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Photo by Clubesque

Single Moms and Co-op TamalesImmigration limbo means they aren’t allowed jobs — so they became owners in a co-op

YES! Photo by Martin Do Nascimento

At home in her kitchen, Elideth prepares tamales. She wraps both the masa paste and the chicken and mole sauce in a corn husk and then steams it. YES! photo by Martin do Nascimento

On a crisp morning this past fall, cooperatives from around the world set up shop in an Austin, Texas, church for the annual Women and Fair Trade Festival. While most of the vendors were veterans of collective organizing, one group of single immigrant mothers used the festival to debut their food cooperative, Cooperativa Posada.

Travis Putnam Hill

Travis Putnam Hill is a freelance journalist and composer based in Austin, Texas. Follow him @TPutnamHill.

Three Mexican women — Silvia, Elideth, and Erika — and a Guatemalan woman named Hilda spent a near-sleepless night preparing dozens of their distinct regional varieties of tamales, some wrapped in corn husks and others in moist banana leaves. Nebat, the lone Ethiopian member of the cooperative, prepared some luscious, dark, traditional Ethiopian coffee by roasting the beans on a metal plate over an open flame, then grinding them by hand.

The products of their labor were not only nourishment for the festival attendees (who lined up for a taste), but also an attempt to raise the awareness — and donations — needed for their cooperative to succeed. On a broader level, the tamales and coffee represented the mothers’ efforts to create an opportunity for self-sufficiency, to foster collective economic empowerment, and to forge a path forward for themselves and their families.

All the Cooperativa Posada members currently live or have lived at Posada Esperanza in Austin, a shelter for homeless immigrant mothers and their children. The shelter houses 16 families, most of whom are undocumented immigrants or asylum seekers from Latin America and Africa who have fled violence and dire economic circumstances.

While Posada Esperanza has provided refuge for their families, these women remain victims of poverty and have histories of degradation. In many cases, their dignity has been chipped away over time by the combination of abusive partners and societal marginalization, and now they are trying to learn a sense of self-worth all over again — or for the first time in their lives. Many understandably yearn for more: a way to feed and support their children, to have a sense of security and comfort — modest desires by most standards.

Their identities as women, single mothers, and immigrants present a combination of barriers to supporting their families. Of the estimated 5.4 million undocumented women living in the United States, those who find illegal employment are among the most underpaid workers in the country, according to the Center for American Progress. The Migration Policy Institute found that, in 2013, nearly 30 percent of single mothers, whether immigrant or native-born, were in poverty, compared to 21 percent of single immigrant fathers and 16 percent of single native-born fathers.

Elideth, one of the cooperative’s founders, illegally crossed into the United States after leaving her home in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. She asked to not be fully named because of her immigration status. “I want to have money and to be able to rent a quiet apartment to be with my daughter,” she says of her 1-year-old, speaking — as did the other Mexican co-op members — in Spanish.

For single mothers, like those of Cooperativa Posada, that means the power to set work hours when their children are at school or to coordinate child care with other mothers.

Elideth’s sentiment is echoed by co-founder Silvia, a 39-year-old mother of three who, for the same reason, also asked to be called by her first name only.

“I want my children to feel proud. I want them to be proud that they’ve been given a good path,” says Silvia, who left her home in Michoacán state in Mexico more than 15 years ago when she found herself without the means to provide for her first child. “I want them to be well more than anything. I don’t want them to lack anything.”

But providing for their children doesn’t come easy.

The cooperative members who are undocumented cannot legally be employed, and those seeking asylum aren’t eligible for a work permit until their asylum application has been pending for at least six months. They could join the more than 8 million undocumented immigrants in the nation’s labor force, but that would likely mean working in restaurants or as domestic workers, where they would earn low wages and risk abuse.

They are also disqualified from most social services, despite the fact that undocumented immigrants often pay taxes that support such services. (Undocumented immigrants pay more than $11 billion a year in state and local taxes, including sales and excise taxes, according to the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy.) Some of their U.S.-born children, however, do qualify for food assistance. Still, that aid does not cover the many other costs of living, like clothing, rent, and transportation.

