EL PASO — It sounded like a fiesta, but between the laughter and loud chatter the group of some 80 Latina women examined the existential questions of identity and women’s rights.
Organized here recently by Wise Latina International the women, who live on the U.S.-Mexico border, were challenged to identify, debate and find solutions to the challenges of maintaining self worth and contributing to their communities in the face of obstacles such as getting a good education and creating a productive life for themselves and their families.
Two summits at the El Paso downtown library over two weeks specifically addressed and developed an agenda for a Latina Women’s conference here scheduled for the spring of 2014.
The first summit hosted approximately 70 local women from diverse walks of life. The second summit attracted over 80 women. Both were open to the public and at each session professional women, working-class mothers and college students voiced their opinions on workplace, health, and community development issues.
Liz Chavez, a best selling author and president of Wise Latinas Int., wants the upcoming conference to help women by giving them the tools to improve their lives.
“We are trying to prioritize the issues that are important to us as women, as Latinas here in the border,” said Chavez. “Our mission is to raise awareness, educate and empower Latina women, along with women of all walks of life. Were trying to do that through entertainment and the arts.”
According to Chavez, Wise Latinas has been in development since 2010 and has a 15-member board, with one seat currently empty. At the moment they have some 85 members and are constantly seeking new members for the organization. The 2014 conference is planned to be the largest public event to date for Wise Latinas.
Although, women have made great strides in today’s society, there is still much information needed, according to Chavez. “One of the things that we found in doing some of our work is that there is very little information or data on Latina women. There’s information about Hispanics in general, women in general and there’s information on Latinos, but there is no specific information on Latinas.”
The highly debated question at the two summits was how to define Latinas, still an unexplored area by researchers and the media. “I don’t think that there is really a right or a wrong answer,” said Chavez.
“I think what binds us together is that we want a better quality of life,” she said.
Chavez said women in the borderland define themselves in many ways: as Mexican-American, Mexican, fronterizas or mestizas. A product of the civil rights and Chicano movement era, Chavez said she calls herself Chicana. “We also have those who just identify as American or just as Spanish-speaking women,” said Chavez.
Currently, Wise Latinas is working on the Latina Identity Project, to collect information and data on Latinas in the U.S. and in the border region. Chavez confirms that they are working on the project with UTEP Anthropology Professor Dr. Nina Núñez and former UTEP Professor Dr. Norma Mendoza.
Rebecca Carrasco, a UTEP journalism and engineering major, is currently assisting in creating a database for Wise Latinas. “We kind of want to know what is going on with us. We know that more women are getting degrees, but do people leave (college) because they want to have families? Or are they divorced and they’re the ones supporting the family? We want to know what it is to be a Latina in the border with all these numbers,” said Carrasco.
El Paso City Representative Emma Acosta currently on the board of Wise Latinas told the meeting of the struggle of being torn between her Mexican and American identities.
As a child, Acosta grew up in the border speaking “Spanglish” and visiting her relatives in Juárez. She also reminisced about her parents contrasting views on her role as a woman. Her father told her she would be a good housewife with no need for an education and her mother emphasized the importance of being an educated woman.
“We’re trying to change the image of Latinas,” Acosta said. “We’re also trying to instill core values, and… self-worth and let them know that ‘you’re valuable, that you can make a difference in this life.’”
Acosta also wants to make a difference in the lives of younger Latina women and hope they will start supporting one another.
According to Acosta, Latinas make up 52 percent El Paso’s Hispanic population – about 340,000 women. “What we found out is that about 30 percent of them do not have a high school education, so we know education is an issue. We know that there is an increase in teen pregnancy, again another issue. We also know that only 19 percent (of Latinas) have a college education,” said Acosta.
She too faced many challenges in her life such as marrying young, divorcing young and becoming a single parent. Acosta highlighted how her mother became her children’s caretaker so she could attend college and work.
Acosta credits being the first in her family to attain her bachelor’s and master’s degrees because of her mother’s assistance. She hopes other women can obtain that same mentorship and support. The same sentiment was shared by the large group of diverse women who attended and collaborated in the summits, especially by Chavez.
Empowerment of Latina women is what the 2014 conference, in the beginning stages of being planned, is expected to do.
“By empowering the women, we empower the children, empower the family, and all of that together we empower the community,” said Chavez.