Want to find some rising stars of immigrant communities? Head to Georgia and ask a woman

New America Media

Johanes Roselló

ATLANTA — A poll released this month 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, one of the states that has passed laws targeting undocumented immigrants, shows there are leaders, at least at the local level.

And many of them are women.

“You always hear people say, ‘Where are the Latino leaders?’ If they’re women, they’re not recognized,” said Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR).

In fact, since the Latino population started rising in Georgia two decades ago, women have provided an increasingly important voice in defense of immigrants and in political organizing.

Nicholls said women are at the forefront of the fight against the anti-immigrant laws that have passed in Georgia in recent years — and against federal programs, like Secure Communities, that have led to thousands of deportations.

“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. She's 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 and even led a boycott known as the “Day Without Immigrants.”

Georgia’s HB 87, inspired by Arizona’s infamous SB 1070, would have required law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of people who couldn’t provide IDs. And it would have punished anyone who harbored or transported an undocumented immigrant. 

GLAHR challenged the law in court along with a coalition of civil rights groups including the ACLU, National Immigrant Law Center, Southern Poverty Law Center and Asian Law Caucus. Federal courts blocked those two provisions of the law, but other provisions remain in effect, including parts that make it a crime to get a job with false documents, require businesses to check the immigration status of new hires, and require anyone receiving public benefits, such as food stamps, to provide “secure and verifiable” ID.

In April, 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 is the founder and director of the Coalition of Latino Leaders. Gruner, originally from Mexico, has also been active registering voters in her community and offering English and citizenship classes.

“This isn’t just to provide a service, but aims to give people power," she said. "We believe that’s a way to fight in politics."

Her most recent project is working to improve conditions for detainees in immigrant detention centers.

In recent years, Gruner's Operation Panty provided packages of underwear, along with notes of encouragement written by other women who were in the same or similar situations, to female detainees in Georgia and Alabama.

Her complaint was 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 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 made her well-known. 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,” Woodson said.

The city councilmember 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 councilmember and county commissioner,” she said. Sometimes she's even had to use her male colleagues to get her ideas heard, she added.

“You have to do it that way so you can accomplish what you want to do,” she said. 

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,” Marín said, “and what that’s done is make more women feel comfortable taking on that role of working for the community.”

Among these new faces 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,” Guerrero said. 

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,” she said.

She was arrested for an act of civil disobedience in June 2011 at Georgia'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,” Guerrero said.

Her friend Calderón got involved a year ago to help young people like her go to school in Georgia. The 21-year-old was part of the class at 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. Because she's undocumented, she isn’t allowed to attend because of a 2010 decision by the state Board of Regents 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,” recalled 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."

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.

Calderón is getting ready to start in Gainesville, Fla., the same work Guerrero is doing in Cobb. 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,” González said.

This story was made possible by New America Media's Women Immigrants Fellowship. This story comes from Mundo Hispánico.