Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA): Weaving Solidarity
By Adriana Briff
Note: This article was originally published in Spanish in the virtual magazine Hispanic LA on September 10, 2022.
Being a Latina woman and an immigrant involves facing loneliness and daily economic, social, and emotional challenges. Much of the time we feel discouraged in the face of harassment and discrimination.
However, there are spaces for meeting and solidarity which allow us to face our days and build hope. Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA) is that space for community and solidarity. A network of sisterhood like the garments that our grandmothers wove on the winter nights of our childhoods and which today protect us from the cold winds of life.
Last month, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, organized an arts workshop together with NAKA Dance Theater and the Richmond Art Center to reflect on the different issues that women immigrants are collectively confronting.
The members of MUA facilitated the workshop using various materials such as fabrics, thread and paper to reflect on three concepts: heart, community and borders: three emblematic ideas that affect the life of every immigrant woman.
A workshop for healing
Leticia, the member in charge of coordinating the workshop together with Luciana, another collaborator, began the day with an invitation: to redefine the words “community”, “heart” and “border” from their own desires, their own dreams and their own convictions.
“We are going to take ownership of the chosen word. A border can be something very different for us than what has been imposed on us as a place of exclusion.”
In a circle of chairs, in the patio of the Richmond Art Center, the women dedicated themselves to the task, united by this call. A safe space where they feel contained.
Alicia chose to work from her own concept of border. More than 29 years have passed and her voice still breaks when she verbalizes this word. Her story is still imbued with the rough sand of the hard experience of the desert that she had to cross and that took her forever away from her home.
She has never been able to return to her native Mexico.
Those of us who have emigrated with the privilege of the passport, the plane and the suitcase cannot imagine the pain that remains in the body and in the heart of these women who have crossed the border risking their lives.
Stories of pain that they don’t tell, but that they share in a voice that breaks off when memory relives the journey. The pain of having left their homes, their families, familiar objects and aromas.
Many of them face the harsh dilemma of raising someone else’s children as their own; having had to leave their own children due to the urgent need to make the money needed to support them.
It is a high price not being able to see their loved ones again, not being able to return to watch over their dead and the living without a solution to this ‘illegality’ that places them on the margins of the place they inhabit.
“We lost our land and we don’t belong here,” says a participant as she exposes her work. She has chosen to design a broken heart.
Building a new family
For these women, MUA is that family, that home, that listening place, where they can confide their pain and sorrow knowing that they will be understood and cared for. A place where they feel safe from discrimination and, for many, the constant fear generated by “being illegal”.
Ms. Julita is over 70 years old and has lived in the La Misión neighborhood of San Francisco for a long time. That afternoon she waited on a corner for a MUA collaborator to pick her up in her car to take her to Richmond. In gratitude, she crocheted a pillow for him. Julita is a widow and has left her children and her grandchildren in Guatemala. “I’m staying here,” she says.
“I don’t drive anymore because the cost of gas has become impossible and the parking fines are also very high. If I get a ticket, it is not worth having gone to work. So I ride BART (the subway) and I have memorized all the routes.
With a smile, she explains how lucky she was to have found a free shuttle that takes her from the subway station to downtown Walnut Creek where she works. “From there I walk to the house where I go to clean twice a week. Everything is very expensive now.” Julita emigrated to California in 1986.
Most of the women are domestic workers. Saturday is their day off, a personal day for being in community.
They present their work, explain their drawings and designs. Many of them recreate in their drawings the cacti and the walnuts, the plants of those gardens that they left behind. Through their efforts, they came to plant seeds of hope in this land that does not recognize them as legal citizens despite the time they have lived here.
In MUA they find a place that contains them, summons them to recognize themselves, to reaffirm their identity and to stop being invisible.
The history of MUA
Since its inception in 1989, MUA has upheld the dual mission of empowering Latina migrant women and exercising activism in defense of immigrant rights and social justice.
As a result of committed and constant work, MUA has allowed hundreds of women to get out of domestic violence and become community leaders who support and defend the rights of immigrants and social struggles for greater justice.
