Maria Jimenez recalls when she first came to the United States. She did not know any English, she did not know anyone besides her husband, and she was afraid to walk down the street, thinking that every uniformed officer she saw was an immigration agent. As a Mexican immigrant wife and mother living in San Francisco, Maria lived in constant fear of deportation and felt alienated in a place whose language, customs, and society she did not know.
In 1989, Maria met other Latina immigrant women with similar experiences of alienation and fear through a University of California survey. This survey reached hundreds of immigrant women like Maria in their communities, in hospitals, at bus stops, at churches, and in their homes and asked them about their needs as immigrant women.
The last question on the survey asked these women if they would ever join a support group that discussed their needs and Maria was one amongst others who marked yes. This simple question would change the course of Maria’s life as she along with several other Latina immigrant women would thus form Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), a group that provided support to Latina immigrants living in the Mission District of San Francisco.
Through this group, Maria met other women like herself including, Juanita Flores, who was also terrified to leave her house for fear that the police would deport her. Juanita also had not enrolled her child in school because she did not know that she was supposed to. Through sharing their stories, experiences, fears, and questions with one another, this group of women learned what their needs were and provided one another with encouragement, assistance, and information that would help them navigate U.S. society. MUA would also become a space where Latina immigrants built their self-esteem, as well as, developed their social/political consciousness and leadership skills.
MUA had their first meeting at The Women’s Building of San Francisco (TWB) where they continue to be housed today. Maria recalls that TWB not only provided them with space for their monthly meetings but also a space where their children would be looked after while they attended their meetings. This was important in the development of MUA since many of the members of the group had children and did not have the means to pay for a baby-sitter while they attended workshops or meetings.
Eventually, MUA was able to rent an office space at TWB where they have been housed for two decades. Although MUA has managed to successfully reach its 20th year, it has not always been an easy road, as Maria and Juanita tell it. In 2001, city budget cuts meant that they could not afford to pay rent or staff for some time. Now, however, they are strong and were able to survive the rough times, attributing it to the support of TWB. As Maria states, “TWB has loved us in the good times and the bad.”
Though MUA works on various activities and issues, an ever pressing campaign is that of advocating for the rights of immigrant household workers and demanding fair legislation. Through the Household Workers’ Campaign, MUA is educating and mobilizing immigrant workers to fight for respect, justice, and dignity.
Over the past 20 years, Maria and Juanita, now Directors at MUA, have both helped lead the efforts around immigrant women and workers’ rights and have helped other Latina immigrant women find their own voices in the struggle for personal empowerment, as well as, in the fight for justice and equal rights for all Latina immigrants. They have helped build a long legacy for Mujeres Unidas y Activas –a legacy that continues to march forward on the path towards empowerment and fairness for all Latina immigrant mothers, wives, and workers in the United States.