Inspiring Proud and Persistent Poderosas

The iconic advocate for Latinx empowerment, Monica Ramirez, discusses uplifting communities by telling Latinx stories, believing in others with conviction, and making our parents proud.

NB: Can you tell me a little bit about you?

MR: For me, it’s really important that people know that I’m the daughter and granddaughter of migrant farm workers. That is the starting place. My family came to the U.S. from Mexico as farm workers and traveled all over the country picking crops and eventually settled in Ohio, which is where I was born and raised. 

I’m a rural Latina. I was born and raised in rural America, and it is where I still live today. A little town of about 16,000 people, where my family used to work for years picking the food that we eat. So I’m really proud of my background as a part of the farm worker community.

I am very fortunate because I was able to become a lawyer and spend the majority of my career, and my life, fighting for the rights of farm workers and other immigrant women. I started as an activist when I was 14 years old, and I haven’t stopped.

Me and my two siblings are the first generation in my family that did not have to migrate for work. That is a unique situation for folks who come from the farm worker community and who are used to migrating. A couple of farmers gave my family a break and we were able to settle, so we were very fortunate to have a very stable upbringing. That’s a certain kind of privilege, because it’s very difficult to break out of the migrant cycle. 

Because of that privilege, my parents felt very strongly about us getting an education and they challenged us to understand that we had a responsibility, now that we had this privilege, to do something to make things better. 

So from the time I was a very little girl, my parents talked to us about what it was like to work in agriculture. We met the farmers; we went to the plantation. They wanted to make sure that we understood that background and that led to this empowered 14-year-old kid who asked a lot of questions. 

At the beginning of the summer, the local newspaper had this full page ad with a big header that said ‘welcome back fishermen’, and I thought that was weird because there was not a welcome back farm worker section. Where I’m from, fishermen come to fish in Lake Erie, and farm workers also come to pick the crops – but they didn’t give that same kind of acknowledgement to the farm worker community.

That was bothersome to me, so I asked my dad about it and he said “well, go ask them”. And I hopped on my bicycle, rode down the street to the newspaper and asked the editor why there wasn’t a welcome back farm worker section of the newspaper. And I think he was a little embarrassed and didn’t really know why they didn’t have a welcome back farm worker section, and because I actually knew him, he was friendly and open to receiving my feedback and told me that I should write about it.

At 14, I started my newspaper beat, writing about farm workers in the Latino community, and eventually I was promoted to have my own columns. So I, at 16 years old, became the voice of the people.

That was a whole process because the more people I talked to, the more I learned what it felt like for people not to be seen in the community because that was the experience of Latinos and farm workers where I’m from. They had not been seen, no one had been asking them what they thought or what they wanted or what they dreamed about or what they needed, and I got to interview them and write the stories about their issues. 

I was writing about all kinds of things: the Fiesta de Guadalupe celebration, the Hog Festival, a big tornado that affected farm workers. I also was talking about political issues and things like immigration. And you know what was interesting? I got a following of people from all different walks of life who would stop me at church, at school, at the restaurant where I worked, and they’d comment about my column.

For some, it was really curious that I was so young and created this platform, and had thoughts about these issues, about diversity and multiculturalism and all the things I was writing about. And then we would have dialogue about it, so it was a really awesome opportunity and a huge part of laying the foundation for who I would become as an activist.

NB: How, as a Latina, has your background played into your work?

MR: I have this amazing opportunity to show up every day as my full self and the work that I do is representative of my whole life, right? Of what it means to be a Latina.

We’re fighting to make sure that we’re closing the pay gap and we’re fighting for workplace issues that affect Latinas, and those affect me very personally. My work is about advocating for farm workers, which is the community that I come from, so my work is in honor of and dedicated to my family.

As lawyer, my area of practice – the specialty that I’ve focused on – is sexual violence, which of course is a very difficult issue. I’m a survivor. So that work is very personal to me. I also created my first legal project in the United States that focused on the rights of farm worker women because of my sister, who was also a survivor. She passed away a few years ago, but that project was built and dedicated to her. 

So I carry my family and my identity with me every day in my work. It makes me so proud to get to do the work that I get to do and to fight for the things I’m fighting for and to know that we’re making a difference, not only for myself and for my family, but for all of us.

I do believe we’re making a significant difference, and how awesome it is to get to do that. I wake up every morning and just do the work that is really focused on making a better future for all of us.

NB: What advantage do you think we have as Latinos to disrupt the collective zeitgeist? 

MR: There are so many. First of all, our community is so rich and diverse – the languages that we speak, the food that we eat, the music that we influence. Because we influence culture across the board, that is an advantage for us in the sense that we’re sort of setting the bar in lots of ways and we’re creating the kind of things that brands would want to follow, that people would want to follow. 

We as a community and as a culture bring people together; that is in our nature. The big dinners, the big fiestas, the bailes – that is organizing at its core. So we’ve all been raised as organizers and that power to organize and to influence the way people think, the things that people like, the things that people care about, really sets us apart and positions us well to be able to set the kind of standards and new norms that we’re setting. 