In 1993 MUA won the right to protections for immigrant women survivors, which are included in the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). They mobilized against anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and also spoke out against devastating national immigration and welfare reform proposals. They successfully fought Pete Wilson’s attempts to eliminate immigrant women’s right to prenatal care and care and launched the “Caring Hands” campaign in 1994 to build economic security for immigrant women.
In 1998 MUA achieved the dream of opening its second office in Oakland, California. Around that time they organized trainings, with parent leaders from the Chinese Progressive Association, to improve the rights of immigrants in the San Francisco school district. Also, through the Family Violence Prevention Fund, they began to offer technical assistance services.
In 2004, MUA began to lead another effort promoting the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, a law that was finally passed in 2016.
Since then, MUA has confronted the continual threat of deportations by working to strengthen local and state sanctuary laws, including the passage of AB 54 (the California VALUES Act) and AB 32 (end private immigration detention contracts in California).
MUA is also a co-founder of SFILEN (San Francisco Immigrant Legal Education Network) and its counterpart ACILEP (Alameda County Immigrant Legal Education Partnership), working to strengthen local sanctuary policies.
The terrible Trump years
MUA members led dozens of protests against the separation of families and, in 2018, launched the Defensoras project, to support women seeking asylum and/or facing the possibility of being deported.
In 2018, Juana Flores, co-director and founding member of MUA, became the organization’s sole Executive Director, a milestone in member leadership. In 2019, MUA launched a new campaign to defend the right to asylum for survivors of domestic violence, which they won in 2021.
MUA members in the Defensoras program played an active role in testifying in the new Department of Justice led by Attorney General Merrick Garland and helped reverse the policies implemented by Donald Trump that denied asylum to survivors of domestic violence.
MUA’s services and training programs have continued to grow, first through two pilot programs in Fremont and Hayward and then in 2018 by consolidating those programs at a more permanent site in Union City.
MUA staff developed curriculum to train mainstream agencies in providing culturally sensitive services to Latina immigrant survivors, through the Culturally Responsive Domestic Violence Network (CRDVN), and MUA leaders travelled statewide to provide training to staff at domestic violence shelters and government agencies.
The massive impact of the pandemic
In 2020, hundreds of members lost their jobs and many contracted COVID. MUA worked with its networks of allies to establish food distribution and provide effective help to those who needed it. Through the MUA COVID19 Immigrant Families Relief Fund, more than $800,000 was distributed to some 650 immigrant families. MUA also changed all of its programs to operate remotely.
Through workshops streamed on Facebook, MUA has provided training and support to hundreds of families isolated during the pandemic.
One of MUA’s primary tasks is to prepare its members to mobilize the Latinx vote and carry out political activities through digital outreach campaigns.
In 2021, MUA and other members of the California Domestic Workers Coalition re-introduced the Domestic Workers Health and Safety bill, this time getting Governor Newson to sign it. After hundreds of domestic workers and caregivers were exposed to COVID on the job, the law is a step toward giving these workers the right to basic workplace protections.
In their art projects, many of the women in the workshop choose to design butterflies. The butterfly is the symbol of MUA. It is the caterpillar that slowly takes off its wings to fly. In MUA, immigrant women know they are supported to generate concrete tools that help them stand up for themselves against racial injustice, gender-based violence, and economic injustice.
Having fought for more than 30 years, Mujeres Unidas will not back down. They have built a tool to face adversity through solidarity.
For more information, visit www.mujeresunidas.net or search for Mujeres Unidas y Activas on Facebook and Instagram.
Adriana is an educator in the District of San Carlos, California She has a degree in Social Communication from the Faculty of Political Sciences of the National University of Rosario, Argentina. The mother of Dante, a 23-year-old autistic young man, Adriana enjoys writing daily chronicles, which she has titled “Photos with words.” Her writings can be found on Facebook. She has also published articles in the magazines Urbanave and Brando, Diario Nación and Pagina 12.
MUA - Mujeres Unidas y Activas
MUA is a grassroots organization of Latina immigrant women with a dual mission of personal transformation and community power. Creating an environment of understanding and confidentiality, MUA empowers and educates our members through mutual support and training to be leaders in their own lives and in the community. Working with diverse allies, MUA promotes unity and civic-political participation to achieve social justice.View All Posts by MUA - Mujeres Unidas y Activas