OF LATINA WOMEN, ELGIN COMMUNITY COLLEGE, ELGIN, ILLINOIS, MARCH
What a great title to this program
Adelante Mujeres! It reminds me of a saying my mother
often said, adelante caminante..
Three topics- Family and Community, The Pain that Unites
us and the Joy of Social Justice Activism.
We like to say that Latinas/os value family
and community. I know that for me growing up in a largeMexican-American
family the boundaries between family and community were not very
clear. At one time when I was under 10
we probably had 17 people living in the house.
10 kids, Mom, Dad, Abuelita, Lupe a live-in babysitter and
at least 2-3 brothers or cousins of hers who had just moved from
Mexico and needed a place to stay. And if we had any kind
of large fiesta or occasion to celebrate, be it a wedding, a baptism
or birthday, the number could easily triple in a matter of hours. At that point family was community, and in those settings I
learned much about the importance of connection to our families,
to our community; the meaning of loyalty and forgiveness. My fondest memories the big tamaladas, the New Years
Eve parties, the bautizos and shared birthday pinatas, and lots
of food, music and dancing at huge weddings. My
Anglo partner loves to tell the story of how on a small portion
of the brothers and sisters could show up for the memorial trip
we took to Catalina Island the day after we buried my mother three
years ago. Because some people had planes to catch only 28 people
Community - families and communities
-- they are words we toss around casually when we speak of public
policy, needed changes in the law,
the pulse of America around issues of violence, the meaning
of the family, the future we are going into in the 21st century.
Obviously, wherever we live the meaning of community
is going to be different. Or maybe were not that different
when we think of ourselves as members of a larger community or family
-- that of the human race?
fall when the twin towers fell many throughout the nation came together
in the pain we felt about the loss.
I had lived in NYC and had worked in the towers; I spent
a lot of time on the phone looking for friends.
And yet with all the signs of love and unity this nation
quickly divided. While
there was public talk of unity in pain and the determination to
fight terrorism, how quickly our fear divided us and innocent people
became the target of discrimination because of how they looked,
how they dressed and worshipped and the language they spoke.
couldnt help but wonder how many of us who are Latinos ever
stopped to think about what happened to the immigrant workers in
those towers? What
happened to their families?
Did anyone try to raise funds for them? And
we know they were bound to be there because its mostly immigrants
who take the low paid jobs as janitors and busboys in fancy buildings
and restaurants throughout the country.
think about differences for a while and about how much easier it
is to speak about how wonderful diversity is but how difficult it
is to confront the reality of those differences in our communities.
Ive now lived in a few major cities, recently moved
from Austin Texas. Ill
have to exclude DeKalb as a major city but is still an established
of those cities had a Latino presence. A
diverse one. In New York there are Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans,
Colombians, and Mexicans. In San Francisco the same and the breakdown
in Chicago seems to be a lot like New York except that there appears
to be a little more presence of Mexicanos. In every one of those cities I have
seen us divided by class, by citizenship status, by residence. The
poorest, as I see even in DeKalb, are living in the worst housing. In too many of these cities their neighborhoods and schools
are the most violent and drug infested, while the quality of the
education is also typically inferior.
Also, within those communities many Latino/as
who have made it in other words are integrated into
American culture and assimilated are often quite disconnected from
the immigrant sectors of their own racial and ethnic group.
You can call it what you want.
Choosing to be assimilated. Being Ashamed of your roots.
Or simply cant relate so why bother? What is the basis of our disconnection? Language barriers, economic
status, a failure to appreciate the cultural values of the recent
immigrant. Now in some families, Ill use my own family as
an example, the disconnect isnt really intentional--the niece
and nephew spoke as much Spanish as they needed to talk to Abuelita,
so when she died they just lost its value; the sister who is an
officer in the Air Force is too busy maintaining her assimilated
status to care much about the importance of maintaining any kind
of connection to her roots either in language or cultural values.
Another sister still believes in the old categorization of
Mexicans as Caucasians even though it was all a concoction of the
government that could be manipulated to maintain racial segregation
patterns in housing and education before Brown v. Board of Education
do I make the point about our being connected or not to our immigrant
communities? We need them and they need us.
