Rural Women’s Summit: ‘Firestarter’ Marlene Chavez

Immigrant-rights advocate Marlene Chavez says change doesn’t come easy. She’ll share her perspective with 200 other leaders at the first Rural Women’s Summit next week.

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On October 27, 200 women from 33 states and the District of Columbia will gather in Greenville, South Carolina, for the inaugural Rural Women’s Summit. The gathering, organized by the National Rural Assembly, will examine the ways women exercise leadership in rural communities and small towns. The meeting will also identify tools and support that rural women leaders can draw upon in their efforts. (The Rural Assembly is a program of the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder.)

In the lead up to the summit, the Daily Yonder will be presenting highlights from conversations with some of the speakers and panelists on the agenda for the event.

Marlene Guerrero Plua Chavez is one such speaker. She is the director of community outreach and engagement for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA), which provides free civil legal services to people in 68 counties throughout Texas and represents migrants and seasonal farmworkers across the South. At the Rural Women’s Summit, Marlene will be giving a “Firestarter” address – one of several short talks that will help wrap up the three-day conference. Chavez’s speech will focus on immigration and equity.

Marlene has seen the challenges of immigration first-hand, working in communities along the southern border for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid and as a volunteer providing legal orientations to women and children incarcerated at immigration detention centers. Her experience also draws upon a childhood spent among migrant farmworkers in Michigan and West Texas.

In our conversation we talked about what it’s like to work in immigration as a professional and activist during a time of extraordinary challenges. We covered topics like holding on to hope, practicing self-care, and finding opportunities to reflect during times of crisis. Highlights from this interview have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Daily Yonder: Tell us a little bit about your community and how you define it? 

Marlene Chavez: The Rio Grande Valley, to me, that is my community at this point. … Honestly, for a very long time I didn’t feel it was my community. … My family, my mom was a migrant farm worker, so we were constantly moving from one place to another, so I never really felt like I had formed a community. When I came to the valley, I sort of didn’t feel like that was my community. I almost felt like “community” in a traditional sense is meant like, you’re born in that community and that’s your community … I had to as an individual formulate my community and I had to find my community and make it my own … And now, like 10 years later, I can say, yes, this is my home and even though I wasn’t born here, I was raised here and I’ve made it my community.

DY: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a woman striving to provide leadership in rural communities?

MC: We put our community first, our families first. As women, we are all women in this space, we always leave ourselves [until] the end … it’s like we don’t have time to take care of ourselves, we’re not putting ourselves first. And that’s always an issue for women in general – whether it’s white women, colored women – we’re always putting everyone else in front and we leave ourselves behind and we’re not really taking steps to provide ourselves with the self-care we need to reignite and re-energize. And I don’t think it’s done intentionally. I feel like that’s how I’m sort of programmed, and I can share that with other women.

DY: What is your role and what kind of work are you doing now?

MC: This year I took on a new role. I have served the [TRLA] organization for about 10 years in different capacities. Now I’m the Director of Community Outreach and Engagement. … It’s really something new for the organization in terms of where we want to be taking the next five years. … I feel like I’m just forming the platform of what this new program will look like, … trying to build an outreach program that would be effective and appropriate for our large organization.

DY: What kind of challenges are you seeing faced by rural leaders today?

MC: We know that there’s always been a divide in our rural areas and I know that many groups and many, many people have worked together with rural leaders to unify us. But at this particular time and moment, under this [federal] administration, it has prompted more hate in our communities. And I think this is overall, encompassing our entire society, our entire nation, where we have so much hate in our communities right now. And because of that, particularly in rural areas, I see how that has manifested and how that has made more hostile environments for our communities.

I feel like we’re going back and it’s a divide between people of color, white nationalists. I mean look what happened in El Paso. Somebody just came to El Paso to shoot Mexican people. And that has prompted so much more harm and destruction in our communities. We just need … people in those leadership positions … people that care and that are going to convey a message that, yeah, we’re black, we’re brown, we’re indigenous, we’re white, but we are all people and the most important thing is humanity. We need to take care of each other. But I just don’t think we’ve really found, we haven’t been able to streamline that unification and right now I don’t know how we can do that just given that our own administration is probably not sending those messages.

DY: I’m hearing the real on-the-ground struggle there, trying to face and confront those feelings of hate.

MC: And it’s direct. I mean, it’s like we’re responding to crises that we just don’t really have time to sit down and say we’re going to build a strategy or plan for this, because we are dealing from one crisis to another to another and we have become advocate emergency responders to these issues, to these things that are happening. It’s like you have El Paso. What’s next? … We have all these things and are just responding. The [ICE] raids in Mississippi, we talk about 623 people that were literally raided, picked up, and deported. And the whole community is devastated with all these children there. so we’re just responding from emergency to emergency, from one crisis to another. It’s been nonstop.

