Poised before a crowd one evening in May, 2016, Carmen Vázquez looked over the women who represented her legacy. She stood as the keynote speaker for the 45th anniversary of the Women’s Building, where, on its mural-covered walls, her name is memorialized in golden script, alongside tens of other women activists. Everyone listening that evening knew that the nonprofit they were celebrating would not exist without her.
“None of us, except maybe Roma [Guy], had a clear understanding of the political impact of what we were undertaking,” Vázquez said that night in 2016, recounting the origin story of the Women’s Building decades before.
She might have been talking about herself, for, in 1980, the then 31-year-old Vázquez had achieved only a fraction of what she ultimately helped achieve. During her lifetime, she became a leader, advisor or participant in more than half a dozen organizations that fought for migrant, queer and gender rights on both coasts.
These colleagues from her past gathered in March, 2021, for a virtual Zoom memorial honoring Vázquez. On January 27, 2021, like hundreds of thousands of others, Vázquez died from Covid-19.
Roma Guy, another founder of the Women’s Building, remembered the young woman who, in 1980, applied to teach Spanish at the organization. “When she taught two or three lessons,” Guy said at the memorial, “We all knew she had come to test us. And, she would become one of our leaders.”
An “untraditional” beginning
Vázquez was born in Puerto Rico to her mother of the same name and her father, “Gole” Vázquez. She was the eldest of seven siblings.
She entered the world feet-first on January 13, 1949, a date her superstitious mother considered a bad omen — so much so, in fact, that she refused to celebrate this as her daughter’s official birthday for nearly three decades, instead declaring it January 14.
Vázquez grew up in Puerto Rico in a house atop stilts, and remained there with her grandmother while her parents built a life in New York. When she was 5, they brought Vázquez and her younger sister to live with them on the Lower East Side. There, she told an interviewer for a Smith College feminist oral history project in 2005, she discovered a world full of wonder: brownstones, ice cream, and baseball on television.
It was “these little teeny men, you know, hitting balls and running around,” said Vázquez during the interview. “I can’t tell you how many times I tried to go behind that television to take it apart and find the little men. But I was completely and totally enthralled and, to this day, am a rabid baseball fan.”
New York was where she learned and loved. Vázquez attended Sisters of Charity Cathedral High School and completed a bachelor’s in English and a master’s of education at City University of New York from 1967 to 1972, where she studied under Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22. Amid the Vietnam War era and “Third-World liberation” movements, she discovered a passion for work that could “create some kind of policy change.”
Then came Vázquez’s trysts with women; she would eventually fall hard for some of them. One passionate college relationship ended after a fight about her partner’s indecision over coming out. Circa 1974, heartbroken and restless, Vázquez moved to San Francisco, where her sister lived.
There, she’d begin an 18-year foray into the political world, and literally add her name to the Women’s Building’s history.
San Francisco: “A seminal moment in Carmen History”
The pipe-bomb exploded in the lobby of the Women’s Building in December, 1979, only seven months after a group of nearly two dozen women agreed to purchase it. Months before, the structure survived a man setting it aflame, inflicting $50,000 worth of damage to a property already falling apart — faulty pipes, broken elevators.
“This is another sort of seminal moment in Carmen history,” Vázquez recalled during the 2005 Smith College interview. “In my first year at the Women’s Building, we almost didn’t make it.”
The attacks were a statement. The Women’s Centers, which funded and owned the Women’s Building, mostly consisted of white lesbians. The Women’s Building employed women of color, many who had fled from political violence in Central America and the Philippines. For these reasons and more, people wanted these women out.
Vázquez and other Women’s Building members refused to take it. They rallied the press and more than 200 members from various Mission District organizations, and Vázquez launched into her first of “many, many, many” speeches. She recalled,“very clearly and very unambiguously, we were here to stay. And no amount of scare tactics was going to push us out of that place.”
“‘The Women’s Building is a family place,’” Vázquez told the community that day. “I talked about the many ways in which women are violated — physically, emotionally, economically, sexually, and this is just another violation we have to stand up to.”
So Vázquez was the clear choice when the Women’s Building picked its first founding director shortly after, said Diane Jones, another early founder of the Women’s Building who is currently a leader in the Covid-19 response in the Mission.
“It was really clear that who was going to run this building had to be reflective of the community that we live in, and had to have connections not not only to the community, but to all the political movements that were intersecting at that time,” Jones said.
Vázquez — a vocal and self-identified Puerto Rican “butch feminist lesbian” who had studied anti-war movements — checked several boxes.
Vázquez’s background in raising rambunctious siblings also equipped her with natural organizational and intermediary skills, which proved handy during a series of complicated debates among Women’s Building members. Constantly, the staff relied on Vazquez’s ability to analyze issues through multiple lenses of race, queerness, migration, and sexism.
One instance that stuck out to Vázquez was whether a group of policewomen — most of them lesbian women of color — could use the Women’s Building to meet. The staff was divided. Vázquez pressed: how would the dozens of immigrant women working and visiting there feel?
Though the policewomen did ultimately meet after much debate, members believed Vázquez’s voice was valuable. She served as the building’s first founding director from 1980 to 1984, and then stepped down of her own accord. She needed a break, but agreed to stay on the board, where she would continue to serve until 1991 .