If our Latino presence in this country is to thrive, not
just survive, then we who are the educated, assimilated well-spoken
leaders are the ones that policymakers are going to turn to in order
to remedy racial and ethnic segregation in services, education,
housing and medical care. To create the remedies we need to
understand the problems; to understand the problems we need to stay
connected to the communities. I guess I see this as a matter of
professional responsibility, and I here I speak to anyone in here
who is a trained professional whether in law or public services.
I am speaking of sometimes of daunting issues that frustrate me. Heres an examine from what
I saw in Austin, Texas where I just moved from .
Do you know who are the majority of the residents in the
program called TDYC? TEXAS DEPARTMENT FOR YOUTH CORRECTION; they
are mostly Latina/o and Black. What are their problems? Homes with single parents, drugs,
guns and gangs in the schools, teenage pregnancy, illiteracy, lack
of healthy and mature adult mentors in their lives. Who
in fact are the people who will populate the jails today in America,
those institutions that are more and more becoming privatized ventures,
means profit-making enterprises that have an incentive to keep the
jails populated. They are mostly Black and Hispanic men and women.
If you think about it there is rather thin line between gang
formation and immigrant status of the parents of kids who often
end up in gangs.
projected as being the largest racial minority group in this country
within the next generation. Yet our representation in Congress,
in state legislatures, on city councils, on boards of education,
and in virtually every haven of power and public policy is low.
But take a look at our jails, take a look at the statistics
of who is on death row and why they end up there, examine the practices,
such as racial profiling,
that account for how we get black and hispanic youth into
those jails and we have the evidence of the pain that also defines
another issues that bugs me.
I teach in the Domestic Violence Clinic at NIU.
We know the statistics; D.V. at epidemic proportions, a few
good but not enough shelters, and of course special problems presented
usually for immigrant battered women, despite the protections available
under the Violence Against Women Act. When you think of the issue of domestic
abuse as it relates to our communities, the first thing I think
of , Where can she get help?
Is there someone going to be available who speaks Spanish? Is there literature available that tells her where to go? When
I met the lawyers that work with our students in the NIU Domestic
Violence Clinic in Batavia I was heartened by the fact that at least
one lawyer in that office spoke Spanish who could help such a woman
through the process of filing for a protective order and getting
some relief under the Violence Against Women Act which prevents
a woman who is being abused from being deported.
I was disappointed to see however, that there wasnt
a Latina or Latino lawyer or paralegal in the office.
Just another reminder of the ways in which we have come far
but have even further to go.
once you start talking about domestic violence and especially as
it applies to immigrant victims of abuse you also confront potentially
the problem of homeless. Imagine the woman who was brought
here by her husband from a foreign country.
Shes dependent on him. He may be the one with the legal
resident status. She is the most vulnerable. She may become one more face in the
statistics that tell us that homelessness is also on the rise in
this country. Who knows what has caused the conservative
estimate that 300,000 people dont have a decent place to live.
Homelessness is about poverty, poverty
is about hunger, and all of these are about forms of violence we
simply tolerate in America. Yet to
have both of those exist in the richest country in the world and
largest consumer of the earths natural resources in the world
is indeed a crime and it is a reason to think about what role you
can play in compassionate action.
Were living in a world that has gotten smaller just because of incredible
technological advances, speed in communication.
Everyones on the internet, buying and selling and talking
to each other across nations for pennies a minute.
