The Washington Post
Melting Pot Potlucks
By Fresia Rodriguez Cadavid
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
Patricia Sosa glides among the women in her Tenleytown home. In the kitchen, she instructs two of her guests as they toss a salad, then cart bottled water and wine into the dining room. Sosa puts a pie in the oven, then ducks out to take her 8-year-old to a play date as more guests are arriving.
The women begin gathering in the living room, chatting like old friends, though many are meeting for the first time.
That was the case for the salad makers, Edwina Jaramillo and Nora de Hoyos Comstock.
And Myrna Hernandez, who had several women engrossed in a story about her experiences as a local Puerto Rican activist in the 1960s.
And Jezzika Perez, 26, a Mexican American originally from Texas, who was among those listening intently as Hernandez talked of fighting for equal employment opportunities decades ago.
"It's people like you who have paved the way for us," Perez tells her.
This is how it goes at meetings of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, a national support group for Latinas, most of them with professional careers, that recently started in Washington.
Since February, women have gathered monthly for the comadrazos, as the meetings are called, to discuss their lives as bicultural women in a city that has traditionally seen things in black and white. There is no agenda at these potlucks, no formal officers for the group; it's just a chance for the women to meet and discuss their lives, the choices they've made about careers and families and whatever else comes to mind.
Las Comadres is a Spanish term that, in this context, is an affectionate phrase to describe close female friends. Newcomers are welcomed to the comadrazos with a kiss on the cheek and a hug. No one is a stranger for long. The women's ages range from twenties to sixties, their skin tones from ivory to mahogany. Their experiences vary, of course, but their reaction to making these connections seems intensely the same: unabashed joy.
"You have no idea how hungry we are for an opportunity to get to know other Latinas and build communities," says Sosa, director of constituency relations for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and a Comadres co-facilitator who so far has hosted several of the gatherings. "It's just people hungry to connect in a very basic level."
Marisa Demeo, 37, and of Puerto Rican heritage, knows about that kind of hunger. As legal counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, she says being a Latina with advanced degrees can be isolating:
"It really sets you apart because there are so many Latinos who don't have bachelor's degrees, let alone master's and professional degrees."
Besides the regular challenges for women in the workplace -- balancing family and work, struggling to get past the glass ceiling -- Latinas face additional issues of cultural barriers and fewer role models and resources, they say.
Linda Lopez, who moved from California two years ago to work for a nonprofit, says her co-workers are unfamiliar with the diversity among Latinos.
"In California everyone assumed I was Mexican because most Latinos there are. Here people assume I am white," says the fair-skinned Ecuadorean.
That diversity was hard to miss at the comadrazo. Josy Laza Gallagher, 52, a dark-complexioned Cuban American, was happy to be there for several reasons, she says.
"I live in Reston, and even though there are Latinos there, I haven't really connected. I've been there for seven years," says Laza Gallagher, who identifies herself as a black Latina. "One of my goals to be there is because I don't think there are enough black Latinas around. I was encouraged by the warmth and acceptance. It is not always that way, even within Latinos."
It was a need to connect with other Latinas that drove de Hoyos Comstock to found Las Comadres in Austin in April 2000. Today there are 3,500 comadres nationwide. Managing e-mail listservs for the 18 cities where networks exists, de Hoyos Comstock daily posts community-specific news and job and professional development opportunities. In its few months of existence, the District network has grown to more than 100 members.
"This is about roots, culture, pride, sharing what we are about, things about each other and our upbringing so we can reconnect with those roots," says de Hoyos Comstock, 57, who also owns the Austin-based Sana Group, which promotes health and fitness in Latino communities.
The women in Tenleytown admit, too, that sometimes those roots can bring added pressures, especially for career women who defer motherhood and marriage in a family-oriented Hispanic culture. But it's a choice that many are making.
"I see it as an opportunity to be single," explains Miryam Granthon, 33, a Peruvian American and public health analyst with the Department of Health and Human Services, who will visit Honduras this summer for two weeks as a counselor for youth building church pews. "If I had a little one, I really couldn't do that."
There are other issues for those who do have their own families, such as Sosa, 42. The challenge of darting from office meetings to after-school activities is second to the challenge of making sure her bicultural and bilingual children know their Latino heritage. Sosa, who is Puerto Rican, entertained her guests while attending to her 4-year-old daughter, Anna. The children have a Colombian nanny who speaks Spanish to them, Sosa says. They also study the language in school and visit Puerto Rico annually.
Ana Nogales, a Los Angeles clinical psychologist, says in a phone interview that Latinas are continuing to carve out their own identities.
"As Latinas, many have tried to be like other women in America," says Nogales, who recently joined the network. "When you don't have enough minorities within a given group, the minority, in order to succeed, tries to conform to the majority and become part of the majority subconsciously. As more Latinas are becoming part of the big spectrum, we can give ourselves the right to be ourselves."
It is de Hoyos Comstock, visiting from Texas, who eventually calls everyone together for a formal introduction during the Tenleytown gathering. The women go around the room, sharing their names, their country of origin and the highlights of their week.
One newcomer, who had already offered her Virginia home for the next comadrazo, introduces herself. Another woman confesses she thinks she may have fallen in love. The room erupts in knowing laughter and good wishes.
First-timer Marian Zapata-Rossa, a 24-year-old Honduran marketing manager at the National Council of La Raza, also has a big announcement: She has paid her deposit to confirm her enrollment in Howard University's law school. The room explodes into applause.
For information on Las Comadres Para Las Americas or to join, visit www.lascomadres.org or contact Nora de Hoyos Comstock at email@example.com.