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PRC Oral Storytelling Project: La Mujer Obrera


In this episode listeners will hear from the Executive Director of La Mujer Obrera, Lorena Andrade and Community Organizer, Hilda Villegas.

La Mujer Obrera (LMO) is a local organization in El Paso, TX, specifically Chamizal, that works with residents to support economic development, community building, community health, and civic engagement. LMO approaches this support in a two-directional approach. Through Familias Unidas del Chamizal, LMO protects against discriminatory housing practices and supports residents with environmental health, housing, education, and essential quality of life. The other way that LMO works with the community is through Proyecto Verde. Proyecto Verde works to build community knowledge through ancestral food traditions. LMO is currently working on building climate resilience into its programming and community projects. In partnership with academic experts and community members, LMO developed an action-oriented planning process for community climate resilience. The process started with an assessment of neighborhood assets (both infrastructure and community knowledge). LMO will collaborate with experts to build a green infrastructure plan and an emergency preparedness plan. All of this work culminates with the Chamizal Climate Resilience Planning Summit. All information from the Summit will ultimately help inform the Chamizal Community Plan for Climate Resilience.

Full Transcript

Lorena Andrade [00:00:01] My name is Lorena Andrade. I’m originally from Los Angeles and I live in El Paso, Texas. Growing up in a in our neighborhood, we were never taught about our history or not that I can remember. And when I went to the university, that’s when I first discovered Chicano studies that there is a whole world there that I…that I was learning about began to get involved in some of the activism, but also the learning about our history that I never had access to before where I thought I didn’t. And when I heard about this organization and how it was organizing women and women workers, then it just felt like the next step for me. I…it wasn’t something that I thought about a lot. It just
seemed like a natural next step…so. Well, I’m from a working-class neighborhood and my parents always worked in factories. But I also grew up in…commun…in a community, and La Mujer Obrera has…has spoken about that, about how women are at the forefront of creating community and defending our rights at that time in the factories, so…When I went to school, I wanted to study pre-elementary education, and that’s something that I always say, we don’t know all the things that we can study. You know, sometimes it’s a teacher or things like that. I had no idea, you know, I could be a historian or I could, you know, Chicano studies. I learned that that existed when I went to school.
And just…the…our professors and just the people around me, just talking about the history, talking about our life and how that was important meeting other women also that felt the same or we felt like we needed to organize around something, you know, for a space for us at that school. So that’s why I decided to study…that my degree is in Chicano studies.

Hilda Villegas [00:02:09] My name is Hilda Villegas I’m from El Paso, Texas, and I’m living in El Paso, Texas. I’m from this neighborhood, so. One of my mom…right there where I lived there was this lady that was my mom’s friend. And so she was working at Rayito del Sol, which is one of the programs from La Mujer Obrera. And so I was looking for a daycare and from my…my kids. And so she is she was telling us about how wonderful the daycare were saying that they had all these different things. So and that they were also constructing like some new apartments. So I came in and applied for the daycare and then I saw that they had like the apartment complexes that they were building. And so I wanted to apply because I always lived with my mom. I really never thought I could be by myself. When I graduated from high school, well I got my GED, but I never pursued a career, so I was working like in some factories. So when I came to the organization, then I also saw that they had a position at the reception area. And so I said, “Oh, everything’s like close by, you know, I would live there” and then like, I would open the door and the daycare was there, and then I would work like five minutes away. So yeah, and after that, then I started to…to realize it was something different. Like Lorena mentioned, like, I didn’t know that this world existed. And so I saw the women like fighting for spaces that were like women. They look like my mom. And so I thought that they were like strong women. And so I decided to stay here.

Lorena Andrade [00:03:43] So our organization, is La Muejr Obrera, we are a garment
worker organization in a community that was known as the garment district. But as La Mujer Obrera we’ve always been taught and we’ve always worked to create community, to work in collective, to imagine a future for us and a present for us where our identity is not imposed, that we’re an infinite source of cheap labor. But when the garment industry left, if there’s no more garment industry, then they don’t need our families anymore. And so we…we had we made a decision that we want to stay here. We choose here. We want to create these relationships here like we have been for generations. And so a lot of our work is to defend our community, defend our schools, get rid of contamination, defend it against the forces that are trying to push us out. And then also, think and plan and implement our vision as women. And so what does that look like? And how do we with the knowledge in our community, create that alternative that we deserve as women and our children and the future generations? So in La Mujer Obrera that’s always been the balance or the kind of
two areas of work, to defend against, but also to create and defend the spaces that we can think and plan and implement our vision and that we decide who we are right. And that identity is going to come from these relationships with each other and with the Earth.