And yet everyday if you dont shut your eyes or your
heart to the pain you can find a person in need.
find a reason in someone elses life to engage in compassionate
action. Compassion has been
defined as the arising in the heart of the desire to relieve
the suffering of all beings. At its most evolved form, compassionate
action doesnt arise solely out of personal desire. That kind of compassion may only
have a limited end goal - someone will notice me, Ill be thought
of well in my profession, Ill get to be elected to a city
or state office. Rather the kind of compassion I
am talking about is one that stems from the desire created by the
collective suffering of all beings.
action in this sense encourages us to see ourselves as the members
not only of our families and communities but to extend our vision
to those others who are members of a larger family - that of the
human race. It is this
extended vision of family and community, that I think drives the
social justice activist today whether she is advocating diversity
in the workplace and in education or other social services, or whether
she is struggling to end the oppression of poverty by volunteering
for Habitat for Humanity or educating the poor in Central America
or helping unionize workers in a U.S-owned sweatshop operating across
the border or in East Asia.
how I would like to think of the work I have been doing now for
a couple of years with women at the Mexican border. I formed a research
institute called Women on the Border to document a few womens
lives. The process
was interesting. First
I was researching immigrants rights issues; INS raids in the workplace
and the impact on families.
I began to advocate the importance of the stories in peoples
lives. I remembered
experiences from my own life, of living with a Mexican family that
were distant relatives of my Abuelita when I was a student in a
colegio in Guadalajara. I
remembered my cousins husband just showing up one day without
notice at the doorstep and his telling us hes been caught
in a raid and sent back home like cattle on a train down to Mexico.
Those stories pretty soon had me researching more about abuses
of the INS at the Mexican border and I learned about the documentation
that was being done by human rights groups and I was shocked at
the incredibly high number of deaths that happen for migrants who
cant cross legally so they return to jobs or return from having
visited families and try to avoid the militarized border patrol.
And they die drowning in sewer drainpipes in San Diego as
they crossed at night with a coyote. Or they suffocate in crammed
trailers of trucks or of exposure to intense desert hear or to freezing
cold in high mountain passes. Those stories soon led me to a questioning
of the policies at the border.
And soon I began to see an interesting pattern at the border.
The border being closed to brown people on one side but open
to white investors on the otherunder the privileges of NAFTA
I knew I wanted to know more about the workers in the factories
known as maquiladoras at the border.
Theyre factories owned by big multinationals, the ones
that bring you all those wonderful products you get at Target, Walmart
or everytime you buy a new car.
And they are earning wages that average about $5..00 per
day. And no, you cant say, well
things are cheaper in Mexico because the cost of living at the border
is about 90% of the cost of items in the U.S.
isnt the worst of it.
The stories about the workers tell of sweatshop conditions
that means 10-12 hour workdays, a woman not even being able
to go to the bathroom when she needs, female workers having spontaneous
abortions in the workplace because of the stressful conditions or
because they have been exposed to toxic chemicals and because the
owners of the factories care more about meeting a production quota
of things that will be exported back to the U.S. than to spend money
on adequate safety gear and training for prevention from inhaling
P A U S
E - Unfortunately it gets worse.
My most recent project involving women at the border is focusing
on the pattern of unsolved murders of young women; sometimes they
were victims of domestic violence and rape; but a great number of
them fit a profile; a young worker going to and from work in a factory,
being about 15-25, often pretty. Ciudad Juarez is a scary and violent
city for women. The
unsolved murders number now in the few hundreds.
Their bodies are found brutally tortured and burned.
the problem here? The
fact that so many young women whose bodies have been exploited for
work in the factories, then become victims as they go to and from
work of a vanishing phenomenon tells you something about the attitudes
of the owners of those factories.
An expoitable worker, expoitable bodies, whether for work,
rape or crime.
them young. The supervisors who do the hiring.
You are old by the time you are 30..
Let me introduce you to Maria Elena and Veronica in Reynosa. Both are married, Each
when I met them was only 27; they were activists in the maquiladoras
and they do it knowing the risks; of being blacklisted for organizing. Maria Elena knew I was interested
in learning about the health impact on women in the maquiladoras. She took of her socks; showed me
scars on her feet. .etc She
eventually quit because the rotting and infection that was happening
on her feet was threatening gangrene.
She like Veronica began working at age 15.
Veronica at age 15 wanted to help her mother. She saved money
to buy a little plot of land. They began to build she and her
grandfather. Literally with her small hands.
young women been working
in Juarez in the last 5 years they easily could have become one
of the victims of the murders. Maria Elena is pretty, a wide big
smile and long dark hair.
