Dr. Barbara Lotito (far right) is joined by Santa Barbara City Councilmember Cathy Murillo at a Las Abuelitas monthly meeting

Paul Wellman

Dr. Barbara Lotito (far right) is joined by Santa Barbara City Councilmember Cathy Murillo at a Las Abuelitas monthly meeting

The Grandma Effect

Las Abuelitas Work to Find the Softer Side of Tough Guys and Girls

Tuesday, February 25, 2014
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The idea for Las Abuelitas of Santa Barbara came to Barbara Lotito in a dream on New Year’s Day 2012 after she watched a video of Mayan messenger Ac Tah talk about a paradigm shift toward female leadership. The inspiration — to revive the indigenous tradition of elders serving as guides and mentors to kids and teens — was fed months later by a chance meeting with City Councilmember Cathy Murillo, who invited Lotito to present the concept to Murillo’s recently created Pro-Youth Movement.

Not long after, Las Abuelitas (“The Grandmothers”) was awarded a seed grant from the Fund for Santa Barbara and is taking its first steps toward recruiting 25 members and marking its place in the South Coast petri dish of social justice groups. They’ll hammer out specific ideas and directives in the coming months to take a uniquely maternal approach to curbing street violence, getting disenfranchised kids back in school, working with fractured families, and offering what its current members call a new support system imbued in spiritualism and compassion and void of judgment or punishment.

Lotito is acting as program coordinator for Las Abuelitas and brings to the table her experience as a former professor of Spanish and Latin American studies at the University of Connecticut, a diversity consultant to educational and government agencies in the U.S. and Mexico, time on PUEBLO’s Board of Directors, and counseling work with Latino SBCC students. She recently stopped by The Santa Barbara Independent with four other abuelitas — Nancy Chargualaf Martin, Jeannie Moburg, Suzanne Riordan, and Joan Melendez — for a wide-ranging roundtable discussion on their overarching philosophies and where the group is headed. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

For more information on Las Abuelitas and to find out about donation and volunteer opportunities, email

What need is Las Abuelitas trying to meet?

Barbara Lotito: There are so many wonderful organizations here that do so much good, but we come with a different perspective. We see Santa Barbara as a community that’s like a clan or tribe, and each person has their purpose or contribution. We want to facilitate that, starting with female elders because we live in a culture that’s dedicated mostly to youth. Yet there is so much wisdom out there — just in this room we must have about 250 years of living experience — and so the idea is to work in teams to bridge that cultural gap, to work in alliances with other organizations, and to work mostly with at-risk youth and their families primarily in the Latino community. The other thing that makes us somewhat unique is that we are multi-lingual and multi-cultural. Men are also welcome in the group. We have a lot of different experiences and backgrounds.

How will these interactions take place?

Joan Melendez: It’s evolving.

BL: We work from an indigenous perspective. We start with a circle of elders, and our first order of business is to listen and learn. One of the roles we fill is being there for the kids, but also for the family. Sometimes a disconnect exists, so we try to bridge that gap. We also might work one-on-one, but basically our approach is a council approach.

Why will these young men and women listen to you? What are you going to bring to the table that others don’t?

Suzanne Riordan: Wisdom and a feminine energy that has been so lacking in our recent history.

BL: Within the Latino community, the word abuelita triggers a heart response. It’s something that’s understood. It’s culturally relevant. And everyone loves their grandmother.

Jeannie Moburg: Elders have been devalued in our culture, but I’ve seen the empowerment that comes when we come together to care and love for one another and have that healing take place. And I think that’s going to permeate and touch other generations.

What strategies are you going to use to gain the trust of a population that’s often unwilling to open up and talk?

BL: Through our own vulnerability, in a way. The fact is that we are marginalized, and so are many of our youth. I’m sure some of us in this room have done some of those things that these kids have done. And we come in with our hearts open and a nonjudgmental attitude to listen and learn and to see who that person really is behind the mask. Part of our training will be to evolve and empower ourselves.

What other groups are you coordinating with?

SR: I know Nayra Pacheco was at our last gathering with three young men, one of whose brothers is in prison. He was charged with stabbing somebody, and we had a really profound conversation. Neyra is quite involved with PODER and other organizations.

