I met Gloria Esteva in the same way others do—going into her store to inquire about a sign outside that shows the face of Cinthia Jocabeth Castañeda Alvarado.
The image of the young girl on a white cloth with black ink—a characteristic type of sign searching for missing girls in Juarez—is one of many posted in Mexico. They offer hope of finding daughters who might have been victims of the violence in Juarez where thousands of women have been killed or have gone missing since 1993.
Esteva said that last November 2, 2013, people marched from 18th and Valencia streets to the Mission Cultural Center to call attention to the violence against women in Mexico.
“I try to contribute even if it’s just a little so that there is a [positive] change,” said the 60-year-old who has lived in the Mission for the last eight years and is a reminder that even with all of the changes, the neighborhood is still a place where Latin Americans work to draw attention to the world beyond the Mission; that beyond the entrance of every small store, there is a story.
“It’s about showing solidarity and having a position and not agreeing with everything. We are all workers, regardless of the industry [we work for], and we have to know that it is possible to make a change, but that will not happen if we are being manipulated,” she said about the driving force behind being a neighborhood activist.
It is likely, however, that few people walking by Mission and 24th streets on their way to BART or Muni know that the owner of Chispita, a small clothing store, is a committed Zapotec activist and journalist who is unafraid to speak her mind.
At the store, she interrupted my questions to tell me that she needed to go to San Francisco General Hospital to have a doctor look at her toe. She had dropped a heavy bowl on it that morning and was badly bruised. She offered to answer a few of my questions if I was willing to walk to the bus stop.
Esteva rents her space with some eight other businesses at 2868 Mission St. She sells clothes and other fashion items.
When the bus arrived, I hopped on with her. She is the fifth of 11 children born in Oaxaca. Her father, a Zapotec who was reprimanded for speaking his native language, never taught his children the indigenous tongue.
Her father also spoke Spanish and went through 6th grade, but her mother had no formal education. Nevertheless, Esteva’s mother wanted her 11 children to graduate from the university and so they moved to Mexico City.
Esteva studied psychology at the public university in Mexico City and later worked with José de Jesús Delgado, a lawyer from the Centro de Abogados Democráticos (the Center of Democratic Lawyers) who taught her most of what she now knows about workers’ rights.
By the time our bus approached the Emergency Room at SFGH, Esteva had told me that she was 47 years old when she came from Mexico. And she came with her daughter, who was seeking better care for Esteva’s grandchild—sick with leukemia.
At the hospital’s help desk, the nurse asked her why she was there and I stepped in to translate.
Except for the brief interruptions by the X-ray technician and the doctor, Esteva had enough energy to tell me that she has been a member of People Organized to Win Employment Rights, known as POWER. Now on the board of directors, she has worked for the organization for 10 years, investing her efforts in speaking for undocumented migrants and children, and about access to free public transport to youth, along with the right to access bilingual information. Reading is high on her list.
“Even if people don’t read or exercise their rights to language or communication doesn’t mean that the right should not be established,” she said. “If people don’t read it’s only because they haven’t had the right to have time to read.”
“They have to work and work doesn’t have access to Internet,” she said, reminiscing about the time she organized a community group to go to Stanford to demand Comcast for lower connection fees for low-income people.
When in Oakland, Esteva worked as a volunteer for two years at the Instituto Laboral de la Raza (The Labor Institute of La Raza), learning and taking information that lawyers would use in making a case for a client.
Her own move to San Francisco was not easy. She first spent time in a Tenderloin shelter, then in a transitional home and now she lives in the Mission with one of her daughters.
She managed to find time to volunteer for the Centro Legal de la Raza in the Mission and she would also sell Herbalife and clean houses. As a domestic worker, she started to speak up against unfair wages and working conditions.
Her previous training in public speaking made her a good speaker and community organizer. She’s also worked for Poor News Network, an organization that contributes news to Poor Magazine.
The compensation she was receiving for the stories produced wasn’t much, but the satisfaction of putting out stories from the community was enough to continue doing it for two years. She opened her shop two years ago to have a steady income and flexible hours so that she could continue her community advocacy through POWER. “I do it because I believe everyone should have access to information; it is the only reason why people are out of touch with reality.”