It was an ordinary morning for me at work in the spring of 2015. My schedule was packed with the names of patients, their age, a brief description of their chief complaint and request for Physical Therapy services.  I perused the summary of each new and returning patient and started my day. Mid-way through the morning, I went out to greet the next person on my list, an 85-year old woman.   After reading her chart, I had already formulated the scenario in my head.   I would go into the waiting room and introduce myself to an elderly woman. She may or may not walk with a cane, and more than likely would be accompanied by a family member or friend. She would be quiet, polite and unassuming and either she or her relative/friend would provide me with a history of her current problem.   Forming preconceptions of a patient from minimal information is a necessary practice for most healthcare providers. Years of experience, patient interactions, and data collection allow providers to formulate patterns quickly with seemingly little information.  Experience also teaches us to be careful.  These preconceived notions could prove to be completely wrong, which was the case today with Lupe Anguiano.

On the front of her shirt, in big bold pink letters, glared the words “Stop Fracking.”

Lupe popped up from her chair when I introduced myself.  Feisty and smiling at me with confidence, she gripped my hand warmly as I greeted her with a handshake.  Lupe had driven herself to this appointment, no one beside her, no cane in hand.  She walked into my office, took off her sweater and sat erect in the chair.  Already sensing I was wrong with my initial expectations of this woman, her T-shirt put the final dagger into my theory.  On the front of her shirt, in big bold pink letters, glared the words “Stop Fracking.”  I chuckled at myself.  Not only was I wrong, I was dead wrong.  There was a big story behind Lupe, and I couldn’t wait to learn more.

At the end of the second visit, I asked Lupe about the shirt she had worn the previous session. Little did I know my curiosity would open up my world to this amazing person and her life of selfless service to millions.  “What’s behind the “stop fracking” shirt you were wearing the other day?” I asked.   She grinned, and her eyes sparkled as if thanking me for noticing.   It was clear this wasn’t going to be a one-line answer. “Well, it’s just one of the issues I’m working on to protect our environment for future generations. I work with the local city officials and state environmental organizations to stop this horrific practice of fracking.  It’s poisoning our water supply and our children’s playground” she answered.  “It’s just one of several environmental issues I’m involved in” she added.

How often does one meet an octogenarian who is actively engaged in fighting for the environment?

I admit, I half expected her to tell me the shirt was a gift from her grandchild and she was just wearing it in support of them.  But I was wrong again and embarrassed that my tendency to trust my stereotypes of age and gender had not yet been tempered.  Lupe’s response was far from the answer I expected.  I mean, how often does one meet an octogenarian who is actively engaged in fighting for the environment?  It was clear I wasn’t talking to an ordinary woman.  This was a someone who at age 75, founded and directed Stewards of the Earth, a non-profit organization committed to protecting the west coast environment from agricultural pollutants, fracking and the downsides of development.  This was a woman who took on the largest mining company in the world, BHP Billiton and Exxon Mobil in their joint effort to bring a liquefied natural gas line (LNG) through her beloved hometown of Oxnard, California.  Lupe devoted three years forming coalitions and alliances with environmental-friendly groups such as the Sierra Club, local and state politicians, and media outlets to build public awareness to the proposal. Opposition spread throughout California, and in 2007, her efforts finally paid off.  The LNG proposal died in the state legislature. Lupe was elated. Her perseverance, despite numerous roadblocks, personal attacks and criticism, were key in stopping the powerful gas lobby.  At 78, she achieved one of the most momentous victories of her career as an activist and proved what one person and the power of persistence could accomplish. After hearing the full story, the gravity of the meaning behind her “Stop Fracking” shirt, skyrocketed in my head to a whole new level.  I was in a state of awe.

Lupe left the Church to advocate for justice and equality for the poor and underserved.

Over time, Lupe modestly shared small bits and pieces of her story with me.  In her earlier life, she was Sister Mary Consuelo, a Catholic nun, who devoted her life to the Church. But over time, Lupe found a deeper calling.  She was drawn to advocate for justice and equality for the poor and underserved.  Dressed in her habit, she would attend public protests and marches.  This didn’t quite sit well with her employer.  Restricted by the rules of the Church, Lupe eventually removed her habit and left.  Without regrets, she knew her mission in life was to serve God and His people.  She also knew the people lived beyond the walls of the Church.  Her calling was to join them.