BL: And others that showed up were from Future Leaders of America. These are the kids that are peers who have found a way to evolve within themselves. So that’s another link so that it isn’t just, you know, old ladies and us. We’re finding those connections. There’s also a group of young women who call themselves Las Mujeritas, and they want to do a luncheon with us. So many people have reached out, but we need to figure out how to do this in a way that respects our process and our own empowerment, and in a way that doesn’t spread us too thin.

SR: It seems like there are a lot of groups serving this community of youth, but some of them have just evaporated. When the Mankind Project moved away it left a gigantic hole for 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds. There’s not as many services to guide you and help out at that stage as we think.

How did you all meet? How were the connections made?

BL: I met Joan at Adult Ed. We have mutual friends. I remember seeing her and saying, “I need to work with that woman.” We’ve kind of spawned from the Pro-Youth Movement, and so we are connected to all of those committees. That’s part of how we will do outreach. … We have a young woman who drives up from Los Angeles for every meeting. I also talked with someone this morning from the American Heart Association, and I talked with someone from the Food Bank. Cathy Murillo likes to talk about how there’s a certain magic that has been happening, and a confluence of the Abuelitas plus their grounding in both indigenous wisdom and alternatives to violence.

SR: I remember Babatunde [Folayemi] and the Pro-Youth Coalition; I used to be part of that and volunteer at Primo Boxing and City at Peace. But, like I said, so many of these programs have just dried up and blown away.

What are your backgrounds?

Nancy Chargualaf Martin: I met Barbara at Casa de Maria. Hospice is my background — I’ve been working with people that are dying for 15 years. I also have 10 grandchildren. … I meditate a lot, so I’m very confident that if you sit and watch, you learn a lot. Disclosure does not come easily when you’re sitting with a stranger. I believe in the silence — there’s some sort of beautiful thing that happens and stuff comes forward. I have that to offer.

Are you from Santa Barbara?

NCM: Born and raised. My brothers were in the system. My father died on Skid Row. My brother drank himself to death at 63. So I’m very emotional about this and very passionate. They were very loving individuals. They got lost, and it doesn’t mean that they’re less human. I’m also fully aware that this is a huge undertaking and that we are definitely not the only answers. I walk in with complete humility and knowledge that it really takes a village. Everybody has to be involved in this.

Jeannie, what about you?

JM: I was a stay-at-home mom for almost 30 years north of Chicago but involved in hospice among many other things. Eight years ago I divorced, sold my home and possessions, took off to Europe, and have been doing volunteer work with L’Abri Fellowship International. I’ve been coming to Santa Barbara since the 1960s, but I felt very strongly that this was my time to give back, sacrificially. … The wisdom that comes from these women is just amazing. It helps us understand a shared humanity and that we all suffer together, whether we’re elders or whether we’re young. We’re all kind of wounded soldiers, but we all have so much to give. I think the elders have the responsibility, and everybody’s looking at how to redefine retirement anyway. People want to live with purpose.

How will you use your feminine energy to make a difference?

BL: Our generation was not the first feminists, but we were the first major wave of women who changed that face of the earth in many ways. We are actually connected to the International Council of Grandmothers, which comes together to respond to local needs. So we see Las Abuelitas as the local embodiment, a local chapter. It’s not an official affiliation, but it’s popping up all across the globe.

How do you see your interactions with your own children and grandchildren informing how you work with other youth?

NCM: I think story telling is a really good way. I have a lot of stories about my grandchildren that I’d be willing to share with other kids.

SR: My granddaughter’s mom was involved in some kind of Lompoc gang activity. She was shot and left for dead, but she recovered. She struggled with drugs and incarceration and had her daughter removed from her custody. My granddaughter is only seven, and we have not discussed this, but it’s on the edge of her reality. When she becomes an adolescent, she’ll be asking a lot of questions.

JM: I go from an extreme. I have a 31-year-old, 29, then 10, 7, and 5. So I have the whole spectrum. I raised the two older ones together, and I would take them hiking, teach them to climb trees, teach them to dance and sing. And read to them and have them read to me. Now I do it with the younger ones also. They’re into sports, the Summer Solstice workshop. I’m always recruiting the youth to experience the arts and learn new things for themselves to express themselves.

Las Abuelitas is heavily spiritual, but what if people are turned off by that?

BL: I think it’s a trust void. I think a lot of us have that trust in the justice system and politics, but when you don’t have it there, where do you put that trust? So it’s not religious, but it’s based on a spiritual truth. We all come from native people. That’s why I think it touches people so deeply. It’s not believing in something outside of yourself, but seeing yourself and what your role is in that circle. You’re here for a purpose. It’s up to you to discover what it is.

