OuttaDeeBox Podcast

Aracely Esparza's Tapestry of Cultural Identity and Activism in the Midwest

May 02, 2024 Dee Star Season 5 Episode 4
Aracely Esparza's Tapestry of Cultural Identity and Activism in the Midwest
OuttaDeeBox Podcast
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OuttaDeeBox Podcast
Aracely Esparza's Tapestry of Cultural Identity and Activism in the Midwest
May 02, 2024 Season 5 Episode 4
Dee Star

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When Aracely Esparza recounts her story, it's as if the heart of the Midwest beats in time with her words. A first-generation Chicana from Madison, Wisconsin, Aracely's narrative is a patchwork of passion, heritage, and activism that speaks to the soul of every listener. Our conversation with her is a journey through the poignant realities of Mexican-American identity as she shares her path from assisting Latino farmworkers to founding Midwest Mujeres. Her tales of growing up in Madison, overcoming racial discrimination, and the power of cultural identity captivate as they educate. Aracely doesn't just tell us her grandmother's migration story; she weaves the fabric of representation and economic empowerment into our understanding of the complexities within the Latino community.

The depth of Aracely's experiences with racial injustice unveils a humbling and inspiring resilience. In this episode, she courageously opens up about her struggles as a Chicana in the professional realm, including an unjust termination that serves as a stark reminder of the challenges women of color face. Yet, her commitment to uplifting brown and black women truly defines her work. Aracely describes how the tragedy in Chicago spurred her into action, leading to protests and vital discussions on anti-blackness. She invites us to look forward to the Minu as Mujeres corner store events to foster unity and tackle racial and gender wage gaps. Aracely's story isn’t just one of strife but an ongoing battle for justice, representation, and the transformative power of solidarity.

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When Aracely Esparza recounts her story, it's as if the heart of the Midwest beats in time with her words. A first-generation Chicana from Madison, Wisconsin, Aracely's narrative is a patchwork of passion, heritage, and activism that speaks to the soul of every listener. Our conversation with her is a journey through the poignant realities of Mexican-American identity as she shares her path from assisting Latino farmworkers to founding Midwest Mujeres. Her tales of growing up in Madison, overcoming racial discrimination, and the power of cultural identity captivate as they educate. Aracely doesn't just tell us her grandmother's migration story; she weaves the fabric of representation and economic empowerment into our understanding of the complexities within the Latino community.

The depth of Aracely's experiences with racial injustice unveils a humbling and inspiring resilience. In this episode, she courageously opens up about her struggles as a Chicana in the professional realm, including an unjust termination that serves as a stark reminder of the challenges women of color face. Yet, her commitment to uplifting brown and black women truly defines her work. Aracely describes how the tragedy in Chicago spurred her into action, leading to protests and vital discussions on anti-blackness. She invites us to look forward to the Minu as Mujeres corner store events to foster unity and tackle racial and gender wage gaps. Aracely's story isn’t just one of strife but an ongoing battle for justice, representation, and the transformative power of solidarity.

Support the Show.

Speaker 1:

What's up everybody. This is your host D-Star here with Aracely Esparza. How you doing? I'm doing good. So for the people that don't know you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Speaker 2:

For sure. My name is Aracely Esparza, or Aracely Esparza. I'm a first-gen Chicana. That means I'm a first-generation Mexican-American woman who was born and raised here in Madison, wisconsin, and what else can I say? I'm a founder of an organization called Midwest Mujeres. Actually, I have some strong roots right here in Sun Prairie. Actually, one of my first jobs out of college was working in rural Sun Prairie and Marshall and Watertown helping Latino folks, first-gen immigrants, who are working in the farms. Wow, yeah, getting connected to services. I was like their translator, interpreter. Sometimes I'd teach them how to drive too, because they would be like I don't know how to drive, so I'd teach them how to drive in the Kmart parking lot, and people remember those days. Yeah, I've been doing a lot of work since the early 2000s, but actually really since like the 90s. Yeah, like, which is funny because it's like also my our 30th anniversary high school graduation. So in my particular years of high school, rodney King was happening right, Is that East West, East East?

