Dancing2The cumbia was bumping in El Rio’s outdoor patio Saturday way before sunset as hundreds of sharply dressed people packed the space and cheered on the dancers competing for the top spot.

The event was the 12th annual benefit of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a nonprofit organization for Latina immigrant rights that began in the Mission District in 1989. The group, which has a second office in Oakland, tackles issues like domestic violence and domestic workers’ rights.

The group charges a monthly membership fee of $3 and includes peer counseling, community organizing courses, political involvement, and job training and placement.

“Our goal is to raise $8,000 tonight,” said Claudia Gomez, a grassroots fundraiser at Mujeres Unidas. Just one hour into the event there was only $2,000 more to go. The group had yet to auction off donated items, including bottles of wine, new boots, high heels, hair products and a juicer.

While many nonprofits rely on corporate funding, Gomez said, Mujeres Unidas envisions a more grassroots approach in which members raise money within the community.

The idea, Gomez explained, is that once members become trained grassroots fundraisers, they will take greater charge of the organization. She says her position will eventually be taken over by members of Mujeres Unidas.

Maria Jimenez, program director, remembered when Mujeres Unidas consisted of eight women, and meetings were monthly. Today, a total of 450 members in San Francisco and Oakland meet twice a week.

Program director Maria Jimenez has been with Mujeres Unidas since the group's inception.

Program director Maria Jimenez has been with Mujeres Unidas since the group's inception.

The majority of the women who call Mujeres Unidas are victims of domestic violence, Jimenez said. The powerlessness that often accompanies immigration increases domestic abuse, she added.

Elizabeth Ley, who joined the organization a year ago, said that as a Latina immigrant, it can be hard to find a group to fit into.

Another member said she was hiding in her room, depressed, when a friend convinced her to join Mujeres Unidas, where she made friends and pursued community organizing. The double mission of the organization is to spark just that: personal transformation and community activism.

But before becoming members of the group, women spend six months receiving counseling and support from other members.

On Saturday, one woman who has been with Mujeres Unidas for five years watched the crowd of people eating, drinking and dancing, and said she would have to leave the celebration to go clean the remains of a different party.

But in the meantime, she danced while guarding the auction prizes.

Meetings in San Francisco are held in the Women’s Building on Wednesdays from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and Thursday evenings from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

A Guatemalan folkloric dance troupe entertains the crowd.

A Guatemalan folkloric dance troupe entertains the crowd.