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'Somos Latinas': Book preserves stories of Latina activists

Eloisa Gómez is looking for a few good people to record the stories of Latina activists in Rock and Walworth counties.

Gómez recently retired as Milwaukee County director for UW Extension. She is active in the Milwaukee League of Women Voters and knows a thing or two about recording history.


“I have a tool kit ready and waiting for anyone who wants to get started,” Gómez said.

Gómez and Andrea-Teresa Arenas co-authored the 2018 book “Somos Latinas: Voices of Wisconsin Latina Activists,” published by the Wisconsin Historical Society.


In the book, they recognize the contributions of 25 Latina women in the state.

The women were or are involved in issues concerning civil rights, immigration, migrant workers, bilingual education, ethnic and gender discrimination, domestic violence and union organizing, to name a few.


“The book is full of women taking risks,” Gómez said. “They were afraid of doing some of the things they did to confront injustice in the community. But they did it anyway.”

Gómez and Arenas realize the book, with a memorable foreword by civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, is only a start.


Many more stories out there are in danger of being lost as older Latina activists die.

“Somos Latinas,” which translates as “We Latinas,” grew out of a larger, groundbreaking oral history project at UW-Madison, where Arenas taught.


In 2012, she began involving her students in collecting the stories of 46 Latina women throughout the state from the 1960s to the present.


“Their contributions to community building were fairly neglected,” Gómez said. “So many of their stories were being overlooked.”


Among those interviewed are:


Nelia Olivencia, who was director of Latino/Latina student programs at UW-Whitewater for almost 20 years. She was responsible for academic advising as well as advocating for increased admissions of Latinos and Latinas.


Rebeca Yepez, an English as a Second Language and bilingual teacher in Beloit. She has developed programs to strengthen the education of Latino/Latina students and their families.


The interviews are housed online at the Wisconsin Historical Society.


“There are so many other women in Rock and Walworth counties whose stories I want to capture,” Gómez said. “We need all of their stories.”


She said she cannot guarantee that every story will make it into the archives of the historical society in Madison.


But she guarantees that every person will appreciate having her story written down.


“We think our kids and grandkids wouldn’t be interested,” Gómez said. “But they want to know. We tend to minimize our childhood experiences and what we do in the community.


Even the people closest to us do not know some of the important things about ourselves.”

Putting stories on paper can help the next generation.


“Our younger generation will feel empowered to take risks because there is a trail of others who have taken risks,” Gómez said.


Women activists in the book leave readers with several universal messages:


Remember to persevere.


“It is easy to give up and say I’m going back to my own family and focus on it,” Gómez said.


Don’t let anyone put you down.


“A number of people experienced direct racism,” Gómez said. “Others did not know if it was racism or ignorance. But the message is, don’t give permission to be put down. Be proud of who you are.”


Young people need good schools.


“When young people get a quality education, the community will do better overall,” Gómez said. “That’s a strong message that came out of the book.”


The “countless acts of sacrifice to improve lives” by women featured in the book energized Gómez.


“At times, community activism can be very thankless,” she explained. “But you do it anyway because you see the greater benefit.”


Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette.

Call her with ideas or comments at 608-754-8264 or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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