En español | In 2000, I founded an organization called Las Comadres Para Las Americas (translated as Female Friends for the Americas), an informal Internet-based group that meets monthly in many U.S. cities to build connections and community with other Latinas. What started 18 years ago as a handful of women in Austin, Texas, has become a network of 20,000 Latinas in more than 100 cities across the country and in Puerto Rico and Canada. Las Comadres empowers Latina women to embrace their culture, step up in their careers, run for office and otherwise improve our communities.
The problem I’m trying to solve
The Latino population in this country is booming – nearly 58 million Latinos reside in the United States. In my own city of Austin,Texas for example, Latinos make up 38 percent of the community. Yet our ranks are painfully thin at the upper echelons of management, government and civic organizations, especially for women. My goal is to break through barriers holding back many Latinas. I’m working to ensure that more Latinas sit on boards, run for public office, start businesses, publish books and generally continue to support and challenge one another. As our political climate grows more divisive, organizations like Las Comadres need to increase efforts to build inclusion and collaboration, to celebrate culture, and continue to focus on education and opportunity for all. As Latinas, we’ve learned to take care of others but not ourselves. I tell comadres that the best gifts they can give their families is to nurture themselves, and that starts with making the time to be healthy, forge the right connections and pursue their dreams.
The moment that sparked my passion
In 1982, I was at the University of Texas at Austin, getting my Ph.D. in Educational Administration. I was painfully aware that my cultural roots were slipping away and that I was dangerously close to losing my cultural identity. I felt a deep desire to connect on a close personal level with other Latinas in the community to build and maintain my cultural heritage. But when I reached out to the Latino community in East Austin they ignored me. They didn’t want anything to do with me because I hadn’t been born there. I kept trying — I joined some of their local organizations and attended events — but people would walk past me as if I didn’t exist. Eventually, I was persistent enough that they came around. But I had a gnawing feeling that I wasn’t the only Latina experiencing this lack of a connection. Twenty years later, in 2002, I was interviewed by a local newspaper, the Austin American Statesman, about my experiences and I mentioned that I was trying to build a local club for women, one Latina at a time. The paper shared my email address and within 72 hours 500 women had emailed me. I invited them all to an informal event at my home, and 140 of them showed up. The group took off after that.
Advice to others who want to make a difference
If you feel passionate enough about a cause, just go ahead and do it. If you believe in it sufficiently, you’ll be able to create something out of nothing. My story is a perfect example. When I founded Las Comadras, I literally had nothing other than my email account. Luckily, I was at the beginning of that intersection of technology and community building, so I didn’t have to plan too much out. I started up a Yahoo Group and sent out Evites, and my organization grew from there. But at the same time, you need practicality as well as passion to keep you going long term. As your project gains steam, make sure you have some money behind you. While Las Comadras has relied mainly on volunteers, some corporate funding allowed me to take time off during periods when either my mother or husband were sick. That way, I could hire people to do my job for me while I was away. Without it, my organization would have probably folded.
The struggles that shaped my life
I was adopted as a newborn by my maternal aunt and her husband. When I was born, my birth mother refused to feed me or even look at me. Even though I had an idyllic childhood with my adoptive parents, it always haunted me that my mother seemingly wanted nothing to do with me. I knew who she was, and that I had nine other biological brothers and sisters, yet I had no contact with her. It wasn’t until she was on her deathbed in 1999 that I learned the truth. I had been a gift to my aunt and uncle because they were unable to have their own children. My mother had wanted nothing to do with me as a newborn, for fear that she would become attached and unwilling to give me up. Looking back, I think the extreme loneliness I experienced throughout my life, and the extreme desire to have a connection with other Latinos stems to the fact that I always knew that I had nine brothers and sisters that I never grew up with. In many ways, creating Las Comadres was my own attempt to recreate my biological family.
Why my approach is unique
Las Comadres started as a support group, but it’s really so much more than that. While we do hold local meetings where Latina women can gather in the intimacy of someone’s home to talk, laugh, and cry, I try to use these meetings as a way to engage and integrate Latinas into the broader community. When I started Las Comadres, there weren’t other organizations that both provided emotional support and professional opportunities for Latinas. Women were still introverted within the Latino community, and did not truly know one another. By creating a way for Latinas to naturally connect with each other, I have found a way to both boost women’s confidence and engage them in innovative projects. The Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club that I launched in 2008, for example, eventually led to our organization publishing a book, Count on Me: Tales of Sisterhoods and Fierce Friendship with Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster. I also created Comadre University, a non-credit informal class program in 2010, and Empresarias Entrepreneurship Training in 2012, a program funded by State Farm that allowed eight low-income, Spanish dominant women to learn about starting their own businesses. But unlike other professional organizations, there are no dues, no officers, no meetings, and no commitments. All that you need to join is an email address—and if you don’t have one, you can connect via a church or a social services agency. I always tell other Latinas, “Don't let a shy comadre stand outside the group, bring her in and help her feel at home.”