What’s Class Got to Do with It?

A History of the Tradeswomen Movement Part Two

Lawyers made me dumb.

Or maybe it was all in my own head.

Serving on the board of a law firm with a bunch of high-powered lawyers turned me from an articulate leader to a person who doubted my own abilities.

The non-profit law firms, Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) and Employment Law Center (ELC) partnered with my organization Tradeswomen Inc. (TWI) on critical projects during the 1980s. Our goal was equity in employment and specifically integrating the construction trades which had excluded women and people of color from high-paying jobs.

I loved the lawyers at ERA because they thought outside the box. They understood that social movements cannot be all about litigation and they were willing to work with us to try other tactics.

Sometime during the ‘80s, after having worked together on a lawsuit, I was invited to lunch by the director, Nancy Davis and staff attorney Judy Kurtz (it was a cheap Mexican place South of Market near the ERA offices). They sat me down and asked if I would like to join the ERA board of directors. I was delighted. I was surprised. I was flattered. Could they really want a tradeswoman activist to sit on their board with a bunch of big law firm attorneys? Of course I said yes.

I was no stranger to boards of directors. TWI had been a 501(c)3 since 1979 and I served on its board. At that time, I was also on the board of Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP) along with another tradeswoman, carpenter Tere Carranza. But this was different. I would be the lone blue-collar worker among 10 or 15 attorneys. I did understand that my role on the board would be “client representative” and I was happy that ERA sought out such representation. I vowed to be the best client rep ever.

Rooms with a View

ERA board meetings took place in the high-rise offices of big San Francisco law firms where the board members worked, usually in the boardroom, always with an impressive view of the city. I could not stop oooing and ahhing and realized I never would have gotten into these exclusive places otherwise (except that as an electrical inspector I sometimes got to inspect high-rise construction sites). Occasionally they would be held in the crowded, run down ERA offices in the slummy South of Market neighborhood.

Unlike the TWI board meetings, where the board doubled as the staff (we called it a working board), ERA board meetings benefited from staff backup. We got a packet of material with minutes, agenda and background information. We got the benefit of expert consultants’ advice. Meetings were well organized and informative. I rarely had much to say.

My presence was more useful for fundraising. I would come to meetings with foundation program managers dressed in Carhartts, hard hat in hand, a real live example of ERA’s final product—a woman with a high paying trades job. My individual fundraising contacts were few, and I had already maxed out the contacts I had. Friends, I feared, would avoid me on the street so as not to be asked for money to support TWI, which was always in debt.

Still, I could make calls to moneyed folks when a list was handed to me during fundraising campaigns. We usually worked in pairs, and one time I sat at lunch with my comrade and asked a patron for $10,000 (we got it).

These forays into the world of wealthy lawyers sparked a range of mixed feelings and increased my awareness of class. I was constantly comparing the wealth of ERA (actually a rather poor nonprofit) to the poverty of TWI whose continued existence its board of directors was also responsible for. I wished I could take the list of potential donors and ask them to support TWI (I never did, of course). I knew I could make a good case. The truth was that our two organizations collaborated and we were all better for it.

I was already conscious of the class differences between me and the other ERA board members, but the difference in the fortunes of the two organizations strained them further. I was the poor relative, grateful for any crumbs that came my way. The feeling was especially magnified when we met with foundations. I remember a meeting with the representative of the Rockefeller Foundation at a time when Tradeswomen’s fortunes were sagging, one of the several times the organization nearly went under for lack of funding. The Rockefeller woman was young, chatty, dressed in fashionable New York attire (I wore my electrician work clothes). I felt so desperate in her presence that I had to keep myself from prostrating myself at her feet to beg for money. 

Poor Forlorn and Angry

I had taken on the identity of my poor failing organization. I felt poor and forlorn—and angry.

During my years on the ERA board I did speak up occasionally when I thought a working class or lesbian voice needed to be heard. Lawyers, even progressive ones, can be conservative. One time the board president, who was a woman of color, gave me a dressing down right in the meeting. 

“You are not the only person here who has faced discrimination,” she admonished me. Her public criticism stung. I honestly don’t know what I’d said to set her off. But I suddenly became aware of resentment flowing toward me and wondered if others on the board shared her feelings. I had thought myself a powerless person in this group. Suddenly I had power, if only negative power.

The ERA staff did appreciate my perspective and when the board president stepped down I was asked to take the position. But I had lost confidence in myself and I turned it down. What had happened to me? I certainly knew how to run a meeting, a skill I’d perfected as a kid in 4-H. I’d been leading meetings of tradeswomen for years.

Blow Up

I had never been close to the staff, or board of ERA for that matter. Staff attorney Judy Kurtz and I had a good professional relationship; we had worked together on many projects. Then, as happens with so many organizations, the founder’s impending retirement in part led to a blow up. The suggested reorganization didn’t work; the woman chosen for a newly created position was, as they say, a bad fit. I confess when I tried to discuss tradeswomen’s issues with her, she seemed clueless. Some staff resented not being considered for the position. In good faith, the leadership had hired outside the staff, seeking more diversity. But we suddenly realized how fragile relationships within the organization had become. I quickly got to know the staff and talked to them trying to understand what was happening. It was a mess. (Another issue was the plan to hire part time staff, possibly to avoid paying benefits.) Everybody was pissed off and some relationships never recovered. When the board, looking for a scapegoat, took aim at Judy, I resigned.

Tradeswomen Inc.’s relationship with ERA continued after I left the board, but the new board of directors had different ideas about the mission and goals of the law firm. They eschewed any activities not related to policy and litigation. ERA had been the leader in building coalitions within the civil rights community. For a small organization and constituency like tradeswomen, association with a larger civil rights community was necessary to achieve even notice, let alone long-term change. We felt privileged to be part of coalitions working to achieve racial and gender justice.

Also, all of us were aware that the power of organizations like ours was concentrated in the East. We were doing amazing work out here in the West, but few policy makers noticed. 

Noticed by Ford 

Tradeswomen continued to push ERA to help us fight discrimination in the building trades, and we got a chance at new programs when the Ford Foundation took notice in the early 2000s. The program manager was a friend of someone and that’s how we got an interview with her. ELC was also interested in the promised $600K. Tradeswomen participated in meetings, but program ideas seemed vague. We kept trying to get a better sense of them. The ERA rep who was working with us came with us to Denver for a national tradeswomen conference. All was happy. We were sisters in struggle. Only later did we find out that ERA was awarded the money with no stipulations to create programs for tradeswomen. We felt used by ERA. ELC got left out of the loop and this resulted in strained relations between the two law firms. Some staffers cut ties with ERA entirely. All over money. Of course, Tradeswomen had learned this lesson in the past. Funders, and especially the federal government, make all of our organizations compete for a tiny sum of money they allocate to programs. 

