Women of Pilsen: Neusa Gaytan

Neusa Gaytan is a “veterana” women’s advocate at Mujeres Latinas En Acción — one of the oldest Latina-serving organizations in the country.

The following is an edited interview with Gaytan conducted by Chicago Voz staff writer Jackie Serrato. 

CV: Hola, can you introduce yourself and tell me what you do?

My name is Neusa Gaytan, and I’m the Senior Vice-President of Programs at Mujeres Latinas En Acción.

My entire professional life has been in this community. I have had just one job since I finished college, which is Mujeres Latinas en Acción. I came to the organization when we were eight employees — I was number eight — and today we are over fifty.

I was driven to the mission and what it stands for, and I never left. I’ve had opportunities and calls to a better salary, but for me it’s about what this agency is for and how I identify with it that has kept me here since December 1986.

I was a volunteer in a battered women’s shelter and I would respond to the crisis calls in Spanish. At the time my English was very, very poor. When Mujeres Latinas would put something on TV about domestic violence, we would get all these calls at the shelter. I thought “it’s a great organization that really stands for women!” That’s how I came in.

CV: Were you born in Pilsen?

I’m Brazilian. I’ve been an immigrant since the mid 80’s.

Life is a very strange thing. I was born and raised in Brazil. I finished high school and I got a scholarship which was valid for either Mexico or the United States. I thought “absolutely not the United States.” I had this idea, not that it has changed much, of it being imperialist and it terrorizing South America. So I said I would never put my foot in this country.

I went to Mexico for my undergraduate, to la Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo Leon where I got my degree in psychology. I met my husband who had family living here in Chicago. We got married and immigrated.

CV: What was the motivation for starting this organization?

The founders were students from UIC who realized that they did not have a sense of belonging anywhere. They did not belong to the Chicano Movement because it was pretty much male dominated. This was the time of the Women’s Movement, but as Latinas the issues of race and women of color were not part of that mainstream conversation.

They decided they needed to respond to the needs of Latinas and create something that is for Latinas and governed by Latinas. At the time, all the social services and all the leadership positions were by males. It was a struggle.

Getting funding and legitimacy was difficult. There was the perception of “who are these women that are so radical, that are separating families?”

There was a lot of fundraising and there was an organization, El Centro de la Causa, that allowed them to have space there. Then they got a little storefront on 18th Street. People passed around a styrofoam cup to collect coins because there was no phone, just a payphone. That building burned down.

When I got involved we had the building on 17th Street. It was sold to us, practically donated to us, for $1 dollar. We would cook food and sell it to pay for the overhead.

CV: What has changed and what has remained the same?

Today we have grown. We have three locations and over 100 volunteers. It’s thanks to the volunteers that we can do what we do, because we would not have the (wo)manpower to respond to a lot of needs.

Mujeres is about direct service, but it’s also about advocacy. It is about bringing out the voices of women that are usually forgotten.

Some of the issues that we deal with today are not much different from what we saw before. Abortion, gangs, salary difference…we are still fighting for our doctors to give us information about reproductive health. Sometimes in our communities it isn’t about rights; it’s about access.

CV: Is domestic violence as prevalent today as you remember it?

The number of domestic violence cases that we see has increased. But it does not mean that we have more incidents. It means people are more informed and feel more confident about reaching out to us. We have a hotline that works 24/7. Last year, for domestic violence alone we saw over 1,000 persons that came to our office.

CV: Did you ever experience any backlash from the community?

I remember sending out invitations to dinners and events and getting some back that would say “ustedes son unas marimachas” or “I’m not gonna give my money to…” something offensive. In the past we’ve had our court advocates, that accompany the women to get their order of protection, tell the sheriff to take them to the car because the guy is following them.

One time, when our founding mother was working in the organization, a guy came in with a gun. He put it on the table and said, “Where is my wife?” So she said, “oh, I know where she is. Hold on.” And she went and called the police.

But we don’t feel that our lives are in jeopardy. We do have a buzz-in system. The doors lock, you need to have these (holds up an electronic key on a lanyard).

There is a lesser sense of “invisibilidad” today than I used to see. If you say Latina, you cannot deny our presence. Look at positions of leadership, how many Latinas we have! But years back, to even say “I’m a Latina” was done quietly.

CV: Do you help men?

Of course. Men come to us. Men are survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Or there’s men that want to be part of our parenting classes or our youth program. It’s not a movement that says we don’t need men. We want them to support women. Some men are excellent, for example my husband (laughs).

The name itself “Mujeres Latinas En Acción” may discourage men to come here. But men also supported the movement to create this organization.

CV: Do you think that culture is responsible for sexist attitudes?

There is a lot of stigma that says you are a wimp or not a man, especially in a culture where we teach men “you need to be macho, you need to not cry, you need to be strong.” I think it’s a very hard thing for a man who is abused to even admit it to himself or to others. But it happens.

It’s very easy to use what your culture has taught you as an excuse. There are cultures that are more tolerant to the idea of abuse than others, but it does not give you permission. It has to do with your personal choice and free will.

CV: Are you a feminist?

Yes, I do not shy away from the word. It can be a turn-off for a lot of people, including people that are great feminists, but the label is scary to them. Some ask how can they be a feminist if they are not part of a movement that saw the needs of them and their families and does not look at the issue of poverty or race. The word may also carry ideas of being aggressive or not being feminine. I’m okay with the word.

It’s about equality, about the voice of women being equal to men. It’s about recognizing the strengths, the needs and injustices women face. It’s looking at women as something powerful, the glue of the family.

CV: Who inspired you?

My mom and grandmother. At a very early age I saw them making a difference in the lives of people, and I learned from them that this is a responsibility. They inspired me to be gentle and respectful. In my house the only male was my father. So I remember playing with my male cousin and him saying, “You cannot touch this. This is for boys.” I got extremely angry. And the woman who created this in the 70’s, our founding mother Maria Mangual. You have to have “mucha fuerza” and “I’m not taking this, basta!”

CV: Are U.S.-born Latinas more empowered in their voice than immigrant Latinas?

They have more access to things because they know how to navigate the system and get information. But there’s also a sense of not belonging and not being grounded. “No soy de aquí, no soy de allá”. As an immigrant, I know where I come from. I know that in my town this is how things are done. A Latina that is born here has one frame of reference here and then another frame of reference there. You have to do a lot of negotiation because there are expectations that you have to meet because of your background.

CV: Where do you see Mujeres Latinas En Acción in ten years?

Continuing to empower women. Our mission will not change. Two weeks ago a woman said, “I live on the North Side. Do you know how much public transportation I have to take to go to Mujeres Latinas?” Latinos are also moving more and more to the west and are a totally forgotten population. If only we could get funding to serve more people.

In an ideal world we wouldn’t need an organization like this. But we are here because we need it.

© All rights reserved 2014 - Chicago Voz

March 31, 2015 | 11:10 AM
Jackie Serrato