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Last week my mother died unexpectedly. She was 86 years old, and had struggled with Alzheimer/dementia for the last 12 years. This sickness advances slowly and gradually, and little by little family and friends lose the person whom they loved.
My mom seemed to be stable within her sickness, so her passing came as a surprise. I was with a dear friend at a Starbucks, when I received the news about her critical condition. As updates continued to come in, surprisingly, I was quite calm and composed.
Knowing that an unexpected trip was imminent, I went home, checked plane tickets, and took care of some urgent work related matters. The news of my mom’s passing arrived, and I prayed, placing her in God’s hands, and thanking God for receiving her into her eternal home.
As I talked to my brother that evening, we discussed my calm mood, and it became clear to me that I had been grieving for 12 years. Every time that I would have contact with my mom and that I discovered that she could no longer do this or that, I silently grieved. In addition, I felt that I did not have many regrets in my relationship with her. Of course, we had regular struggles as a mom and daughter, but in general, I can say that we had a good relationship, especially during my adult years.
Thankfully, I had a chance to reflect on this before I flew to Mexico. Thus, her funeral and burial became for me a true celebration of her life. Under normal circumstances, funerals and burials in Mexico must be performed within the first 24 to 48 hours after a person’s death. Funerals usually span two days, with long hours of visitation.
In light of this, I had a chance to spend much time with my mom’s friends and church family. As I listened to many stories about her, the predominant themes were related to her generosity, hospitality, great sense of humor, wonderful cooking abilities, writing skills and love for God, church and ministry. A thread that knitted many of these stories together was how she was a woman well ahead of her time. For instance, she was really progressive in her defense of women’s rights. She never called herself a feminist, but certainly she lived like one. I use the word “feminist” to describe a person, woman or man, who is in favor of women’s rights.
Surely, and to my kids’ regret, I do not take after my mom’s cooking abilities, and I wish I had more of her sense of humor. However, I take after her writing skills, love for God, church and ministry, and her defense of women’s rights. For anyone who is interested in women’s issues, her story is fascinating.
My mom was born in 1931 and due to diverse circumstances she could not attend college. Since she was extremely smart, her parents and she decided that she would attend a technical school to become a bilingual secretary. After she graduated, she had a fruitful and ascending career that achieved its climax when she became the executive secretary to the general director of an important, multinational glass factory. One time she told me that at a certain point, she made more money than her dad (her dad had a good job, too). Another time she told me (I can still feel her pride and pain), that this important businessman had mentioned that the only thing that she was missing, professionally speaking, was that she was not a man.
This brilliant, ascending career, ended the day that she got married at age 26. At that time, women could not have both; they either worked professionally or got married. Thus, she was automatically terminated the day after she got married. She was content with her marriage, but she wanted more. So, in a visionary and astute way, she crafted her own space.
Since no one would hire her due to her marital status, she became a translator who worked from home. One of her clients was a man who was involved in the shoe business. By translating his business deals, she learned the craft, and eventually started her own shoe store. In a creative way, my mother constructed a space where she was able to have a fulfilling life, in spite of the oppressive patriarchal system around her. My parents built a house where the store and the home were connected. So I grew up with a mom who would take care of her family and cook deliciously, and as she crossed literally a door, I would observe her transform herself into this wise, savvy business woman. For years, she would cross boundaries in powerful and graceful ways.
Throughout the years, people have asked me: When did you become a feminist, an advocate of women’s rights? I have always answered: “I do not remember. I did not become one, I was born one.”
As I reflect more and more on my mom’s story, I can say “yes,” I was born a feminist because I was carried, nursed and raised by one. And the story continues ….
My call to become an advocate for women’s rights started in the womb and arms of this woman, who had to open spaces by and for herself. She was oppressed by a patriarchal system and worldview, but still she felt empowered by God, and believed that she could have the best of both worlds: family and professional work. As she opened spaces for herself, she also opened the eyes, dreams and imagination of many women who were observing her, including me.
Due to her dementia, my mom never knew clearly about my ministry with the Christian Latina Leadership Institute. Had she known, she would have been very proud of this work and me, and for sure she would have been a strong supporter and a generous donor.
As I celebrate her life, I continue to feel empowered by her story. One that connects her and me, and the other women in my life (my daughter, sisters, nieces, grandmothers, aunts, great aunts, friends, mentors, colleagues, students, and powerful biblical women characters) in a strong chain of love, support, transformation, and hope.
As I stand on a giant’s shoulders, here I am, called more than ever, to continue my work of empowering and opening spaces for women. My hope is that in God’s timing and with God’s blessings, one day no woman in the world will suffer oppression and limitations, as my mom did, just because of her gender.
In the meantime, I am thankful for God’s power that keeps moving women around the world to open their own spaces, to be fulfilled and content, and to become powerful and inspiring role models for the next generation of women.
So pressing forward, I move ahead with the trust and confidence that my mom’s life and my own, are but a link in a powerful chain that eventually, in God’s timing and horizon, will produce a just world for all human beings, women and men alike. May it be so!