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A New Generation of Immigrant Rights Leaders

New America Media, News Feature, Eduardo Stanley Posted: Jun 26, 2006

Traduccin al espaol

Editors Note: Working class immigrant women are emerging as potent leaders within the immigrant rights movement.

FRESNO, CA-- Margarita paced around the stage and practiced her speech. She had only spoken before small groups, but this was different. Nearly 20,000 people and their families had gathered in front of the Fresno City Council building, singing, dancing, demanding immigration reform, and promising to vote in the future.

At first I felt nervous, but seeing so many people gave me strength, says the 27-year-old construction worker. Now I am more confident of what I am doing.

Margarita arrived in the United States from Mexico when she was 11, with her mother. She had a humble life in Mexico City: helping with housework, taking care of her sisters, sharing with her aunts, and going to school. Like many girls, she grew up without the presence of her father, who immigrated to the United States, and then forgot the family he left behind.

At age 18, she completed high school and gave birth to her daughter Jesenia. Since then she has shared her life with her husband, Eduardo Ruz, also from Oaxaca. After working various jobs, Margarita found her calling. An African-American man offered me work in construction and since then I have not put down a hammer, she says. I like machines and heavy tools. And, she adds, In spite of my small stature, I am strong.

In 1994, while the prospect of Proposition 187 shook communities throughout the state, Margarita also underwent her own transformative experience. A school security guard accused her of carrying a firearm. She was detained. They searched me like a criminal, with guns in their hands, she says. The episode convinced her of the need to raise ones voice against abuses of power, she says.

That year she participated together with hundreds of students in the protest marches against Proposition 187, proposed by then-governor Pete Wilson. The measure aimed to prohibit illegal immigrants from accessing state services.

For the last several years, she and her mother have volunteered at a Catholic church in Fresno, where they collaborate on different social programs. There they met an immigrant rights activist who invited them to participate in the Coalition that organized the immigrant marches in Fresno.

I believe it comes from family, says Isabel Vasquez, 48, Margaritas mother. I read the bible and it speaks about justice but in real life it is very different. You have to achieve it for yourself. She decided to emigrate to the United States because there were no jobs in her country, and because of this she feels expelled. She adds that the Mexican government not only does not help, but also hurts its people. I would have been happier in my community, she says.

She feels she has been strict with her three children but was afraid they would get involved in drugs or sex. However, she does not hide her satisfaction of seeing that her fears were unfounded and that between them there is communication. I like to participate with my daughter in this movement. In the Coalition we can speak our opinion and they respect us.

Margarita worries especially about the condition of Latina women, which she considers a product of her machista, or male-dominated culture. She says women who suffer domestic violence feel they cannot escape, but if they are helped they do change. Then they will see that there is a different world and they can overcome it.

Even she has proven herself. Today, Margarita works in a firm that installs rain gutters, mainly on new houses, and believes that she is in her own way advancing the cause of immigrant women. I am the only woman. I feel good, and I believe I can open doors for other women.

margarita in construction

She moves quickly, climbs stairs, takes measurements, cuts the material and installs it. Always with a smile on her lips, she only interrupts her work for a few minutes to speak with her family on the telephone. For a while I was chosen to supervise a group of 25 workers, but because they were men they resisted my instructions, she says. She laughs, tosses her head back and adds, They pretended not to hear me and even made jokes about the boss.

But she managed. I do not feel discriminated against. They know what I can do, she says. I have a strong character. I do not like injustices. If I see my neighbors husband hitting her, I get involved.

Although she loves her job, organizing has gotting Margarita to thing about bigger plans. I would like to form a womens coalition, so our voice can be heard. She believes women are more convincing and visualizes a march of women, with their children. We are going forward, she says.

It is not surprising, because for Margarita, learning about human and labor rights is like learning to handle tools: Both things, she says, have a constructive purpose.

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