NYRican in LA: Mamita Mala Goes Back to Her Activism Roots

PHOTO: Mamita Mala teaches a social media workshop to members of VozMob in Pico Union, Los Angeles.Pedro Joel Espinosa
Mamita Mala teaches a social media workshop to members of VozMob in Pico Union, Los Angeles.

It's been a long time since I've considered myself an organizer. In the late 1990's I was actively involved in the struggle against police brutality in New York City, working with the Justice Committee, then part of the National Congress for the Puerto Rican Rights. But then life got in the way. Balancing single mami'hood, including working full time in jobs that gave me no personal satisfaction, left me feeling burned out. So I just stopped. I stopped going to meetings. I stopped attending rallies. I just didn't have it in me anymore.

That doesn't mean that my passion for social justice ended. Just my energy level and stress tolerance. I moved inward, sharing my ideas about the intersection of justice driven work with the daily realities of people. This meant writing blog posts, writing for magazines and newspapers and tweeting my heart out.

I helped other organizations build websites. While I feel online organizing is real, retweeting and commenting on blog posts is not the same as sitting in a room with people planning and executing an action. The vibe is different when you hit submit versus when you successfully end a demonstration. And as much as my casita on the Boyle Heights/City Terrace border is my home now, I wasn't comfortable just jumping into a Los Angeles organizing space.

There is so much I need to learn about the landscape in terms of movements, organizations, and individuals who have been doing activist work for years in L.A. The sprawl of city and county of Los Angeles, as well segregation by race, class, and nationality, makes grassroots organizing a challenge, thanks in no small part to calculated planning decisions that have freeways splitting neighborhoods and a woefully dysfunctional public transit system. While residents in East Los Angeles may have issues with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department similar to issues of residents in South Central, connecting across geography and language is a struggle all by itself.

One of the things that attracted me to my pareja was his own commitment to justice-driven work, and not in his day job at a local non-profit. He spends much of his free time doing legal observation of rallies on behalf of the National Lawyer's guild and organizing within other spaces.

But I didn't want to ride in on his organizing coat tails. I needed to find spaces organically so I rejected his connections at first, opting to find my path on my own terms.

And my own path came. One day, a mutual friend of my pareja and I invited me to head into the Pico Union neighborhood for a meeting of the Popular Communications Team of Voces Moviles/Voz Mob, a group that uses SMS so that day laborers, domestic workers and other immigrant communities can tell their stories via text, images and videos and share them with the world.

I wasn't completely unfamiliar with Voz Mob's work. I had met some of the team a few years back at the Allied Media Conference, in Detroit. But sitting in their space in Pico Union, a new LA hood for me, was inspiring. In between their day jobs of construction, gardening, working in the homes of others, and their lives of caring for kids and grandkids, they were making media, telling their migration stories, hosting radio shows.

They weren't journalist in the traditional sense but they were journalists in the real sense, sharing their perspective on important issues in their lives like immigration and labor using their cell phones. I was inspired and almost drawn to tears as children ran and laughed in the hallways outside the meeting room. I was also extremely humbled. Here I had been complaining about how my retail job didn't give me time to make media and organize and these individuals, with less than me in many ways and less time than me, were creating stories. So with their blessing, I jumped in.

I began with a series of social media workshops, working with the team to learn how to use Twitter and Facebook more effectively to amplify and expand the reach of their work. Ranferi, Crispin and Luis, just three of the day laborers who form part of the Voz Mob team, had their eyes wide open with excitement as they created Twitter accounts for the first time and learned the power of hashtags and using Facebook fan pages. The energy was amazing for all of us in the room as we had conversations about privacy, the NSA, immigration reform and the digital divide. We all opened up to each other and they, in opening their powerful space to me, opened up a new drive in me to do meaningful local work with my skills.

The social media series with Voz Mob is over but the PCT have agreed to have me remain as part of their powerful and important work. I now have asked for Monday's off so that I can attend their meetings and continue to work with them. I still feel very much like an outsider in their circle. I will never know what it feels like and what it is to be a day laborer or a migrant settling in Los Angeles. But Voces Moviles deserve so much credit and love for pushing my heart to be a little bit braver in terms of being more active in this city.

I've also begun doing work with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, sharing my social media and organizing skills in working to fight the way the police locally (and not so locally) infringe upon the basic human rights of all, especially people of color. I'm reenergized and super excited to do more work in the city I now call home with people I now call neighbors and friends.

For more of Mamita Mala's adventures as a Nuyorican transplant to Los Angeles, see our archives.