Zoán Dávila’s feminist formation started somewhere unexpected– the church. For more than two decades, it was her home base, where Dávila’s natural abilities for leadership and public speaking shined through. She was a leader in the grupo de jóvenes, preached in front of the congregation, and even hosted a Christian radio show.
I must admit I’m taken aback when she tells me she spent decades in church. Dávila is a spokesperson for the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, a Puerto Rican feminist organization that advocates for reproductive justice, anti-racism policies, and gender equity. From an outsider’s perspective, she’s not what you’d expect from a former Christian radio host, but she says it’s where it all started.
“Part of who I am today in my political beliefs and work comes from my time in church,” she says. “All of those teachings of loving thy neighbor and doing good, I learned there.”
Still, the story of how she left church explains why her spiritual beliefs today are not attached to this institution. As a young journalism student at the University of Puerto Rico, Dávila took a Gender Perspective Journalism class that opened her eyes to see the injustices and microaggressions she had experienced and witnessed her entire life but never had the terminology to explain. And then, it took a personal turn.
Dávila recalls being cast out of leadership roles and speaking opportunities at church, just as she started to integrate gender perspective into her work inside the institution. “It came to a point when they never asked me to take the mic again,” she says. Later, the son of the church’s pastors called Dávila to “intervene” on her behavior. “He asked me– with no tact whatsoever– if I had been violated as a kid, if a man had done anything to me,” she recalls. He explained, Dávila says, that her feminist actions looked like she “hated men.”
“That’s when I said, ‘I’m definitely not coming back to this space’,” she says. “I felt violated at that point.”
Many years after she left church, Dávila’s feminist ethos was cemented. After graduating from the University of Puerto Rico with a degree in journalism and a subsequent Juris Doctor, Dávila felt it was time to start getting more involved in Puerto Rico’s political work. She found the perfect place inside the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, which she first joined in 2017 as an observer, providing legal support to the Colectiva during protests and events.
Established in 2014, “la Cole,” as it’s commonly referred to, has worked to push politicians and agencies to prioritize public policies that benefit women through political activism and media strategies that have earned them national recognition. They’re often vilified, though, by members of local government, as exemplified in the 889-page chat that ousted former Governor Ricardo Rosselló in 2019. At one point, the group mocked “la Cole,” calling one of their protests “mediocre.” The group also ridiculed a member of the Colectiva, sharing a picture in which she wore a t-shirt that read, “Antipatriarchy, feminist, lesbian, trans, caribeña, Latin American.” Later, Christian Sobrino, one of Rosselló’s closet aides, responded, “That explains so much!”
By 2017, after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Colectiva, along with other local organizations, identified an alarming trend brewing in Puerto Rico as gender violence cases kept rising. “We started seeing, not only how the cases were rising, but how the social, economic, political policies put in place were devastating poor and working class women after these natural disasters,” Dávila explains. A 2018 report by journalist Andrea González Ramírez found that local organization ESCAPE, a local nonprofit that offers prevention and intervention services, “saw a 62% increase in requests for survivor-related services and a 47% surge in requests for preventive and education resources” after the hurricanes.
“We understood that the state has an active role in how gender violence manifests,” Dávila says. “But when it came to prevention of gender violence, the state was absolutely negligent, so we opted to create enough push to establish a public discussion about this issue and its possible solutions.”
The Colectiva decided that their main strategy would be to push the government to declare a state of emergency, a recurrent measure that’s often implemented to prioritize funds and intervention toward a particular emergency. They got it– almost three years later.
In late January 2021, Puerto Rico’s governor Pedro Pierluisi declared a state of emergency following years of rising femicides and gender violence on the island. To the onlooker, this might come as a benevolent action from a progressive governor that’s doing the best for his constituents. Yet, the road to this moment was anything but benevolent.
