From the moment someone steps into a meeting for the Latin American Womxn’s Organization (LAWO) here at Rutgers, they will instantly be met by a welcoming environment with open arms. Current President, Ljubi Gallardo, has overseen the org’s recent expansion from a four-person team to a 21 member roster of executive, outreach, programming and media committees, as well as SWAT special task squad members and interns. LAWO’s growing presence on campus spread with their recent charters under both the Douglass Residential College and the Center for Latino Arts and Culture, two spaces that reflect the intersectional identity of the club. While Ljubi credits much of the organization’s success to her fellow team members, her leadership magnifies the important cultural work that LAWO represents.
CS: What made you want to join the Latin American Womxn’s org back in 2017?
LG: I was in this class called Color-Lines and Borderlands, and I met some of the past e-board members in that class. Their energy, the way that they conducted themselves and the passion they had for the culture in general here at Rutgers, especially the Latinx community, made me feel like there was something I had to connect to. I was already a part of the Douglass Residential College, so that was something where I was like, “Wow I really love this community of women that I have access to.” But it felt like I was missing my Latino side. I’m an international student from Peru, so when I saw the combination of two of my favorite topics in the world, women’s rights and feminism as well as my culture and the Latinx culture, I was like why not try and see if I like it? Now here we are, three years later. I literally don’t know when it happened. From there it’s just been history, going to the org events, co-sponsorships, being involved. I always say that our student orgs are more like non-profit organizations. We’re full-blown businesses – we have money that we manage, events that we have to put on, media that we manage, marketing that we have to do. Not only that, but it’s also inter and intra group politics that you have to manage. I think student leadership on campus definitely doesn’t pay tribute to what it is that we do. The work that student organizations and even a lot of the Greek organizations put in is pretty remarkable. That’s why I stayed – the people, the culture, the environment.
CS: Going off of all the work that goes into running a student org, could you talk about some of the events that you have planned for the spring semester?
LG: Actually what you witnessed today on February 21st, we’re having our HerStory networking event. We’ve been planning that for about a month or so, an all-encompassing professional development night. We’re having headshots, resume critiques, elevator pitches, cold emails. It’s going to be housed at the Center for Latino Arts and Culture, and we’re going to focus on being present and helping others achieve their professional goals, because internship season is right around the corner. Then on March 12th, we’re having our Women in Art Collective. That’s what we’re planning right now. Each room is going to be dedicated to a particular theme or topic. It’s going to be more of a dress up event where they will see live performances. Afterwards they are going to be allowed to explore our experience room, take pictures, and then immerse themselves in art that portrays femininity and the female identity by people who portray that, or allies to that, or identifies with that in some way.
Our last big event is taking place on March 26th. It’s going to be an intersectionality in the faith conversation, where we’re going to talk about different cultural aspects of religion that go into our everyday existence. For example, the Latinx community has a lot of heavy religion that plays a part of it, because that’s where a lot of our anti-colonial history is stored. When a lot of the Spanish and colonizers came, the indigenous cultures would hide a lot of their stuff within religion, which is one of the reasons why it’s still so fervent today. So there’s not just this aspect of spirituality that exists, but also this cultural aspect. And the same can be said about many other religions, there’s just this cultural aspect that comes along with it. We’re hoping to have a conversation topic about that.
CS: So then outside of events, what sort of topics does your organization typically discuss during your meetings?
LG: We love to talk about feminism, female empowerment, Latinx culture, and what it means to be a woman in Latinx culture. But when we’re talking, we’re just friends. We really are just a group of buddies who wanted to get more involved and wanted more of a purpose on campus, so we’ve talked about everything from boys to girls to classes, significant others a lot of the time honestly, fashion, our interests, our pursuits, and our passions. In itself it becomes a lot like a sisterhood, and that’s really what we’re trying to have, especially in our organization and what we’re trying to convey to everyone who joins us.
CS: Can you talk a little bit about how Latin American Women’s Organization got started here?
LG: Way back in 1969 was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, so what you saw on campus was a lot of civic unrest and civic movement. We have to talk about the fact that the Cultural Studies department and even the Center for Latino Arts and Culture and a lot of the cultural centers on campus came out of and were products of student activism. We personally were founded on Douglass campus by 5 Puerto Rican women who saw a need for a system that connects all Latin American women in a space for us to exist, especially professionally. They had to set strong connections to other organizations, other women, and then generally connections everywhere. I also want to call attention to another organization that’s just I think a year older than us, 1968, the Douglass Black Student’s Congress. Interestingly enough, you saw a large burst of student organizations during that time because of the need for activism, the Civil Rights Movement, and particularly Douglass campus was very politically active because of women’s rights. And they were all very interconnected. That’s kind of how we came about, and the mission that we still try to adhere to and the legacy that we still try to respect and call back to.