Lessons for the Future

What did we learn from our years’-long collaboration with ERA and ELC? 

*Small organizations like Tradeswomen need to find partners. We can’t do it alone.

*Litigation can be crucial to civil rights movements, but cannot be the only tactic.

*Relationships are important, more important than money. 

*In our “classless society” class is still a thing.

We All Needed a Good Lawyer

A History of the Tradeswomen Movement Part One

The envelope delivered to my small flat in San Francisco’s Mission District, shared with three other women, was fat with a far away return address. I knew what it contained even before opening the envelope—a cry for help—and I also knew there would be nothing I could do about it. 

I was already involved in the tradeswomen movement when I relocated to San Francisco from Seattle in 1976.  As a publicly identified tradeswoman activist, I would get letters from women all over the country complaining of horrific harassment and discrimination in nontraditional jobs. I felt powerless. We didn’t even have an organization, let alone a program to help. What these women needed was a good lawyer.

During the 1970s, we activists formed organizations all over the country. In 1979 we started a nonprofit, Tradeswomen Inc., to provide support and advocacy for tradeswomen, but we weren’t able to secure funding. With no staff we were run by volunteers—unemployed tradeswomen.

Enter Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), a law firm begun in 1974 by feminist lawyers with a focus on defending women’s employment rights. I remember sitting around on the floor in somebody’s living room in the late ‘70s strategizing about how to open up jobs to women that had traditionally belonged to men. That’s when I met Judy Kurtz, a staff attorney at ERA, and we began to collaborate. Later I served on the ERA board of directors for many years.

Looking at the Big Picture

Ours was an anti-poverty strategy. The feminization of poverty was a popular buzzword (still applicable today). Women, especially female heads of households, were becoming poorer and poorer in relation to men. Well-paid union jobs in the construction trades could lift up our gender if we could open them to women. Apprenticeship programs in the construction trades like electrical, plumbing, carpentry, ironwork, and operating engineer only require a high school diploma or a GED to enter. Then the training is free and the apprentice works and earns a wage while she is in school. There are no college loans to repay. We saw these jobs as a path to financial independence for women.

ERA had been part of a national class action lawsuit against the US Department of Labor which resulted in the creation of federal goals and timetables for women and minorities in the construction trades. New regulations took effect in 1978. The goal was to have 6.9 percent of the construction workforce be women on federally funded jobs. Having federal law on our side buoyed us while Jimmy Carter was president, but as soon as Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, federal affirmative action laws and guidelines were no longer enforced. We had to be creative. We decided to focus on the state level where there was still some commitment to enforcing affirmative action regulations.

Focus on California

Tradeswomen Inc. was fortunate to work with lawyers who were willing not only to take our individual cases, but also to help us strategize about using class action lawsuits to desegregate the workforce. We wanted to make law, to actually create change. 

The building trades in California include about 35 apprenticable trades and each trade has a union with different rules, and each union has many locals throughout the state. Not a single apprenticeship program out of hundreds in the state was even close to meeting goals for women’s participation. What could we do to get them to comply?

By 1980 we had some history with all the players. Our partner, Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP), was placing women into trades apprenticeships in California, working with the apprenticeship program directors and compliance officers. 

The unions were a huge barrier to women but we chose not to take legal action against unions. Our goal was to work with unions, be part of the union movement. Besides, there were so many! So we decided to sue the enforcer.

Suing the State

The State Division of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS) oversees apprenticeship programs and is charged with enforcing affirmative action goals, but they would routinely give a pass to programs that claimed to have made a “good faith effort” to meet the goals. Partnering with Tradeswomen Inc., ERA filed suit against DAS for failure to enforce the goals. The lawsuit resulted in a requirement that the state produce quarterly statistical reports which allowed us to evaluate their progress. We might have had some small impact on the DAS, but we had to take them back to court for contempt five years later. Nothing had really changed.

Then we took on the DAS through the Little Hoover Commission, which investigates state government operations. The public testimony of many tradeswomen got attention, even an article in the New York Times. The investigation ended with DAS getting its funding cut by the Republican administration, which did nothing to help our cause.

Then came a period when DAS made a big turnaround on our issues. It was during the administration of Gray Davis, the Democratic governor elected in 1999. He was only in office for three years when the Republicans mounted a successful recall campaign against him. Davis appointed a friend of tradeswomen to head the DAS, Henry Nunn, a Black man from the painters’ union. Suddenly there was some funding to promote women in trades and we partnered with the state agency to sponsor some great programs, like the dedication of the Rosie the Riveter park in Richmond where we got to commune with the Rosies, and a trades day for Bay Area high school students. We loved working with the DAS staff, a bunch of smart feminists. But when Arnold Schwarzenegger took over as governor, he brought back into state government all the guys from the previous Republican Wilson administration, and Henry Nunn was axed. It did show us that the state could do the right thing with the right leadership. It also reinforced our impression that Democrats are way different from Republicans.

Part of the Civil Rights Movement

From the very beginning we saw ourselves as part of the larger movement for civil rights and we worked in coalition with other civil rights groups to publicize and also to defend affirmative action programs. In 1977 we were active in a coalition that formed around the Bakke case, which upheld affirmative action in college admission policy. We also partnered with ERA and other civil rights organizations to oppose proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative in 1996 (we lost, and a proposition to overturn 209 in 2020 lost). Some of our partners in the West Coast coalition included Bill McNeill of Employment Law Center; Joe Hogan, retired OFCCP; Tse Ming Tam of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) and their founder Henry Der; Eva Paterson of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights; and Superlawyer Brad Seligman. These are luminaries in the social justice sphere and we were so lucky to have their support.

Tradeswomen Monitoring Network

We also collaborated on other projects involving coalition partners like trades unions and the Human Rights Commission. We went to lots of meetings of DAS and its community body, the California Apprenticeship Council to make the labor community aware of their responsibilities. Susie Suafai, who had directed WAP, was hired to monitor the Oakland federal building project—one of the few projects to meet federal affirmative action goals.

This willingness of ERA to use staff time to advocate for us as well as litigate was a huge plus. Litigation was important to our movement, creating the original goals and timetables and affirmative action regulations so crucial for women’s entry into these jobs. But we knew well that litigation alone does not make a movement.