Speaker 1:

okay.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, so Rodney King happened and we led the first. We led the largest student demonstration and closed down Eastwatch for a day or two, I think, actually. Yeah, that was like what 92 or something. I'm also an author and poet. I've been publishing quite a few books and anthologies. One of my children's stories was animated by PBS Wisconsin. I always love to put my head on that one because I'm like, ah, I got seven street status, like I'm okay, the rest of the world, oh, and I'm a mother and I'm partner. I'm a daughter, a nieta that means granddaughter as well. I like to curate stories. I like to highlight women of color in the state of Wisconsin. Midwest women love to connect people. A lot of people ask me every day like, hey, how can I get this help, or where can I go and get this type of help? Yeah, I really enjoy that.

Speaker 1:

So let's start with your background here in Madison. You grew up here in Madison.

Speaker 2:

Three sisters, one brother right, yes, and I know no. And then I have a half sister and a couple of half brothers too, and the other side of the country, oh, okay, yeah.

Speaker 1:

So what was life like growing up as a first generation Mexican American here in Madison?

Speaker 2:

Oh my gosh, I'd have to say it's not even just about growing up, right, it's like always growing. Even I get micro and macro aggressed pretty regularly, I think I think people get tripped up because I have no accent and I'm pretty light-skinned and so I'm somewhat in that passing realm of colorism but I have a little bit.

Speaker 1:

When you say passing for the people that don't know, what does that mean?

Speaker 2:

I guess a high yellow latte with the extra latte. Um, what does what does that mean? What has that meant for me in my life is that I witnessed racial discrimination and I did as a child, many times towards my grandmother, who was significantly shorter than me, more indigenous, looking brown, you know. She barely could speak spanish and I mean, sorry, spoke all spanish, couldn't speak a lot of english, though she could read and write in english fairly well, and the assumptions that we were undocumented, when in fact my grandmother was part of the program from the 1900s, 1920s actually, and she migrated here when she was nine months old and because of her little fingerprint that was kept, apparently, she was able to then come back here in her fifties and almost restart her life all over again and she brought over my mother and my uncle and that's how I ended up coming here.

Speaker 2:

My father followed my mom over here, I guess, and they had me. We had a lot of traveling between here and Chicago, so she, my grandmother, ended up here because she, she was a migrant worker, so she worked the fields all the way up the country, through Nebraska and then Wausau, actually in Wautoma, and was working in the cannery factories there up North, by Berlin, by New Berlin, wisconsin, and then somehow got a job that ended up landing her over here and they ended up working at UW as custodial yes, for many, many, many, many years.

Speaker 2:

They both retired from that work. But yeah, I think growing up in Madison it's just it leaves you a little triggered. I didn't do my undergrad here, I didn't do my master's here for very specific reasons, but one of them being just not feeling belonging. One of them was like I really need to be where, and I was just talking about this last night, about how where I've been in other places besides here have helped me come back, almost because I needed to go away to see brown, black people empowered economically and socially. I needed to see that. I needed to be validated by that in order to come back here with a stronger sense of who I was.

Speaker 2:

Just last week, I was called out for not being indigenous and although if you knew really the history of being Mexican, you would understand that it goes hand in hand, just because we're not a federally recognized tribe does not mean that we're not indigenous, right? So there's all these nuances to identity, to Mexican-American identity, that we don't talk about enough about and then to like being now put under the umbrella, and this is the first year the census, the us census, is actually going to break down all those categories for us, because puerto rican mujer, una boricua como tu esposa, que es muy bella yep she'll tell you.

Speaker 2:

She'll tell you we don't eat the same we don't do the same.

Speaker 1:

it it's different, it's very different.

Speaker 2:

It's almost muy diferentes and that's beautiful, though that's beautiful, I appreciate their struggle. I feel like, out of all the Latino countries, between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, we're very much the same in that history of being so close and it gets dangerous when you're that close sometimes to the colonization process. It's dangerous when you're that close sometimes to the colonization process. Yeah, one thing that I do remember about like growing up here was like my guidance counselor. When I would go see him and get guidance, he would clip his fingernails in front of me.