DY: Who are some of those “advocacy emergency responders” you see in your work? How many of them are women?

MC: The majority are women. And across lines, I mean, we have the “Angry Tias,” this amazing group of women, probably in their 60s and upward, and they are in the bus station, literally. They started this amazing group called Angry Tias and Abuelas: Angry Aunts and Grandmas. And they are literally at the bus station like everyday, helping asylum seekers understand where they need to go, understand the paperwork, understand what their court hearing is. And they’re giving this, day in and out, going out … and they’re providing food and clothing for the asylum seekers who aren’t able to enter into the United States and have to wait for the asylum to be heard. And they are all women. We have just these amazing community leaders from the colonias who are also organizing domestic workers, low-wage workers, and they are all women. And our immigration team, our entire immigration team are women.

DY: What’s needed to support those women leaders and their work? What resources and help can be provided?

MC: People just need to vote. They need to vote. And people need to run. Good people need to run for those leadership positions. We need to change the dynamics of the political spectrum and the only way to do that is to start putting [forward] people that care, that understand from the ground up what’s going on, and they’re going to start making policies that work for the people that are most oppressed.

Right now, the laws and the policies aren’t working. You know … they’re looking for band-aids, but we’re really not looking at it and saying, okay, do we just need to really look at this policy and change the entire thing … not just putting the band-aid over something. They need to amplify their voice and really work with people in those positions [of power] and vote.

… The other thing that I think is very essential … we were talking about self-care … I have a friend coming out to the valley who wants to provide trauma and healing workshops to activists, lawyers, people who are on the ground – again, with the issue of us not taking care of ourselves – and I think that is essentially important because a lot of the people who are on the ground, they have their own personal trauma. Then having to be on the ground and working with community, working with the immigrant community it’s almost like they’re vicariously living it through that. Yet, you go home and just become cold to it and wake up again and it’s all over again. So, trauma workshops or sessions that can offer that kind of support would be really good. I think we really need that.

DY: How do you maintain hope and avoid despair when facing big, major challenges? What sustains you? What keeps you going?

MC: When we are just addressing the crisis, I think at that immediate moment all we can say is … you know, just keep fighting. We are in difficult moments, we are going to be facing these crises. I think we’ve gotten to a point where we’ve almost gotten used to this, which is really horrible. It’s really bad. It’s almost like, oh well, what’s the next crisis? And we ARE definitely in the next crisis. … And it’s just trying to continue to let our community know, this is bad, but we cannot give up. And just trying to motivate them to keep fighting. But that has become very difficult too, when you have one crisis after another.

… My heart is my community and I’m very hopeful things will change. I was reading the history of Latin America … this Liberator, he liberated five countries – Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, and Panama. And that was his whole life’s work. He … invested his entire [fortune] on liberating these countries and when he died, he died poor. He had no money.

And you think about those important pieces of history that sometimes we aren’t aware of and I think about my ancestors. Our ancestors had to fight. They had to fight every day to be free, to make sure that the next generation had a better life and all we’re really doing is picking up where they left off. And maybe that’s what gives me hope, in passing that forward to my son and saying, you know what, you’re going to be out there yourself, whatever you decide to do out there in the world – what you’re going to pick up, what I’m leaving behind and you keep going forward. And I think for me it’s just continuing to plant the seeds for that next generation to pick up and move forward.

No fight is easy. No change is easy. Change has not come easy. It is just not realistic. It takes time. It takes time to make good things happen in our society, in our world, to be better for the next generation. It takes a good fight to meet that end and to start a new thing.

And for me, that’s what gives me hope, is just thinking, look there’s been many, many great activists, many revolutionaries who have given their entire life to this. It comes with a great price, but if we are not here doing that, who else is going to do it? Who is going to do it for my son? Who is going to do it for my mom? Who is going to do it for my dad? Who is going to do it for my husband? So that’s why I continue to do the work that I do, but also on a personal level, knowing that one day the next generation will have something better and at least that gives me hope. And that generation is my son. That’s what sustains me in this movement.

You can see Marlene and hear more of her story at the Rural Women’s Summit, October 27, 28 and 29 in Greenville, South Carolina. Though the event is focused primarily on the experiences of rural women, it is open to all advocates and allies. You can learn more about the gathering, and register to attend at https://ruralassembly.org/rural-womens-summit. You can also follow along with the summit on social media via the event hashtag, #RuralWomenLead.

Adam Giorgi edited the interview and wrote the introductory material.

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