We agree that we are who we are, and it may turn some people off. We’ve had some discussions in our group about how overtly we want to put ourselves out there. Especially in the Latino community, some people will see it. … I mean I lived in Mexico for eight years, and met some people there who saw yoga as the work of the devil. … We put ourselves out there in the way that we feel works for us, and it’s up to the other person to meet us half way or even a quarter of the way.

NCM: I feel that we can get carried away with these types of conversations. My feeling is we’re dealing with people on a human level. Not based on race, creed, or religion. We’re coming from a place of love. We’re well intentioned. That speaks for itself. To box us in and ask, how do we serve? How do we be? We’re already being active in our community. We’re already doing the work as grandmothers, as mentors.

So, this little box of Las Abuelitas that we’re willing to put ourselves in is hopefully going to be more about embracing. It’s a big undertaking. It’s a huge undertaking. This is a seed grant, and a seed can grow, or a seed can die. I’d rather work on sustainability, how can we be together and be healthy. Because if we’re not healthy, then we can’t go out into the community and teach people how to be healthy. Again, disclosure does not come for the asking. You have to gain the trust. And it’ll come, I’m positive it will come. But you can’t rush the organic process.

The next Las Abuelitas meeting is from 3 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, March 1, at Presidio Springs Community Center, 721 Laguna Street.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

Bottom line message: Stick to your own kind; men are inferior to women. Way to go.

"And if there's war between the sexes then ther'll be no people left" -Joe Jackson- From the song "Real Men".

billclausen (anonymous profile)
February 26, 2014 at 12:14 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Billclausen, I think you missed the point. Sometimes women bring a different energy to a situation. We're more emotional, less strategic. And maybe sometimes even tough guys need a hug from grandma.

winddancer1562 (anonymous profile)
February 26, 2014 at 5:27 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Anyone else remember the days of a mom,a dad and The Boy Scouts?
Although the new model creates more clean gov't and non profit sector jobs...

garfish (anonymous profile)
February 26, 2014 at 8:20 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Yes, garfish, I remember when the Boy Scouts would discriminate in their membership and employment based on sexual orientation.

You stay classy, billclausen!

John_Adams (anonymous profile)
February 26, 2014 at 9:16 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Protecting Boy Scouts from sexual predators is legitimate. Using too broad a ham-handed approach was not. May they find a better way to accomplish the former, without engaging the latter.

Boy Scouts are overall a wonderful institution and teach highly valuable skills. May they move on from this current disruption and get back to their original intent: teaching young boys valuable life skills. Including perseverance and facing adversities.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 26, 2014 at 10:01 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Kudos to the Grandmothers Group. This is the communal village ethic that should be raising our children; not the government. However, one needs to think long and hard why women are the designated carriers of these community values and ethics; and not the men.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 26, 2014 at 10:03 a.m. (Suggest removal)

lol@the premise of the "old and wise latina". Reminds me of a friend I knew here in sb who went to Guadalajara with her new husband to meet his family. The old wise latina looked at the wedding photos and asked my friend "such a pretty dress, but...why was it yellow and not white?" to which my friend replied "because I really liked the color, and it went well with my skin tone, but if you're wondering, no, I was not a virgin when I married your grandson." The old wise latina looked at my friend in horror and states "oh, the women here in Mexico, they do not do such a thing, they wait until they are married before having sex". My friend quickly fired back "uh, they get married when they're 13, 14 years old, they don't WAIT for anything". Old wise latina had no comeback.

August_Duvall (anonymous profile)
February 26, 2014 at 10:41 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Their chocolate is too sweetened for me:

John_Adams (anonymous profile)
February 26, 2014 at 1:04 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Billclausen, I think you missed the point. Sometimes women bring a different energy to a situation. We're more emotional, less strategic. And maybe sometimes even tough guys need a hug from grandma.

winddancer1562 (anonymous profile)
February 26, 2014 at 5:27 a.m

I'm not sure if you're on the level or trying to lure me into a trap and then say "So you're saying we're not as logical?" But I will address the issue as a whole.