These mothers are fiercely protective and loving toward their children, and they need support to survive, says Elaine Cohen, an Austin-area activist who has worked closely with the Posada women.

YES! Photo by Martin Do Nascimento

Elideth and 1-year-old daughter Alinna outside of their home in Austin, Texas. YES! photo by Martin do Nascimento

All of this meant finding a way for these women to work legally without sacrificing time with their babies and kids — a way, as Cohen put it, “when the kids come home from school, they’re there.”

From a conversation with a fellow immigrant advocate, Cohen realized that a cooperative business could be a solution because, surprisingly, the law does not explicitly prohibit undocumented immigrants from starting a business.

Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), employers face penalties for knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants or continuing to employ immigrants upon discovering they are undocumented. But the IRCA does not use any specific language to bar undocumented immigrants from owning a business.

“The employment sanctions provisions of immigration law refer specifically to the employment of undocumented noncitizens and were aimed at targeting employers,” says professor Leticia Saucedo, who researches employment, labor, and immigration law at the University of California, Davis. “It does not speak to undocumented noncitizens as employers, although it does prohibit knowingly contracting undocumented noncitizens for labor.”

In other words, they cannot be employees, but they can be employers.

Carlos Pérez de Alejo, executive director of Cooperation Texas, an Austin-based worker-cooperative development center, recommends that undocumented workers form their cooperative businesses as limited liability companies. That legal structure allows each member to be an owner.

He would know. Cooperation Texas trained and consulted with the women who created Dahlia Green Cleaning, a 4-year-old undocumented-worker-owned cooperative also in Austin.

The Cooperativa Posada members, with Cohen’s aid, have only just begun gathering the information and funding they need to hire lawyers and file the paperwork to formally establish their co-op, but Dahlia’s success, as well as the establishment of New York City’s Apple Eco-Friendly Cleaning and other similar cooperatives, shows the idea’s promise.

The Dahlia Green Cleaning cooperative saved its worker-owners from an informal industry notorious for its low pay, lack of control over poor working conditions, and verbal and physical abuse. They now earn $15 an hour and determine their own schedules and policies for the co-op as a whole.

Cohen realized that a cooperative business could be a solution because, surprisingly, the law does not explicitly prohibit undocumented immigrants from starting a business.

For single mothers, like those of Cooperativa Posada, that means the power to set work hours when their children are at school or to coordinate child care responsibilities with other mothers — a much needed flexibility in a time when paying for child care out of pocket can eat up about half the monthly wages of low-income families. And the prospect of earning a living wage gives the Cooperativa Posada mothers a chance to build a future beyond the shelter.

“The options for these women are extremely limited,” Cohen says. “Maybe they can ride around in a little Nissan and be cleaners, or they can go to fancy hotels and be exploited there, or they can work in restaurants where they’re exploited differently. Or they can organize themselves, and have dignity, and make money for themselves and their kids, and contribute to the cultural wealth of our community.”

These mothers offer the cultural wealth of their cooking, the cuisines they brought from their homelands. But though they brought those traditions, they left much behind.

When Silvia left Mexico for the United States in 2000, she couldn’t bring her 2-year-old son. She ended up in central Texas, where she had two more children with a man who eventually turned violent. She and her children escaped that abusive relationship and moved to Posada Esperanza last April.

Elideth dreamed of becoming a teacher, but she chose love instead. She followed a man to Los Angeles in 2012. Two years later, she gave birth to her daughter, but soon found out her partner had been unfaithful. She left him, and with few places to turn for help, she ended up in Austin at Posada Esperanza and, now, Cooperativa Posada. She left the shelter in early March, but the stability of her current accommodations remains uncertain.

These mothers are determined to build fuller and richer lives from the tribulations they left behind. Through owning a business that can sustain them and their children, they can turn hardship into opportunity.

“I’ve always said that we’re always going to encounter obstacles that we have to cross, to jump over, because not everything in life is easy; the road isn’t always straight,” Elideth says. “For one reason or another, we have to overcome all of that because the goal is to arrive where we want, and what we want to have is a place to sell our tamales.”