As class action lawsuits became harder to win, and courts were filled with Republican-appointed judges, litigation was a less effective strategy for change. Tradeswomen and ERA continued to look for ways to work together. In the early 2000s we applied together for a grant from the Ford Foundation. ERA received the grant, but Tradeswomen saw none of the money, nor did any program result as far as we could tell. We felt used and the relationship foundered. Another casualty of this fight for funding was ERA’s relationship with the Employment Law Center, a partner in the DAS suit and other related discrimination lawsuits. ELC was directed by Joan Graff, another hero in our battle for affirmative action. This is just one example of how the fight for funding pitted organizations with similar goals against each other.

The ‘80s saw the decline of affirmative action. The ‘90s was a period of working to keep in place the laws and regulations we had fought so hard for, even though they weren’t being enforced. President Clinton appointed Shirley Wilshire as head of OFCCP. She came out of National Women’s Law Center, one of our coalition partners. 

We put together a national coalition to pressure the OFCCP to enforce the regulations and increase the percentage of women on federal contracts. We had the support of the White House, but Congress was controlled by Republicans. We planned to file an administrative petition asking for higher goals for women and enforcement of federal regulations, but Wilshire and federal officials argued that we should keep our heads down and hope that Congress didn’t notice and remove the enforcement regulations entirely.

Tradeswomen activists learned about the laws that affected us and we continued to pay attention to the law as it changed through the years. The biggest change for us on a day-to-day level was that sexual harassment was made illegal. This happened not through the passage of a single law, but through a series of court cases with a lot of nudging from the feminist movement. The work of Eleanor Holmes Norton was key.

Today we still rely on ERA and feminist lawyers to push the federal government to meet its affirmative action goals on declared“mega projects” (the only goals still in effect in California). We have entered a period of backlash. While trades have opened up to women technically, we still face discrimination and our ways of fighting back have been restricted.

Beltane and a Black Heroine

My Regular Pagan Holiday Greeting

The entrance to Beltane Ranch on Hwy 12

Dear Friends,

Beltane, May 1, is a pagan holiday celebrating the spring at its peak and the coming of summer. It is halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice. 

Driving by the Beltane Ranch, I’ve always wondered about its history and its association with the holiday. It turns out Beltane has historical representation right here in Sonoma County. Just outside the city of Santa Rosa, settled by pro-slavery Confederates from Missouri, Beltane Ranch has been recognized as a Black historic site by the National Park Service.

The reason is that Mary Ellen Pleasant, called the “Mother of California’s civil rights movement,” once owned Beltane Ranch in Sonoma Valley, near Jack London’s Glen Ellen home.

Mary Ellen Pleasant

Most stories about Mary Ellen Pleasant lead with the fact that she was the first Black female  millionaire in the U.S., years before Madam C.J. Walker earned that title. And this is true, but for me the most important fact about her is that she financed John Brown’s raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry with $30,000, (about a million in today’s dollars) and secretly traveled to the Eastern Seaboard to rally slaves to Brown’s militant cause from 1857 until 1859. 

John Brown believed violence was the only path to end the institution of slavery and he planned to lead a slave rebellion with guns captured from the armory. After the raid failed, Brown was convicted of treason and hanged. In his pocket when he was arrested was a note signed with Mary Ellen Pleasant’s initials. She asked that her gravestone read “She was a friend of John Brown,” and that marker was placed on her grave in 1965 by the San Francisco Negro Historical and Cultural Society. 

Born in about 1814 in Virginia, Mary Ellen spent her early years in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where she worked for an abolitionist family. She was of mixed race and was able to pass as white. She married James Smith, a wealthy former plantation owner and abolitionist who died four years later. After her work on the Underground Railroad in the East attracted the attention of slaveholders, Pleasant relocated first to New Orleans and then to San Francisco in 1852 where she continued her abolitionist work. 

Mrs. Pleasant’s New Orleans style ranch house

In a city overwhelmingly rich and male, Mary Ellen put her skills to work as a cook and housekeeper, learning about finance and picking up investment tips from eavesdropping on her employers’ conversations. She encountered Thomas Bell, a native of Scotland, who would remain her close confidante and business partner for a lifetime. Among his future ventures, Bell would serve as director of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad of Nevada and then director of the Bank of California. Often, Mary Ellen would be a silent partner in his real estate and mining transactions.

The entrance to Calabazas Creek Open Space

In the 1860s and 70s Mrs. Pleasant filed several civil rights lawsuits mostly against the trolley companies fighting for the right of Black people to ride public transportation, most of which she won. She also rescued enslaved people from the Fugitive Slave Act and found jobs for former slaves in her many establishments.

Pleasant was regularly called the derogatory slur “Mammy Pleasant” by local whites and the press, but she did not approve.

“I don’t like to be called ‘Mammy’ by everybody. Put. that. down. I am not ‘Mammy’ to everybody in California. I received a letter from a pastor in Sacramento. It was addressed to Mammy Pleasant. I wrote back to him on his own paper that my name was ‘Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant.’ I wouldn’t waste any of my paper on him,” she said.

An old olive tree left at the remains of a ranch along Calabazas Creek

Mrs. Pleasant continued to maintain a close business association and friendship with Thomas Bell. She introduced him to his future wife, Teresa, and they married in 1879. Then Mary Ellen designed and constructed a 30-room gothic mansion on a lot she owned at Octavia and Bush streets where the three of them lived together. Mary Ellen handled all business matters for the residence and managed the Bells’ finances. 

In 1890, Mary Ellen and Thomas and Teresa Bell purchased the Nunn Ranch on Calabazas Creek in Sonoma Valley. They soon acquired several other homesteads in the area and in 1892 purchased the Drummond Ranch, where California’s first bottled cabernet sauvignon had been introduced in 1884. They named it Beltane, perhaps in recognition of Thomas Bell and his Celtic heritage. 

After Thomas Bell died in 1892, Teresa and Mary Ellen continued to run Beltane together, with Teresa owning the more mountainous 575 acres and Mary Ellen the lower 986 acres. Mary Ellen designed the ranch house with New Orleans influence and supervised its construction. She spent many weekends there in her later years. 

Wild lupine

With phylloxera present in Drummond’s prized vineyards, Teresa determined to convert the property to other uses, including starting a dairy, planting an apple orchard, and leasing the land to pasture livestock.

Mary Ellen Pleasant lost her fortune I would argue because of racism and sexism. After Thomas died, his widow sued for the estate and won in court. Teresa Bell took all the wealth Mary Ellen had created.

Despite being listed as the owner in Sonoma County records and as the result of ongoing litigation of the Thomas Bell estate, in 1895 Mary Ellen was declared an insolvent debtor. Even though Mary Ellen claimed her debts were due to guaranteeing Teresa’s debts, the titles to the San Francisco mansion and Beltane Ranch were transferred to Teresa Bell. 