Veronica is also pretty, worked hard.
year alone in the late nineties, 150
girls disappeared in the Juarez area.
They stopped for a while around 1997 but the latest report
I got of a brutal murder of a young woman happened just last November.
So why do we want to care about what is happening in the global economy
as it is seen at the Mexican border?
The stories of the oppression and the violence present you
a future. Just as we are talking about becoming
this wonderful Latino presence in the U.S. at our backs and our back doors people that look just like
us are not respected, are paid low wages, are seen as expendable
are just sweatshop laborers. Theyre the kind of sweatshop
conditions that you dont have to travel far to find
Im sure you can find them somewhere in the nearby city of
Chicago, in L.A., in New York. Some of the factories are just relocated
versions of what existed in other major cities throughout the U.S.
writer put it well, the floor under the gore of Juarez and the
murders of young women is an economy of factories owned by foreigners,
mainly Americans. Ah but there is one more ironythe
supervisors in those factories are often American citizens, and
sometimes those 2-3 thousand m
anagers are Anglo and white but
sometimes they are Latina/os in the U.S., and they commute back
and forth from the U.S. border city and earn very nice salaries
so they can have a microwave, and a nice big screen TV and put into
the VCR that has no doubt been assembled by workers of his own race
and ethnicity that put those items together for $5.00 a day and
we talk about our own issues in this country if we disconnect ourselves
emotionally from the problems of others?
Truthfully I think good, caring people detach emotionally
because in fact it would be too much to open your heart to the pain
of knowing that you contributed through lack of understanding to
another child who was born, for example, anencephalic, that means
without a brain because his mother was exposed to toxic chemicals
or because the water piped into his neighborhood is polluted by
the drainoff of an American factory that shutdown here in the U.S.
leaving lots of workers out of jobs and moved away to Mexico to
experience the wonderful benefits of NAFTA virtually no taxes,
cheap expendable labor and the ability to live high on the hog on
those profits made from global production.
I dont have the answers to these issues. I am only in the business of educating people about the issues. I am not a policy maker. I am a researcher, a lecturer and
a writer. But I do think that we are all capable
of compassion in action, even in small ways. For some of us it may be learning more and educating others
about the issues. Or
not contributing so much to the throwaway economy; or refusing to
buy products that were made under sweatshop conditions; or joining
a protest or just writing a letter to a Congressman who is considering
voting for more unregulated free trade that doesnt care about
providing workers with living wages.
Even the maquiladora workers themselves will tell you we dont
necessarily want the jobs to go away.
But if there is a labor law and it is not being respected,
or there is a health and safety regulation and its not being
enforced then all we want is our rights. Our right to work and be treated
fairly and our right to a living wage.
Its really that simple.
Whether the global economy is seen here in Illinois or in
a twin plant in Texas and in Mexico, the impact of the global economy
should not translate into the right to dehumanize other peoples.
Didnt we legislate against that when we abolished slavery
in this country?
So I return to the subject of engagement in compassionate action. Obviously this is a very personal
journey. Its about making a decision
to become a social justice activist.
Of course, you might ask, how do I do that and still show
up for my job, pay my rent or my mortage, file my taxes, attend
to the needs of my immediate fa
offer a quote -- When
you offer yourself in service, it opens your own heart so that you
may once again taste the sweetness of your own hearts innate
this phrase in a book that was about getting on the path of compassionate
action. Id bought the book years ago
and never got around to reading it.
And then one day I was ready for it. I was in fact drawn
to it because some part of me wanted some guidance; I
wanted to know how I could bring more compassion into my daily life,
into my work as a teacher, as a law professor, as a writer, as a
researcher. And I connected with the author who was another intellectual
who had seen the limits of his moral and spiritual growth in a liberal political activism that
in the end translated into lots of talk and not much walk.
resonated because I realized that his book had started with the
same kind of questioning I was doing myself, a wanting to make a
meaningful connection between my values and my abilities.
would I want to do that? Well, I
would want to do that because it truly makes me happier.
And we all want a little happiness. They say that there is joy in the giving, and there is, and
that is probably what he meant by tasting
the sweetness of my own hearts innate compassion.
