further away from you. We can’t name any Astros. I make good dog faces. Cristin has an interesting way of putting food in to-go boxes. We all love cheesecake….and donuts warmed up in the microwave at 10pm.

The aftermath – We were sad to drop Daniel and Cristin off at the airport this morning. We had a ridiculous (the good kind) amount of fun this weekend with them and are now chomping at the bits to visit them in Boston. On the way back from the airport we talked about how lucky we are to have good friends like them. The only downside is that we live (everyone lives) so far away. Our country is massive and I wish it were easier to travel around so that we could see our friends more often. We hadn’t seen them since we got married (13 months ago). That’s too long. If anything, I think we realized how important these types of friendships are and that we need to make more of a dedicated effort to see our far-away friends more often. We can at least start with some regular Skype sessions!

Kayla and Cristin contemplating the existence of Blockbuster

Kayla and Cristin contemplating the existence of Blockbuster

Texas Two-Steppin on Richmond Avenue

Texas Two-Steppin on Richmond Avenue

Ironic W YOLO
Ironic W YOLO

Cherríe Moraga’s “La Guera”, Anzaldúa, and Chicana Feminism

Chicana Feminism emerged first and foremost in response to the sexism women experienced in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Despite their commitment to the movement, Chicana feminists saw that their interest in ending sexism and gender inequality within the Chicano Nation opposed the beliefs of Chicano Nationalism that emphasized family loyalty and traditional gender roles. Essentially, women were to fit within one of the three major female icons – La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Malinche, and La Llorona. This triad formed the parameters of traditional Chicana femininity and womanhood. Effectively, Chicana feminists who were strong in their convictions and beliefs were labeled malinchistas and vendidas (essentially sell-outs), among other things. These names come from the La Malinche myth (she was the mistress of and translator for Hernán Cortes during the Conquest).

In the 1980s, Chicana feminists, alongside other women of color, began to compare and contrast their experiences of oppression within their individual ethnic civil rights/nationalist movements as a means of theorizing their multiple forms of oppression. This movement produced many groundbreaking pieces of literature/theory such as the seminal anthology This Bridge Called My Back (1981, edited by Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga). Works such as Bridge allowed women of color feminists to develop cross-color/identity/politics coalitions which used an intersectional approach of race, class, gender, and sexuality as a means of explaining their individual oppressive conditions in the United States.

In “La conciencia de la mestiza” (Mestiza Consciousness) (1987, in Borderlands), Anzaldúa develops the idea of a Chicana consciousness which allows her to have a more accurate perspective on the world and permits her to see the “Chicana anew in light of her history” and to see through “the fictions of white supremacy” (87). Anzaldúa discusses her motivation to discover objective knowledge about herself and her place in society/the world: “I seek our woman’s face, our true features, the positive and the negative seen clearly, free of the tainted biases of male dominance. I seek new images of identity, new beliefs about ourselves, our humanity and worth no longer in question” (87). Anzaldúa, in another chapter of Borderlands, introduces the concept of la facultad, which is a survival tactic, a skill that marginalized people develop. It allows people to adjust to changing and threatening situations and is one that involves a loss of innocence and an awareness of discrimination, depression, fear, illness, and death. It is a process that involves pain.

Moraga’s “La Guera” appears in Bridge as well as in Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por sus labios (1983). Moraga reinforces the notion that Chicanas’ political activism and struggle are more often than not based on knowledge that is gained from their experiences of political struggle. “La Güera” highlights Moraga’s coming-to-consciousness and her development of la facultad and awareness and understanding of her marginalized position in the world. She always felt that something was missing, that something was wrong.

In the preface of Bridge, Moraga notes her growing awareness of her differences from white women:

“A few days ago, an old friend said to me how when she first met me, I seemed to white to her. I said in honesty, I used to feel more white. You know, I really did. But at the meeting last night with white women here on this trip, I have felt so very dark: dark with anger, with silence, with the feeling of being walked over. I wrote in my journal: ‘My growing consciousness as a woman of color is surely seeming to transform my experience. How could it be that the more I feel with other women of color, the more I feel myself Chicana, the more susceptible I am to racist attack!” (xv).

This conscious raising experience is precisely what Moraga describes in her oft-anthologized essay “La Güera.” Her Chicana consciousness allows her to better reinterpret the things that have happened and happen to her due to her new perspective of the world. Moraga explains how she had previously refused to recognize the US racial hierarchy and had used her light skin as privilege while rejecting the Chicana within. Moraga’s friend tells her: “No wonder you felt like such a nut in school. Most of the people there were white and rich” (30-31). It appears that before this statement, Moraga has not truly understood and realized that she was neither rich nor white. She didn’t understand how much influence social categories have on a person’s existence:

“All along I had felt the difference, but not until I had put the words ‘class’ and ‘color’ to the experience, did my feelings make any sense. For years, I had berated myself for not being as ‘free’ as my classmates. I completely bought that they simply had more guts than I did – to rebel against their parents and run around the country hitch-hiking, reading books and studying ‘art.’ They had enough privilege to be atheists, for chrissake… But I knew nothing about ‘privilege’ then. White was right. Period. I could pass. If I got educated enough, there would never be any telling” (31).

