Growing up in Austin, Gloria Perez was a child of two communities. As a gifted student, she received the best instruction public school had to offer. She put the progressive values she learned from her family into practice as an activist. Yet it was clear to Gloria as a woman of color that even "liberal" Austin was racially bifurcated, that her fellow activists were white and privileged, that segregation was thoroughgoing.
When she became a mother, the rift deepened. She had "frustrating" experiences with new-parent organizations. She also recognized that the extended-family structure of her mother’s generation was becoming a thing of the past. Her own child, son Aidan, would not grow up among dozens of cousins, as Gloria had. If it wasn’t coming from the family or the community, where was the support for Latina women struggling with the challenges of motherhood?
Gloria didn’t find it. So at 23, she created it.
Gloria is the founder of Latina Mami, a nonprofit organization whose mission "is to build healthy communities and support networks for Latina mothers and their children by providing resources, support, and education." Some days that means helping a poor mother get diapers and formula or money for rent. Some days that means translating legal paperwork from English to Spanish or advising a woman who is meeting with her abusive ex-partner’s parole board. And each day brings networking—with the city, with volunteers, with funders, with other community groups.
In addition, Gloria is a student at St. Edwards University and an indefatigable advocate for her son -- who is autistic -- and for the other parents of special-needs children within the public school system.
"I went through a major depression when we found out," she says, of Aidan’s autism, "but I didn’t stay that way for long." She pushed AISD for necessary services and spoke out about his condition. "The autism label is not a death sentence—he is productive, unique, and quite honestly, fascinating to observe," she explains. "Yes, my son is unique and special, but mainly to me and my family, and he has got to learn some skills to get along with other people in our world, whether he has autism or not."
Between a crisis at the office—it flooded—and her preparation for the Celebration of Families event, Gloria talked to us about her life, her background, and her hopes for Austin mamis.
Who inspired you when you were growing up and why?
Probably my two Chicano uncles who were activists. One was my mom’s brother, Ruben, and he was gay, and he pushed me into reading a lot of activist material at a young age. He pushed me to read on organizing and class and race issues. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him reading Angela Davis when I was ten or eleven. He also let me sit in on meetings that he had with other gay-rights activists, so that was a learning experience, with AIDS terrifying everyone then. He did die of AIDS when I was fourteen. My other uncle, Nino, was married to my aunt, and he taught me a lot of socialist stuff, and I got to be part of some of that. He was a communist for a while, and gave me heavy reading and information to absorb. He helped smuggle guns to Nicaragua and was a little more militant about his beliefs—that was definitely enlightening. Both of them made me think about class issues at a very early age, when I was a young girl being tracked in gifted programs in the public school system, away from a community I had grown up in, and into a very different, very white culture. They stopped me from aspiring to be the token minority in these situations and to really think about where I wanted my life to go.
You are face to face with your ten-year-old self. You have one thing to say to her about her future, what do you say?
Learn to trust your own advice and to ask yourself before asking others. You will know what to do, even when you think you don’t.
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What is the biggest challenge you see mothers faced with today?
Their own guilt about mothering too much, too little, being home, not being home, disciplining too much, or too little, having too much routine, or not. Mothers over-think parenting, and that is not beneficial for them or their children.
What do you see as your biggest challenge in being the kind of person you want to be?
My own impatience.
What makes you most happy about what you give back to the world?
That the women we work with are finally given space to talk about their issues and concerns, and then learn how to connect to and support other women like themselves.
What two notable people would you like to see handcuffed together for a day?
Martha Stewart and Linda Stout, founder of Piedmont Peace Project in North Carolina, and author of Bridging the Class Divide.
What do you wish you could automatically grant, like a fairy godmother, to mothers during trying times?
A group of friends who will shut up, listen, and eventually make them laugh, because it always gets better.
Latina Mami is seeking donations of children’s items for its "Mami Closet" program. For information about donations or the organization’s other programs— such as the Teen Mami Program, Playtimes for Preschoolers, or the babysitting cooperative—visit http://www.latinamami.org
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