Speaker 2:

I know gross, right, I'm like so gross, but also like super disrespectful. I am so glad that the one thing, I'm just so glad that I was able to get out of here and go to college somewhere else and do all the things that were different, and that I and because of my family's status, I was able to travel extensively to Mexico growing up and throughout, giving me opportunities to see folks in Nebraska, texas, california, new York, in Florida, in all those places California, new York, tuscaloosa, florida, in todos esos lugares, in all those places because we would travel to visit family and stuff and I was able to travel throughout, maybe on a bus, on Greyhound Please don't make it seem like it was a luxurious drive because that wasn't all the time right, but out of necessity, yeah.

Speaker 1:

You know it's funny, like when people say mexican, american, we've just been programmed to think automatically illegal, oh yeah illegal undocumented my grandmother came over here and you just think that, okay, she came over here secretively oh right, you know what I mean. It's never like know that's cool. They came over here just like everybody else came over here. You know they came over here with great intentions and trying to start a new life and things like that.

Speaker 2:

Well, the government actually recruited Mexican folks to come up here during World War II. That's why they came up here. Why her father was coming up here was to work because everybody was out fighting. And they'll do that. Every once in a while They'll go into another country and be like come over here and work for us and it's like what you love us and you hate us. Yes, we'll give you a citizenship.

Speaker 1:

And when we're done with you, we're going to treat you like garbage.

Speaker 2:

Thank you, that's exactly what it is.

Speaker 1:

That's just what it is.

Speaker 2:

It's true, you know I'm not saying anything, that's not true. You keep saying that you got out of here. Where did you go? As far as college is concerned, u of m, twin cities, yeah, but I spent some time, too, living in new jersey as well, in inglewood actually, and specifically during the time of sandy hook and hurricane sandy. Wow, those years were really very difficult again. That atmosphere, it was just so different from here just again to see brown and black people. I mean, it was the first time I ever, like, was treated with so much respect at a store. Ma'am, can I help you, ma'am? And I was like I'm a ma'am.

Speaker 2:

I know I didn't know whether to be triggered by calling a ma'am or like was I happy that I, instead of being followed in a store, I was actually greeted and encouraged to buy? I was like really confused when you went to college.

Speaker 1:

What did you go to college for?

Speaker 2:

oh, chicano studies and criminology.

Speaker 1:

Chicano studies and criminology. So you came back here to Madison reinvigorated, yeah, and inspired, and you wanted to do something for the Latino community yeah. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I was living on Williamson Street and Tequila was my neighbor and she worked for Fountain of Life, actually for Nehemiah Pastor Alex G, who in those times, who would have known he would have become who he is now? Like in those days, like it was a very small organization, we were company contracted and I had really very small other prospects as far as, like, where to work. I mean, this is before linkedin, this is before. Yeah, like a lot of things hadn't happened just yet, right, the internet was just barely getting off and stuff. Like it was. Just it was a very different time than it is now paper applications oh gosh, yes, I hate it.

Speaker 2:

That was so bad, or looking at newspaper and stuff like that. It was just and being a single mom at the time. So I was a single mom for like close to nine years.

Speaker 1:

Oh, wow, yeah, oh yeah, how many kids.

Speaker 2:

I have one as a single mom. I had one and now I have two. Yeah, and at the time it was like I had to work for Addict Correctional Facilities. I worked at like different places.

Speaker 1:

So what inspired you to start your own company and to take up this fight for the wage gap between black and brown women in this community?

Speaker 2:

So what he's talking about is Midwest Mujeres, and our mission is to close the gender wage gap, one story at a time, and we do that by mentoring women, providing them a digital space for them to receive referrals and services and coaching, and we train them, we give them a safe space and I hate to use that word safe space, but really a space where it's a container, right. It's safe in the sense that whatever they're going to say there is going to be okay, it's a container, right. It's safe in the sense that whatever they're going to say there is going to be okay, it's going to be accepted, it's not going to be judged. And we cultivate their voice to bring out this beautiful harmony of a concompany of different stories that talk about the resiliency that they had to go through to survive the gender wage gap, and so that's what we do every year. We've been doing this now for four years. And it wage gap, and so that's what we do every year. We've been doing this now for four years and it's woman led, but we do have men. Hey Gio, hey Johnny, we have quite a few men. It's growing every day, like every day, we still have more men, including my husband too. I mean, has been there since the beginning to assisting us either with setup with, you know, recruitment of sponsors, videography, all of those things that the men have really stepped up. Knowing that they are a part of the solution for closing the gender wage gap is so important. But what led me to that was really releasing my own story and noticing how powerful that was, and that all happened at the 2019 Martin Luther King Day.

