“Te quedo grande la llegua…y a mí me falto jinete…”
My mother, my tía Norma, my little sister Cachis and I would make our way to a swap meet every Sunday morning singing this Alicia Villarreal ranchera at the top of our lungs. For years we packed all the yard sale finds we could fit in our 1986 Chevy Nova to make the two-and-a-half hour drive, set up our little puestesito to resell said finds and miraculously make enough of a profit to pay rent. I was 6 years old when my mother found herself strategizing with informal economies to make ends meet. We crafted and sold baptism, wedding and quinceañera recuerdos and cleaned rich peoples’ houses and offices. I watched Cachis while my mom worked her restaurant job.
I knew we were struggling and worried for my mother when I would, unbeknownst to her, stay up at night watching her sift through bills with fear and desperation. To this day I consider that time crucial in shaping me. It was in those mariachi songs where we made happy memories in the midst of uncertainty, found strength in each other and ourselves and grew deep love and respect for the ganas we had to make it beyond survival; it’s how we knew we deserved better.
At Young Women United (YWU), we work to build systemic change in New Mexico alongside our communities through organizing and policy-change strategies directly shaped by the people most impacted. While I support and identify with women-of-color feminists, I, like many women and people of color, didn’t decide to become a feminist. Many of us were raised with soft, wild hearts by family who held us when we were heartbroken, sisters who celebrated our survival, brothers who taught us about glitter, and mamas who did everything they could to lift us up.
For many immigrant women like my mother, first-generation Xicanas like myself, generational Chicanas, Indigenous/Native people and people of color across New Mexico, our politics was shaped by our lived experience. Our leaders’ lived experience is what brought them to organizing, contributing valuable, pragmatic solutions to some of our state’s greatest challenges. The lived experience of our New Mexican women and girls is nuanced beyond political ideologies, meaning that our approach to investing in real solutions must be equally as nuanced and thoughtful.
For example, while women continue to be the fastest-growing incarcerated population, criminal justice policies and resources continue to overlook the impacts of incarceration on women and whole families. In the face of these challenges, YWU centers the expertise of women who have navigated cycles of addiction and incarceration in leading policy and culture shift efforts to decriminalize substance use and bring critical understanding to addiction as a healthcare issue. Together, we are shaping legislative efforts like Ban the Box, a policy that would remove questions about felony convictions from employment applications in the private sector, allowing women and families a fighting chance at economic security for their loved ones.
At YWU we also understand that our families live complex lives and must often make complex reproductive health decisions such as deciding to parent as a young person, give birth at home with a midwife, breastfeed, utilize the contraception, or decide to have an abortion. We work hard to make sure women have access to safe, high-quality prenatal care, breastfeeding support and reproductive healthcare so that these complex decisions remain in the hands of women, families and their providers.
Addressing the root causes of social inequities can deeply impact women and girls. For years, teen pregnancy has been presented as a problem in New Mexico and across the country. Prevention has been named as the solution. YWU does not believe in preventing teen pregnancy. We do not believe in managing, coercing or controlling the reproductive autonomy of any person, including young people. Instead we believe all people should have what they need to make informed decisions about their own reproductive lives, regardless of age, gender identity, sexuality, race, class, ability, etc. We know that by investing resources in preventing teen pregnancy we miss an opportunity to address broader systemic issues impacting social inequities. Instead of utilizing young parents as scapegoats, our energies are better spent making sure all families have access to education, living-wage jobs and safe neighborhoods—social determinants of health that truly have an impact on a person’s outcomes.
The mariachi songs of my childhood accompanied our family of strong women into immigrant rights marches demanding undocumented children have access to education; they walked with my mother in establishing her own business, and they now live inside my reproductive-justice heart. Our work to uplift women and girls in New Mexico must do what those mariachi songs did for my family—acknowledge the strength and resiliency in all of us, meet us where we’re at, and consider us experts of our own lives.
Tannia Esparza is executive director of Young Women United. 505.831.8930, www.youngwomenunited.org/staff/