Meet Two of the Latina Organizers Leading the Women’s March on Washington

Women's March on Washington national co-chair Carmen Perez and Artistic Director Paola Mendoza. Photo: Kisha Bari.

From attacks on women’s reproductive rights to promises to dismantle the Affordable Care Act; from the likely undoing of hard-fought protections against discrimination for LGBTQ people, to a slate of policies that identify black and brown people as dangerous; the incoming administration of Donald J. Trump has flooded our news feeds with nefarious threats to our basic civil rights under the vague promise of “making America great again.”

On Saturday, January 21st, a day after Trump takes office, an estimated 200,000 people will descend on D.C. to march in repudiation of many of his proposed policies. The Women’s March on Washington – a name organizers arrived at after some early controversy – will be a mass gathering of activists and protesters that national co-chair Linda Sarsour says could be “the largest mass mobilization that any new administration has seen on its first day.”

But the Women’s March on Washington is not about Trump. It’s about a set of ideals, “Points of Unity,” rooted in intersectionality that advocate gender, racial, and economic justice for all – a battle that will outlive any one administration. It’s also sizing up to be one of the largest demonstration in American history. Over 237 partnerships have been confirmed at the time of writing, and there are more than 300 sister marches across all fifty states, with 30 more planned across the globe. The scale of the demonstration is even more impressive considering organizers only had two months to put together something that would normally take a year to plan and execute.

The Women’s March on Washington base, at Harry Belafonte’s The Gathering for Justice office. Photo: Kisha Bari, courtesy of
Read more

By now, the origin story of this massive march is well-documented. The night of November 8th, realizing Trump had won, Hawaiian grandmother Tricia Shook invited about forty of her friends to join her on a march to protest the election. Pantsuit Nation got a hold of that Facebook invite, and by the time Shook woke up the next morning, she had 10,000 RSVPs. Realizing that she didn’t have the resources or the know-how to plan an event of that magnitude, Shook sought the counsel of Bob Bland, a New York based fashion designer and entrepreneur, who’d been planning a similar idea. Bland now serves as one of the march co-chairs, and she brought on Vanessa Wruble, head of the organization Okayafrica, who quickly pointed out that this movement needed to include women of color in its leadership.

The march could be the largest demonstration in American history.

Today, the group fifteen women who who make up the core of the organizing efforts for the march includes black, Muslim and Latina civil rights activists. Carmen Perez, the executive director of Harry Belafonte’s Gathering for Justice, is a national co-chair. So is Tamika D. Mallory, an African-American strategist and consultant, and Linda Sarsour, a Brooklyn-born Palestinian-American-Muslim civil rights activist. Colombia-born filmmaker and activist Paola Mendoza acts as the Women’s March Artistic Director. The team is reinforced by Harry Belafonte along with Dolores Huerta, Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem, and LeDonna Harris as honorary chairs.

Photo: Kisha Bari, courtesy of
Read more

They share a small office at Harry Belafonte’s The Gathering for Justice, which serves as base of operations for the Women’s March on Washington 2017. I was there on a recent afternoon to meet with Perez and Mendoza, and learn more about the group’s vision for fostering a pluralistic progressive movement.

The future is not only female, it’s also multi-racial, embodies a spectrum of gender identities, and is committed to intersectionality.

Perez is Chicana and the youngest of five siblings. Born in Oxnard, a small farm town in Southern California, she grew up in a community affected by gangs, domestic violence, and drugs. She found an outlet playing sports, and was an athlete from the age of five through her college years. She was moved to become an activist after the death of her nineteen-year-old sister when Perez was just seventeen.

Mendoza grew up poor in Southern California. She became involved with gangs at the age of twelve. Art provided an outlet, specifically as a storyteller and filmmaker. Entre Nos, Mendoza’s award-winning film, is an intimate story about the difficulties her own mother faced as a single parent of two who recently arrived from Colombia. The film has provided a platform for and cemented Mendoza’s commitment to immigrant rights and immigration reform.

On the wall are lists of the many organizations partnering with the march.Photo: Kisha Bari, courtesy of
Read more

Mendoza and Perez have been laser-focused on building an extensive network of partnerships for the march. When I arrived at their office, the room was humming with the electric chatter of planning, of verifying, of encouragement. Bottles of water, post-its, and pens were peppered across desks, while cell phones buzzed and beeped at high frequency. The walls were covered in large swaths of paper detailing the groups and organizations that they’ve reached out to and who will be present at the march. “My focus was to ensure that the communities that were most marginalized by this election’s rhetoric were at the center,” Perez emphasizes. “And so for us, we’ve been extremely intentional to ensure that we are inclusive, not only as it pertains to race but also gender.”

