By: Paloma Sánchez-Jáuregui
She remembers how her mother, a decent and loyal wife, used to straighten her afro-textured hair. “It made no sense”, she says, “Why did they have to straighten my hair? It hurts!” According to her, this is one of the subtle ways that society imposes male chauvinism. She fights for women’s equality and during her college years she was a member of CAM, the Women of Action Committee, a group dedicated to point out gender inequality and support the females affected by this. “I fight because I live the inequality”, she says as she hits the table with her closed fist. “I was born a woman, I was born black, and I was born to a family that didn’t always have everything.”
She was born in a town in the southeast of Puerto Rico, to a middle class family that sometimes could barely make it by. Her mother wanted her to go to college and so she took care of all the paper work. “It caught me by surprise when my mom told me that morning to get dressed because I was taking the entrance exam.” Once she got into college, she found a job in the CRA, the Center of Learning Resources, which allowed her to pay for her own expenses. As she thinks about all the hardships that her family had endured, she says: “I wanted to help my family because I know that they have given me everything and now it was my turn to give them back.”
The skills she learned while working in the CRA helped her later collaborate in the 2010 strike of the UPR. The events that led to the strike started with an assembly that took place in Mangual Building. The administration was going to implement changes to the system, both financially and academically, that would impede many from getting into college. “Just by being born in the low class, the chances of you getting into college are really low, imagine how hard it would be if they were to increase the entry requirements“, she said with a firm voice that shows her willingness to fight. Unfortunately, nothing was resolved during said assembly because it was cancelled midway when some students began to physically fight, her face shows contempt as she recounts what happened.
She and others wouldn’t just stand by and see how the university was going to become more exclusive. “We read the rulebook and we prepared ourselves to call our own student assembly.” They collected the required number of signatures and were able to hold the assembly. “Looking back I realize how daring that was, it was our heads on the line, I could had been expelled”, she lets out a chuckle. After a lot of struggle, the students finally decided to go on a strike. “We had collected signatures, organized an assembly, prepared ourselves by reading a lot, and it was only the beginning. What came after would mark me for the rest of my life.”
She goes on to talk about how the living conditions in the strike were inhuman, how they slept on the floor with insects crawling over them and how she lost 30 pounds, but most importantly she talks about how everyone helped each other, not only the students, but also professors and even the locals. She sits straight, lowers her brows and with a straight face says: “After surviving the strike, I can deal with whatever comes.”
The solidarity that she felt during the strike helped her realize that she is not alone in this world, that her actions influence others and that she is likewise influenced by others. “The strike gave to me a collective conscience.” Now talking slowly and carefully she says, “you stop being an individual to be one with others.” This realization came thanks to the university and the educations she had started to receive years prior to the strike. To her, having an education was a privilege, a privilege that gave her a social responsibility to fight for those that don’t have the means to fight.
She joined the CAM shortly after the strike. It was during the strike that she saw how women were treated as inferior to men by men by not being given the role of leaders, not being allowed to be part of the directives and generally being treated unfairly. “A bulky strong woman wasn’t allowed to protect the gates but a wimpy and skinny man could!?”
After earning a political sciences degree, she continues to collaborate with organizations that fight for what she believes in. With the help of the participants of the International Socialist Organization (OSI), she created a gathering called Say it like it is: Criminality. When the gathering meets they discuss the criminality in Puerto Rico, especially that against women, the poor and strikers.
She currently works in the CUA, the University Center for Access, where she fights so that students of low resources can have the privilege that she had of getting a college education. The CUA focuses in helping local public school students from low-income families to be able to get into college and to remain there. The students are picked up at their school after class, and they are offered tutorship and mentorship. “It’s good to see them get out of an abyss, see them moving forward” she proudly says. She believes in people changing the system, not the system changing the people. “Some say we have to save the university, and I don’t disagree, but the focus should be the people that study in the university” she claims. “The CUA does just that, that’s why I believe so much in it.”
“The university changed me completely as a human being.” She wants others to go through the same experience. For this reason, she dedicates her energies to fight so that others can have the same opportunity that she had of going to college and to create conscience through education. She fights for the future of Puerto Rico. She fights so that future generations can do better than the present generation and in this way move Puerto Rico forward. “With small contributions, we can change the people and thus our country.” Her name is Dania Garcia and she is an unknown hero.