Speaker 2:

I was fired over racial discrimination from a very prominent nonprofit organization, so we talked about my journey in the early 2000s through Nehemiah and various different other nonprofits. I had worked my way up from, like, basically, social service coordinator to director of marketing and outreach for over 60 organizations regionally Doing giving days that were totaling over $400,000. I didn't do that just once. I did that over three times, over three years, and so I had, you know, I felt like I had finally arrived, that this was where I'm going to lay my quota on and, yeah, it didn't work that way. I guess, you know, as they say, god had some other plans. I found myself about three weeks later in an elevator crying and my grandmother's hands are like because I'm about to fight this woman. I chased her out of a party. I'm about to beat her. I feel my grandmother's hand on my shoulder because my grandmother had passed on February 19th and she had only had passed a couple of weeks and she's like ponle las manos de Dios, put in god's hands.

Speaker 2:

So I know the history of your podcast. You know what I'm saying. Like your mission, I've been in jail. I've been locked up too. As a teenager I was locked up quite a few times. Um, you know, I'm in milwaukee, outside of madison, okay, so yeah, I know the cell life and yeah, and you know, stuff happened to me too in my early twenties. You know where that could have happened to and it was a very real threat in my life. When I say this, the story, just to say that there are all heavily moments where you you know you're at a cross crossroads, your anger can take you somewhere, and even I had left that as a teenager. That life I thought I did. It came up. I know I acted wrong. I know I was going to be, doing wrong.

Speaker 2:

I'm so glad when that elevator opened that she wasn't there. I started laughing. I was happy. I was like, oh my gosh, I'm so glad that woman ran away. I don't know what I would have done.

Speaker 1:

So what was the situation surrounding your termination? Why did you feel that it was racially motivated? Oh, I could tell you all the details.

Speaker 2:

I mean, I know I don't feel it. We know it right, we know it in our bone when we're being racially discriminated and profiled. So, like you know being told that she couldn't understand me, that I was like from another planet, slamming doors, slamming her hands, you know just like making us. You know chasing me out, you know asking me about certain people's anatomies.

Speaker 1:

So she was saying, like she couldn't understand you, like you didn't speak English.

Speaker 2:

Yes, good English, yes, good enough, yes exactly.

Speaker 1:

But she does know that you were born here, right? I mean yeah, You're a Chicana, I mean you hear me all your audience can hear my.

Speaker 2:

English Most of the time. Most people don't even know I'm Latina unless they see me. They only ever met me over the phone. Yeah, I'm a pretty good parakeet. I mean, that is why we you know, those are the resilience things that we utilize, almost to the point of determining ourselves Like it hurts us to be this resilient. So yeah, no, it was really. It was really shocking. Actually, it was very abusive. It was very shocking. I don't even think it was racial discrimination, so much as racial harassment. Even my sexuality was put on display there.

Speaker 1:

So like the way you dress.

Speaker 2:

Oh no, insinuating that we were in a relationship and thought that was appropriate to say in front of a whole group of a morning meeting. So I was asked most people most people, women of color are in meetings. That's where they get us, because they know that we're either going to feed the stereotype that we're angry and out of control because we can't be anything but sexy. Angry and out of control that's what most people think about Latinas. But they don't think that we're intelligent, that we have master's degrees like me, that I've been in several anthologies, that I have the capacity to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, that I know about community engagement, that I'm a national and becoming now an international consultant for community development. And that's real. Those are real accomplishments that I've done ever since 2019.

Speaker 2:

And the only thing that saved me from that was when George was murdered on 36 in Chicago. And how do I know that is because I told you I did my undergrad over there. I was on the bus all the time. I know where he was killed. I used to make fun of that Sam's store because that store sounds like Cub Foods, but it's not. I'm like. It's like, really, the store you know, I'm like anyways.