Travis Putnam Hill

Travis Putnam Hill is a freelance journalist and composer based in Austin, Texas. Follow him @TPutnamHill.

The Lakota Martial Arts Ninja Helping Native Women Recover Their Spirit

YES! Photo by Dan Koeck

Patty Stonefish’s tattoo is of the Arabic word “horreya,” which means “freedom.” She spent years in Egypt during and after the Arab Spring, watching women take their place on the frontlines of Tahrir Square. “I got it because, especially as a Native, freedom got ruined for me,” she says of the tattoo. “Egypt gave me the true definition back.” YES! Photo by Dan Koeck

Patty Stonefish can take down a fully grown man by his finger. She makes it look gracefu — a skillful flick of the wrist and her 220-pound husband, Dereck, drops straight to his knees. Patty, a 26-year-old joint-lock ninja of Lakota heritage from North Dakota, has been studying taekwondo for more than a decade. She knows dozens of complex hapkido sequences that can immobilize opponents. But for demonstrations like the one she is doing tonight, she keeps it simple: single-action moves with names that women can remember in a panic, like grandma’s grip, jazz hands, and, in this case, single-finger takedown. Most people start timidly, afraid of pushing too hard, but Patty urges them to act like they mean it — anyone who apologizes has to drop and do squats.

Christa Hillstrom

Christa Hillstrom is a senior editor at YES! This article was funded in part by a grant from Images and Voices of Hope.

Based in Fargo, North Dakota, Patty and Dereck are kicking off a series of self-defense workshops in a local community center through their project, Arming Sisters/Reawakening Warriors. Their first group is small, with just three participants — two adults and a preteen girl. Dacia, 41, of North Dakota’s Spirit Lake Tribe, said she’d never heard of the program before seeing the event advertised by the tribal center.

Before launching into the hapkido moves, Patty and Dereck talk through the impacts of generational trauma in Native American communities. Dacia keeps coming back to the point that strikes her most: You have the power to change your own life.

Patty launched the original program in 2013 to offer Native American women a self-defense model that was more about rediscovering strength than putting up your guard. This year, she and Dereck are trying to expand, launching workshops for men and boys on masculinity. Together, they have led more than 25 trainings around the country, from reservations to college campuses. In Patty’s words, the workshops focus on putting the “self” back in self-defense. Many Western approaches put people on guard against the world, she says. “I wanted women to rediscover what’s powerful in themselves.”

While you might come away with some useful tricks to thwart an attacker, the hope is that the physicality and communion will also rekindle a belief in yourself. “You are strong,” Patty tells women. “You are awake.”

That means common self-defense principles — like verbalizing boundaries and removing yourself from dangerous situations — are applied much more broadly. “Removing yourself”could mean anything from crossing to the other side of the street to leaving a relationship after years of abuse. And while you might come away with some useful tricks to thwart an attacker, the hope is that the physicality and communion will also rekindle a belief in yourself. “You are strong,” Patty tells women. “You are awake.” Only individuals can re-empower themselves, Patty says: The “re” in these sessions is central. When you realize you can take down a man like Dereck with one move, she says, you begin to think, “I’m strong — I’m not only physically stronger than I thought, I’m emotionally stronger than I thought.” Maybe strong enough to break cycles of violence and trauma.

Patty, who as a preteen survived an assault by two White men, long internalized her own trauma; she didn’t tell anyone for years. “I wouldn’t say it out loud even to myself,” she says. She hears similar stories during the talking circles that follow her workshop’s trainings. Sometimes women, emboldened by one another, share their stories for the first time.

Dereck explores a traditional view of warriors who care for their people, often at great sacrifice. “We try to show boys how we traditionally valued women as the core and pillars of our community.”