Mrs. Pleasant spent her final years with her friends, Lyman and Olive Sherwood of Napa and when she died in 1904 she was buried in a Napa cemetery. She is seen by many historians as “The Harriet Tubman of California.”

Beltane Ranch and Mrs. Pleasant’s house are still here, right off Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and Napa. The house is now a bed and breakfast and most of the property is now part of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. It will open to the public as a park in the future. I got to walk there recently with local naturalist Sarah Reid along Calabazas Creek, where remnants of old homesteads are still visible.

Mary Ellen Pleasant was indeed a fascinating historical figure and I’ve enjoyed researching her life, full of San Francisco stories and scandals not recounted here. I still want to read a couple of books about her. The Jamaican-American author Michelle Cliff wrote a fictional account of her life, Free Enterprise. And Lynn Hudson wrote a biography, published in 2008, The Making of Mammy Pleasant.

Here in Sonoma County on Beltane we celebrate the height of spring and our wildflower season.

Wishing you all a lovely holiday.

Solving a WWII-era Mystery

My mother kept her abortions secret 

The most personal most shocking secret my mother never told me I had to find out from my cousin Sandy.

In 1974 Sandy had just returned from a decade working for the U.S. Army in Germany. She came home and she came out, returning with a female lover and a seven-year-old stepson. Sandy is ten years older than I, and so represents a generation of lesbians different from mine, women forced to live in the closet before the gay liberation and feminist movements burst upon our scene. Running away to Europe had been a good way to keep her secret.

Flo in her Red Cross uniform. She wasn’t a nurse. She ran a “clubmobile.”

Sandy and I hung out together in Seattle and one night after a bit too much whiskey (she’s been sober now for many years) she asked me if I’d ever heard the story about my mother’s trip to Paris during the war. My mother, Flo, had told me many stories about working for the American Red Cross as a “donut girl” during World War II in Europe, but I’d never heard that one.

“What was so special about a trip to Paris?”

“Did you know Flo had an abortion?”

“Wow! No kidding! She never told me. How do you know?

“Mom told me. I guess she was sworn to secrecy, but she couldn’t keep the secret. She had to tell someone.”

Sandy’s mother, Ruth, had told her that my mother had traveled from the front lines to Paris, where their sister Eve was working as an Army nurse, to get an abortion. This would have been in the fall of 1944. I had many questions, but Sandy couldn’t answer most of them. We speculated about who the father was and whether Eve had been involved in the abortion. 

I was shocked. Flo and I were close and I couldn’t believe she hadn’t told me, her only daughter, about this significant part of her own history. 

When Sandy told me the story of the abortion, my mother was still living and she still had three living sisters. I had time and abundant resources. I resolved to find out the answers.

There were times during my childhood when Flo talked about her experiences in Europe. She showed us kids the big scrapbook she had made after the war and I remember looking through it often. Our favorite part was a series of colored pencil drawings made by Liz, one of the Red Cross gals she traveled with in the Army’s Third Division. They showed the “girls” washing their hair in helmets, peeing by the side of the road, driving big trucks, and roughing it in tents. It wasn’t until I opened the album again as an adult that I looked more carefully. 

Flo did a pretty good job of documenting her time in Europe, taking photographs with a tiny Minox camera. She had traveled on a hospital ship to Italy in 1943. Her Red Cross unit followed General Mark Clark into Rome as it was liberated by the Allies. She was in France, Germany and Austria as well. She was the only person to photograph the field ceremony honoring war hero Audie Murphy and the photo from her album was later used in the making of a movie about him. She got lots of street cred from that, and several post-war newspaper stories about it are included in her album. 

1944 Flo was captain of this crew. The clubmobile was a two-ton truck outfitted with a kitchen to make coffee and donuts for soldiers returning from the front. L-R Isabella Hughes (Jingles), Elizabeth Elliott (Liz), Dorothy Shands (Dottie), Florence Wick (Flo) in Italy

She hated Nazis and that translated into a hatred of Germans, whom she called Krauts. She distrusted Germans as a people, and believed they were all culpable for war crimes, even and maybe especially, those who claimed ignorance. She had witnessed the liberation of Dachau and took pictures, which were “lost” by a German photo shop. But she didn’t really talk about that part of the war until the 70s, sparked by a TV show, QBVII, based on a novel by Leon Uris. That discussion of concentration camp life allowed her to start thinking and writing about her experiences again. But until then she didn’t talk about the Holocaust and of course her album contained no pictures that might have induced questions from us kids. 

She did tell us about her fiancé who was killed by a mortar shell, but she didn’t say much. Most of what I know I learned from the album, which includes photos of her and her fiancé, Gene, and letters from his mother in Oregon. There are also letters from other paramours, but she was clearly heartbroken by Gene’s death and not interested in settling down with any other, at least then.

Was she pregnant when he was killed? Did she have an abortion in Europe? Why wouldn’t she ever tell me about it? Why couldn’t I ever bring myself to ask her point blank?

In 1979, Flo and I traveled to Sweden and Norway together to visit our relatives and visit the town in Norway where her father was born. We felt particularly familial. This seemed like a good time to ask and I put some thought into how to approach the question. I didn’t think she would give me a straight answer if I asked her directly. I would have to work up to it.

Me: It must have been difficult to avoid getting pregnant while you were with the Red Cross. Did they issue you birth control?

Her: What!!

Ok, poor opening line, I know. I guess I was implying that she had sex with lots of men. Which would have been understandable. That’s what I was doing.

I felt her withdraw and knew, I think, that she would not have told me the truth even if I’d asked point blank. I didn’t have a Plan B. 

In 1983, my mother died without ever giving up the story. But there were still two living sisters, Eve, the nurse, and Ruth, to whom she had told the story. Ruth wrote me a note after a story of mine was published in an anthology about the deaths of our mothers. The story was about Flo’s funeral. Ruth took issue with some of the “facts” of my story. I wrote back to say, essentially, this is my story and I get to tell it my way. If you want your story told, write it. Ruth responded with a wonderfully detailed descriptive story about her childhood. This made me hopeful she might “remember” other details about the family. Might she tell me something more about Flo’s trip to Paris? 

After I got Aunt Ruth’s letter, I considered how to respond. Should I start with trivia and slowly up the ante before she caught on? Should I just blurt out what I wanted to know and hope for the best? I decided on a compromise strategy. I did come right out and ask the Paris question, mixed in with a few other family history questions. I don’t believe I ever heard from Ruth again, except she did send me Xmas cards every year, filled with trivia. Then she died.