Speaker 2:

So all those things happened to get me out of the depression of being racially harassed and it was a real beautiful journey that I was able to throw myself into. What, nationwide, everybody was feeling was that there was a, there was somebody that was brutally killed and we all watched it. He was murdered and over over a pack of cigarettes and a $20 bill. Um, I'm sorry for getting emotional about it. It's just like I just remember so bad, like I know it was bad that he died, but it was also like such a beautiful movement because at the same time I felt that I could put myself in that movement.

Speaker 2:

I was downtown a lot of times, you know, with the protesters and stuff like that, and I would do a lot of like. I started doing my Facebook Lives, like it was called the and you can see them on YouTube and you know it was a Latino talkback on the anti-blackness in the Latino community and I started hosting these with like folks like joe mandalado, where he's going state representative that's what he's up to right now. He started on doing some top talk shout out to joe I love joe exactly same three things.

Speaker 1:

A joke with joe if you're, if you cool with him is he's. He's a great jokester, he's hilarious. You are putting together a series of events that's coming up soon. Um, can you share with us what these events are, how people can get involved, how can they donate, how can they attend? Tell us about these amazing events that you've put together yeah.

Speaker 2:

So that's the corner store. Minu as mujeres is our quarterly annual events that we have. They're specifically marketed for brown and black audiences. I do that on purpose, because the more we are together, the more we can fight back on this gender wage gap, this racial wage gap. They pin us against each other Way too often. They pin Latinos and black folks against each other and I have not seen that unity.

Speaker 2:

But the first job I ever had was Pastor Alex G. There was no other organization that embraced me as much as Nehemiah did and from that you know it just showed to me and my grandmother was always she instilled that in me when she was working as a maquinadora and that means a seamstress. She would make Levi's right in Mexico and she said one of her supervisors was African American from the United States and they started talking and he would teach her a couple words in English. She told him and then she told him her story about maybe she could come to the US, that she was curious about, that. She even knew his name and everything. Had it not been for this like gentleman who got thrown into Mexico to oversee a factory, my grandmother may have never come to this United States. She would have never had the fuerza, las ganas, the confidence to come and just see, are my fingerprints still at the border. Maybe I can come through because I'm over here, like with twins, she had four kids. She had these two twins and she had to feed them. And my mom talks about how she ate a bag of sugar because she was so damn hungry. So had it not been for that type of unity, I wouldn't be here. And so that's what my honor to Midwest Mojeres is, and that's why it doesn't mean that I've arrived to like some sort of elevated state of knowing. No, I have bad tapes in my head too. I have total bad tapes. I grew up here. Of course I'm going to have bad things being said in my head, but I admit them, I say sorry to them, I say sorry to myself and I move on. And I think that's how we should all handle our prejudices is by apologizing and then apologizing to ourselves. And that's why we are very fortunate to have these events that are sponsored by local organizations like Summit Credit Union, willie Street Co-op, the Wisconsin Economic Development and Old National Bank, american Insurance. They've all really invested in Midwest Mojeres. They understand the need for unity, they understand the need for innovation. These are innovative moments where brown and black folks can get together and talk freely, get to know each other, because for too long we've been separated in this community on purpose.

Speaker 2:

The next events are coming up on Saturday, may 18th, at the starting block at the Spark Building at 821 East Washington. It starts at 11 o'clock, I believe. Junk Food Junkie she's a local Angela Morgan. She's going to be catering us. I always like to hire a black or a Latina caterer for us and so from 11 to 12, people can enjoy free food. We'll be meeting up on the third floor.

Speaker 2:

We need volunteers. I will say that is my call into action. Please connect with me because we still need volunteers. If anyone knows about the Spark Building. We do need people to help us escort people up and known, so that's really well needed.

