Honoring women who transcend
By Antonio De Jesús Aguado
The origin of International Women’s Day is uncertain. However, many believe this day commemorates a fire at a textile factory in New York in which 129 women died. In San Miguel de Allende, many women have done great work to change the conditions of their neighborhoods or a whole rural community. Women such as Juanita Ramírez, who did not study law but has helped innocent women and men in legal cases and not lost a single case; Elsmarie Norby, a woman who rather than living a retired, tranquil life in a rural community was motivated by children to start Ojalá, a nonprofit organization; Sonia Vázquez, the delegada (president of the community) of Jalpa, who has supported her community through governmental programs to improve the residents’ quality of life; and Soledad Centeno, who started the Danza de Rayados in El Valle del Maíz and kept it going for more than 20 years.
International Women’s Day
On March 25, 1911, more than 100 women (most of them young women from other countries) were working under dangerous conditions at Triangle Shirtwaist of New York, in a 10-story building. Their appalling working conditions led them to declare a strike. In retaliation, the owner closed all the doors of the factory and set the building on fire. The women’s sacrifice was not in vain: new labor laws were enacted in the US and groups of women defending their labor and political rights were formed around the world. Although Women’s Day has been celebrated since 1911 in some countries, it was not until 1977 that the United Nations proclaimed March 8 of each year International Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.
“If you really want to experience peace and joy, go to any rural village in the world, sit and have no plans. Children will find you and will show you. Follow the children,” says Elsmarie Norby, an American who, after 12 years working in a nonprofit organization called ONIEL that offered music programs in public rural schools, decided to retire six years ago following loss of financing and a partner. She just wanted to rest and live a tranquil life in San Miguel Viejo, but children found her. They used to come to her door and call out, “Elsa, Elsa!” She, with no plans at all, let them into her house and lent them colored pencils, paper and scissors and they began drawing and to be entertained. The number of children visiting her started increasing, and that was how she decided to start Ojalá, a nonprofit after-school program that gives children in San Miguel Viejo a simple space where they can explore, discover and express their uniqueness in the arts, music and literature, a place where the seeds of self-confidence are planted and nurtured. According to Verónica Ramírez, Ojalá program director, Norby has made more room for the children. Nowadays, the whole house, and Veronica’s, fills with more than 100 children who come to express their creativity after school. Norby is 73-year-old musician, artist and photographer and does not get tired of working. In the TOSMA (organic farmers’ market) there is a stand where the art created by children is sold.
“I do not like easy things. I love challenges, and that is how I have learned,” Juanita Ramírez told Atención. She lives in Las Cuevitas, a neighborhood with more than 4,000 residents. When Juanita was two years old she was taken to Mexico City where she, her sister and her mother went to live with some her father’s relatives. “I never met my father; he just used to give my mother money to survive, but I never saw him. His relatives used to take advantage of us for being women. We had to cook, clean and do the laundry for them,” she commented. When Ramírez was 12 years old, her mother brought her back to San Miguel and she started working at the Instituto Allende helping Americans who played tennis; later, she was hired as an art restorer (work that she performed for 15 years). Later, she formed her own group of foreigners to give Spanish lessons, and although she did not speak English she said, “We did understand each other by gestures and signs.” She was 16 years old when her father arrived in San Miguel to start legal proceedings to take custody of her and her sister, and that is how she started getting involved with the law. She defended herself and won the case. Later, she defended a cousin of her own father and some other people who were accused of fraud by Juanita’s father. “He thought he could win by buying witnesses and lawyers, but I was smarter. That is how the news of my helping innocent people spread, and they started to look for me,” she recalls. Without being a lawyer or even finishing primary school Juanita has participated in more than 100 legal cases and has not lost a single one. Currently she is president of Las Cuevitas and is a beautician. “I do not need a position to help people,” she said. Juanita has also brought in governmental programs and workshops for the inhabitants of Las Cuevitas to train them to get better jobs.
Sonia Vázquez is a 31-year-old wife and mother with two sons. Vázquez finished her secondary schooling and lives in Jalpa, a rural community of 600 inhabitants. In that community 90 percent of the men go to the US to work, and for that reason the position of delegada is held by a woman. Vázquez was elected in 2009 and since then she has been involved in seeking government support for the community. Through a federal program a multipurpose room was constructed by women and young people from Jalpa, which is used for zumba classes. With Sonia’s help 40 people who were living without electricity were connected to the grid. Lights were put up in the basketball court as well as in the church, and now she is trying to reopen the preparatory school that was closed some time ago because of a lack of students. Sonia works because she loves to do things for her people; her only payment is the recognition from the people of Jalpa.
Recognition from the UTSMA
Three years ago the UTSMA (Technological University of San Miguel de Allende) institutionalized the handing out of the award Mujeres que Trascienden (Women Who Transcend) to women who have contributed to the cultural, political and social life not just of the city or the state but also of the country. This recognition has been given to former mayor Luz María Núñez, for being the first female mayor in the city; Lucha Maxwell, founder of the CENCRE; and Carla Estrada, a Mexican producer of soap operas. This year the recognition will be given to Soledad Centeno, a resident of El Valle del Maíz who started the second Danza de Rayados in 1982 and kept it going for more than 20 years. Centeno commented that it was hard to be accepted by people when she began the danza because there had already been one that lasted only two years. This year, a posthumous tribute will be made to Carmen Casas de García, a Spanish woman who arrived in Mexico in 1940. She began the process for getting land donated to build a home for the elderly, and with donations she founded ALMA.