Aunt Eve must know something, I reasoned. After all, she had been in Paris when Flo visited right after her fiancé was killed. Eve, the nurse, was terribly practical. She also had a knack for talking non-stop over anyone about her boys and her cats. I didn’t think she would lie to me. She asked me to edit a personal history she had written about her time as a nurse in WWII and I used that opening to question her. 

When I finally asked the question Eve seemed genuinely perplexed. She knew Flo had been pregnant. Was she pregnant by the fiancé who died? No, Eve didn’t think so. Well, who was the father then? She thought it might have been another guy Flo was dating. Really? I’m thinking: your fiancé dies, you are disconsolate, and then you get pregnant by another guy? I didn’t think so. But Eve remembered that Flo had told her she had miscarried while carrying heavy packages when moving to a new camp. She didn’t think Flo had had an abortion at all. My assumption that Ruth had gotten the information from Eve did a back flip. Flo hadn’t told Eve! She had only told Ruth, her closest sister, and sworn her to secrecy.

Flo and I got feminism together. As every new book came out about the movement, we rushed to the bookstore to buy it. I still have my copy of Sisterhood is Powerful, which she inscribed to me. She got angry about how she was treated at work. She was paid too little for what she did. When I went through her things after she died, in her jewelry box was a little pad of notes that could be pulled off, licked and stuck on something. They read “This Insults Women.” So many things then insulted women. We were sticking stickers on the world. 

In 1972 the first Issue of Ms. Magazine was published. Flo had kept it and I found it in her collections. In the very first issue was a section about abortion. Famous women, so many of them, admitted publicly to having had an abortion. It was liberating! Until then abortion was not talked about. I didn’t imagine at that time that my mother had had abortions. I myself had been very careful not to get pregnant. But by the time I became sexually active, birth control pills had become available and I made sure I was on them before I chose to have sex with men. It seemed to me that getting pregnant would be the end of my world. In high school (before I ever had sex) I once asked my parents what they would do if I got pregnant. They said they would find an abortionist. Later, when I became a feminist activist in college, I realized this was not so easy.

I wondered if my dad knew about Flo’s trip to Paris and the abortion. After Flo died, he came to visit me in San Francisco with one of his many girlfriends. 

“Hey, tell me something. Did you know Flo had an abortion when she was in Europe?”

He said he hadn’t known, but, he said, “I bet I know something that you don’t.” 

“What?” 

“She had an abortion before you were born. We had just gotten married and we didn’t see how we could afford kids. I drove her to Portland for the abortion.”

I was flabbergasted. Here was another secret she had kept from me! Now I wonder if my parents were even married then. In 1947 you didn’t go around telling folks you were pregnant and unmarried. Also, we could never believe anything Dad said; he was full of blarney. 

Later I learned of Ruth Barnett, the abortionist who ran her business in Portland from 1918 to 1968. After she became pregnant at in 1911 at 16 and had an abortion, she was convinced that all women should have the opportunity to receive an abortion if they wanted one. Barnett was the target of frequent raids, and was in and out of jail, but she kept it going for 50 years, retiring only after being convicted and sent to prison.*

Flo had kept the story of both her abortions secret from me, and she’d kept the Paris abortion secret from her husband all her life. Was she afraid of having to talk about Gene, the love of her life, to her husband? Maybe, like the concentration camps, she just didn’t want to go there again. Or maybe the shame was too deep.

World War II was a global conflict on an unprecedented scale. Women all over the world were recruited to serve the armed forces in many different roles. Approximately 400,000 American women served in the armed forces. What did the Army do when they got pregnant? While I have no proof, I believe it offered abortions to those who didn’t want to bear children. I hope so. I hope my mother didn’t have to seek an underground abortion in Paris. 

Did the U.S. government offer reproductive care to war workers in WWII? Cursory research gets me nowhere. It seems like this information has been suppressed. The government knows how to keep its secrets too.

Dear feminist researchers, 

If you have information about this historical period and the U.S. Army’s treatment of pregnant workers, please contact me at tradeswomn@gmail.com.

*Ruth Barnett memoir: They Weep on My Doorstep. Also The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law by Rickie Solinger

Hope for a New Day

My Regular Pagan Holiday Post

Dear Friends, 

Happy Ostara, the celebration of the vernal equinox, which takes place this year today, March 20. Searching for spring festivals and hoping for inspiration, I found one from Iran.

“In Iran, the festival of NowRuz begins shortly before the vernal equinox. The phrase “NowRuz” actually means “new day,” and this is a time of hope and rebirth.

Boy, am I feeling the need for hope and rebirth right now.

“The Iranian new year begins on the day of the equinox, and typically people celebrate by getting outside for a picnic or other activity with their loved ones. No Ruz is deeply rooted in the beliefs of Zoroastrianism, which was the predominant religion in ancient Persia before Islam came along.”

Getting outside—yes! The vernal equinox must be celebrated outdoors.

Another inspiration comes from my neighbors, many of whom are my age, in their 70s. In Santa Rosa people take their gardens and landscaping seriously. When I walk down the street and see Dan and Karen tending their gardens or Howie down on the ground pulling weeds, or Pam planting natives in her front yard, or Susan wielding digging tools I think yeah I can do that too!

Gardening and planting plants—what a great way to celebrate spring!

I’ve always seen myself as a big strong woman and I’ve spent my adult life telling other women working in the construction trades “We Can Do It!” Admitting that I can’t do something is still hard for me, even though I’ve been practicing it for a decade now. At 72 I discover new limits to my ability constantly.

So, after Holly and I acknowledged to each other that there are some garden chores we just can’t do anymore, we hired a laborer to dig out crab grass, matilija poppy roots and a couple of stumps.

There is also this: I don’t want to do it. I might have felt like I had to in the past, or I was required to show that I could meet some physical challenge. Now I no longer have to make a point.

Or that’s what I thought before Maximo, the laborer, weighed in on my ability. He was digging out the poppy roots with an adz. I said to him, “that’s such hard work.” I knew this because I had dug out the roots a couple years before and found the job taxing.

“Yes,” he said, “you couldn’t do this.”

My hackles went up immediately. What do you mean I can’t do it! I thought to myself. He had said that as he worked without even looking at me. What was it about me that made him think I couldn’t do the work? Gray hair? My gender? To me them’s fightin’ words.

So of course after that I had to do it to prove I still could. I decided to start celebrating spring a little early, on the Ides of March. I know the last day of frost in Santa Rosa is April 15 but I can never wait that long and I figure global warming has moved it up at least a couple of weeks. And I was willing to take a chance. If my seedlings froze I’d just have to start over.

Holly had ordered seedlings from Annie’s Annuals and we set out to plant them in the front yard, which required squatting for long periods.