Then, Vázquez jumped headfirst into the “Third-World” movements that proliferated: she ventured to Nicaragua with a Central American group called Somos Hermanas that she co-chaired, and later she traveled to the Women’s World Conference in Nairobi, Kenya.
Once back in the Bay Area, she worked at Community United Against Violence in 1986, and became the first Executive Director for the Oakland’s National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in 1987. She helped found the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center in San Francisco or LYRIC, a center for LGBTQ youth.
But her immigration advocacy took a backseat when she accepted a job at the San Francisco Department of Public Health as a Coordinator of Lesbian and Gay Health Services in 1988. “Then I was back into the lesbian-gay mix,” Vázquez said.
She knew little about health, but Vázquez was fascinated by the opportunity.
“It was difficult to get the health department to pay attention. AIDS was all-consuming, and I understand that,” Vázquez recalled. “But there’s still all these other populations that needed services that weren’t getting services.”
Then came the job offer. The LGBT Community Center in New York scooped Vázquez up for its Director of Public Policy position, an especially tantalizing opportunity, considering its location kept her close to her aging mom and her nephews and nieces. Vázquez bid adieu to San Francisco in 1994.
“New York: It’s Been Waiting for You”
The queer movement still had work to do regarding the inequities among ethnic minorities, Vázquez said, so that’s where she threw all her energy. After Vázquez left the LGBT Community Center in 2003, she joined the Empire State Pride Agenda from 2003 to 2007. Eventually, she’d score a job at the New York Department of Health as Coordinator of the LGBT Health and Human Services Unit of the AIDS Institute.
Others took notice. Ricci Joy Levy vividly remembers this from when she had tried to gather a focus group about the nascent Woodhull Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to human and sex rights. Every activist Levy asked to attend replied the same way: “‘Well, Carmen Vázquez will be there, right?’”
Levy had no choice but to ask her to come. “As soon as I stopped to swallow spit, she said to me, ‘Will there be food? You can’t do a meeting at the end of the day in New York without food,’” Levy told Mission Local. So Levy brought food. “This was vintage Carmen.”
Though skeptical of Vázquez’s prowess at first, Levy was sold after Vázquez spoke at the focus group. Levy remembered that Vázquez waited until there wasn’t a sound in the room. Then, Vázquez asserted that homosexual sex and families shouldn’t be absent from national LGBTQ conversations.
“She leans forward and says, ‘The problem here is that we’ve taken the sex out of homosexual. No one is stupid enough to believe that we only want to go shopping together,’” said Levy, the current president and CEO of Woodhull. Levy laughed, “God, I fell in love right then.”
Spouses Carlie Steen and Erica Pelletreau — activists and dear friends — remembered other aspects of Vázquez: the Vázquez who cooked phenomenal paella and threw movie nights for Steen and Pelleatreau’s children; the one who should never be interrupted during a Yankees game (unless it was her sister, Ida, who called without fail at the bottom of every seventh inning to provide commentary); the one Pelleatreau enlisted to comfort Steen and the kids when the family’s English Setter suddenly died and Pelleatreau was away on business .
Vázquez simply became a part of their family. So, when Covid-19 hit, she moved with them to Pelletreau’s parents’ house in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where they could be isolated and keep watch over the aging seniors. Even then, she worked — Woodhull asked Vázquez to speak at a discussion dissecting the overlap between the AIDS and Covid-19 pandemics.
Then, in January, 2021, during the height of the worst surge the country had yet seen, Vázquez returned to New York for a doctor’s visit. She was afraid. She wanted to be one of the first people to acquire the vaccine, but she wasn’t eligible yet. Shortly following her New York homecoming, she had trouble breathing; a visit to the hospital confirmed the disease.
It spiraled quickly. During a two-day span in which Steen visited Vázquez in the Covid-19 ward, five people had died. From behind a glass window, Steen and Pelletreau took turns observing Vázquez, who, already on a ventilator, was unresponsive.
On Vázquez’s last day alive, a minister — who, coincidentally, was a lesbian — performed the rites for Vázquez. For the final visit on January 27, 2021, Steen and Pelletreau were accompanied by one of Vazquez’s sisters, and another who was on the phone. They pressed their noses to the glass and said goodbye.
“The Women’s Building is a family place”
The March memorial brought together the various strands of Vázquez’s life. Levy said she would throw an in-person memorial next year when everyone can hug, and Woodhull launched an “empowerment fund” in her honor to mentor youth. Her common phrases, like “equality is the floor; justice is the goal,” remains indelibly stamped on several peers’ minds.
Meanwhile, on 18th Street, the Women’s Building continues to do work that Vázquez would be proud of.
It’s time like these that Teresa Mejía, its most recent executive director and a fellow Puerto Rican, admits some regret regarding Vázquez. “There was so much more I wished to learn from her, but never did,” she said.
Still, Mejía recalled one of her favorite memories of the activist, which was the powerful speech that Vázquez delivered on the building’s 45th anniversary.
“I hope this generation of women leading the Women’s Building will be bold,” Vázquez said in that speech. “I hope you will seize the opportunity to help create a new women’s movement for justice.”
Vázquez, standing before the latest guardians of the space, urged: “Defend and protect this space; fight for this place; fund this place. La lucha sigue.”
Voices of Feminism Oral History Project: Carmen Vázquez interviewed by Kelly Anderson contributed to this report.
We’re highlighting the Mission and San Francisco histories you want to know. Consider supporting Mission Local today.