NB: Who is your Atrevida/o/e preferida/o/e? 

MR: The person I’ve always looked up to is my great grandmama, Virginia. She was like 4 feet tall, super little, but everyone was afraid of her because she was so powerful. And she showed me what it looked like to lead, to command a room and to command attention. She will always be my number one. 

But also, Dolores Huertas has been so inspiring to me. She is a hero and a mentor to me and has in so many ways pushed the boundaries. When she co-founded what is now the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez, she wasn’t in the background, she was negotiating the contracts with the growers to win rights for farm workers. She negotiated the legislation that became the gold star for farm workers in this country. 

The other reason that I admire her so much is that I met Dolores for the first time when I was 20  and I didn’t know what I was going to do with the rest of my life, aside from serving my community. She was so approachable and down to earth. She has really taken it upon herself to mentor many other Latinas and that is admirable because not everyone makes time for that.

NB: What was your ‘ponte las pilas’ moment?

MR: I feel like I have those moments all the time. All the time. But I think that one of my moments was very early in my legal career. I created the first legal project in the United States that was focused on addressing gender discrimination against farm worker women, specifically addressing sexual harassment. And I got a two-year fellowship to start that project in Florida, and there was a moment when it was really clear to me that there was no more money. There was not going to be the opportunity to continue that work in the way that I wanted to continue it in the place where I was working, because there just weren’t resources.

So I was on a path to become a general attorney, which I would’ve been happy to, but my mission was to really develop this work around gender discrimination that is confronting farm worker women. It’s such a huge problem and I wasn’t willing to just stop doing the work, so I had to figure out how to keep it going.

Someone contacted me about a position at Southern Poverty Law Center to become a health and safety attorney. So I submitted my information and ended up pitching them a different position. I flew to Montgomery, Alabama to have this interview and I had to sit with myself the night before to garner up the courage that was going to be required for those conversations because I was hard selling my project. 

I remember I met with the president of the organization, and told him what I wanted to build and he said, “well, you understand, we have this other job.” I said, “I understand, but I’m going to continue building this project no matter what.” 

That moment was really critical in my career because it could have been a major turning point if I had just all of a sudden stopped doing the work that I was trying to do. I was brave and just threw it all against the wall, and I don’t know how it happened, but they agreed. 

I actually think that is one of our superpowers as a community; because when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. Many of us come from families with humble beginnings and we’ve been able to create careers for ourselves. We’ve been able to take our families’ lives in different directions because of the different privileges that we’ve had over the years. 

That ability to just say, I have nothing to lose is a kind of courage that not everyone understands, and it is something that rings through over and over again. 

I think the migrant women I serve are some of the most courageous people in the world. And one of the things I’m always struck by when I’m working with them is that they’re moving because of necessity. They don’t even have time to think about that fear; they cannot allow that fear to immobilize them. They’ve gotta just keep moving, and I think that that is a challenge, but there are some people in our community that cannot afford to allow that fear to paralyze them and they don’t. 

NB: ¿Suerte o sudor? What percentage do you attribute your success to in terms of luck vs. hard work?

MR: I think it’s maybe 90% sudor. I’ve been very lucky in the relationships that I’ve developed and some really special folks who’ve been brought into my life and that’s luck; those have been gifts. But I think a lot of what we’ve built has been built with a lot of hard work and sometimes tears for sure. I actually think to be top of your game, no matter what that game is, it requires hard work.

On the luck part, none of us have gotten to where we are by ourselves either because of our family or our friends or associates that we’ve been able to meet. There are a lot of people who are alongside us and are holding us up and whose shoulders we stand on.

That’s the other thing I think people really need to understand. Even when someone is at the top of their game, they’re surrounded by many other people, and anyone doing good ethical work would always acknowledge that they did not get where they are without many, many people helping them along the way.

NB: What advice do you have for brands today that want to make a difference in our community? 

MR: I think that their best investment is listening closely to folks in the community, whatever that looks like – such as, focus groups, market surveys, partnering up with the small organizations and communities that maybe you’ve never heard about before. Because that is where you’re going to really hear from people about what they like, what they don’t like, what their priorities are.

Sometimes brands feel like they have to affiliate themselves with big known entities or big known NGOs and, from all the years that I’ve been organizing, I know that the true experts are the people themselves.

And it is also true that if we want to get close to an issue or to have a better understanding about a group of people, getting in community with people who are doing grassroots work is where you’re going to find some of the most authentic and most important information. So I think brands should not discount the power of community and direct connections with the organizations that serve people on the ground.

NB: Your work and commitment is so inspiring. What can I, we, do to help? 

MR: I think that we all need co-signers; we need people to say, ‘I believe in this person.’ So what I need from you is to keep telling the people in your network about the work that we’re doing and why you believe in it, and why they should support it.

And support can look different. Support might be a financial contribution, it might be volunteering, it might be becoming part of one of our campaigns. But we need validators, too. That is what is most needed, the validators to say over and over again why what we’re doing is important,  the fact that we are thought leaders and that we have good solutions. I think it really makes a difference.