It all started in 2018, when the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción held a protest outside of La Fortaleza, where governors in the island reside, to demand former governor Ricardo Rosselló to declare a state of emergency, after more than 20 had been killed by domestic partners. They were met with violence from local police. Protest after protest, press release after press release, the Colectiva continued putting the phrase “Estado de emergencia” on the collective consciousness of Puerto Ricans. By the summer of 2019, Ricardo Rosselló and his cohort were exposed when a 889-page chat was leaked, unfolding the biggest political uprising in modern Puerto Rican history. La Colectiva continued, asking to meet with Rosselló’s successor Governor Wanda Vázquez, who eventually held a meeting with La Colectiva and later issued a “national alert.” Not quite what the Colectiva wanted. By November 2020, la Colectiva’s push for a state of emergency reached the political platforms of almost all major gubernatorial candidates, including Pedro Pierluisi, a pro-statehood former lawyer with ties to Puerto Rico’s oversight board.
By January 2021, the state of emergency was inevitable.
“It was a bittersweet moment,” says Dávila. “It was the concretization of years of hard work, but it’s become clear that we are being excluded from the product of that work.”
The executive order established the creation of a Committee for Prevention, Support, Rescue, and Education of Gender Violence (or “Comité PARE”), appointing 17 members to work within this committee, as well as the future implementation of an app designated for victims to report violence. While the Colectiva drafted the proposal for a state of emergency with specific strategies to target the issue, Dávila says they’ve not been asked to join the committees or meetings to advance the estado de emergencia.
“There is a difference between not being included and being excluded,” she says. “The latter has been our case.” Still, the estado de emergencia is the first step in a long road to justice for the Colectiva.
A few days after our interview, I met Dávila and four other members of the Colectiva at their San Juan headquarters. The shared working space is overtaken by their presence, says co-founder Shariana Ferrer Núñez, with posters and DIY signs from their most recent International Women’s Day protest in front of Puerto Rico’s Capitol. The Colectiva is Dávila’s safe haven, she says. While she already identified as a feminist before entering the organization, the Colectiva is where she’s “found myself, personally and politically.”
“It’s been a hard process,” she says. “But part of that is being able to see myself in others.”
Growing up in Cayey, Puerto Rico, Dávila says that she came face to face with microaggressions, gender violence, and misogynist behaviors from a young age. She’d see it in the way the men of her family behaved toward the women, in the way her dad asked her mom to go buy makeup for a pre-teen Dávila because “she was old enough.” “I understand now that his thinking was that makeup was an inherent part of being a woman, so that’s what he thought was reasonable,” she says.
Still, fashion and beauty were spaces where Dávila always felt at home, saying that, “makeup is one of the ways in which I express my personality.” As a kid, she recalls spending hours in Caguas’s fabric store El Telar, where her mom– a teacher– would buy materials to go get work uniforms made by a local seamstress. Dávila says that part of her construction of womanhood came from seeing her mom put herself together as a kid. “Even today, she sees me at protests wearing makeup and says, ‘Tú tienes mucho de mí’,” she says.
Yet, Dávila says she can’t ignore the harassment and violence faced by women who step outside the beauty standards of our society. “The performance of wearing or not wearing makeup, as a feminist, is something that has sexist weight,” she says. Dávila brings up a contrasting example between her and the Colectiva’s co-founder Shariana Ferrer Núñez, who’s a darker-skinned, fat woman. “When we are out there, visible, she receives insults that I don’t get,” Dávila explains. “My performance and expression is more aligned with the standard of womanhood and hers is not, so she gets attacked for breaking the rules.”
As a feminist, it’s often an internal struggle to understand if my love of style makes me a bad feminist. I know I’m not the only one. When I finished my conversation with Dávila, I went back to Roxane Gay’s book “Bad Feminist,” where she writes: “I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves.” Choice, at the end of the day, is the pillar of today’s feminism.
Dávila says that’s part of why she decided to become a feminist activist. As a Black Puerto Rican lawyer and media expert, she says she confronted her fear to be an active member of the Colectiva by telling herself: “There’s no one who can represent me more than me.”