When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child. Measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through, before he got to wherever he is.”
Mama in A Raisin in the Sun, a play by Lorraine Hansberry
I was eight years old when I announced to my parents that I wanted to be an explorer. Not long after, my mother took me to the college library to find books on exploring. In 1953 the Central Michigan College Library in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan was a red-bricked building covered in ivy with librarians ensconced inside who were my parents’ friends. At that time the college was small and once a month we attended all-faculty potlucks in the concert hall of the music building where long tables were heaped with casseroles, pots of baked beans, jello salads, and cakes and fruit pies with latticed tops. I remember eating several helpings of beans and then running off to play with the other children.
I spent my childhood fascinated by people – their skin colors, hair, noses, clothes. I liked to draw faces best. While our minister gave his Sunday sermon, I would draw the faces of the college students sitting around me on the back of the bulletin. When something caught my attention and I didn’t have paper and pencil, I clicked my tongue as if I were taking a photograph of it. These “photos” went into my magical album that I was confident would be waiting for me in heaven when I died.
I drew portraits of children throughout my adolescence and college years to make some money. One summer in the mid 1960s I volunteered in an ecumenical project in Buffalo’s inner city. I remember children lining up for portraits during a street fare and comments like — “Oooh, he black!” — when I shaded in the face of one of their friends with black chalk. That summer I was inspired by the nuns I worked with in the Perry Project and by the black and white college students and community members who taught me about white privilege.
I studied anthropology, sociology, and psychology at Central Michigan University for two years and then transferred to Michigan State University where I completed my undergraduate degree. My counselor at MSU encouraged me to get a job and learn about the world before going to graduate school, but I received a fellowship at the University of Maryland and decided to take it. After only a couple months I dropped out, realizing that my counselor had been right. With that decision I began a journey of many years searching for a way to make a living doing something I cared about.
My first full time job was in Detroit working with teenagers at the downtown YWCA. As a young white woman in Detroit the year after the uprising in 1967, this work was challenging and I only lasted a year. I turned then to free-lance writing and illustrating and did that for a few years in East Lansing. A pivotal year in my twenties was when my childhood desire to explore finally led me to Europe where I traveled with a back-pack for seven months, drawing my impressions of people and places from Ireland to Turkey.
I eventually made my way back to Buffalo where I lived for twenty years. It was the early 1970s when I arrived in Buffalo and the women’s movement was a vibrant force. I became involved in it and produced a public radio program and two pen and ink note card series honoring women artists and activists. In 1975 I wrote and illustrated a children’s book, Just Momma and Me, published by Lollipop Power Incorporated, a pioneer in non-sexist, multicultural children’s books. For a few years I also had the good fortune to be employed as an artist through The Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA). I led art and writing workshops with women and children and also coordinated the production of an arts resources folio for use in community centers in Buffalo. I became involved in the Sanctuary Movement in Buffalo where I worked with Chilean and El Salvadoran refugees to raise awareness about U.S. complicity in the political upheaval in their countries. In Action for Women in Chile we did street theatre and mounted an exhibit of arpilleras, the cloth creations that women made protesting the disappearance of their children at the hands of the Chilean military.
These years of making art and learning about immigrant and refugee communities in Buffalo helped me identify a major theme that has informed my life’s work since: how groups of women develop community critiques of exploitation and struggle for social justice through creating alliances across ethnic, national, racial and class boundaries. By 1981 I finally felt ready to go back to graduate school to study anthropology. I was greatly inspired by my professors at SUNY Buffalo, but two in particular –Robert Dentan and Elizabeth Kennedy – helped me find the particular gifts I had to give as a researcher, feminist, and writer.
The turning point in my life was living with Flor de Margarita Pérez Pérez, a Tsotsil-speaking Maya woman and her family in a community of San Pedro Chenalhó, Chiapas, Mexico for a year and a half in 1987 and 88 to conduct Ph.D. research. There I studied women’s experiences with their own and others’ ritual and problem drinking.
While living with Margarita I became involved in her efforts to organize the weavers in her community. One day soon after I had come to live with Margarita, I asked her if I had made a mistake studying drinking instead of weaving, since weaving was an important way women were earning money to buy the food they couldn’t produce. As usual, her reply made me laugh, but also made me think. She said, “Oh no, you did the right thing. To study drinking all you have to do is get drunk once to know what it’s all about. But to study weaving, you have to live with us for many years to learn to weave. You have a family back in the United States and you can’t stay here a long time.” (I am married to Mike O’Malley and am proud stepmother of Gabe and Krish and grandmother of Abby, Quinn, and T.J.)
I never did learn to weave, but I was able to continue learning about both weaving and drinking as well as many other topics of importance to the women of Chenalhó. Over the years I have gained great respect for how they maintain the ancestral traditions that serve them well — like weaving — and abandon those that do not, like drinking.
After I finished my PhD research in 1989, I asked what I could do to give something back to the women for all they had given me. They gave me the charge to help them sell their weavings in the United States. Since then, with the support of friends, students, and colleagues we have created a volunteer network of accompaniment for weaving cooperatives called Weaving for Justice. In addition to selling weavings through fair trade markets, my friends and I learn from the weavers about their struggle for social justice and their conceptions of economic development. All of the women we work with are involved in the resistance movement. This means that they do not accept government hand-outs which they maintain are used to buy their submission, as well as their votes. The weavers and their families inspire me through their collective efforts to create a future in which all benefit, not just those with money and power.
My friendships with Maya women, like Margarita, have given me the gift of hearing what they say about the dramatic changes that have occurred during their lifetimes. I visit once a year and since cell phones became available I stay in touch by phone when I’m not there. I’ve had the privilege to see the children and grandchildren of Margarita and my other friends carry on weaving traditions and the struggle for social justice. They are all Zapatistas and or members of Las Abejas, the Catholic social justice organization in Chenalhó. Given the effects of centuries of racism and the fact that they do not take government aide, in material ways my friends are still poor. But they feel “clean” and through their cooperatives and other autonomous projects, in greater control of their lives.
From 1993-2011 I taught in the anthropology and women’s studies departments at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain and New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. I’m sure that my students taught me more than I taught them. In addition to inspiring me, many of them were a great support to me and my friends in Chiapas when conflicts began to intensify in Chenalhó after the Zapatista uprising in 1994. My students, colleagues, and community in Las Cruces, New Mexico stood up in a strong way after the 1997 massacre in Acteal, Chenalhó of forty-five women, men, and children while they were fasting and praying in a Catholic chapel. Over the years, with an exodus of migrants from Chiapas to the U.S. and asylum seekers fleeing violence in Mexico and Central, I have been gratified to see how my students have carried the lessons of the Zapatista movement to the diverse communities where they work and live.
Since retiring from teaching in 2011, I have been writing poems, essays, short stories, and most recently a novel, When a Woman Rises (Cinco Puntos Press, 2018). I couldn’t stop this story from coming out of me, in part because of an urgency I have felt for a long time to share some of the most valuable insights and feelings from my relationships with women in Chenalhó that are not as easily expressed in academic writing.
This impetus also led me to work with filmmaker and friend, Bill Jungels, on the documentary film, “Maya Faces in a Smoking Mirror,” released in 2017. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle with racism in my nation, I have also begun to reprint some of my women’s notecards from the 1970s which honor Black woman, starting with Lorraine Hansberry who wrote the play, “A Raisin in the Sun.”