Growing up in Bed-Stuy as the oldest in a family of five, Isabel Gonzalez assumed the big-sister responsibilities typical in single-parent households-taking the kids to school, making sure they were fed. But she had little say in her own destiny.
Early on, teachers removed her from bilingual classes. “In English classes, everything I learned was from the American perspective,” she remembers. “I began to devalue Spanish and Latino culture. The shift from one class to another made me feel like I was now an American. It took me years to relearn who I was and where I came from.”
Gonzalez has since been on a journey to figure out how to help other Latina women stand up for themselves. Now 23, she works with a budding Bushwick collective, Sista 2 Sista, organizing young women to defend themselves against harassment, sexual and otherwise.
They have to do it themselves, Gonzalez says, because official law enforcement is part of the problem. “The working-class Latina community cannot look at cops as the solution,” says Gonzalez. “There’s too many examples of cops being perpetrators of violence against women.” Cops hitting on young women, sometimes on school grounds. Cops violently breaking up family disputes. Cops leaning on female relatives of criminal suspects to extract information from them.
Last summer, 15 young women from Sista 2 Sista interviewed about 400 others in the neighborhood, and what they heard was startling. “Nearly 65 percent felt that their community was not safe for them, 57 percent knew someone who had been raped, and in 90 percent of such cases, young women were not helped before and during the incident,” says Isabel. Demonstrations and letters didn’t seem to make sense as a response; instead, Sista 2 Sista offers classes in self-defense and boxing.
Even as she promotes self-direction for others, though, Gonzalez has fought hard to find it for herself. As a teen she joined the leadership group Global Kids, where she learned to facilitate meetings and produce video-skills she still uses. But she was convinced they were missing the point. “Having the option to travel to Germany, Ireland and Croatia and running a workshop was a great idea, but personally, I needed more emphasis on organizing and dealing with the issues we were facing in school and on the streets of New York.”
A later stint at the Bushwick group Make the Road by Walking convinced Gonzalez that picking the right issues wasn’t enough, either. With women from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua and elsewhere, she organized protests outside welfare centers, demanding translation services and basic respect for clients. But Gonzalez felt that members consistently shaped their own ideas and plans to conform to the agenda of the group’s leadership: namely, to support lawsuits fighting those same injustices. Says Gonzalez, “They look at white men with law degrees and assumed that their opinions and ideas were more valuable. Somehow, the legal strategy was normalized, and they became intimidated to the point where they begin questioning their own analysis of the issues they’ve defined for themselves.” (Characterizing Gonzalez as a “domineering, patronizing” and “destructive” force within the organization, Make the Road codirector Oona Chatterjee adds that “since her departure and even beforehand, I have attempted to dialogue with her about her concerns…. She has made it clear, in as many words, that she does not want to dialogue with me.”)
These days, Gonzalez has what she’s long wanted: a group where members’ views are not just respected, but all-defining. They elect their own leaders and decide what issues they’ll tackle, and how. Many of the young women are now getting their mothers involved in their anti-harassment work. “This was never an objective,” says Gonzalez. “It just happened. And it’s now up to the families to figure out where they want to take it.”