Introducing our new series ‘Latinos in San Diego’
By Maria E. Garcia
If you have not met eighty-seven year old Lilia Lopez, wife, mother, friend, feminist and activist, you have missed out on a woman who has influenced many people. She has worked diligently to improve the lives of women, not only in San Diego, but all over the country and Mexico and Europe.
Lilia says that I am responsible for her becoming involved in Chicano issues. While I was a student teacher at Lowell Elementary School in the 1970s, I invited her to attend a meeting with a group of moms. She says that was when she understood the injustices the women were facing she couldn’t sit back and do nothing.
Lilia did not need me or anyone else to take the leadership role in so many issues that affected Latinas. She was horrified at the injustice towards women and the lack of hope for a better future. Her actions have not only supported women, but over her many years of involvement, Lilia has advocated for youth programs, as well as senior citizens programs. Her participation on various advisory boards goes back to the 1970s with the San Diego County Alcoholism Advisory Board, and the old Model City Advisory Board.
Her concern focused on women who did not have the skills they needed to find jobs, who despite their limitations, wanted a better life for their children and who were willing to work to help improve their future. She’ll tell you in Spanish: “Me duele el corazón” (my heart hurts) knowing that these women were being left out and seeing the injustices.
To understand Lilia you have to know her background. Her mother was born in Gila Bend, Arizona, thus a U.S. citizen. Her mother’s parents were a Native American mother and a French father. Her father was a captain in the Mexican Navy. By pure coincidence, an aunt took Lilia’s mom on a trip to San Francisco.
As fate would have it, her father’s ship was in port in San Francisco. According to Lilia the minute her dad saw her mom, he fell head over heels in love. They corresponded for a short time and then her mom left Arizona for Vera Cruz, Mexico. On October 18, 1928 Lilia Lopez was born in Vera Cruz.
Lilia’s mother was very hard working and quite the business woman. By this time the family had moved to Mexico City where her mother had opened a small milk store. As the business prospered her mother continued to open these stores and soon had a government contract to supply products at lower prices.
Her father was also business minded and had a company called Fedmex. The family had a very good life. A few weeks before she turned fifteen in 1943, Lilia married the love of her life, Joe, a man eighteen years her senior. Her parents did not want her to marry at such a young age. Lilia was very stubborn and threatened to run away with Joe. Her parents reluctantly gave in and Lilia and Joe were married.
Lilia was educated at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. She had been a psychology student for two years. For many years Lilia lived a successful active life in Mexico City. She worked for the Mexican newspaper Excélsior. While working there, at the age of nineteen she organized La Feria del Hogar. (Home Show) During this time she became pregnant. Her newspaper job allowed her to work and also be a mom. Her boss, Franciso Pedrocho, was the Director of Promotions. For the next fifteen years, Lilia worked in public relations and journalism.
Her tranquil and successful life changed in the blink of an eye on the day that her mother disappeared. The family assumed she had been killed. They speculated that she was probably robbed and the body dumped somewhere. The family searched everywhere but there was no sign of her mom. This was very stressful for Lilia, to the point that she lost her vision and ended up in the hospital. Her boss, Mr. Pedrocho, came to visit her and she voiced her concerns about her mother’s disappearance. He told her she should have come to him sooner.
He investigated and returned to Lilia telling her to pack a bag—they were going to the American Embassy. The Mexican Government had discovered that Lilia’s mom was not a Mexican but an American doing business with the Mexican government. They had deported her and she ended up at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Logan Heights. Lilia soon joined her here in San Diego. Shortly thereafter, she was able to bring her husband and her children.
When she arrived in San Diego she worked in a tomato packing company, as well as a dry cleaning plant, where she organized workers to form a union. She says that activity caused her a lot of problems. She lost her job.
In 1969 Lilia was elected to the first elected board of the Chicano Federation. The late Max Hernandez was President, Roger Cazares, was Treasurer, Lilia Lopez was the Correspondence Secretary, and I was Recording Secretary. In the early years the Chicano Federation was an advocacy organization and all board members advocated for issues important to the Chicano Community. As the only two women on the board, we supported each other on the various issues.
If memory serves me right, I invited her to attend a Welfare Rights Organization meeting. Neither Lilia nor I was on welfare, yet we both sympathized with the problems the women were facing. She had very strong feelings that welfare did nothing to help the women obtain a better future.
Lilia knew that there was a huge need for job training, ESL classes, bilingual education and medical services. In the early years she would accompany women to the hospital, Social Security Office and Welfare Office. Her role was that of translator, however, it soon became one of advocacy for bilingual staff.
She also saw another problem that was not being discussed or focused on. Men were being included in various programs such as job training and women were being left out. She said women had the same abilities as men, but the programs to help them achieve were not there.
She remembers telling women “If your husband does not give you money, tell him you are going out and finding a job.” She said Latinas would agree with her and would say it makes sense, but didn’t have the confidence to follow through. She also faced many Latinas who felt she shouldn’t include lesbians as part of the women’s’ movement and would question how she could “get along” with them, and why she would support them or include them in her circle of friends. Lilia would respond “Because they are as much of a women as I am,” adding that we must accept them and show respect. Lilia says many conversations took place to change the thinking of many of the anti-lesbian women. In the 1970s she was ahead of her time.
In 1970 a meeting was held in Sacramento. At that conference Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional was born. Their focus was the Chicana and those issues that pertained to Chicanas. The first annual conference of the Comisión was held in Goleta, California where its first constitution was formed. This conference was attended by more than 300 women from every segment of the Chicana community. There were college students, professional women, farm workers and grass-roots activist women.