First of all, I did not miss any point, the message to these boys is "we're wiser than you"; what a great thing to say to an impressionable kid. Murillo and her "abuelitas" need to realize that the whole point of the true civil rights movement was not about dividing people, but bringing them together. Also, this is not about women and men are different, but how one demographic in our region is disproporcianally susceptible to getting caught in the gang cycle, or as they say "la cadena perpetua". (Lit: "The perpetual chain" or colloqueally "the endless cycle") If you look at the two sides of this issue, you will find plenty of people of both genders on each side, so this isn't a gender thing, as Murillo tries to make it.

The Progressive/"Latino" movement needs to understand the meaning of the Aesop's fable about killing the goose that laid the Golden Egg, and that is what they are doing here. Here is the U.S., we have just about every language and culture in the world represented, but in Murillo's world, it's all about ONE culture. Does she ever ask herself "How did the Jews prevail against the horrible anti-Semitism they faced in the U.S.?" If that's too hard to grasp, I'll explain. They knew that education (hard wired into their culture) and assimilation (learning the language) were key to self-sufficiancy. This did not mean the abandonment of your culture/language. They did not have people from the government handing them everything in their native tongue and telling them not to bother learning the language of the land. If you treat people as though they are inferior, they will behave as such. Telling someone they should only trust a certain gender and nationality is a sure-fire way to ensure continued failure. Ever wonder why self-esteem is tied to gang culture?

I hate to call someone out, but Murillo's message IS one of gender and racial diviseness,(even if she--in all innocence--doesn't see this) but kissing someone with a lie is more appealing than slapping someone with the truth. To any "at risk" youth reading this, at least ask yourselves how did the Jews, Asians, and others in this country who faced far worse discrimination than you make it against the odds? Question everything you are told, compare the arguments, and learn to think outside the box.

Oh yes, and don't kill the goose that laid the Golden Egg.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
February 27, 2014 at 9:18 p.m. (Suggest removal)

clausen, Sharks lay eggs, dolphins are mammals, so they give live birth.

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
February 28, 2014 at 3:13 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Las Abuelitas is a great idea, kudos to these women! We also do need more assertive female leadership in our society, then we won't have to listen to ancient white men ranting so much in their male nuttiness. There certainly is a trust void as one participant stated.
However, BC also has a point, and there is a feeling of exclusiveness to this group, and Ms. Murillo has also fostered that. E.g. her anti-male screed in support of Megan Alley:
Obviously, balance is needed. Where is the Los Abuelitos group? Where are the sensitive men like Babatunde? Why are so many of the nasty posters certainly male, libertarian, Tea Partier-ish?

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 28, 2014 at 4:04 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Well Dr.
Every tagline for Indy articles is another sensitive,female energy, making exceptions and accommodations for etc etc.Us Libetarian get sh*t done, take care of yourself men(don't confuse us with Tea Partiers) consider ourselves the exception in these permanently governed by lady mayors and congresspeople parts.

garfish (anonymous profile)
February 28, 2014 at 6:08 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Sure garfish, based on your woman hating rants, I would guess that you are not getting very close to any lady parts. You are too busy taking care of your self.

Herschel_Greenspan (anonymous profile)
February 28, 2014 at 6:27 p.m. (Suggest removal)

DrDan: Those of us who geniunly support equal rights find it offensive when people who talk about the evils of inequality change the rules from preaching equality and integration, to telling us that they want special treatment, and they are more compassionate and wiser than us.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
February 28, 2014 at 6:27 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Bill there is nothing in this interview that would lead any sane person to think that this group, Las Abuelitas, wants special treatment or that they feel that they are wiser and more compassionate than anyone.

Herschel_Greenspan (anonymous profile)
February 28, 2014 at 6:40 p.m. (Suggest removal)

It's just my interpretation Herschel, just like I interprete that it's cold and snowing back East.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
February 28, 2014 at 6:57 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Can't respond now Hersh-
wifey is calling me to bed-she likes manly men....

garfish (anonymous profile)
February 28, 2014 at 10:26 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Bill there is nothing in this interview that would lead any sane person to think that this group, Las Abuelitas, wants special treatment or that they feel that they are wiser and more compassionate than anyone.

-Herschel Bernardi Greenspan-

What could possibly make you think we were sane? We have doctors, fish, and people named after music groups blogging here.

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
March 1, 2014 at 3:22 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The answer my friend, is dancing in the wind...the answer is dancing in the wind.

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
March 1, 2014 at 3:23 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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