I think it’s important to call to the fact that our advisor always tells us LAWO has died multiple times. It’s not like we’ve continually existed, but there have always been alumni, people and women that bring us back. Right now we have been around for a minute, I think it’s been five or six years, but there has been push from continuous student activism that has maintained the org. But even if you look at the Douglass Residential College book that tells our history, they speak about our organization back in the 1960s section of that book. It’s really cool to be part of such historic work, but now modernizing and updating it with what we’re doing. It’s a community. I wish that I could say like it’s just us, this e-board that made it this great, but it’s not. It’s literally everyone that came before us and everyone that’s to come after us. Part of that work is preserving the legacy of our organizations, our classes, our cultural centers, and keeping that alive for the generations to come.
CS: How has your organization grown since you’ve been involved?
LG: Like I said we’ve always been very close, so I’m appreciative of that. I’ve always been part of this organization and loved everyone, and recently this year I think we’ve connected back on two primary focuses. We want to connect back to our general body, so that means Latinx women who aren’t in LAWO, because what we like to say is that you don’t have to be a woman and you don’t have to be Latinx, but you can still be in LAWO. But also if you’re a woman and you’re Latinx then you’re already in LAWO. As far as we’re concerned, everyone’s a LAWO person, a LAWO woman, you just have to be an ally and want to be here. And then connecting back, because we do have 50 years of alumni, so one of our projected goals is to reconnect with them, and maybe have a newsletter that we can send back out. There have been so many people that have seen themselves reflected in the organization that through those two things we’re connecting both to the future and the past and expanding through that. And just keeping the topics relevant, making sure that we’re talking about things that pertain to now, being involved in movements of today. Like the Lincoln Annex School. That’s something that’s very prominent currently in our community. I think it’s something that we all need to fight for and use our power and our stances as student organizations to portray and talk about.
That’s the stuff we’re involved in as an organization. Just trying to keep connected to each other, because it’s very easy to get lost in the sauce. Live your life and do your orgs and your programs, but there’s a very active try to be connected to each other through which whatever walk of life you are. Whether your Greek, whether you’re in orgs, whether you are Latino, Black, white, Asian, the thing we’re trying the most for us is just to connect.
CS: What do you feel are some of the most pressing issues that Latin American women face on campus today?
LG: I feel that one would be good to talk about with everyone. Personally, security is always an issue. Living in intersectionality, especially for Latina and Black women, is hard because you have two political identities that you have to adhere to, and sometimes one is preferred over the other. You have to forget that you’re a woman to adhere to the Latino causes or the Black causes. Or there are minority group causes, and you have to lose being a minority in order to adhere to the women’s rights problems and that is a very difficult existence. For example, I hold a lot of privilege because I look like a white woman. When I walk into the room I’m white presenting, whereas I have sisters and my actual sister who’s sitting in the room who doesn’t look like that. That aspect of colorism and what that looks like and how you convey yourself in the world today not just as a woman but as a Latina, and then as a woman who is Latina, it’s a completely different dynamic I think than most people know or consider.
This question was additionally asked to several LAWO e-board members in attendance at their weekly meeting.
Ximena Alvarado – Global Outreach Chair: I think the pressing issue is that we’re in a political climate where it’s targeting Hispanics and Latinos in general. It’s giving us a negative reputation and a negative shine on us. I feel like because we are women and we are also a minority, that intersectionality, we’re very underneath and stepped on. So our job is to bring awareness, shine light on us, and empower and network us. Also, the Lincoln Annex School. It’s really targeting our youth, which is messed up. Would you ever think that the Caucasians would send their own to the warehouse? They wouldn’t. But since it’s the minorities, I guess it’s whatever.
Andrea Rojas – Media Director: Another thing about Lincoln is that they did not tell the community what was going to happen, like what is currently happening now. They put all of those kids in Lincoln, and they barely told their parents that they were going to have to move them. So the parents, understandable why they would be upset, like why didn’t you tell me this months ago and I sent my child here. But the building is old, it has asbestos and mold, children really shouldn’t be in it. I don’t want them to be sent there.
LG: I think it’s a combination of what Andrea and Ximena are saying, that it’s not necessarily that it’s a warehouse that’s the problem, the problem is a forced removal. It’s being displaced that’s the issue. The community was not communicated to, there just was no regard for what is happening.
XA: They’re not even providing transportation for the kids. The parents are going to have to go like two miles over to someplace they don’t even know, they’re not used to, and have to rework their schedule which they can’t. It’s expensive to call taxis to bring them.
LG: Does anyone else have anything to add in terms of being a Latinx woman on campus and what that experience is like? Because we do live in that intersectionality, and I guess what we experience everyday of our lives is completely unique to us.
Erika Vazquez – Corresponding Secretary: The representation in leadership positions. I know it feels intimidating, but a lot of Hispanic people especially are very qualified, and they feel like they’re not because they don’t have a lot, but they do. At least that’s what happened to me my first year. I felt like I didn’t have a lot of qualifications and I did.