About one-third of Native American women are raped during their lives, according to the Department of Justice, and some activists think that number is much higher. “Lots of women will tell you they don’t know anyone who hasn’t been raped,” says Sarah Deer, a Muscogee (Creek) professor at William Mitchell College of Law who has studied violence against Native American women for decades. And they are most likely to be assaulted by non-Native men. Eighty-six percent of sexual assaults against Native American women are perpetrated by members of other races, a fact that sets them apart from White, Black, and Latina women. These rapes are rarely prosecuted: Under federal law, tribes have no jurisdiction over non-Natives; federal prosecutors, who could charge attackers, usually don’t.

Left photo
Right photo

Patty and Dereck Stonefish’s marriage tattoos connect when they grip forearms—the best way, they say, to pull someone up easily. The couple met on Twitter, where Patty was active in the Idle No More movement to protect indigenous lands and rights. The movement helped her better understand the ongoing impacts of genocide and colonization, evidenced in the poverty, addiction, and violence against women that still plagues much of Indian Country. YES! Photos by Dan Koeck

A few hundred miles west of Fargo on the Fort Berthold Reservation, an oil boom began around 2009, attracting thousands of non-Native workers. Advocates became so concerned about Native women’s vulnerability to violence that a national Native American coalition petitioned the United Nations to investigate human rights abuses.

Stonefish’s expanded program’s “warrior” track encourages conversations among men and boys that challenge what Dereck calls the “colonial” approach to masculinity that emphasizes glory through violence and war. Instead, Dereck explores a traditional view of warriors who care for their people, often at great sacrifice. “We try to show boys how we traditionally valued women as the core and pillars of our community,” he said.

This is the second time Brande Redroad, an 11-year-old also from the Spirit Lake Tribe, has participated in the program. Tonight, she came with her mother, Tanya, 41. She’s vocal with her opinions, comfortably says no when she doesn’t want to try a particular move, and shows her strength easily when she does. “I always knew I had the power in me. I just didn’t know how to express it,” she said. “No one really showed me how to use it until now.” Her mother nods. “We’re going to be talking about it all the way home.”

Christa Hillstrom

Christa Hillstrom is a senior editor at YES! This article was funded in part by a grant from Images and Voices of Hope.

“They” and the Emotional Weight of Words

Language is the space in which we carve a place for ourselves, where we demand to be seen. A reflection point for culture, community, and family to acknowledge our existence on our terms. For decades, “butch” was the only identity and term available to those of us who identified as “masculine of center.” Like many others, I lived in that space. There was much about it that I loved: the community of brotherhood, the worship of femininity, the gentility of the old-school butches. Yet, like so many other words, butch failed to capture the full depth of my soul. Its White cultural origins and resulting denial of my Black body took its toll.

Cole

Cole holds an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics and has worked as a community facilitator, strategist, and consultant for the past 15 years. In 2010, Cole launched the Brown Boi Project, the first program in the country to bring Trans men, Queer men, straight men, and masculine-of-center women of color together to build a new vision of masculinity. They work to change the way communities of color talk about gender in the United States.

I went in search of myself. I took a detour on the road to law school and, instead, went to study gender at the London School of Economics. The lone student in my Gender Research program, I cobbled together stories, interviews, and research on how our gender identity and expression become language that makes us visible in the world. In the powerful piece from the disability justice movement, “Disease Is Not A Metaphor,” essayist and librarian Cyrée Jarelle Johnson argues that “there are not more important things to think about than words, because the things that you say are the substance of your thoughts, which become the things that you do and the biases you keep close to your chest.”

Over the past decade, young people of color have created an alternative conversation around identity that has since spilled into everyday lives. From social media to college campuses and community spaces, the emergence of terms like “boi” has challenged the language and imagination of people everywhere. Instead of he or she: “they.” And they are using multimedia platforms to push the boundaries of the understanding of masculinity and femininity. It’s hard work. The daily pushback against a world that is constantly trying to make you stay in a gendered box makes you resilient but incredibly tired. Doing it in a way that offers people the humanity they themselves sometimes deny to you requires grace.

