Somos Latinas at Meadowridge Public Library
The Many Faces of Change
By Hedi Rudd

Somos Latinas, or “We are Latinas” is described as “essential reading for scholars,
historians, activists and anyone curious about how everyday citizens can effect change
in their communities.” A collaboration between Dr. Andrea-Teresa Arenas and Eloisa
Gomez, the book is based on a project that started in 2012 and collected oral histories of
Latina activists in Wisconsin. The book highlights the positive impact the women have
had in their communities and how identity culture and choices have shaped their lives
as activists.

On November 27th, Madison Public Library at Meadowridge, in collaboration with
Beyond the Page and the National Endowment for the Humanities, presented Somas
Latinas, a presentation featuring Eloisa Gomez and two of the women whose stories
make up the book.

A total of 25 women from Wisconsin are featured, with most of the women coming from
Racine, Kenosha, Green Bay, Madison and Milwaukee. The book is primarily focused on
older women, 60-80 years old, except for the Green Bay women. They are U.S. born and
some are from other countries and they represent a variety of ethnicities.
“So many women we talked to did not think that their efforts added up to much,” Gomez
said. “There is a sense that no one really cares about them or what they did or that what
they did was enough. What they don’t see is the historical record that we really need to
keep.”

“The Somos Latina book is based on the work that was done with the Somos Latina
History Project, directed by Dr. Andrea-Teresa Arenas the co-author of the book,” Gomez
emphasized. “That work was a number of oral history video interviews, 43 of them, in
partnership with Chicana Por Mi Raza, a national organization that focuses on the
contributions of Latina activists in the United States. Also involved was the Wisconsin
State Historical Society, active in providing the training to the students who assisted and
the University of Wisconsin – Madison who provided financial contributions to help them
get around Wisconsin to conduct interviews.”

“If you try to define what community activism is, I challenge you to find the definitive
concept of what it is,” Gomez continued. “I did research over time and there are a lot of
definitions. Generally, activism reflects an inclusive range of deliberative actions to
engage others in responding to injustice, inequality and or conditions which people felt
needed to be changed. That means it can be in your face marching down the street with
ten thousand other people or it could be burning the midnight oil because this project
needs to get done and someone needs to do it and you are with yourself or others, a
school board meeting at two o’clock in the morning, the unglamorous stuff that people
rarely see.”

“A sampling of their stories includes childhood memories, which may be here in the U.S.
or in another country, or of their immigration to the U.S.,” Gomez went on to say. “The
awareness and distinction of race, gender and ethnicity, for some they learned it very
early on in their childhood years. For others, it hit them later. It was the growing
awareness of the social, economic and educational inequities. Why is it that it’s good for
some people and not good for other people? There are some stories that will bring a lump
to your throat, thinking about when you are that young and you see inequities and you are
on the not so good side and what does that feel like. Then we talk about their searches for solutions. What were those searches? Not all of them were successful.
But they were in their effort to try to make change.”

Joining Gomez were Sylvia Garcia and Yolanda Garza, who are both featured in the book and live in Madison. They read excerpts from the book.

Garcia was born in Waukesha and attended UW-Madison and helped to create the University’s Chican@ and Latin@ Studies Program. She also helped to create the
Latino Health Council of Madison and has been active with the Wisconsin Women of Color Network.

“I think I always did identify myself as Mexican American and with the knowledge that my ethnicity made me different from the majority group,” Garcia reflected. “I
remember sitting in my third-grade class and looking at my arm and seeing that I was darker than the other kids in the room and thinking to myself, ‘Why?’ I mean, I
was just questioning: why the difference? And I think that even at that young age of a third grader, I began to question the issues of my color and why the way I
looked was different. I tried to process what was my place as a result.”

Garcia went on to share the story of how she and other Latin@’s collaborated to start the UW Madison Chican@ and Latin@ Studies Program and the internal and
external struggles they faced.

Yolanda Garza grew up on Chicago’s South Side and moved to Wisconsin in 1983. She helped to form the Latina Task Force, a Latina advocacy group in Wisconsin,
and the Wisconsin Hispanic Council on Higher Education. She would later become an assistant dean at UW-Madison and volunteered with various organizations on
and off campus, including the Madison Police and Fire Commission.

“I was fortunate in that my mother was very active on the South Side of Chicago, and so by attending meetings with my mother and others, I watched them address
issues way back then as a young girl,” Garza said. “I think that helped me feel confident. I used some of their strategies when I first assisted in organizing a walkout
in my eighth-grade class. I did that because I felt that there were some injustices that were taking place.”

Garza went on to obtain her degree and became a teacher and eventually the assistant principal at the school where she staged her first walkout.

Also included in the book are the stories of three other Madison Latina activists. Gladis Benavides, Debora Gil Casado and Lucia Nunez.

You can follow the Somos Latina History Project on Facebook,
www.facebook.com/SomosLatinasHistoryProject/, to find out the next opportunity to hear from the
authors and inspirational women featured in the project. You can also take part in the project by submitting your own oral history, perhaps your own or a woman who
needs to see her work as a part of our local Latina history. You can visit the website to listen to the recorded interviews online and download a Curriculum Packet
for Grades 6-12. Their website can be accessed at
http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p15932coll15