Yesterday, I learned that a national human rights group based
in Phihladelphia, that has a Mexico Border Projoect, has found a couple of my stories and they want to reproduce
them in a Spanish booklet that will be distributed to a workers
education group. Now that satisfies me. It says that what I do best, which
is to research and write might actually help a worker learn that
she is not alone. Because I wrote those articles using
the voices and the stories of workers themselves in my desire to
give a human face to all that talk about free trade and the global
economy and NAFTA.
to connect your values with your talents can be challenging. I have
to admit that throughout my own career its not been easy finding
the connections between talent and values that worked. I
happened to have found the encouragement I needed from a Harvard
professor who gave up his tenure in order to teach thousands and
motivate them to engage in social justice activism on issues of
poverty, AIDS, homelessness, environmental racism, Native-American
land rights, and so on. I
needed that encouragement a few years ago because I had been beaten
down by a discriminatory system at the University of Texas and suddenly
I was questioning everything about myself and my talents and what
I wanted to do with my life. The pain from the conflict and the
eventual joy from knowing that yes, I am different, and there is
nothing wrong with that, suddenly clicked one day as I attended
and got all excited about a scholarship movement called Latina
Critical legal theory.
I thought thats me Latina, feminist,
criticona, a lawyer and a thinker and a writer! It was like coming home to myself.
thing led to another and another and now here I am running this
little project called Women on the Border while also being a law
professor and just telling cuentos with the hope that they will
So I ask you,
What is it that feeds your heart? To put yourself on a path of compassionate
action requires more than the insight of good feelings, like the
feelings you might have as you walk out of a church with on a Sunday
morning after a particularly good sermon. It requires some work into
discovering for yourself, and I mean REALLY DISCOVERING FOR YOURSELF,
that in fact there is more to life than meets the eye,
that is more to life than just getting a college or graduate or
professional degree, a house, a job, a promotion, a good salary,
a nice car, a nice vacation, more publications and more certificates
and credentials to hang on your wall.
It may mean questioning the role these things are playing
in your life. What is the work that makes you really
happy? What relationship do your talents and your values have to
the work you do that earns you wages and the work that does not?
I guess another way of describing this process is to
listen to your inner voice, or finding your vocation or mission
in life. Sometimes people dont really find what they REALLY
WANT TO BE DOING until they realize what they didnt want to
be doing. Also, the question only barely
get you on the path of action. The rest begins with some kind of
practice. They say its better to start small.
Act from the heart and not from the ego. Act
from what you know your family and community needs. Maybe you cant solve homelessness or hunger in your
community, but can you volunteer at a shelter or give regularly
to a charitable group? Do you have a bilingual skill that an immigrants
rights group can use?
These considerations, like starting small, I have to apply to myself. Ive now published a
huge study on the conditions for women in the factories at the border. But I cant challenge all those
companies. The realistic part of me knows that
what I can do best is continue to write and lecture, maybe join
the group that is helping the women form unions, do a little fundraising
now and then for workers who are injustly fired that I get to know
through the Mexican based education group that is helping workers.
Last week when I was in Austin for Spring Break and some WOB business. through one
of those groups I served as interpreter for two children being fitted
for new donated wheelchairs.
Their mother is a maquiladora worker who cant afford
to buy them new wheelchairs. Both of these kids have spina bifida
anda will never walk. Those
2 hours of service just doing what I can do in spanish interpretation
were among the most joyful experiences I have ever had.
you then with these unabashedly idealistic notions of mine.
Yes, I am a scholar and a teacher and a social justice activist. And there was a time once, I remember
being an expert witness in a deposition in a discrimination law
suit and the lawyer for the defendants were trying to discredit
everything I said by saying, well arent you just an
I actually resisted that and today I regret it; because what I should
have said, Yes, I sure as hell am, and whats wrong with that?! If being an activist for social justice means using
my brain and my talents and my values, and my heart to do just a
little good in the world, if it means experiencing a little of the
sweetness of my own innate compassion, then I gladly adopt the role,
and invite you to join me in the practice.