When Moraga’s identity more accurately refers to her social position, she is able to conceptualize a more accurate perspective on the world. Effectively, this new perspective and consciousness is more objective as well. By viewing her coming-to-consciousness as a Chicana and woman of color, we can see that her changing political commitments are linked to her transforming idea of what her place in society is versus what it should be. Moraga’s transformation is a result of a need for truth and the hope of creating an objectively better world. Her Chicana identity allows her to have a better perspective from which to recognize oppression and, therefore, combat the oppressive nature of race and class privilege (among other privileges). By joining forces with other women of color (forming coalitions), permits a valuable dialogue that hopefully creates a liberating feminist collective. Essentially, Moraga’s decision to embrace her Chicana identity is a based on her best belief about what she should do to help end oppressive forces.

Some things to consider:

– The intersectionality of race and sex.
– Moraga’s coming-to-consciousness
– Anzaldúa’s “Conciencia de la mestiza” (Mestiza Consciousness) and la facultad in “La Güera”
– The Border (“Homeland, Aztlán”) as theorized by Anzaldúa  and its influence on forming Chicana identity

Book Review: What You See in the Dark – Manuel Muñoz

I wanted to love Manuel Muñoz’s What You See in the Dark, especially after thoroughly enjoying his earlier work Zigzagger, but I finished the novel wanting more. This is not to say that it isn’t a compelling read; I just think that the book thinks it is better than it actually is. It really gives off that vibe.

I added this to my summer reading list after seeing a conference presentation last spring that dealt with the cinematic aspects of the novel (honestly, the best aspect of the work). Little did I know that my Intel would tell me that the book will appear on one of my fall semester syllabuses (US Hispanic Feminism mas o menos). So I’m at least a little ahead of my reading for the upcoming semester. Score one for me.

What You See in the Dark is quite cinematic in nature and feels like an ode to the black-and-white era of Hollywood. Set in Bakersfield, the novel follows the Actress (Janet Leigh) and the Director (Alfred Hitchcock) as they film Pyscho. That provides half of the novel’s plot and proves to be the more compelling and engaging of the two narratives. The other story deals with a murder in the town that unfolds similarly to Psycho. I didn’t particularly care for the townspeople or their plight. To me, the bits about the Actress were the highlight. Muñoz is able to masterfully capture her feelings in and out of the film business. We see her internal struggle with her huge celebrity status and we are first-hand witnesses to her inner dialogue while filming Pyscho leading up to her preparations for the big shower scene, arguably the most famous scene in film history. Similarly to Zigzagger, Muñoz is able to properly convey the feelings, sentiments, and struggles of largely minority groups: women (even the Actress is underprivileged compared to her male counterparts), homosexuals, the poor, and Latin@s (and sometimes a combination of the categories – extra marginalization).

Regardless of how I feel about the novel itself, I do love the title – What You See in the Dark. Paired alongside the tragic looking woman on the green cover and we have a winning design. It made me more interested to read it. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the novel is quite cinematic in style and even content. The reader essentially becomes a voyeur into the lives of the Actress and the community of Bakersfield, CA. Charles Taylor proposes that “Psycho was the first film to suggest that what we saw in the dark, saw us.” This truly captures the essence of the novel. The reader is forced to consider the role he/she plays as a voyeur into these people’s lives. The townspeople notice every little thing that happens in public; nothing is secret or safe. Each character – Dan, Candy, Teresa, Arlene – is being watched by someone and we watch them. When Teresa hides the stolen shoes in the alley behind her work, Muñoz paints the scene in such a way that makes the reader feel like they are lurking around the corner, spying on her.

Essentially, Hitchcock’s film bleeds into the plot of the novel – a good employee steals something impulsively; a young woman is murdered; the son smothered by his mother; the slowly dying roadside motel. Nevertheless, Muñoz demonstrates how art bleeds into life more so with the way everyday life is changed by these actions. Just as Pyscho changed cinema (the star is killed early in the film, they show a toilet, that shower scene!), the murder and looming change in American cultural values will change Bakersfield as well.

I’d recommend What You See in the Dark if you’re looking for something different or something with a cinematic flair. It’s an engaging read. I think I just expected or wanted more from it. I wanted to love it, but I just liked it. Either way, I am definitely keeping an eye on Manuel Muñoz. Like I’ve said, Zigzagger was one of my favorite books from this summer. The man knows how to write. I’d also like to point out that Muñoz doesn’t rely on a publisher that caters to Hispanic writers. This is quite impressive given how difficult it is for Hispanic writers to get published by more “mainstream” publishing houses. Hopefully, we will see more of this in the future. In the meantime, we thankfully have Arte Público Press!


Show Me the Money! Venus Williams and the Fight for Pay Equity in Tennis

The first tennis match I remember watching was the 1998 Miami final between teenagers Venus Williams and Anna Kournikova. Immediately, I was enthralled with Venus. Everything about her was different than anything I ever thought tennis could or would be. She wore hundreds of multi-colored beads in her hair and ushered in Big-Babe Tennis as Mary Carillo soon dubbed it. 15 years later, I still am enamored by Venus, only now it has less to do with her brand of tennis and more to do with how she carries herself off the court. While she has won 7 Grand Slam singles titles, 13 doubles titles, 2 mixed doubles titles, and 4 Olympic Gold medals, her contributions off the court perhaps outweigh if not entirely eclipse her performance on it. She stands alongside Billie Jean King as one of tennis’ most influential ambassadors.