Saira Mazariegos – SWAT Team member: I think we all still have trouble identifying with ourselves, and with our community also. Like the terms Latinx, Hispanic, Latina or Latino, what specifically to use. It’s an issue within our own community that we battle with each other and there is no sense of unity within ourselves because of that battle within ourselves. So when we go into higher positions, it’s like we don’t have a sense of ourselves yet, and other people aren’t patient with the complexity in our identities.
LG: I also think on campus particularly, general ignorance. There’s so many people that don’t know that the Cultural Centers even exist. They don’t know that groups like us exist, that we spend four to five hours on a Tuesday night planning events. There’s such an overwhelming amount of resources available that it’s hard to find your place on campus.
SM: I was telling one of my teachers about the Lincoln Annex School, and I thought it was pretty well-known because throughout our community it’s being spread and we’ve had social media campaigns on it. But I said it to my whole class and my teacher was like I had no idea this was happening. I was like, excuse me, it’s been all our lives. So it’s kind of hard to bridge that gap between us and the community.
LG: There are a lot of things that need to be fixed, but there is also the fact that we are here. I have never heard of a single person that’s ever been turned away, so it’s about getting people motivated to come find us. We’re literally screaming from every rooftop that we’re here, we’re here for you, but it’s just about that extra push of actually getting people to take interest in that.
Lilly Fung – SWAT Team member: I think a lot of us grew up with a sort of sense of self-hatred in a way. I heard this growing up, “para mejorar la raza” (to better the race), where you have to fit the Western standard of who you’re supposed to be. I think it’s hard to want to go back to your roots and really embrace it, especially at Rutgers where our community is the minority. It’s hard to really reach out, and want to take part in that and bring awareness to it because we’re raised to not.
Rashel Bernal – Herstorian Intern: Going off of Lily, we’re very underrepresented in a lot of majors that we want to do. I want to go to Med school, and not a lot of people that I have as mentors, people who tutor me in it, don’t represent the person I am. It also goes with the fact that a lot of us are first gen students, so we have no idea what we’re doing half the time. I could get as many mentors and they could never give me the same experience. They would never be able to experience the way I experience things, and I think that’s so hard for other people to understand how hard it is for us, even though we have all of this help.
AR: I’ve been here what, three years now? This semester is my first semester where I’ve had a woman that is Latinx teaching me a class. I’ve had woman professors but I’ve never had a Latinx professor in general. And the fact that she’s a woman, wild.
CS: So how can someone get involved with LAWO?
LG: In order to be involved with LAWO, you just need to show up to the programs. There’s no prerequisite, there’s no like you have to be Latinx or a woman. You just need to show up, be an ally and be here for our causes, which are to advance the missions and create systems for Latinx women and allies on campus. Then you are part of our family as far as I’m concerned, and as far as anyone in this room is concerned. In terms of getting connected with us, to connect with us is to connect with our communities, so both the DRC and the Latinx community on campus. If you show up to that a lot of us are friends, so if you come in, introduce yourselves, and just say hello we’d all be more than happy to invite you into our family.
CS: As a student leader on campus, how do you balance your time between running and organization, and then your classes and everything else that goes on outside of that?
LG: That’s actually something I’ve struggled with a lot, and I think a lot of student organizations can tell you that a lot of times you’re torn between your responsibilities and your passions. My heart is always 150% with the people in this room and with people like the Lincoln Annex and New Brunswick people that are constantly affected. But I also have school, right? I’m here to graduate, get my degree, and hopefully continue my passion outside in the real world. It comes down to being organized, prioritizing and not being sad when you can’t do something. Something that I heard is, “the joy of missing out”. Sometimes we think about the things that we didn’t do or the things that we couldn’t get to, and focusing on what you’re doing today and right now is super important. Have a work-life balance and take care of yourself, your mental health, go to CAPs or talk to a therapist if you need it. Just have strong priorities and boundaries, and make sure of the decisions that you take because at the end of the day, they’re your decisions.
CS: Who is someone that empowers you?
LG: My org and the women on my e-board. Not because they’re a part of my e-board, but because they’re exactly what they said in their interview. They’re women who come from STEM majors, non-STEM majors, people who don’t know ten people who look like them within their majors and a lot of them are well into it. They’re women who walk into a classroom every day and look for a face that looks familiar to their own, to hear a language that’s familiar to their own. Anyone that empowers me is people that are being brave, and they’re here because this University was not built for us. It’s not built for women, it’s not built for Black people, it’s not built for Latinos, it’s not built for anyone who isn’t a particular sort of person. To me, it’s empowering that there are people that are literally risking it all, putting it all out there to be in these classrooms. So that’s what empowers me, because if there are people out here that are living through it and succeeding, getting their degrees, making the world a better place, and coming out with all these experiences, then that gives me hope. I think that’s empowering in itself.
This interview has been edited for clarity.