Georgia’s Latino Boom Leaders
This is a summary and comment based on an article by New America Media / Mundo Hispánico, (Johanes Roselló, Translated by Elena Shore)
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A poll released by the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of Latinos could not name a national leader in their community. But a look at the immigrant rights work being done on the ground in Georgia reveals that there are a number of local leaders. And many of them are women.
Since the start of the Latino population boom in Georgia two decades ago, women have provided an increasingly important voice in defense of immigrants and in political organizing.
Adelina Nicholls (GLAHR) said women are at the forefront of the fight against the anti-immigrant laws that have passed in Georgia in recent years — and against the federal programs 287(g) and Secure Communities, which have led to the deportation of thousands of immigrants here.
The explosion of Georgia’s immigrant population in the 1990s took government agencies, non-profit organizations and businesses by surprise, according to Georgia state legislator Pedro Marín. “The community grew and there weren’t adequate services to be able to deal with it,” he said.
Georgia’s Latino population grew 299.6 percent in 20 years, according to U.S. Census data, from an estimated 108,922 in 1990 to 435,227 in the year 2000 and close to 850,000 in 2012.
“It was a new community, a community that didn’t know the laws, a community that was subject to the good faith of others,” recalls Adelina Nicholls, who moved here from Mexico in 1996. “In that sense, the problems of discrimination, labor abuses and consumer abuses were at an all-time high.”
“Women have taken on an important role, maybe because of the nature of this fight that’s in defense of the family, in defense of children–to end the deportations that take away our spouses, our parents, our brothers and sisters, our friends,” she said.
Nicholls has been one of the pioneers of the Latino immigrant rights movement in Georgia since she came here from Mexico in 1996, and is a visible and recognized face in the struggle.
It isn’t hard to spot her at every immigrant rights rally; she can be found in front or at the back of the demonstrations, carrying a megaphone, shouting slogans or making protest signs.
When Georgia’s Latino community was hit by the anti-immigrant law HB 87 in 2011, GLAHR organized protests like those on March 24 and May 1, 2011, and even led a boycott known as the “Day Without Immigrants.”
On April 10, 2013, GLAHR and other groups organized a massive rally of thousands of people on the streets of Atlanta, demanding a stop to deportations and the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.
One of the first groups to arrive at the rally was also led by a woman, América Gruner, founder and director of the Coalition of Latino Leaders.
It took the protesters two hours to get to Atlanta by bus, and it wasn’t the first time they’d made the trip.
Gruner, originally from Mexico, has also been active registering voters in her community and offering English and citizenship classes since 2006.
“This isn’t just to provide a service, but aims to give people power. Since then, we’ve been registering people to vote and we believe that’s a way to fight in politics,” said Gruner.
Her most recent project is working to improve conditions of detainees in immigrant detention centers.
In March, Mundo Hispánico reported on a project called Operation Panty – in which Gruner attempted to bring female detainees in Georgia and Alabama packages of underwear, along with notes of encouragement written by other women who were in the same situation or who had a relative in prison.
Her complaint was that the prisons gave women used underwear to wear, and that that was a form of denigration.
First Latina Elected Official
While these leaders are fighting for change from within their communities, another Latina is doing it from City Hall.
Evelyn “Mimi” Woodson, who was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, was the first Hispanic to hold political office in Georgia. Woodson is a city councilmember for District 7 in Columbus, Ga., a position she has held for 18 years.
“She is a pioneer and has been a leader of the Latino community since before Latinos became a significant community in the state. She is a person to learn from,” said Jerry González, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO).
After spending 15 years in the Armed Forces, Woodson retired and decided to move to Columbus, where she opened a candy store.
Being in touch with poor kids in the community got her well known in the area. People started telling her she should go into politics, something she at first rejected. “I didn’t think I was qualified for the position. First, I was Latina; I had been in the community less than two years, and that wasn’t on my list,” said Woodson.
The city council member has won five elections, despite not having many registered Latino voters in her district.
In her first election she defeated two candidates, both of them men, with 57 percent of the votes. Despite this victory, Woodson says her struggle as a woman has been constant.
“There have been really hard times, because I’m the first Latina council member and county commissioner,” she said. Sometimes she has even had to tell her ideas to male colleagues in order to get them heard.
“You have to do it that way so you can accomplish what you want to do,” said the councilmember.
According to state legislator Pedro Marín, the increase in the number of women leaders is a result of the courageousness of several pioneers in local community work. “A few female faces have emerged who are seen as leaders,” said Marín, “and what that’s done is make more women feel comfortable taking on that role of working for the community.”
Among these new faces in the struggle are Mexicans Dulce Guerrero and Mitzy Calderón, two young women who have “come out” as undocumented immigrants and have been at the forefront of the movement of “DREAMers,” or undocumented students who were brought to the United States as children.
“I hadn’t seen women in positions of leadership. What I always saw was that women were the people who helped, who were in the background, and when I met these groups I realized that women were the ones organizing and making decisions and I was inspired to lead groups in Cobb County,” said Dulce Guerrero.
Guerrero, 20, got involved in the struggle after her mother was arrested and detained for not having a driver’s license. The incident made Guerrero want to learn more about the rights of undocumented immigrants.
“Through the National Immigration Alliance, basically what I do is I’m in charge of all the deportation cases that come out of Cobb County. I coordinate campaigns to try to get them out of detention,” said Guerrero.
Her bravery and commitment to the struggle led her to be arrested in an act of civil disobedience in June 2011 at Atlanta’s capitol building. “There’s always fear because nothing is 100 percent guaranteed. Anything could have happened. I feel really proud to have done it, simply because I know it was necessary,” said the young woman.
Her friend Mitzy Calderón got involved a year ago in the struggle to allow young people like her to be able to go to school in Georgia. The 21-year-old was part of the class of Freedom University, an initiative that provides a space for undocumented students who can’t go to college.
Calderón, who is now studying early education at Lanier Technical College, a private school, has to pay the higher out-of-state tuition rate because she is undocumented. She works six months a year in order to afford her tuition. Her dream is to be a social worker, a major she wishes she could study at Georgia State University – but because she is undocumented, she isn’t allowed to go there. That’s because in 2010, the State Board of Regents voted to ban undocumented immigrants from attending Georgia’s top public colleges: University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Medical College of Georgia and Georgia College & State University.
“The day they announced deferred action was one of the happiest days of my life,” recalls Calderón, who was granted a temporary deportation reprieve under Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. “Getting used to being here ‘legally,’ you can’t believe it,” she added. Although she doesn’t have legal status in the country, her temporary DACA status allows her to get a work visa so she can work legally and prevents her from being deported.
Today Calderón is getting ready to start in Gainesville the same work that Guerrero is doing in Cobb: defending the rights of undocumented immigrants.
Meanwhile, González and Marín are hoping more women become elected officials.
“Women are essential to the political future of Latinos in Georgia and I see women playing a very important role,” said González.
“As a legislator,” Marín added, “I’m waiting for the first female senator or representative.”
This story was made possible by New America Media’s Women Immigrants Fellowship.