In honor of Mother’s Day, we highlight the role Moms play not only in raising strong, independent, intelligent, capable daughters, but also in raising feminist sons. I don’t have a son or a brother, but I am fortunate to have a number of male friends and colleagues who are champions of all the women they know. One of the most exceptional femanists I know is Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. We met in graduate school in the early 1990s and I couldn’t have been more impressed with his experience, background and positive attitude. I learned a lot from Jonathan, and all of my graduate school classmates (which is definitely one of the best parts of going to graduate school).
More recently, I learned the story behind Jonathan’s hyphenated name – a story that demonstrates just how special he is. This discussion led us to talk more about feminism, and the incredible influence that Jonathan’s mother has had in his life. His story underscores just how important mothers are in the lives of their children, sometimes without their even knowing it. We hope you enjoy learning about Jonathan and his mom, and Happy Mother’s Day!
When I first met you, I thought Benjamin was your middle name, until I noticed the hyphen. You explained that you had hyphenated your name along with your wife, Beth Benjamin, when you got married. How did that happen and why?
It’s really interesting because, to be honest, prior to meeting Beth I had kind of given up on ever developing a long-term relationship, let alone getting married. I was always too much of a geek in a lot of ways to see eye to eye with a lot of women. So by the time I turned 30, I was convinced it wasn’t ever going to happen, so I was just going to take life as it was and be super serious about my studying because I had made this conscious decision to go back to school. And then when I met Beth, that started to change largely because she was close to my age, she was two years younger than me. Like me, she had traveled a lot. Like me, she spoke Spanish. And like me, she really loved music – and that was the thing that really attracted me to her.
We hadn’t really been dating all that long when she got pregnant. We had known each other maybe six months. She asked me, “What do you want to do?” We had been talking about getting married for about three months. At one point she had told me that she had never had a good Valentine’s Day so I said, “How about we get married on Valentine’s Day?” And then I said, “What do you think about taking my name?”
And she didn’t say anything at first, and then I said, “What if I take your name?”
She kind of looked at me and said, “I really like that.”
To me it was the ultimate sign of our relationship and literally, our union. I shouldn’t ask her to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. I thought it would be an expression of commitment that goes beyond something as simple as a ring. It’s funny, about a year after we were married I shattered my ring finger playing basketball, and I have not been able to get the ring back on my finger. I still have the ring, but I also have her name. People always ask me about this. It really confuses people in Latin America, because [the typical way they see it] the name should be the other way around, with her taking my name. But I did this because I love her and wanted to do it. When I do have the opportunity to talk to people about it, they say to me that they would have never thought about doing this, but the truth is I’m a little different, and this is just the depth of my commitment to her.
Speaking of Latin America, you are also Latino. How has your background influenced your perspectives on gender?
In spite of the fact that I come from a very macho society – my father was extremely macho – my mother was a feminist in response to my father. I don’t really think that she knew that she was a feminist, but she stood steadfast on her rights and she believed deeply that nothing could take those rights away from her. My parents were married for 21 years before they divorced. I did ask my mother why she married my dad – someone who was a womanizer and a drinker. She said, “Think about it: I am a Latina from the 1950s, I don’t even have a high school diploma, my parents were poor, I didn’t have anywhere else to go. He was promising me a different life.” Little did she know it was going to be a nightmare. But, she got four kids out of the deal and they have all done phenomenally well.
I do think my mother set a standard for how I as a male should treat and interact with women – always with dignity and respect. The other thing she did was tell me and my brother that no one will ever marry us, so she taught us how to cook, how to sew, how to iron, how to wash clothes. She said no one was ever going to do that for us because we were both a couple of pigs. And I still do all these things. (Well, except for wash clothes – I did ruin a bunch of Beth’s clothes after we got married, so I am not allowed in the washroom.) But I clean, I cook, I iron, I sew, and it was [due to] the positive influence of my mother that I am able and willing to do these things.
I was very positively influenced by my mom in this way. In fact, by the time I went to college at UCLA, I took a gender and politics class and I thought, “I already know all this stuff!” The ability to take care of yourself and not rely on others was also all validated and reinforced when I was in the Navy. All of us in the Navy took pride in being able to take care of ourselves. We can’t be afraid to scrub toilets, because you do all of that when you are in the military. Despite the military being a masculine enterprise, you had to be self-reliant, independent, and also part of a team. There was a lot of overlap with what my mother had taught me about being clean and orderly and of presenting myself well.
Did you realize you were being raised as a feminist? When did you become aware of the concept of feminism?