Perhaps unaware to the general public, Venus’ efforts toward gender equality and equal pay have been one of the most important developments in the history of modern professional tennis. For years, Venus, alongside Billie Jean King and others, fought for equality and social change within a sport that was undeniably dated in its views towards women and men. Ultimately, in 2007, Wimbledon caught up with modern times and agreed to pay both its male and female champions equal prize money. The US Open and Australian Open had been doing this for years and popular opinion in and around the sport were urging the All England Club not to be on the wrong side of history. Even Tony Blair and UNESCO had been advocating for the change.

In truth, the gap between prize money had been more symbolic than anything. In 2006, Roger Federer received $1.17 million whereas Amelie Mauresmo received $1.117 million, or 95% of what Federer was paid. The Club’s supporters claimed that women played less than men did and that the men’s stars drew higher television ratings and were generally more marketable. Even though the men technically play “longer” matches, the difference in prize money was so little that it did not truly reflect the difference in games or sets played. This was about the club refusing to see women as equals to men.

In 2006, Venus provided the definitive move and push towards equal prize money. Williams said: “You should definitely see the merit in people getting paid or being treated equal as people, not on sex.” In a letter she wrote that was published in The Times, Venus argued:

I feel so strongly that Wimbledon’s stance devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players.

I believe that athletes – especially female athletes in the world’s leading sport for women – should serve as role models. The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling. My fear is that Wimbledon is loudly and clearly sending the opposite message.

Wimbledon has argued that women’s tennis is worth less for a variety of reasons; it says, for example, that because men play a best of five sets game they work harder for their prize money.

This argument just doesn’t make sense; first of all, women players would be happy to play five sets matches in grand slam tournaments.

Secondly, tennis is unique in the world of professional sports. No other sport has men and women competing for a grand slam championship on the same stage, at the same time. So in the eyes of the general public the men’s and women’s games have the same value.

Third, we enjoy huge and equal celebrity and are paid for the value we deliver to broadcasters and spectators, not the amount of time we spend on the stage. And, for the record, the ladies’ final at Wimbledon in 2005 lasted 45 minutes longer than the men’s.

Wimbledon has justified treating women as second class because we do more for the tournament. The argument goes that the top women – who are more likely also to play doubles matches than their male peers – earn more than the top men if you count singles, doubles and mixed doubles prize money. So the more we support the tournament, the more unequally we should be treated! But doubles and mixed doubles are separate events from the singles competition. Is Wimbledon suggesting that, if the top women withdrew from the doubles events, that then we would deserve equal prize money in singles? And how then does the All England Club explain why the pot of women’s doubles prize money is nearly £130,000 smaller than the men’s doubles prize money?

I intend to keep doing everything I can until Billie Jean’s original dream of equality is made real. It’s a shame that the name of the greatest tournament in tennis, an event that should be a positive symbol for the sport, is tarnished.

Poetically, Venus was the first beneficiary of Wimbledon’s equal prize money. In 2007, she received $1.41 million, the exact same amount as Roger Federer.

Why is this important to me? Venus’ fight for equal prize money in tennis was one of the first issues of gender equality that I closely followed as an adult. For years, I questioned the lack of equality within the sport. To be honest, I didn’t understand it. I had always valued women’s tennis and, for the better part of my “tennis life,” I was more interested in the women’s game than the men’s. Equality seemed a necessity to me.

Still, this issue does not appear to be over. Several male players have voiced their discontent over equal prize money, most notably Gilles Simon. While Simon mentioned the debate over the length of matches, he also focused on male tennis players’ perceived celebrity status. According to Simon, more fans watch men’s tennis because it is more “interesting.” By this logic, Simon should be paid less that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer because he isn’t as well known. There are many faulty areas of Simon’s comments, but this one was my favorite. Thankfully, the majority of those in and around professional tennis believe in equal prize money and gender equality within the sport.

Tonight, ESPN films will present a new documentary, as part of its Title IX series, based on Venus’ fight for equal prize money. Venus Vs. highlights the different hurdles and obstacles that Williams had to face throughout her career while focusing on her relationship with Wimbledon and its disproportion of prize money payouts. Director Ava DuVernay rightfully paints Venus as the feminist activist that she is, making gender equality at Wimbledon stand out as a constant factor in her motivation to succeed in the sport. As she became one of the greatest Wimbledon champions of all time, she found herself in a powerful position to serve as an ambassador to the game in which she could influence the future of women’s tennis.

On the 40th anniversary of Title IX, I am thrilled that ESPN is devoting much-needed prime time television to Venus’ fight as well as the other women involved in the series (The teaser trailer looks great!). Hopefully, this does not serve as simply a reminder of our nation’s recent history, but serves as a call-to-action in which gender equality remains a necessity in and out of the sports realm.