Look, I’m not decrepit and I’m proud that I can still pee in the woods and get up off my haunches (except for that one time after a back operation when my quads were so weak I needed help from a tree). But peeing is a short operation and planting takes longer. Especially since I get obsessed with pulling out the bermuda grass roots, an unending task (I do know we will never be rid of them).

After working at it for a while and feeling pretty good about my athletic ability, my neck and my hands started sending pain signals. Then suddenly the muscles in my legs objected, seizing up and screaming for me to move, but I was stuck in the position. Oh My Goddess I can’t get up!

I remembered the episode of Grace and Frankie where both Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda fell and couldn’t get up. They both raced for the phone by swimming across the floor on their backs. And the episode when Jane pulls a MacGyver, lassoing a sculpture to pull herself up off the toilet. If only my elderly exploits could be so funny!

I rolled over to get up the way they teach old people to do and I finished the job on hands and knees.

I did it! Not very gracefully, but I did it.

In the meantime Holly had finished her part of the planting without mishap, but she is a decade younger than I.

Acknowledging that I might not be so good at planting seedlings, I can still throw seeds around the garden and rake them into the dirt while standing up. And that’s what I did last fall for cover crops of mustard, red clover, calendula and fava beans. Now they are flowering and I’m appreciating the fruits of my labor.

Maybe next year I’ll find a new way to celebrate the advent of spring, something I can do while standing upright.

In the meantime I wish you all NowRuz Mobarak–Happy New Year. May this be the start of a new day.

Sending love to you all,

Molly

Wood Smoke Kills

Photo by Viktor Talashuk on Unsplash

My mother died at 70 from COPD and air pollution. She was ill the last two decades of her life until she coughed herself to death.

We lived in a small town very like Santa Rosa where people (including my family) relied on burning wood for heat in the winter. We were also exposed to pesticides sprayed on surrounding crops, smudging of orchards in the Spring, dust created by haying and mowing, and Agent Orange chemicals applied to nearby forests by lumber companies.

My mother tried to raise awareness of these pollutants, writing letters to the editor of the local paper and pressuring her representatives to regulate their use. Some of her letters, written four or five decades ago, could be written today.

We pay too little attention to air quality. New studies about the effects of air pollution and smoke show that they are worse for human health than we knew, especially for children and elders. Wood smoke is linked to heart attack and stroke, lung disease, cancer, cognitive decline, brain inflammation and neurological problems according to a recent Stanford study https://neuroscience.stanford.edu/news/stanford-study-shows-wood-smoke-can-harm-brain.

Please, dear neighbors, stop burning wood. You are affecting your child’s health and you are killing your mother.

Celebrating National Freedom Day

My Regular Pagan Holiday Greeting

Happy New Year! February 1 gives us many reasons to celebrate.

Imbolc, the Celtic pagan holiday celebrated February 1 and 2, marks the mid-point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. And February 1 is the first day of Chinese New Year.

February 1 is also National Freedom Day. Have you ever heard of it? Me neither, but I plan to start celebrating it now that I have. Feb 1, 1865 was the day President Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. The amendment was ratified by the states on December 18 of that year.

Major Richard Robert Wright Sr.

The holiday was created by a former slave named Major Richard Robert Wright, Sr., a committed community builder who founded a college and a bank. Born into slavery in Georgia in 1855, after the Civil War ended he moved with his mother to Atlanta where he enrolled in the Storrs School, the forerunner of Atlanta University. In 1876 he married Lydia Elizabeth Howard, who bore nine children. Wright was the first African American paymaster in the U.S. Army (appointed by President McKinley). As a major he was the highest ranking Black officer during the Spanish American War.

In 1948, the year after Wright’s death, Congress passed and President Harry Truman signed into law a bill to make February 1 National Freedom Day. It later became Black History Day. This gave impetus to national recognition for Black History Week and, in 1976, Black History Month.

Wright envisioned National Freedom Day as a day for “all Americans” to celebrate our freedom. Harry Truman, Major Richard Robert Wright and the U.S. Congress saw America itself as a symbol of freedom. 

The arc of the moral universe is a lot longer than I had thought and I’m not convinced it bends toward justice without a lot of help. As we now lose freedoms we fought for in our own lifetimes—the freedom to vote, women’s freedom to control reproduction, the freedom to live without fear of fascism—let’s celebrate National Freedom Day by appreciating the freedoms we do enjoy and joining the fight to regain freedoms lost. 

How I Got My Book Published

I’m a writer not completely unfamiliar with the publishing process. I published a book in 1988 with a new edition in 1993. Hard Hatted Women: Life on the Job is an anthology of stories by and about women working in the construction trades and blue-collar jobs.

I had a publisher then, Seal Press, a woman-owned press that focused on women’s stories. Started in a Seattle garage, Seal Press came out of the Women’s Press Movement at a time when women, and especially lesbians, could not find printers who would print our words. Seal Press assigned me an excellent editor (every writer needs a great editor) and also a press person who got me interviewed by Jane Pauley on the Today Show. She organized a bare-bones  book tour in which I drove my CRX across the country and back, staying in the homes of women’s bookstore proprietors. I loved working with those brilliant women at Seal.

Oh how the publishing business has changed since then! Seal Press is now an imprint of Hachette, a big publishing house in New York, still with a feminist focus. But I didn’t even send them a proposal for my latest book, Wonder Woman Electric to the Rescue. My book is a collection of essays, fiction and memoir and I know publishers prefer manuscripts that stick to one genre. Finding a niche publisher just seemed like an overwhelming challenge and I didn’t feel like writing proposals and waiting for rejection letters. Also, I know that even if I was lucky enough to find a publisher, they’d be unlikely to do much to promote my book. 

Nowadays there are lots of “self” publishers to choose from, but I was lucky to employ a friend, Chris Carlsson, who has self-published a stack of books. Chris directs Shaping San Francisco (www.shapingsf.org), a project dedicated to the public sharing of lost, forgotten, overlooked, and suppressed histories of San Francisco and the Bay Area. The project hosts a digital archive (where many of my writings appear) at foundsf.org. The proceeds from my book will go to this project. 

Once I had assembled the manuscript, I asked around and found a proofreader through a writer friend. I didn’t hire an editor, but most of the stories in my book have been published elsewhere and have been reviewed by my writers groups.

The motto of Redwood Writers, my local branch of the California Writers Club, is “writers helping writers,” and they take their mission seriously. I read a story in one of their salons and I learned about promotion in one of their workshops. I hired that workshop leader to set up a website for me and to design the book cover. 