She schooled me on the pressing need for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

Each visit, I learned more about Lupe and I eagerly peered closer into her life window.  As I assisted in her rehabilitative process, she schooled me on the pressing need for passage of the  Equal Rights Amendment. I too shared my past with Lupe, and at one point I spoke how I felt fortunate to go to college on a basketball scholarship, thanks to the passage of Title IX in 1972.  Title IX was the landmark legislation that ensured equal benefits to both sexes in all federally funded educational programs and activities. Most of the time, when I shared that tidbit with others, I would get an “Oh wow, you went to college on a basketball scholarship?” remark.  But not this time.  From Lupe’s reaction, it was clear I had opened up Pandora’s box with the mention of the law.

To me, Title IX was a godsend to my family, and the timing was perfect. Colleges and universities were just starting to offer athletic scholarships, and in 1978, I was one of the first females in my community to receive this award.  However, to Lupe, the law was a shallow legislative compromise. Yes, it benefitted some, like me, but it also contributed to bursting the momentum of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Women were handed a carrot, and they took it, instead of fighting for the whole salad.  She knew first hand, unlike so many others including myself, that for women to obtain full equal rights in all aspects of American life, we needed it written into our constitution.  Equal pay, equal protection, equal access to social and business benefits and equal opportunities could only be guaranteed for generations to come through a constitutional amendment.  Title IX, although a significant victory for women equality, lacked permanence, she explained.  Like all legislative laws, they were subject to change depending on interpretation, the political makeup, and climate.

Lupe Anguiano, UFW, Circa 1968 (PRNewsfoto/Debora Wright)

 

“Oh my gosh,” I thought… Lupe was one of them – the Giants of the Women’s Movement.

“How did she know so much about this issue?” I wondered.  It was obvious the topic hit a nerve.  The top was off the boiling kettle, and I was about to find out why. Lupe began to open up about her life on the national stage.  The reason she knew so much about the ERA, was that she was one of the founding members of the first National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), which included Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, LaDonna Harris, and Shirley Chisholm. “Oh my gosh, ” I thought. She was not only the former Sister Mary Consuelo or the woman who beat down fracking in California,  Lupe was one of them – the Giants of the Women’s Movement. These were the women I grew up admiring.  Betty Friedan, the founder of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and credited for demanding Congress to take up the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970, was instrumental in forming the NWPC.   Bettye and others knew that support for passing the ERA and other pressing issues related to women equality could only come from increasing the number of women in all aspects of politics, on both sides of the aisle.   The NWPC, a nonpartisan political organization for women, was formed in 1971 to achieve these goals. Smaller state chapters began to take root, and the group took on several important issues of the day relating to women equality, with the underlying purpose of passing the ERA.

I always thought the ERA passed in the 70’s

I listened in fascination as she shared her story. Frankly, I wanted to bow at her feet and thank her for everything she had done for me and so many others.  Yet, I was embarrassed to admit my naivety about the law.  Until she spoke, I always thought the ERA had passed in the ’70s and was part of our Constitution. I could barely look Lupe in the eye as she passionately spoke about her work relating to this vital women’s issue.   I did have a moment of reprieve from my guilt when later I read that 70% of people polled thought as I did.  But, it was only a small consolation to know that I wasn’t alone.  “How could this be and how could I not know any of this?” I thought in disbelief.   Born at the tail end of the Baby Boomer era, I spent the majority of my life reaping the benefits obtained by the tireless efforts of many women and men who came before me.  As a highly educated professional woman, I was discovering how highly uneducated I was when it came to many of the issues that mattered in the grand scheme of things.   I spent my career helping people in need, one by one, with the security of a paycheck, a pension and healthcare benefits.  Lupe, and so many others like her, cared less about securing a comfortable future for themselves and more about righting the present injustices that were affecting scores of people across the country. Needless to say, as I learned more about Lupe, I uncovered more about myself and how my scope of the world was narrower than I believed.  Without even trying, she opened up my eyes to what was possible when I looked beyond my comfortable life.

