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How uncovering the history of her hometown helped this mom find her activist voice.

15 years ago, Hilda Villegas’ family was counting on her: She needed to find both work and child care, and it couldn’t wait.

Hilda was a single mom with two daughters — the oldest was 4 and the youngest only 3 months old. Their father wasn’t providing the support they needed, so Hilda had to drop out of college to care for them. The problem was that she had very little work experience, so it wasn’t easy to find a job. But her family was depending on her.

Thankfully, her daughter’s teacher told her that a local organization called La Mujer Obrera provides great child care and could pick up her kids for day care. She jumped at the chance to sign up.

But La Mujer Obrera is a lot more than just a great child care service. The El Paso, Texas, organization is committed to looking out for members of the surrounding community and helping them in any way it can.

Children of La Mujer Obrera attend the spring festival at Tierra es Vida Community Farm. Image via La Mujer Obrera.

Despite having limited work experience, La Mujer Obrera gave Hilda the chance to work as a receptionist; and that, in turn, helped her learn new job skills. They even helped her secure an apartment that was a five-minute walk from the day care center and in the neighborhood where she’d lived her entire life.

“Being able to live in the barrio and having a job here was … the best thing for me in terms of a safety net,” Hilda says.

La Mujer Obrera took a creative approach to giving this single mom the support she needed, and it’s a wonderful example of how it empowers working women.

Founded in 1981 by female garment workers and Chicana activists, La Mujer Obrera focuses on basic human rights for women of Mexican heritage. It hosts community organizing programs to help local residents stand up for their rights when it comes to economic and environmental issues.

La Mujer Obrera leaders also recognize that residents like Hilda can’t show up for community organizing unless they have some of their basic needs taken care of. After all, juggling work and family responsibilities along with community involvement isn’t easy.

So by providing things like child care, nutritious food, and job training, La Mujer Obrera is helping community members attend civic meetings and get their voices heard.

That’s also why the nonprofit’s programs include a community farm and farmers market that provide jobs and fresh, healthy food. It operates these programs thanks to a grant from The Kresge Foundation’s Fresh, Local, and Equitable initiative, known as FreshLo.

The grant is especially important to La Mujer Obrera because the funding comes from an organization that also focuses on multiple aspects that revitalize a community — like arts and culture, health, and community development — rather than just one of those aspects.

An educational workshop on nutrition and fresh food preparation. Image via La Mujer Obrera.

At La Mujer Obrera, fresh food goes hand-in-hand with empowering the community. By maintaining the farm and market, the leaders help local immigrants stay connected to the food that helps them feel at home, such as nopales, a nutritious type of cacti that’s common in Mexico. This also gives residents a chance to connect with nature and green space, which is all too rare in the area.

For the garment workers who once helped establish the organization, being exploited in dehumanizing conditions like concrete factories was the norm. So now, La Mujer Obrera sees reconnecting with the land in nourishing ways as a form of resistance.

A children’s march for education, led in part by Hilda’s daughter, Katherine, on the left. Image via Hilda Villegas.

With the organization’s support, Hilda didn’t have to stress as much about providing for her family — which, in turn, helped her focus on the needs of her community.

“They gave me the opportunity to learn how to speak, how to define myself,” she says. “A person can actually grow to their full potential, knowing that you have this organization that cares, not just about you, but about your kids … and they actually care about the community.”

Hilda went on to participate in several of La Mujer Obrera’s community organizing programs — including community outreach, educational workshops on local government, and environmental studies — to learn more about the effects of the area’s poor air quality. In the process of learning community organizing strategies, she also uncovered the history of how immigrants built her community and how her ancestors survived.

For example, the La Mujer Obrera Community farm serves as an educational hub for workshops. While cooking workshops teach participants how to prepare healthy food like nopales, they also provide history lessons on how the ancestors used different types of cacti over the course of their lifetimes. In the process, participants get a chance to discover how cultivating fresh food plays a role in keeping families and communities united.

As she has learned and recruited more residents to participate, she has also developed leadership skills. In fact, she’s now the community organizer for a project called Familias Unidas del Chamizal.

A display at La Mujer Obrera’s 2017 Ancestral Health Fair. Image via La Mujer Obrera.

Hilda is helping Barrio Chamizal, the neighborhood where she grew up, keep its schools open, address environmental hazards, and secure vital resources such as fresh food for the underserved community. Her knowledge will help her neighbors continue to lift up their neighborhood for many years to come.

From being a struggling resident in need of opportunity to becoming a community leader, Hilda has come full circle.

It’s a remarkable transformation, but Hilda points out she’s far from the first to uncover her power and use it for good. La Mujer Obrera is simply building on the wisdom that’s been present in her community for centuries.

Hilda with her daughter, Mary Ann. Image via Hilda Villegas.

Hilda tears up when she thinks about how her work will help the next generation. She has four children now, and the two daughters she first brought to La Mujer Obrera’s day care center are now 16 and 19 years old. They’ve been empowered to make positive change too.

For example, through La Mujer Obrera, Hilda’s 16-year-old daughter, Katherine, is learning about an environmentally sustainable practice called water harvesting that her ancestors actually used. She helps collect rainwater to grow the community farm produce, such as dark leafy greens, multi-colored peppers, and fragrant herbs.

Every day, Hilda and her family continue to learn more about the environment, their health, and the role that food plays in community wellness. Hilda still considers herself new to healthy eating, but she’s so inspired by ancestral practices like water harvesting and cultivating edible plants that her attempts are turning into habits.

While these practices improve her quality of life, they just might help save the planet, too.

“[Our ancestors] respected the earth and what it represented. The earth is life for us,” Hilda says. “The only ones that can defend the earth are the people — the people that live here.”

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