María Antonietta Berriozábal, a woman whose name is synonymous with community organizing and political movement, will release her memoir in May 2011, chronicling her family’s experience of immigrating to the United States and her subsequent rise to become the first Latina to serve on the city council of a major U.S. city. Berriozábal read from María: Daughter of Immigrants at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center on Saturday, November 6 — the 100th anniversary, to the day, of her parents’ crossing of the U.S.-Mexico border as they fled the violence of what became the Mexican Revolution. Though both her parents, Apolinar Ramírez Rodríguez and Sixta Arredondo Rodríguez, have passed away, Berriozábal feels they are very much present in the way they raised their children to value education, spirituality, and community.
When I asked Berriozábal what prompted her to write a book about her life, she was quick to answer that the seed was planted by other women in her spiritual and social-justice circles. Specifically, her friend Antonia Castañeda urged her on, admonishing her that she had an obligation to share the story of her life. Struggling against the perceived self-importance a memoir connotes, Berriozábal insists the book is not ultimately about her, but about all those that shaped her life, helping her become the strong female leader she is today. Writing María: Daughter of Immigrants, she said, “is one way I can honor my history, my family, and the values I inherited from them.” At a time when immigration is consistently in the political spotlight, the story of an immigrant family that formed strong, lasting community bonds with a city on this side of the border offers a different, more hopeful perspective on the of-the-moment issue.
A stint as secretary to the general counsel for HemisFair ’68 sparked Berriozábal’s interest in politics. She realized that if she became involved in the political system she could acquire skills that would help her organize for her community. Issues such as sustainable development, affordable housing, investment in youth and elderly programs, care for the environment, and neighborhood revitalization were paramount to her agenda. Tenacious dedication to those values led the young politician to disagree with more established leaders over planned developments like the Alamodome and the Applewhite Reservoir, which Berriozábal deemed a waste of money.
After serving as San Antonio City Councilwoman from 1980 to 1991, Berriozábal ran for Mayor, a position she believed would better allow her to address what she saw were issues that affected all San Antonianos. She lost in the runoff election but not before garnering 47 percent of the votes. Clearly, the mayoral candidate’s social justice message resonated with the people.
Even after leaving public office, the community leader continued to work and campaign for the same issues; as a private citizen she has served on many boards and continues to volunteer her time as speaker and presenter. Berriozábal graciously agreed to a telephone interview with yours truly. She imparts much wisdom, and while she feels strides have been made in the community of San Antonio, Berriozábal believes that the issues that plagued the people of her community then are the same issues we struggle with today.
Berriozábal says that the drafting stages of writing this book teased many memories out of her. One of her fondest memories is of her Fellowship at the Harvard Institute of Politics. The year was 1991 and Berriozábal was honored to have been offered an opportunity to teach and share her stories with Harvard students. She remembers how her students were moved by her message of democracy, inclusiveness and justice. She in turn was impressed by how engaged those young students were and was struck by how deeply invested they were in the same issues she cared about. This marked one of the moments that made Berriozábal realize how widespread social justice issues are; she understood how the universality of the human condition is the common thread that keeps us connected, one with the other. This understanding informs her work and her perspectives to this day.
Upon returning from her Harvard Fellowship, Berriozábal felt a renewed commitment to what she feels is one of the issues she cares about most: human capital investment. She explains that investing in the youth of a community should be paramount; she is painfully aware of the alarmingly high dropout rates that plague many of our schools. Berriozábal wants to dispel the myth that young people drop out of school because they are lazy or don’t have the ability to learn. Instead, she urges, we must address the grim reality that so many young students drop out because they have to. These students are faced with the dilemma of either continuing their education or getting a job in order to put food on the table and shoes on their younger siblings’ feet. Berriozábal laments that the young people of our communities have to make these difficult choices and insists that if more time, effort, and resources went into helping our youth, the educational and economic landscapes would look very different.
Berriozábal is convinced that if urban planning and public policy efforts don’t invest in older neighborhoods, the outcome will be communities suffering from lower-quality education and broken infrastructures. One of her mantras, “Working for housing is also working for education,” would look great on a t-shirt or a poster and could certainly be a rallying cry for all those who look to her inspiration. As Berriozábal sees it, a low-value housing market does not attract investment from private or public sectors, which means less funding for health and education services.
Berriozábal took up writing in earnest when she left public office in 1991; she finds inspiration and healing in journaling and writing poetry. Her disciplined practice of writing on a daily basis made it all the easier for her to commit to writing a book that she now feels will be a legacy, not just for those to whom she is closest but also for the many others who will find value in the history of the people she was born into. Although there is plenty of local buzz about Berriozábal’s book, she hopes to reach readers and thinkers across the country; she likes to imagine that the book will prompt others to share their own stories, thereby ensuring that the conversation about why immigrants matter will gain momentum.
Much like the hands of her grandmother and mother skillfully wove thread and yarn to create bordados (embroidery) and tejidos (intricate woven pieces), Berriozábal has made of the threads of her life a rich and colorful tapestry. Now it is time for one of our foremost community organizers to put her tapestry into words. Berriozábal hopes that readers will recognize in María: Daughter of Immigrants a tribute to her forebears. In a broader scope, Berriozábal’s book is also a testament to all immigrants who helped build this country and continue to contribute to it in so many ways.
María: Daughter of Immigrants will be published by Sor Juana Press (sisterfarm.org/sor-juana-press.html), the independent publishing house of Santuario Sisterfarm, an organization she helped found that is “committed to the common good of the whole Earth community.”
I look forward to knowing what you think, feel, want, fervently hope for. Get at me lit-URL@sacurrent.com