I’ve been calling Chris my publisher because he is the connection to Amazon. He uses Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon). He lays out the book with Indesign and uses Photoshop for photos. Then he just follows Amazon’s directions. He found it difficult to engage with Amazon when he needed them to correct a mistake in the title, which would have made it impossible to search for the book by title. It took him many days to get hold of a live person to talk to. It seems the publishing department is run by robots.

My book is published but you can’t order it from your local bookstore. If you want the actual book, you must order it from Amazon, although you can access the digital version for free with Kindleunlimited (owned by Amazon).

Now I’m promoting my own book, something my publisher would have seen as their job in the old days. But there’ll be no more driving across the country for me. My book launch parties will be zooms that can gather readers across the country (and the world). Technology has revolutionized the publishing industry, and I’m still not sure what I think about that.

Here’s the link for the book:

God Jul and Good Solstice

My Regular Pagan Holiday Letter

Our family never did that thing where white-robed virgins with candle crowns bring breakfast, but we did celebrate Swedish Christmas. Culture was supplied by my grandmother, Gerda, who grew up on a farm near Lake Vänern in central Sweden in an age when you really did hitch the horse up to the sleigh to go anywhere in winter. The farm, Stora Myren, is still there. The nearest village, Lugnås, hasn’t changed much since Grandma emigrated in 1905.

My grandmother Gerda Persson

I hate a lot about Xmas—the whole religious thing, the requisite shopping to keep the economy afloat, the pressure to give the perfect gift, to give gifts at all. Bah humbug. I’m an atheist who joined the Church of Stop Shopping decades ago. https://revbilly.com

But, as my brother and I delve into the Swedish side of our family, we’re rediscovering ways that Swedish culture has influenced our family. One thing we all agree on: Christmas was the most important holiday of the year, when the Swedes pulled out all the stops.

The tradition is long. The winter solstice, representing the return of light and warmth, held great importance for pre-christian peoples. The earth had died and would be resurrected.

Solstice is a Saint Named Lucy

As with most northern European cultures, a christian holiday usurped the pagan solstice celebration. Catholics took over solstice festival and made it into St. Lucia or St. Lucy’s Day during the Middle Ages. Now, and ever since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Lutherans rule in Scandinavia, but they continue to celebrate St. Lucy’s Day. The holiday is on December 13 because that was the date of the winter solstice on the Julian calendar before it was changed to the Gregorian. The actual solstice is now a week later, but St. Lucy’s Day retained the old date.

St. Lucy’s Day card

St. Lucia was a fourth century virgin christian martyr in what is now Italy. She invented the head lamp, putting a candle wreath on her head to keep her hands free as she hid christians in the catacombs. Or so it’s said. The name Lucia translates as light.

Candle wreaths have not yet been replaced with head lamps in modern celebrations, but I see it coming. I mean when I see pictures of people walking around with lit candles in their hair, all I can think of is–fire hazard! 

The celebration is, or was, an all-female affair with one young woman playing Lucia and a court of girls and women. There are white robes, candle wreaths, singing and the serving of food. Lately, though, the boys have nudged their way into the celebration with a boy or two being elected to play Lucia. Traditionalists are not amused.

We grandchildren knew nothing of St. Lucy’s Day. It was, apparently, a Swedish tradition left in the Old Country. 

Grandma Remembers

But Grandma did envelop us in Swedish culture at Christmas.She brought with her the tradition of cooking the foods of her childhood when she immigrated to the U.S. In our hometown of Yakima, Washington, she was famous for her cooking, and especially her baking. 

Our mother had the foresight to record Grandma’s childhood memories of Christmas in Sweden. My brother printed up a little chapbook of the stories, titled A 19th Century Swedish Christmas by Gerda Wick. Grandma was in her 92nd year but her memories were still clear.

Here are some excerpts.

“In Sweden we could, of course, always count on a white Christmas—snow that was “deep and crisp and even” and a great abundance of evergreen trees growing all around us. Christmas Eve was the official time for celebration and gift giving; Christmas Day was a religious holiday and holy day.”

“In a day without rural electricity or other conveniences that we now take for granted, our preparations for the annual celebration had to start in the fall with butchering of beef and pork and turning the slabs of dried cod into the famous and favorite holiday dish, lutefisk.

It is hard for me to realize now that all cooking was done on an open fire in the brick fireplace and all baking in a very large brick oven, heated by large logs about the size of railroad ties. In this oven breads of all kinds—flat bread, rye loaves, traditional braided coffee bread and dozens of cookies—were baked for weeks before the big day. Many kinds of sausages and head cheese were prepared and meat readied for another traditional food, Swedish meatballs.

“The food at Christmas Eve was a smörgåsbord of breads, homemade cheeses, pickled herring and korv (homemade sausage), but best of all the lutefisk which had been in preparation for several weeks from a dry slab of cod, by soaking in water and a “lute” of lime and lye. Served with a rich white sauce and white potatoes, it was and still is a favorite native winter dish. This was followed by meatballs made of ground beef and pork, sweet and sour brown beans and a dessert of rice pudding with wild lingonberry or strawberry jam (from berries we children picked in the nearby woods), or fruit soup.”

Loving and Laughing at Lutefisk

Lutefisk jokes elicit laughs in both cultures. Garrison Keillor told a story about people arrested for bringing toxic waste across state lines when they took lutefisk to Minnesota for Christmas dinner. Most actual Scandinavians abhor the fish, but Americans still eat it with gusto and most lutefisk is exported to the U.S. Served with white potatoes and white gravy, it resembles a blob of glue. Still, for my family, lutefisk symbolized Scandinavian culture. 

Don says he has made Swedish meatballs and lutefisk many times since our childhood, but I only tried it once, recreating my family’s holiday meal for my gay San Francisco family. I bought frozen lutefisk from the Scandinavian Deli on Market Street near the Castro. No soaking necessary. I attempted to bake Grandma’s cookie and bread recipes, making krumkake using the pancake maker that you heat over an open flame. It didn’t go so well. No one would even try the lutefisk. I neglected to have a distribution plan for the cookies, which quickly got stale before we could eat them all. But I can say I did it!

In her small kitchen in Yakima, Grandma ground the pork and beef with a meat grinder to make Swedish meatballs. My brother Don served as Grandma’s little helper, and so his memories are best, butI do remember helping her make krumkake, Smörbakelser cookies and fancy braided breads. Don has her old Swedish cookbooks whose frayed binding opens to favorite recipes. Recently he challenged the family to remember the secret ingredient in Grandma’s meatballs. He kept us in suspense for a month. WTF Bro! It turns out the secret ingredient is crustless bread torn in pieces and soaked in cream, then wrung out and added to the meat. Never would have guessed that!