Comisión Femenil was the first nation-wide organization to advocate for Chicanas. On April 13, 1972 the papers of the San Diego Chapter were incorporated and signed by Lilia as secretary of the organization. In addition to being a uniting force for Chicanas throughout the country, the Comisión became well known for participating in a lawsuit against the involuntary sterilization of Chicanas.
The case was known as Madrigal vs Quilligan. The outcomes of this Supreme Court case were medical consent forms in Spanish as well as English and a moratorium on coerced sterilization. All of these historical events were part of Lilia’s life in the 1970s and 1980s.
Lilia went to Sacramento to testify about the need for a job program for women. She was successful in obtaining vocational training funds for the women in the community. The next problem was where to place this training program. In a conversation with the late Father John Hurtado about this need, he asked her to give him a few days to work on a solution.
Father Hurtado was an activist priest who could be seen on a picket lines and advocating for Latinos. He was a supporter of the Mass being said in Spanish, a topic that is still disputed in various churches throughout the city. He was extremely popular in the Latino community but was not on the Bishop’s popularity list. Father Hurtado arranged for the program to be housed at the Padre Hidalgo Center.
Father Hurtado later left the church, but not before helping Chicanos progress in the fight for equality. In the 1970s a Spanish Mass was one of the focal points. Another point that was being made was the need for the Latino clergy to make their way into the hierarchy of the church. The 1970s was also the time period when Latinos were starting to drift to Protestant Churches. There was a feeling that the Catholic Church had failed the community when it came to social issues.
Father Hurtado supported Lilia and Lilia was one of his biggest supporters. In turn they both worked to assist the Chicano community. The training program held graduations where women who had completed the ESL/Vocational training Program were recognized. These women were also encouraged to attend adult classes and obtain a GED.
Many of Lilia’s activities involved meeting or testifying about the needs of the Latino Community in San Diego. A group that included Enriqueta Chavez, Alurista, René Nuñez, Elena Pascual, Gonzalo Rojas and Lilia went to Washington DC in the early 1970s to meet with HEW Secretary Elliot Lee Richardson. The purpose of this meeting was to advocate for youth programs.
Lilia also worked with San Diego State University on health issues affecting seniors in the Latino community. Lilia also believes that the San Diego community went out of its way to welcome government officials that came to tour the programs that had been developed. She speaks about the welcoming banquets and tours for officials of the Padre Hidalgo Center and the women who were now training for future employment.
Many members of the San Diego Community as a whole, and the Chicano community in particular, are not aware that Lilia spoke at two world-wide conferences. The first United Nations World-Wide Conference on Women was held in Mexico City in June of 1975. Over 1,000 women attended the conference. In a 9/15/75 article printed in the Los Angeles Times, Sylvia Gonzales, an instructor at Sacramento State, wrote about some of the concerns expressed by Chicanas when uniting with Anglo women.
She asks the question, “How can we be expected to join Anglo women in a sisterhood so long as they have discriminated against us?” This issue was often discussed, if not between Anglo women and women of color, it was definitely discussed behind closed doors.
The second Conference was held in 1980 in Copenhagen. Lilia received a letter from the United Nations inviting her to attend the World Wide Conference there. Getting to Copenhagen was not an easy task. Her husband was furious and announced he would not “allow” her to go. Instead of fighting about the issue, her response was: “OK, you call the UN and tell them I am not going.”
That call was never made and Lilia was off to Copenhagen, along with her very good friend Gracia Molina de Pick. They represented not only women from San Diego in general, but Latinas in particular. She also admits to feeling guilty because she was leaving her husband and family behind.
In Sylvia Gonzales’ Los Angeles Times article, she also questioned how Latinas could wage an effective struggle against discrimination when there was no help from the male-dominated Chicano Freedom movement with their reactionary “ macho values.” It is very clear that Chicanas were united with women in general, but were also facing multifaceted oppression.
At both conferences Lilian was there questioning, advocating and supporting Latinas throughout the world, but with an emphasis on women here in the United States. At the Mexico City conference women took a leadership role and guided the various discussions. There were some differences, some based on where the women came from. This was to be expected since women from various countries had different experiences. The common thread with all the women was the unequal treatment they had experienced, no matter which country they represented. They also had the mutual interest of achieving world peace.
In Copenhagen some of the same concerns that had been focused on at the Mexico City World-Wide Conference resurfaced. There was also a concern about what rights had been achieved and women’s ability to secure these rights. Lilia opened her statement with the following remarks:
“We, the Chicanas, formally present to this conference a statement and resolution that clearly illustrates the oppressive conditions facing Chicanas in the United States of America. The resolutions as stated are some of the demands that must be dealt with in order for justice and equality to prevail for Chicanas and women in general.”
There was a resolution from the education committee that focused on competence testing, parent involvement and bilingual education. In addition to supporting bilingual education for all students, Lilia was instrumental in pushing not only the resolutions, but in asking that research be done on bilingual education and what it meant to be a part of a bilingual/bicultural society. When Lilia and Gracia de Pick returned from Copenhagen, they held a meeting at Lowell (Perkins) School to report on what had happened at the Copenhagen Conference.
Today Lilia lives in the same house she shared with Joe, her husband of fifty-seven years years. Her home has antiques that belonged to her grandfather, including a player piano that still works today. On the piano she proudly displays photos of family members. She is not in the best of health but remains positive about her accomplishments and the friendships she has formed.
She says “Sometimes I am happy and sometimes I am sad.” In Copenhagen she made the statement “To change the system we have to be part of it.” Lilia says she still believes that. Chicanas need to be part of every aspect of the community.
YouTube video from Lilia’s 2003 induction in San Diego Women’s Hall of Fame: