New face of revolutionary
Changing the world may not be a viable option for you, but you can certainly change the life of an individual or a community. It only requires a passion to make a difference.
Tania Torres, the youngest of three children born to Mexican immigrants, co-founded a literacy program for women in Guatemala – before age 30. Her parents led by example, first learning English and ultimately graduating from college and teaching ESL to low income middle school students.
“They instilled the love of work in me and to give back,” says Torres.
Her father named his children after revolutionaries, because he liked the idea of changing the world and he wanted their monikers to represent a high bar by which to guide their lives. Named after the controversial lover of Che Guevara, Tania has already made her first mark on the world, while honoring her Latino heritage.
While attending college, Torres spent a few months in India.“It just sounded exotic, to be honest.” She lived in Gujarat, near the border of Pakistan. As her major was in theology, she was fascinated at the variety of religions in the area, such as Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs and Jains. Working at the Gandhi Ashram provided additional insight.
“You would think it was just a home for Hindus, but it was so welcoming to everyone. They’ll go out to a random sidewalk and the streets kids will all gather and they’ll take a class for about an hour, break up and leave. Then, they’ll go to another street corner and do the same thing.”
In addition to traveling throughout India, including the state of Goa, she visited Chennai, Singapore and Malaysia. “For the most part, people are very open, caring and welcoming, even to a stranger – as long as you’re open and willing to hear them out, and not necessarily imposing your own ideas. That was very eye opening to this young college student; that maybe I’m not always right.”
After returning to the states, her Guatemalan roommate from her time in India heard a story on NPR about sex workers in Guatemala who started a soccer team to raise awareness about issues they were facing with violence not only from clients, but police and the government. In other words, they wanted to kick some balls both literally and figuratively.
“But nobody wanted to play with them, claiming the women all had HIV or AIDS. One of the women they interviewed was 44 years old and had six kids. She said the biggest regret she had in life was that she had never learned to read or write. That was sad to me and my friend. We take it for granted in a first world country. So, after graduation, we moved to Guatemala to help.”
They immediately learned that the women prefer the term “sex workers,” because they have chosen the field, as opposed to “prostitutes” which refers to those who are obligated, overseen or forced into the profession. “Sex worker is a term of empowerment, so they aren’t seen as victims, but as independent women who can rise above any issues that come their way and make a path for themselves.
“I also learned that many people are going there preaching to them about what they should be doing. I realized that if I did that, I was going to get nowhere. I decided to spend more time listening than talking. I ended up getting so much further than other organizations.”
The women advised that they didn’t have a “safe place” to learn to read and write, so Torres taught them in their rooms in the red light district. The women decided whose room would be used as a classroom on any given day. “We realized that when we gave them the power to call the shots, things started to snowball. We talked to the Department of Education and received the certified books necessary for graduation and a official degrees saying they completed sixth grade level or K-3. As that program grew, we received funding and a center where we got computers and they took computer classes, and then we got a beauty instructor who taught them how to become a beautician and then they became certified for that. And some became instructors as well.”
The women also learned math, economics and how to start a union. “This one woman realized, ‘We currently have to cover the costs for a condom when a client comes in, and that’s not fair. If I charge them for it, then they’ll just go next door.’ So, she unionized everyone in that whole area, which is over 300 women. She said, ‘We’re not going to do that anymore. If they don’t want to use a condom, we’re not going to give them services and if they don’t want to pay for it, then we’re not going to give them services.’”
Torres and her friend tagged along as the women visited brothels for health related issues and for education. “One of the women made me the godmother to her daughter – Stephanie – who just turned five. I still visit whenever I can.
“The red light district is overseen by gangs. I was so naïve. I just wandered in, hung out with them. It wasn’t until maybe two years after the fact that I learned gang members actually knew who I was, who I visited, followed my schedule; knew everything about me. But because I wasn’t a threat, it wasn’t an issue. But, looking back, I think, ‘That was really stupid of me.’”
Torres and her friend created the non-profit MuJER – a Spanish acronym. In English, it means Women For Justice, Education and Awareness. It offers free literacy and vocational classes to women sex workers. It helps them find their voice, discover what they’re good at and figure out what path they want to take in life.
Torres returned to the States after realizing she lacked the necessary knowledge for creating a nonprofit and received a Master’s degree in Non-Profit Management from NYU.
Her friend remained in Guatemala for several more years, continuing to expand the organization. She was also a force behind legislative and policy work to change laws around sex workers and women’s rights and is now attending law school to further her education so she can assist on a stronger level when she returns.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” says Torres. “I’m still on the Board of Directors and call them regularly, Skype with them and Facebook chat. I’m still very much a part of their lives, which is great.”
She currently works at Uptown Studios – a design and marketing firm in Sacramento – as the project manager. The job’s biggest appeal is the owner, Tina Reynolds, who donates more than $5,000 in services every month to nonprofits. “That’s what sold me. I might not always be able to move to a third world country and start a nonprofit, but maybe I can help nonprofits locally. You can give other people the tools, which is what I loved about Guatemala. I wasn’t necessarily the one calling the shots, but I was giving people the tools needed to call the shots.”
Torres’ recent travel adventure was to Brazil where she attended three World Cup games, including Honduras-Ecuador. “I couldn’t get tickets for the Mexico or U.S. games, but to see the Latino environment was amazing. The stadium just shook with excitement.
“One of my last days in Rio, Brazil was playing and everything shut down; no open stores, no taxis on the street. We were on the beach and luckily there was a little vendor who had a television set so everyone crowded around him. Anytime that Brazil made a goal, you could hear the entire city screaming with joy. Otherwise, it was dead silence, no cars on the road.”
On her travel “to-do” list are the Latin American pyramids. She’s crossed off most of the ones in Guatemala and Mexico. Next up is Machu Picchu.
“I decided that every year for my birthday I’ll do something new. At a luncheon honoring women in business, Sally Edwards (who was being honored) shared a motto on how she lives her life: ‘When’s the last time that you did something for the first time?’ I’m stealing that.”