No, I had no idea. I knew about the feminist and women’s movement – I remember watching women burn their bras on television when I was a kid – but I didn’t really understand how it manifested itself on an individual basis. Even after I went to college, I didn’t really see feminism as much for Latina women because most of the pioneers of the women’s movement were well-educated white women. So one of the things that really attracted my attention was I started looking at my mother in reference to the things I was reading in school, and she manifested all the things that I was reading about – self-reliance and independence. When Latina feminists began to develop, I looked at them and said, yeah, my Mom belongs in that community – they all had overcome so much. And she never spoke badly of men, not even my father. She didn’t self-victimize either. She refused to consider herself a victim. She would say, “To hell with your father, I’m a survivor.”
This rubs off because when things don’t go well in life I think about her and remember she went through a hell of a lot more than I ever have. I can definitely see that I have been instilled with a lot of grit and persistence and resilience – actually from both my mother and father. They were both migrant farm workers and all of their kids are college graduates. To do that in one generation, this just rarely happens. We knew that we were fortunate. My dad was a very smart man, and my mother was not a quitter in any way. She is 80 years old and still swims three days a week. I look at her and think I can do anything. She didn’t have any formal schooling, but she is active politically and has always stood for women’s rights.
You also have a daughter with a hyphenated last name – what does this mean for her?
I have not asked her about this, but she says she thinks her name is the coolest. She is Anglo and Latina at the same time. She self-identifies as Latina. The irony for me is that her generation is so not hung up on stuff like this. They have so much more freedom in terms of their self-expression than I ever felt like I had when I was their age. They aren’t so much into the same power dynamics. They are so much more open and accepting.
In addition to hyphenating your last name, how else have you translated your feminism into action? What are the critical issues that you focus on in this regard?
I have been instrumental at my university in launching a gender and sexuality resource center and working at the intersection of the power dynamics as they relate to gender, LGBTQ and trans issues. We create programming that is educational and co-curricular. We are also really trying to force the issue on campus of acknowledging the necessity for safe spaces and what we call “brave spaces.” We focus on creating the opportunity for young men and women who have been subject to and felt the brunt of discrimination, as well as micro-aggressions, to empower them so that they can interact in society without going back into their shells.
We are working very hard on issues of gender and sexuality. And I think it is because of the principles that I have learned through the women’s movement that I am focused on these issues. I have always looked to strong women role models because they have faced many of the same obstacles that people of color like myself do. I don’t know if you know, but I am the only fully tenured international relations full professor in the United States. Isn’t that crazy? The only reason why I discovered that is that someone in the International Studies Association told me. There are definite pipeline issues in the discipline.
Does this perhaps raise the concept of intersectionality and the ways in which gender, race, sexuality, background, and identity interact with one another?
I have a friend and colleague that has worked on this – a Latina scholar – and she has definitely sharpened my understanding of intersectionality. I definitely have a much deeper appreciation for the ways in which gender and race and sexuality intersect. It also tells me that in spite of how I feel, I still have a lot going for me, and this has empowered and motivated me even more to push forward and be resilient. I know that I am also privileged. I grew up in a relatively wealthy area. I didn’t have money, but I had access to things that were intangible. I was able to go to school and travel the world. I do not want for anything. My goal now is to get rid of all of my shit. We need to downsize. We may not be rich in terms of money, but we have a lot. We vacation. We visit relatives and overlook the ocean in California. We go to our cabin in Minnesota. Not everyone lives like we do. So I understand my privilege now, and all that I have is because of education.
Is it fair for you, as a man, to give advice to women? If so, what would it be?
I think my role in all of this is to model behavior for how males in personal and professional settings should interact with women. I try to be respectful always, with heavy doses of empathy, but not so that it is over the top. But I try to imagine what my life would be like if I had to journey as women do. And I think to myself, that wouldn’t be easy. And yet women are so successful and continue to be so successful, despite any difficulties. So my role as a professional is to help guide students where they are going. I am a facilitator. And women seem to be most responsive to this.
In graduate school, a classmate once said that our job is to “enlighten, empower and emancipate.” This stuck with me. At the end of the day, this is my role – to allow people to be as free as they can, to be the architects of their own lives. More males should take up the mantel of mentoring. We should be more intentional to help others chart their own paths. We should encourage them to think bigger. I want others to think expansively and chart their own course. It’s my job to help everybody, regardless of who they are – to contribute to their skills and competencies. This is more important now than ever. This next generation can’t be like us – we are too self-indulgent. The future requires a heavy dose of humanism, feminism and willingness to see the outcome of privilege.