In attendance will be organizations as varied as the American Civil Liberties Union, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, Muslim Community Network, and Voto Latino, to name just a few. Along with national non-profits, organizers have been receiving emails from non-affiliated, regular folks from all over the country, who are bringing their spouses, their children, and their parents.

Photo: Kisha Bari, courtesy of
Read more

Though the hope of the Women’s March is to enact progressive policy, their intention is not to create a new consortium. The goal of the march is coalition building so that connections between groups of people that have similar goals are strengthened. “For us it’s about ensuring that the conversations continue offline,” Perez explains.

“If you’re not showing up when a Black woman, a Latina woman and a Muslim woman are leading the charge, making shit happen, then when are you going to show up?”

“That we are not just organizing on a social media platform but that we are having real conversations with human beings.” Mendoza adds: “I see it as unity, coming together. This is the body. The head is already out there.”

The Women’s March on Washington 2017 is the face of what the resistance to a Trump administration will look like. The future is not only female, but it’s also multi-racial, embodies a spectrum of gender identities, and is committed to intersectionality. “We’re not one dimensional people so we don’t live one-dimensional lives,” Perez says, “We go home and we are maybe subject to domestic violence or we live in poverty, we still don’t have access to quality health care or even an education. So for us, it was how can we really be intentional about bringing these groups who have always worked in their silos to really think about working together.” Both women agree that empathy is key. “We strongly believe that the next four years are going to be a battle,” says Mendoza, “And the only way that we are going to survive as a community is when we are all interlocked, when we realize that climate justice and reproductive justice and immigrant rights and criminal justice reform can’t survive on their own. We have to survive by being intertwined and together.”

Photo: Kisha Bari, courtesy of
Read more

Perez argues for engaging in “courageous conversations” around issues of race, gender, and equality, instead of engaging in the kind of fragmentation that has become commonplace amongst liberals in particular. The stakes are high for all of us, but for communities of color, for the poor, the ailing, and for those who are most marginalized, they are higher still. “This is our time,” says Perez, “If we’re not at the table, we then are often seen on the menu, and I’m not trying to be on the menu.”

Trump’s rhetoric of hate has further compromised an already fragile American democracy, a devastating prognosis – especially for those of us who have fled authoritarian regimes for the promise of the North. We tolerated the Bush oligarchy. Could we bear a Trump dictatorship? “I truly believe that we are at [the edge of an] abyss of something that could become a fascist dictatorship,” Mendoza says. “We come from Latin America – we know what that is. This is where we fall off the edge or where we don’t.”

Carmen Perez, Sarah Sophie Flicker and Paola Mendoza speak on the phone with ‘Orange is the New Black’ actress Taylor Schilling, who called to congratulate them for their work. Photo: Kisha Bari, courtesy of
Read more

Both Perez and Mendoza confirm that there is no time to waste. “As my favorite musical says, ‘You’re in the room where it happens,’” Mendoza adds, “And this is the room where it’s happening– not forever, but right now, in this moment.” Engagement is of the utmost importance. Mendoza insists there has never been a more crucial time for women of color, in particular, to participate and organize. “If you’re not showing up when a Black woman, a Latina woman and a Muslim woman are leading the charge, making shit happen, then when are you going to show up?” she asks.

Perez, Mendoza and the organizers are looking backwards and forwards as they seize on this moment. In the 1890s, after the Civil War, Reconstruction promised a new country to blacks that did not arrive until after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and even then they were short-changed. Similarly, the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 60s and 70s followed in the footsteps of the suffragists before them. The aspirations of many Dreamers are rooted in the work of Cesar Chavez. We have a legacy, and history has a running tally. “The reason we got involved is that there is an urgency,” Perez says. “Tomorrow may never come. And I always get told, what kind of ancestor do you want to be? So if that’s not in my conscience right now and I’m not thinking about the next seven generations, then what I’m doing has no relevance.”

Though Trump will be celebrating his coronation, a movement is building with another agenda. Behold, not one but many sleeping giants have awoken.