Almost every day, whether at work or standing in line at the grocery store, we too often miss opportunities to meet someone where they are in their gender understanding and help them change the way they think about gender. Instead, we’ve made it perfectly normal to educate someone by “checking” them on their lack of understanding. This approach inadvertently creates a call-out culture that rein-forces hypermasculine negativity. One of the most powerfully feminine things one can do is to create; it’s a courageous act. We should be encouraging people to create and build new ways of approaching language, not cultivating fear and shame around not knowing the right thing to say.

The way forward starts from a place of vulnerability and love. A daunting feat, yet, in my life and work, it has been profoundly moving.

It begins with relationships. Even in small interactions, we can create connections that allow us to challenge one another with a goal of greater understanding. At restaurants, I gently let folks know we don’t go by “ladies” and offer up “folks,” “peeps,” “homies,” and “fam” instead. When they inevitably apologize, I remind them that we are only just meeting. How would they know the language I choose to reflect myself? I have no expectation that they will know my preferred pronoun. The interaction makes it clear that they should not simply assume gender preferences and that asking is actually welcomed.

Pronouns can be the basis from which all of us learn to see and respect each other’s identity. “What pronoun do you prefer?” is always welcome. It shows respect, intention, and commitment to see me as I see myself.

The entire lexicon for how we understand gender is shifting. For many of us, it can be a weighty, disorienting experience. But for a handful of us, this is a moment of freedom. If each of us does our part to challenge old language that pushes us back into small gender boxes, all of us will be a bit more free. Eventually we will align language with the complexity and beauty of our bodies and our authentic selves.

Cole

Cole holds an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics and has worked as a community facilitator, strategist, and consultant for the past 15 years. In 2010, Cole launched the Brown Boi Project, the first program in the country to bring Trans men, Queer men, straight men, and masculine-of-center women of color together to build a new vision of masculinity. They work to change the way communities of color talk about gender in the United States.

This Is Naked PowerBurlesque performers put bodies and politics in full view

Photo by Clubesque

Burlesque performer Perle Noire Photo by Clubesque

The lights go down, and sultry music fills the theater as a performer struts onto the stage, adorned with sequins, feathers, and tassels — the embodiment of decadence. She confidently removes her costume, piece by piece, until she reveals her nearly naked body. This is the time-honored tradition of burlesque, and it is unexpectedly on the frontlines of resistance against racism, objectification, and gender injustice.

Taja Lindley is a writer, artist, member of Echoing Ida, and founder of Colored Girls Hustle. Follow her on Twitter @tajalindley.

Burlesque is an art form with a rich history. Ecdysiasts, the formal name for striptease performers, like Josephine Baker, may come to mind. Most famously known for her provocative banana skirt performance in Paris, Baker was also an activist — she refused to perform for segregated audiences and spied against Axis powers during World War II. Many burlesque artists of color carry on the practice of performance art as advocacy today.

As an artist-activist, I have had the pleasure of learning from ecdysiasts who know their craft, celebrate its history, and continue its legacy. I spoke with three leading performers exploring the political side of this traditionally bawdy art form: Miss AuroraBoobRealis, a mother, co-founder of Brown Girls Burlesque, and co-founder of brASS: Brown RadicalAss Burlesque; Chicava Honeychild, the creative producer of Brown Girls Burlesque, performer, historian, and documentary filmmaker of Black burlesque; and Perle Noire, an award-winning artist with accolades from critically acclaimed burlesque festivals.

Photo by Audineh Asaf

Chicava Honeychild Photo by Audineh Asaf

Photo by John Quincy

Miss AuroraBoobRealis Photo by John Quincy

Lindley: What stories do you create with your body onstage? How is that similar to or different from the stories others have placed on your body and life?

Perle: Growing up, I survived a lifetime of ridicule and verbal abuse. I was told that I was ugly on a daily basis. I was taught that my skin tone was too dark to be beautiful and loved. I was taught that a woman’s place in this world is nothing more than a man’s fantasy, with or without her consent. All of the lies skewed my perception of beauty, glamour, and myself. Through the art of burlesque, I found the power in my own voice and, most importantly, my sacred body. It’s not about nudity when I bare my soul to the audience. It’s deeper than that. I’m reclaiming my body, voice, love, and power with each reveal.

