After my father’s sudden passing when my mother was just 24, she decided to emigrate from the Dominican Republic to the United States, in search of a more promising future – for both of us. Although my mother had led a seemingly productive life in Santo Domingo, studying secretarial/office skills at night and working during the day, opportunities for economic advancement in our country, especially for widowed women with children, were scarce. After arriving in this country, however, she quickly discovered that her limited command of English meant that even many low-level jobs were out of reach for her. Couple the language barrier with her yet-to-be-defined immigration status, the horizons of her day soon contracted to working in a factory in substandard conditions, and in a constant panic of the “migra” coming in. All this, just to be able to send whatever she could in remittances for my education and well-care. It was not until 1982, eight years later, that I was able to join her. We often seem like strangers, having not known one another between my fourth and 12th birthday. Whenever I hear about “self-deportation” among conservative debaters, I wonder if they really know what that means.
I moved to New York City at the age of 12, and for as far back as I can remember nonprofit organizations were more my family-support system than my blood family. As a young immigrant woman, I endured many of the challenges that continue to plague Latinas today. And, unfortunately, my first encounter with education was an inadequate bilingual system, a system that was apathetic, prejudicial and unresponsive, a system that continuously shadowed and labeled me with “scarlet letters” i.e., M= minority, N= needy, D= disadvantaged. I felt disconnected, and mostly out of frustration and boredom I began a zero period study club with the help of my Cuban social studies teacher. Shortly after, a school friend introduced me to a nonprofit organization that provided me with the support, tools and opportunities that I needed to develop and empower myself. Equipped with these new skills, I learned to change these negative labels, and transform them into positive actions. At age 18, my family’s immigration status was stable. I was starting college [the first woman in my family to do so], and I secured my first full-time job as a Youth Coordinator for a nonprofit youth program. My salary was three times that of my mother. I was able to convince her to leave the factory job and go back to school. Today, we still joke about her “David Copperfield like powers” to stretch each dollar to cover rent, food, and clothes during those days.
My story is not uncommon in Latino circles. The opportunities available to me helped me become socially responsible and conscientious about my needs, and the needs of the people and the environment that surrounded me. I was also very fortunate; often surrounded by strong Latina mentors that guided and supported me. Also, I come from a history of resilient, heroic women. International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is sparked by the three [Dominican] Mirabal sisters – Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa – violently assassinated for their political activism.
The path of social services defined me, and in turn, I have dedicated my life to define, develop, expand and strengthen social services and a progressive agenda for social equity. At age 24, I founded Youth Unlimited, the youth department of the Citizens Committee for New York City. I helped trained and deploy thousands of young people to toot their own horn, and play the music of youth empowerment and community development for their peers to follow, and for their communities to benefit from their hard work, positive energy and creativity.
It’s hard to believe that decades later, we are once again fighting for access and opportunity through the Dream Act, as we simultaneously see unprecedented attacks on women’s rights, the dignity of immigrant families, and the health of our communities. While the GOP race as of late seems almost comical, our challenges should not be underestimated. But neither should our power. Even as Latinas face policies that endanger our health and divide our families, we are ignited to fight back – and have more determination than ever before through our leadership development, convening and pooling of resources.
For more than 35 years, Tides has been a trusted partner with donors and community allies. Our significant pool of donor-directed vehicles are led by women, for women. We’ve helped hundreds of women-led organizations nationally and globally to fight for changes like access to education, good and equal paying jobs, reproductive rights, ending violence against women and sex trafficking of young girls, and the inclusion of women at decision-making tables. Our donor-advised funds have invested millions and influenced other funders to support solutions from the ground up. Together, our possibilities into the future are infinite, and can not be limited by gender, race, class, or any other factor. After all – we are Super Poderosas!
Alexandra Rojas, Advisor at Tides
Photo via Flickr user pdxmorris, used under Creative Commons license