After a few months, our therapist-client relationship ended.  We were friends by then and met several times for breakfast and lunch just to catch up. I would also check to make sure she was compliant with her therapy and stayed active and healthy.  I knew there was so much more to learn about Lupe.  She was willing to talk, but by this time her biography had just been published, and she felt I should read the book first, then she could fill in all the details.  The book, “Uncompromised. The Life Story of Lupe Anguiano”, had just been released in 2016. The author, Debora Wright, met Lupe through her husband who previously worked with Lupe on another project in the Oxnard community.  Debora was a writer and like me, was captivated by Lupe’s story. Lupe liked Deborah and was comfortable enough to invite her to write her life story. Deborah jumped at the chance and ended up taking six years to complete the project.  She devoted countless hours tracking down and interviewing Lupe, her colleagues, people she had influenced, family members and close friends. She combed through Lupe’s vast archives that are now housed under the Lupe Anguiano Papers at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.  In the end, the book was priceless.  Debora had created a thorough and unsurprisingly fascinating biography about this unsung, quiet American activist.

Best known for her work on Welfare Reform, Lupe saw welfare as a “trap.”

Reading Lupe’s life story helped me understand the complexities of her life and the reasons behind the choices and causes she championed.  Beyond the LNG and ERA campaigns she pursued, Lupe is best known for her work on Welfare Reform. A visionary of her time, Lupe saw welfare, not as a social assistance program, but as a noose that ensnared women into dependency.  Minority women were the largest recipients, and welfare stripped them of their self-worth. She noted that white women with small children continued to work and wondered why minority women weren’t afforded the same opportunities?  Welfare, in her mind, was a trap. It kept mostly minority women with children at the bottom rung of the social-economic ladder.  It was a social program designed to help those in need, but in actuality, created a generational cycle of impoverishment.

Lupe spent years working to change welfare policy from a system that enabled dependency to a program that provided education, occupational training, and job opportunities. When she failed to make headway at the national level, Lupe took her ideas to the source.  She moved to San Antonio and lived for several years with women on public assistance.  Lupe knew it was imperative to create a bond with these women and gain their trust. Only then could she educate them about the downsides of welfare.  Lupe gave them hope and empowered them with knowledge and resources so they could pull themselves out of the pit of poverty. When her local efforts proved successful, she set her eyes on the national stage and created the non-profit National Women’s Employment and Education project (NWEE).  This was a novel program designed to provide employment readiness skills and quickly place women into jobs.  It also offered a full year of follow-up and support services.  Interest in the program grew to other cities and states. It attracted the attention of 60-minutes which aired a story in December 1980 about Lupe and her program in a story titled “Getting Off Welfare.”  The exposure pushed her into the national spotlight.  Barbara Bush and President-elect Ronald Reagan noticed and reached out to her.  Even Hollywood was taken by the news and offered to buy the rights to her story, which she eventually turned down.   After years of work and dedication, the program and similar models of welfare reform eventually expanded into New York and Colorado. Lupe and her NWEE eventually helped thousands of women get off welfare and regain their dignity and self-respect through meaningful work.

Can you believe I’ve lived so long? … I’m still here!

Impressive as this all sounds, there’s so much more to the story and this woman.  I am on my second read of the book, and I continue to be amazed at how such a humble, unassuming woman accomplished so much in her lifetime. Granted, she’s had 89 years to do it and hasn’t slowed down yet. Lupe will celebrate her 90th birthday on March 12th.  I asked her about this, and she shook her head.  “Johanna, can you believe I’ve lived so long?”  “I can’t believe it, and I’m still here!” she exclaimed.  “I can, Lupe,” I said, nodding my head in agreement. “How can you not be? Your passion and love for humanity continue to fuel you.” I reminded her.  “And that hasn’t run out yet.” I thought.

“Thank You, Lupe, for Your Service”

Over the past four years, I’ve been blessed to have met and get to know Lupe Anguiano.  She’s been an empowering, influential role model for me as I navigate through my 50’s and the transitions that come during this phase of life. She is the inspiration behind the company I’ve co-founded, Sistership LLC, which started as a group of adventurous women set out to dismantle age and gender stereotypes.  Our motto “Age Proud, Grow Bold” stems from women aging with a purpose, like Lupe.  Unknowingly, she’s raised my understanding of what it means to age actively, proudly and with service.  I’ve given 30 years of military service, yet it pales in comparison to the life of this phenomenal woman.  I think how undeserving I’ve been to the countless well-intentioned people who’ve acknowledged my military career with “thank you for your service.”   I wish I could take every one of those thank yous and redirect them onto my friend Lupe.  They would never be enough, as America owes so much more to this woman, her tireless efforts and selfless service to its people.

Support Sistership by purchasing from our Sistership Store and inviting others to share in our mission. Profits are used to promote and support other women who dare to Age Proud, Grow Bold.
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