Aurora: Central to my existence in this world is the fact that, as a person, I cannot and will not separate myself from my art, my race, and my political beliefs. I use my body to tell stories, sometimes clothed, sometimes not. And it is with this understanding that I felt called to make “Still Happening” to Cassandra Wilson’s haunting cover of “Strange Fruit,” expressing with pain, frustration, and rage that this song was still relevant in 2015. My bare skin is all at once a canvas and a reminder of our collective humanity. After one performance of it, a young woman came up to me and expressed how powerful it was to see my confidence in my body, a body that has given birth, isn’t perfectly toned, and has wobbly bits, because that isn’t something that she sees regularly. With “Din Daa Daa,” a piece to the classic ’80s song by George Krantz, I am celebrating my passion for rhythm and play, and the biggest reveal isn’t my breasts but the discarding of my heels so that I can truly get down. I am not a distant beauty one puts on a pedestal but an embodied wild woman who sweats and smiles and radiates joy.

Photo by Eric Lippe

Taja Lindley performing as her burlesque alter ego sassaBrass: The Poom Poom Priestess. Photo by Eric Lippe

Lindley: While you’re teaching classes about burlesque, what barriers do students often face in authentically expressing their sexuality?

Aurora: We are so programmed in this society to think that sexuality is a bad thing, especially expressing it publicly outside of the narrowly defined heteronormative structure. These prescribed norms are insidious and get into our psyche no matter how vigilant we are. When I teach, I come from a place of transparency, sharing my own struggles with authentically expressing my sexuality. It isn’t about being perfect, doing a set of moves that reads as empowered and sexy onstage, but rather being embodied and present in the moment. Through exercises, I help participants explore, define, and celebrate their own brand of sexy.

Chicava: Ladies are so quick to see themselves as not doing anything right. Women will exhaust themselves looking after others and feel like they should have done better. We don’t have a culture of self-care. It might be that the highest expressions of self-care are the things no one can see but that emanate off of a woman for having done them.

I want how I share burlesque with women to be a part of a culture shift that encourages women to accept, appreciate, and love themselves exactly as they are. The next layer of challenge is battling against every image of “this is sexy” that they have ever been confronted with in media and life. It causes comparison, which is a joy thief.

Lindley: Why and how is performance art — burlesque in particular — integral to our social movements?

Perle: Art has always been the catalyst for gender equality and social awareness, and burlesque is no different from any other art form. Along with the neo-burlesque revival, burlesque has adopted a new face. It’s not just women who are being booked worldwide to celebrate the art of the striptease. So many powerful men are dominating festivals and corporate events. This is truly inspiring because the men are masculine, feminine, and Transgender. That is the power of art and the power of burlesque.

Chicava: Burlesque as theater, meaning before it became dominated by striptease, was one of the first opportunities on stage that Black people had to create from their own point of view. The glorification of the Black girl began on the burlesque stage in the 1890s with ladies like Dora Dean, Stella Wiley, and Aida Overton Walker, creating the first works that situated Black people off the plantation and in city environments. Their work took on Jim Crow, Orientalism, and, on the lighter side, the topical and funny skits and bits we associate with burlesque and vaudeville.

After one performance of it, a young woman came up to me and expressed how powerful it was to see my confidence in my body, a body that has given birth, isn’t perfectly toned, and has wobbly bits.
— Miss AuroraBoobRealis, burlesque performer

Lindley: How can people who do not identify as artists, or are nervous about performing burlesque on a stage, learn from and use this art form — personally and politically?

Aurora: Being naked in public is a huge fear in our society. Overcoming that fear, and actually moving beyond it to revel in the feeling of being naked in public, can give someone so much more confidence in their daily life. In creating a burlesque piece, you must distill what you want to say to this essential thing that fits in a three- to six-minute song. The skill it takes to successfully do that teaches you clarity and efficiency in communication, and communication is key for one’s personal and political presence in this world.

Taja Lindley is a writer, artist, member of Echoing Ida, and founder of Colored Girls Hustle. Follow her on Twitter @tajalindley.

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