Hilda Villegas [00:05:19] So one of the lead organizers in Barrio Chamizal. And so where my job will might..lo que me toca a mi es trabajar con la comunidad. Like I live here in the barrio like I mentioned before so my kids go to the school and so it’s building that relationship with the residents and looking as to how what’s happening in our community is
related to what’s happening outside and how the decisions outside are affecting directly in our communities. Like being more like a vigilante from the outside world and what’s happening in our barrio and organizing pretty much the residents around there. So it’s obtaining that information that we that’s being produced outside and put it in ways that we can share it with a community and having that link between the outside and in our community so that we can defend it. It’s building that that defense for the barrio around environmental issues around education. We’ve identified certain areas that we…we know that it’s important in…in the creation and the sustaining of that vison that La Mujer Obrera has right. And so it’s that link between the work of La Mujer Obrera, the neighborhood and the outside world. Maintaining that balance the barrio Chamizal is over what would say, seven to eight thousand residents. And we’re like situated in a neighborhood that historically was built you know, we’re like highly immigrant communities and in the
demographics have it…hasn’t changed much, right, because of the proximity to the border. And so we have a lot of traffic, like high concentration of traffic there. But not only that, we also have we’ve been it’s been taken over by by the maquila trucks that serve Juarez, right? So they kind of just idle their adjacent to our elementary schools like I said, all these building sources of pollution that surround us are like a few feet away from important spaces in our community, like the elementary school Zavala. And then, like I mentioned, that we have the border and another highway and we have our…our high school, which is Bowie High School, which also historic. And then on the on the west side, we have Cotton Ridge. But then that area there is highly commercial, highly industrial area. And so that’s pretty much the limits of our community. But you also have the built-in sources of pollution, right, that surround us. A lot of these industrial areas are very outdated, and we also have the whole issue of a very outdated, unregulated industry situated in the Chamizal. We do see that there is no intent to really document that impact, especially because of the communities that you see those…those disparate impacts, right? And so the way we do document the way we do know that there is an impact is by talking to the residents right and talking to the moms that say that their children are have been they’re not…not officially diagnosed, but they get sick a lot, and that they have to they get like assigned, they get prescribed inhalers. We also saw a large number of cases that were unreported at the housing complex Salazar, of rashes, like you mentioned. There were residents saying that they had severe allergies in their skins and we saw it like an association to recycling facility that was recycling these heavy metals like copper lead in other…other like industrial waste from Juarez that was not being monitored. And so those are the conditions, too. We see a large number of children being absent and sick to school, and those ones were recorded through a study that was conducted by UTEP, which is also it was back in like 2010 that they conducted that study. And so they saw like a correlation between the  absences to like areas that were like the school that was situated right next to the international port of entry.

Lorena Andrade [00:09:39] Well, for for us in our community….is really, what knowledge do we have? What practices do we do we already have on a daily basis that help contribute to a transition into a better community and…and what practices do we have that already can heal those relationships or build the alternative? Right? So whether it’s I’m planting food or flowers or trees in my community, what is it that I…I use to…to nurture the Earth so that I have better quality crops or? And how are we also a part of, you know, saving water, taking care of ourselves when the heat is…is a lot. What methods are we already using, right? Also demanding certain things, getting rid of like Hilda was saying, getting rid of the recycling facility, getting rid of the trucks. But also, how is that? What does that look like in our daily practice, in our daily lives, as families, as members of our community and celebrating those things, celebrating through art, through music, through gatherings. That’s a big part of that…sometimes is not spoken of when we’re talking about defending the environment, that culture, that sense of community, that sharing of knowledge through different ways, being creative about it…is very, very important. So what specific roles do people of color have? Is holding on to that sense of community and really nurturing it, nurturing the place where we are really fighting to stay in place, to stay in our communities and to really defend our right to create those alternatives based on our knowledge that we already hold. Like, for example, with the North American Free Trade Agreement, that was a big thing that happened here. That’s when we lost all of our jobs as women workers. One of the main things that we try to do on both sides of the border is to dismantle community. So it really exploits our relationships. It exploits us as women and it exploits Mother Earth, right? So to us, it only makes sense that to fight against that or to live in a world where we’re not defined by that is to create community that to us, that’s the opposite. And we feel that it should be that way for anyone and everyone, so recycling is important. And these individual actions are important. But at the base, it should be a collective practice.

