The dynamic leadership of Latina women workers: a force transcending borders

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This spring I read the mystery novel Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders, written by Alicia Gaspar de Alba. The book spotlights the ongoing, real-life epidemic killings of women during a period of more than 15 years in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican border town just across from El Paso, Texas.

The story begins as the main character, Ivon Villa, is traveling from Los Angeles to a family reunion in El Paso. While on a plane she reads, for the first time, about the mass murders of young female factory workers in Juárez. She becomes outraged that she was unaware of this tragedy taking place so near her own hometown. As the plot unfolds, Ivon must enter a dangerous world where women mysteriously disappear and are later found tortured, raped and murdered.

True to reality, the author makes clear the abject indifference of law enforcement and elected officials on both sides of the border to this femicide. She shows their collusion with the big factory owners who have callously done nothing to protect their employees.

The culture that a “liberalized” economy has engendered in Mexico is aptly described by Gaspar de Alba as well.

The shocking homicides in Juárez began just as the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented for the benefit of U.S. corporations. The treaty has wreaked havoc on communities in southern Mexico, creating widespread poverty that forces many Mexicanas to move north to make a living at one of the multinational assembly factories proliferating in cities like Juárez.

Once there, the maquiladora workers become expendable. Super-exploited, low-waged, brown-skinned and female, their lives become so devalued that little is done when they turn up murdered by the hundreds.

Although this horror has received some notice and awareness has increased, bodies of women still continue to be discovered and ignored. In Desert Blood, Gaspar de Alba strongly indicts the mainstream press for remaining silent. She is outspoken about her goal of using her novel to bring attention to these unnoticed deaths — which are echoed unhappily in Guatemala as well.

Desert Blood is a good and worthwhile read. But finishing it left me frustrated. With all that Gaspar de Alba manages to incorporate into it, the book is virtually silent on the collective feminist fight against these terrible murders — in which the author herself is active.

Mothers and families of the victims have risen up to spearhead a fervent grass-roots movement. They have made black crosses on a pink background the symbol of the slain women, galvanized people all over the world, organized marches and rallies, and pressured officials to do something about ending the atrocities. And, while doing all that, these stalwart women are politically defining their movement by connecting this struggle for justice to the fight against corporate globalization.

And they are not alone in their display of leadership. In the years since “free trade” became the capitalist mantra, women internationally have been crucial to the mobilization against it. This is just as true in the United States, where immigrant Latinas are playing a major role, as it is anywhere.

Neoliberalism has forced women from all over Latin America to ultimately migrate to el Norte in order to survive. The U.S. “welcomes” these hard-working newcomers into a hostile environment where they are subjugated and diminished as a source of cheap labor. They are greeted with raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), deportations, racist scapegoating, and false, sexist accusations of dropping “anchor” babies in order to remain in the country. And they are threatened by the Minutemen, vigilantes who are a breeding ground for fascists.

None of this has stopped these very same women from helping to forge a vibrant immigrant rights movement. Just as in Juárez, Latina community leaders in the U.S. are bringing it to the streets in a public stand against xenophobia and government complicity with their exploiters and violators.

One such inspiring woman is Elvira Arellano, an undocumented immigrant with a U.S.-born son who boldly defied a deportation order and took sanctuary at a Chicago church in August 2006. By going public with her resistance, she helped to focus defenders of immigrants on the ICE raids, lit a spark for a developing sanctuary movement, and roused international support. Although authorities insist they have the right to enter the church to seize her, they have not done so.

I’ve encountered resourceful women like Elvira Arellano during two trips I’ve made this year with sisters and comrades in Radical Women (RW) and the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) to Yakima, Washington, a town of mostly migrant farm workers.

On our first visit, to participate in a May Day march and rally, I listened attentively as Latinas told their stories of organizing a protest against Minutemen who were holding a recruitment meeting at a publicly owned plaza.

A few weeks later, at a student conference, I met women who spoke out against “guest worker” programs and deportations and called for both women’s rights and full amnesty for all immigrants without papers. One of these women, Rosalinda Guillen, a veteran community organizer, has initiated regular monthly protest rallies outside an immigrant detention center in Tacoma, Washington.

For many Latinas and our allies, the heightened attacks on immigrants have not slowed us down, but have only rejuvenated our will to keep on fighting.

In Seattle this summer, RW and FSP were busy organizing a “Love Knows No Borders” contingent for a Gay Pride parade on June 23 when we discovered at the eleventh hour that the Minutemen were planning a demonstration on the same afternoon. After spreading the word, our multigenerational contingent of immigrant and native-born feminists, queers, and people of all colors marched in the parade and then headed downtown. There we and others confronted the Minutemen spiritedly and outlasted them.

In Los Angeles on the same Saturday, strong women were again part of a multi-racial group demonstrating against a Minuteman march through South Central. When the hate-mongers reached Leimert Park to hold their rally, they were blocked by militant protesters, led by Black women, who successfully prevented the Minutemen from entering the park.

Referring to the essential role of women’s leadership, African American poet June Jordan wrote, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” And how could it be otherwise?

Women pay the highest price for capitalist oppression. But this is also the spur that gives us the strength to demand a new kind of society, in which our lives count for something, whether we live in Juárez, or Yakima, or Lagos, or Kabul. In other words, the strength to be leaders. And this is something that no amount of persecution and repression can ever erase or silence.

Seattle Radical Women Organizer Christina López, a native of Arizona, plays a key feminist and unifying role in the Northwest fight for immigrant rights. She can be reached at

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