Gerda Persson was the second youngest child in a family of 12 kids. Born in 1888, she was 12 when the century turned. Her memories were about more than just food.

Birds and mittens and tree trimming

“My father would put my younger brother and me on a sled and take us with him into the woods to select a tree for our house. He would also cut other trees to place on the outside of the house and at the barn. Not forgotten in our celebration were the birds and our domestic animals. Papa mounted a large sheaf of oats on a pole for the birds and gave the animals an extra share of hay.

“Most of the tree trimmings were hand-made and our favorite was the customary paper-wrapped candies which we children could help make, wrapping hard candy in colored tissue paper. There was a variety of candlesticks for candles of all sizes, many of them hand-wrought of brass and wood. A candle was always displayed in the front window.

“We exchanged gifts, though this was not the ritual it is today. The gifts were mostly handmade and very practical—knitted socks, mittens and caps—all from yarn spun on my mother’s spinning wheel, wooden toys—a doll cradle or sled—and gifts like sewing boxes for the older girls and Mama.

“Christmas morning it was up early to be at church at six o’clock. Our church was the most important building in our village; it had been built in the 12th century and still stands and is in use today. Our family walked to church and those further away came in horse-drawn cutters (sleighs). And what a joy it was in the early morning light to see a lighted candle in the window of each home, reflecting on the deep white snow, and to feel the crisp crunching and squeaking of the hard-packed snow under foot. 

The church at Lugnas

“The two bells in the steeple were rung by hand. My father was an official ringer of the smaller bell, which required skill in alternating its sound with the large bell, and also very strong arms.  The church was lighted with hundreds of candles at the communion table, the large hanging chandeliers and at each row of the pews. It was a thrilling festival of light and sound to a child growing up in a simple farm village in Europe before the age of industrial wonders. Inside the  church Christmas hymns from the time of Luther were played on our ancient organ. This, too, required man power to operate, and my father served often as “pumper.” We children sang in the choir accompanied by the organ. The rest of Christmas day was quiet with a dinner of ham and goodies of the night before.” 

Carry it on

Our family continued the Swedish traditions of trimming the tree with hand-made ornaments and of opening gifts on Christmas eve. My mother filled the house with colorful Swedish decorations like wooden horses and straw reindeer. After the big dinner with cousins at Grandma’s house, one of the men would excuse himself and (we later realized) would go back home to place all the presents under the tree. My father would drive home slowly from Grandma’s looking at all the outdoor decorations. Of course, we kids couldn’t wait to get home to open gifts. 

I was glad Christmas Day wasn’t a religious holiday for us. Watching football, playing with toys and eating took up our day. Mom cooked the traditional ham and Grandma joined us for dinner. Her memories end with another delightful custom—robbing the Christmas tree.

“The neighborhood children took turns having these “untrimming” parties before the Christmas tree was taken out. Each child was blindfolded and allowed to pick a paper-covered candy from the tree until all were gone. There were cookies and cakes and milk for the guests. Since many homes were involved, the shared candies and goodies made a happy ending to the holiday for all the children.”

God Jul 

And Good Yule to all.

Love, Molly (and Holly)

We Thank Mexican Culture for Day of the Dead

My Regular Pagan Holiday Post

Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, has become one of my favorite holidays. Credit should go to the influence of Mexican culture.

I couldn’t remember when I first started celebrating Day of the Dead, at this time of the year when the veil between the lands of the living and the dead thins and we celebrate the lives of our ancestors and others who have died. I asked friends and family when we first learned of this holiday. No one could really remember. It just seeped into American culture when we weren’t looking.

Now the holiday is a cross-cultural experience. Though it originated in Mexico, it is commonly celebrated worldwide, especially throughout Latin America. Day of the Dead is a joyful celebration of life and death that originated thousands of years ago among Aztec, Toltec and other Nahua people. They believed that death is a cyclical part of life and that when someone died, they would go to the Land of the Dead. This tradition differs vastly from Halloween in its life-affirming tone and its rejection of death as a finality. In a modern culture whose chief way of responding to death is denial, the addition of this celebration to American life seems much needed.

Posada illustration

I was lucky to live in San Francisco where Rene Yanez and Ralph Maradiaga had launched our local version of the celebration in 1972. Day of the Dead evolved into a gigantic procession up 24th Street, the Latinx district, on November 2. The Mission Cultural Center would sponsor events and we gathered to erect altars, or ofrendas. My Old Lesbians group one year made a beautiful altar for our friend Tita Caldwell, who had been active in our Occupy Bernal organization in 2012. San Franciscans gather at Garfield Square Park (perhaps we should rename it Frida Kahlo Park) to walk through the park and view the altars. Rene describes the history here: https://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Day_of_the_Dead. In the interview Rene refers to Posada (Jose Guadelupe Posada Aguilar), the Mexican artist who created illustrations of la calavera catrina that have become ubiquitous symbols of this holiday.

Now I live in Sonoma County where we have many options for celebrating Day of the Dead. Our Sonoma County Museum and our art district have exhibits. The town of Petaluma sponsors events all month, ending with a candlelight procession at the fairgrounds that has been going for 19 years. This year the town of Windsor is sponsoring its 6th annual event. Every town now has one. These events are led by Mexican and Latinx people, who make up the largest ethnic group in Santa Rosa at around 30 percent of the population. 

October is Latinx Heritage Month. This month we also remember the murder by a deputy sheriff of 13-year-old Andy Lopez October 22, 2013. Andy was walking in his neighborhood when sheriffs spotted him carrying a toy gun. Erick Gelhaus fired eight shots that killed the boy. No charges were filed against the shooter, he returned to work and was later promoted before retiring. A civil suit filed by Andy’s parents resulted in a $3 million settlement. 

Sadly, Andy’s murder has defined the relationship between the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department and its citizens, especially the Latinx population. In the seven years since the shooting, people have staged multiple protests, organized to build a park at the site of the shooting and pressured the county for more police accountability. This year we met at Andy’s Unity Park in the Latinx neighborhood of Roseland to remember Andy. 

Our fireplace mantel ofrenda

Holly and I celebrate this season by making clay catrina sculptures for our ofrenda on the fireplace mantle and telling stories about our friends and family who have died. I like to walk by our altar and commune with the figure of my mother who is sitting in an armchair reading Esquire (from a 1940s picture). Holly’s dad sits in a recliner nearby and her dog Mattie lies at his feet.

What do I say to Mom? She was a news junkie who kept a close watch on world events. She liked to imagine what the world would be like in 50 years. I tell her if she were alive today she absolutely would not believe it.

Sending big virtual hugs to all.

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