Hilda Villegas [00:12:23] Like Lorena said, being able to develop that collective practice and being able to highlight the knowledge and the creativity that already exist within our community viewing and how our community has a lot of history and a lot of of practice that it’s hidden, that it’s not being recognized is because they are not environmentalists, right? Because they don’t have a degree or they’re not. They’re not water harvesters because they didn’t go to school to learn how to do that, right? But then when we when we are here as leaders, we we need to be. Our role is to recognize that what’s happening already in the community and being able to identify in it and being able to document it and share and share it with other and create space where that is happening so that we start to believe
that we are environmentalists. When it comes to El Paso, one of the major challenges is the fact that El Paso is a very poor city and it’s very underdeveloped and it’s and we’re having to not just deal with the underdevelopment of our communities, but we now we also have to deal with the underdevelopment of the city. And so when I say that, it’s it’s very far behind. It’s we’re very far away from having a progressive city and that really wants to deal with climate change and climate crisis as a whole. In terms of…of…of successes, we’ve had a lot compared to, you know, to all these challenges that we face as a city. We’ve been able to get an allocation of $11 million to build a community…community
center, como se dice, we call it The Chamizal Community Center, but not just a community center. We were able to get another 11, another one million dollars to create a green space. And we’ve also filed a lawsuit that we won against EPA to change the designation of El Paso from attainment status under the Clean Air Act to non-attainment, which is something major because you’re talking about the state of Texas and then also a region area that’s affected by the pollution from Mexico and entonces, we’ve been able to do with that too.

Lorena Andrade [00:14:49] We always understand that we’ve lived in a community and that they consider as a group that is not worth the investment, right. That it’s more cost effective to leave us out, than to invest in our in our daily lives, in our children, that we see that in the school district, we’re not going to invest in those schools. It’s a decision because it’s not cost effective. As women, when we were laid off from the factories, same thing. But there was a level of brutality…these past few years, that was at a different level. The lack of…humanity in the part of those that were making decisions and the lack of interest about what it meant to women and children and just it was definitely louder than…than usual, our successes in our in…our past year is that when things were, were getting like I said at this
point, we…we gathered as a community. We celebrated who we were. And I can’t…can’t underestimate the power of our culture, of our music or our paintings or of our poetry, of our clean with our kids and cooking together, sharing that with each other. I think that that’s one of the successes that we’ve had as a community as well as, you know what, what Hilda has mentioned, but that every day, despite things that are happening, we find joy in the lives that we live here. We find the beauty in our community. We say, I love my community because…and let me share this with you. And so to me, that has been one of the biggest successes that to be able to see that we as a community can resist. And we do it also with joy and still demanding that we define who we are. I guess the advice that I would give leaders of color or…or people that I would like to be…become organizers would be…is to listen to the community in which you’re working and really become a part of the community. Sometimes assumptions are made because maybe we use a different language, maybe if we went to school. There’s different language that is used, but with a different worldview. There’s a different language that is used to express our struggles to express our…our way of life. To me, that that’s one of the…the most, most important things when you’re starting out, that willingness to listen to, to learn different ways of speaking, to learn different ways of seeing.

Hilda Villegas [00:17:43] when you’re going to start doing this work is really have a very big like an open mind and you have to be ready to…to really see yourself is not as an individual, but see yourself as a collective practice, like a collective effort. And you always have to not like, I think like Lorena said, not assuming things would really help. The other thing that I do that I do advise is that especially if you’re working in your community and you’re fully immersed in that community, you can’t apply the same criteria, the same the way you assess certain things from the outside perspective, right? And so I think you really need to get out of that little box that they put it in all the time so that you can really fully understand and really work in your community. And so every time there’s something happening in the community, there’s always, there’s it’s a learning process. We always learn even from our mistakes, right? It’s just being able to recognize that anything we do is leading us to where we have to go, right? Everything that every effort, every work we do in the community, it’s gonna it’s going to inform us as to where we have to go. And so you always have to be grounded and you always have to be very clear as to where you’re going to write so that you don’t get distracted from anything that’s happening outside and you don’t get discouraged, and it really doesn’t affect you because it happens all the time. And I think that that’s going to really help you…help you keep you grounded and…and also help your healthy, right? Because, like Lorena said, it’s also a matter of how we take care of ourselves and how we take care of our minds and how we actually visualize that so that we can do this work.

Learn More About the Partnership for Resilient Communities

PRC Oral Storytelling Project Production Credits and Attribution 

  • Project Producer, Felicia T Perez 
  • Sound Producer, Vanessa Vancour 
  • Sound Editing Assistant, Escenthio Marigny 
  • Transcriptions, Dr. Lydia Huerta 
  • Illustration and Music, graceuarts 

Additional music credits (credits do not imply endorsement): 

  • “Emergency Siren” by onderwish CC0 1.0
  • “Fire” by mmutua CC by NC 3.0 segment of original audio sample used
  • “Matchbox Strike and Light” by jaredgibb CC0 1.0
  • “Sewing Machine” by j1987 CC0 1.0
  • “Water Stream” by sterferny CC0 1.0
  • “Construction Soundscape” by ajexk CC0 1.0
  • “Neighborhood City Street” by rifualk CC0 1.0
  • “Street Protest Sound Effect” by spanac CC by 4.0 segment of original audio sample used 
  • “Royalty Free Mexican Mariachi Background Music No Copyright” by MFCC
  • “Car Horn” by keweldog CC0 1.0