This is What Latina Power Looks Like! - An Interview With Mónica Ramirez
Mónica Ramirez is the ultimate example of Latina Power. A civil rights attorney, with a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School, she’s been defending human rights, organizing, and advocating for Latinas in the US for over two decades. Mónica is the co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas and is especially known for writing the letter to Hollywood’s #MeToo movement that appeared last year in Time magazine, raising the conversation to a whole new level.
Every day of her life, Mónica is saving the world. We were lucky enough to get the chance to speak with her, so get ready for some serious inspiration.
Let’s start at the beginning. What sparked your interest in social activism?
My parents raised my siblings and me to be familiar with social causes. They taught us that it was essential to not only know about what was happening in the world but also to take action. They both worked in the fields when they were young, and my grandparents where migrant workers. My mother would always tell us “never forget where you came from.” What she meant is that although we come from humble beginnings we’re privileged and we need to use that privilege for good.
You’re working on many different issues right now, immigration is a huge one, and it’s certainly out of control in the US. What needs to change & how can we take action?
One thing that needs to change is the way we talk about immigration and the crisis that we’re experiencing. Over and over again you hear people talking about a “broken system"', but the reality is this system was flawed from inception. From the beginning and as it is, it prejudices people of a specific color, class, and gender.
Another thing people say is "we’ve never seen numbers like this." But this has been happening for as long as we can remember. Immigration is not at “an all-time high” as some sources report, and people need to be more critical of where they’re getting their information because these reports are biased and factually incorrect. The difference is now there’s a crisis because this administration made a decision to criminalize migration and that created a much bigger problem. Some of the families who were separated in June are still being kept apart, the parents are deported, and there’s a real concern some children will never be reunited. These people have to bear the consequences of the Trump administration, and we need to remind ourselves of that because that’s where we should place the blame, not on the individuals who are coming to the seek the refuge they have a right to under the laws of this country.
As someone who works on the ground, I think it’s essential for people to invest in grassroots organizations and those providing direct services to families in need. A lot of resources are going to national organizations who are doing impact work, and that’s important, but immigration actions are taking place in the interior of the country every day and resources aren’t reaching them. So I would advise people to contribute first within their community and states.
You’re also leading the conversation on Latina equal pay. Latinas make on average 53 cents for every white man’s dollar in the US. What’s been the most challenging part of the work you’re doing on this?
The biggest challenge is breaking down the numbers. As Latinas we’re not monolithic, we come from different backgrounds, work in different sectors and industries, and so much of the focus has been on the average which is the 53 cents, but we have to work harder on breaking down that number to see what it means for different Latinas across the country. When you look at the data broken down, there are very few Latinas who make the average. If you consider the experiences of Latinas who are immigrants, for example, the gap is much larger.
Within the subject of Latina equal pay, there’s not just sex discrimination there’s racial discrimination as well. Afro-Latinas make less than 53 cents, so we need to talk about that too. Here’s another example: the top three jobs that Latina workers have in the US are low paying positions many of which don’t even have full protection under the federal rights of our country, so that’s something we also need to address.
What’s next for #MeToo & Times Up!? How can we avoid losing momentum on such important subjects?
I’ll begin with #MeToo. Since last year the conversation has evolved, yet there are still a lot of experiences to discuss. For example, we haven’t talked enough about the fact that native women, since the founding of this country, have been victims of sexual violence. We aren’t talking about the experiences of individuals with disabilities, child sexual abuse, or experiences of the LGBT community. To keep the conversation going, we need to commit to talking about how sexual violence is affecting the lives of different people -this isn’t a one size fits all. We also have to continue pushing the conversations on solutions and focus on getting the attention of people in decision-making positions who decide how to address these issues.
Concerning Times Up!, I think none of us expected the campaign to become a global movement within a month of its launch. Many of us were surprised, which speaks to the extent of the problem. Sexual violence is pervasive across industries and happens all around the world. We need to make sure we’re not saying “oh, yeah and this also happens to women working in low-paying industries, like farmworker women” these women can’t be our afterthought. We have to do the work of showing what that means and how it happens. Then we have to do the more difficult job -which we’ve been trying to do for decades- the accountability part.
We’re at a critical moment because the following years are going to be an opportunity to take a meaningful conversation and move to action. We’re going to have to go from talking to doing.
A lot of activists regularly confront burnout due to all the harsh issues they navigate. Is this ever the case for you? How do you deal with it?
It’s definitely the case for me; I’m human! (laughs). The last couple of years have been very emotionally trying. Activists and organizers have been on high alert for a long time, and it's unsustainable. We can't be on high alert every day. With the subject of sexual violence, for example, secondary trauma or vicarious trauma is a real thing, we listen to the stories and the truth of people who have experienced some of the most horrific things, and we take all of that and hold it in. I would never want to change what I do, or the interactions that I have with people where they feel they can trust me to disclose some of these tough things, I am honored and privileged to do what I do, but I also recognize that it does take its toll.
I really value time with my family. I'm on the road a lot, I'm not with them as much as I wish I could be and so when I'm home I want to be present and recharge. I recently moved back to my home-town, the place I grew up, and that’s been one of the best decisions for myself and my family because we cannot always be running on the hamster wheel. If we do that we’re going to burn out.
I would say to people who are thinking about becoming organizers or new organizers, think hard about what you need to sustain yourself. Stay focused on yourself as a priority because if we burn out, if we get too tired, we’re not going to be able to stay in this work throughout our lives.
Give yourself permission to rest. Turn off the TV, if you need to have a news fast or social media fast, do it. Yes, bad things are happening, but there are many of us working out there. Rest assured that if you have to take a break, other people are going to have your back.
Who inspires you?
I’m inspired by one of my mentors and great role models, Dolores Huerta. She’s a continuous inspiration because her work has created the foundation for much of what I have done, but she’s still doing the work. I saw her giving a speech yesterday, she’s just incredible and one of the things I’ve learned from her over the years is the importance of finding joy. She embodies what it means to be a well-rounded activist, throughout her years -even though she’s been fighting the hardest fight for so long- she still finds joy. She dances, she’s one of the most outgoing, loving and grounded people you’ll ever meet, someone who continuously inspires me, and I feel grateful to have the opportunity to know her and continue to work with her.
What gives you hope for the future?
Seeing change. We see it all around us. I think that right now people are down because yes there’s a lot of bad news, but what gives me hope is that every single day we’re getting up and we are making change happen. We are pushing the difficult conversations; we’re posting the news that maybe people aren't seeing, we’re showing up to meet with members of Congress. We are the change, we’re making a difference every day, and we have to remind people of that because I think that sometimes its hard to see how change is happening. I always remember each day is an opportunity to effect change and everyday people across this nation are making a difference.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.