Speaker 2:

Still, and then from 12 to 1 for the first time ever, we're going to have a latina from milwaukee who speaks only in spanish, because my spanish-speaking community really loves us. But they want to like have some content for themselves too. So we have a coach, adriana, and she's going to talk about how to reinvent yourself without blowing up. But in Spanish it makes more fun sense. I know when I translate it don't make it justice, but in Spanish it sounds really cool. And then we're going to have kind of like fashion show, maybe like teaching people like what is a good cut, what is a bad cut, like what to wear for fashion. So Laura Fitzzgerald white woman, ally, love laura. She's amazing, used to work for madisoncom. She's coming over with her fashion tips. We have also another brand stylist, maria styles, is coming and then we're going to close off with a panel discussion talking about the brown black challenges for networking in our midwestern community.

Speaker 2:

So that's on sat, may 18th, and then on Saturday, june 15th, is our annual event at the my Arts Theater. Our histories, our stories have value. We have networking at one o'clock, the event is at two We'll have some light hors d'oeuvres. This is a family-friendly event. We highlight brown and black women who come and tell their stories. This is after a month of intense storytelling training. They meet with me weekly so that they can craft their stories. Who are these women? They are your neighbors, they are your friends.

Speaker 2:

Some of these women were selected through Wisconsin Life, their podcast has been highlighting every Friday a story from one of our Midwest Moedas women.

Speaker 2:

Shout out to Wisconsin, to wisconsin life yeah, yeah, they're great, they're doing amazing things and they allowed me to curate um, their women's history month uh selection there. So that was just such a treat, such a treat for me to to work with them and um, highlight these women and their stories, some of these women. The impact is just phenomenal. They get either more contracts for work, get more speaking engagements, they get invited to other podcasts, they become life coaches. One of them scaled her business Like she was on stage, she had no employees, and now she has like five employees yeah, she's a CPA, victoria and that Karen negotiated like, I think like 10% more of her salary.

Speaker 2:

And, you know, dr Sagacious Livingston has now, you know, starting her Infamous Mother platform, just launching that, and so it's a starting point for a lot of women. It's that turning point. It's just that one thing you need to kind of like and that's what the power of a theatrical stage will do for your life. It's nothing like anything, it's something very transformational. You know, in Mexican culture we have things like quinceañeras, right, it's like that coming to age thing and you do a quince and you go. You don't have that as grown women. I kind of feel like this is our quince, for us mujeres who have built something, tried to do something different, in spite of the gender wage gap or racial discrimination in the workforce, or being previously incarcerated or having domestic violence in your life, or being a survivor of sexual assault, or of being a single parent, or of your criminal history. Multitudes of survival stories are woven in here being an immigrant, not knowing how to speak English, et cetera, et cetera. The list goes on. And that's what these women need is just a stage, do that Kind of have your bendición, get your blessings, your flores, and a stage so people can hear you, hear what that is. It's a very transformational, special moment and no, it's not just for women.

Speaker 2:

Men ask me that all the time. It's like, obviously, bring, come, come with your kids, come with your abuelitas. Is this a free event? It's very inexpensive to go. Pretty much, we do get sponsorships that way. Towards the end, we people live in the darbo neighborhood. We'll get, we'll get a special code for that. Just hit me up it's literally 25 bucks. Like it's not that expensive. I think it's very affordable a lot of that time. You know what I'm saying we're offsetting that yeah, just the platform cost the.

Speaker 2:

we all deserve money. The I Want money is like two for 10 right now. It's like literally five bucks, and I think I have a special going on two for 25 right now as well for the Myers Theater, and we'll be floating some more free tickets as we get closer to the date.

Speaker 1:

Absolutely. Yeah Well, thank you so much for putting on these events to promote unity between black and brown people. We really appreciate that, and thank you for stopping by the platform. We really appreciate you and all of the things that you've done in the community and you continue to do.

Speaker 2:

Absolutely do. This is awesome. I'm so glad to get to get part of, you know, the Out of Box podcast, part of you know the out of box podcast. I've just seen you grown as well in these last few years and I'm like I'm sitting y'all folks and the brother has like six awards. You know, so beautiful, it's so beautiful and it just shows to like that you also are a story catcher and it's it's a privilege right, it's a privilege to hold all of these stories in a container. So thank you so much for making me feel welcome here.

Speaker 1:

It's no problem, I'm D-Star Until next time, guys.

Mexican-American Identity in the Midwest
Racial Discrimination and Workplace Challenges
Empowering Brown and Black Women