The Grandma Effect

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

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

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.

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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.


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