I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. My father left for the United States when I was 7 years old. From the time I was 6 years old (that I can remember), I was subjected to sexual abuse by my uncle and other people who were close to my family. The physical part of the sexual abuse continued until I was 15. At 21, I immigrated to New York City to join my father, brothers and sisters.
Up to that point, my main focus in life was to survive. I did not know myself. I only knew of my troubles. The greatest expectation I had for myself was to get through another day without being sexually assaulted by my uncle.
Before I got to New York, all I knew was that my name was Marcia Olivo and that I was Dominican. My entire life experience was shaped by the Dominican Republic. I had little sense of American culture, politics or the reality of race in America. I remember arriving at Kennedy Airport and as part of the immigration process, I was asked to fill out a lengthy document. On this document, I was asked to state my nationality and ethnicity.
I did not know the meaning of the words “ethnic group.” After all, how I defined myself was by my name and nationality: “Marcia Olivo, born and raised in the Dominican Republic.” As a new immigrant, I faced a long bureaucratic process which included adaptation and acculturation, filing for Social Security, learning English and job searching.
I lived with my family in small apartments in the Bronx and Washington Heights. I went back to school, and I made friends. When I was 21, I joined a group of poets in the Bronx. One day, while in a meeting, a colleague was making a presentation on the Latin American diaspora in New York City. In her presentation, she referred to all the women as “women of color.” This caused a lot of confusion for me, as it was the first time I heard that term “of color.” Living in the Dominican Republic, I never had any thoughts on the color of my skin as something that defined me.
In the Republic, I was neither white nor Black. The term used to describe me was “India Clara,” a light skinned Indian. This classification was almost white among others. In the Dominican Republic, the worst thing you could be was Black, which even if you were of long Dominican descent, was designated for Haitians only.
There is a long history between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Although the two nations, share the same island and much of the same history, the consciousness that exists is that of two different worlds. Haitians are mostly Black, are largely immigrant farmworkers and in the Dominican Republic, are considered by many the lowest of the Dominican social order.
My arrival in New York made me confront the reality of my own racial history. Here I learned about my African descent. I never thought of myself as Black before. I learned what it meant to be an immigrant. And as a survivor of sexual and physical violence that did not speak English fluently, I had to learn to overcome my barriers to fully being a part of the new society of which I now belonged.
The most important thing I learned in this process was understanding that this new reality offered me two options: Either succumb to oppression involving the above identities or take them on with pride and courage. I chose the latter. By embracing these multiple identities, I developed the clarity and understanding to fight against the multiple systems of racism/white supremacy, patriarchy and gender violence and the structural oppression against immigrant workers. I learned to both institutionally and individually take on the roots of what had impacted me, tackle roadblocks and live to my full potential.
In my early days in New York, I worked on several general issues such as labor exploitation, low wages and the constant attacks against the rights and dignity of workers for example. What I found interesting was that in relation to the general employees, there were always groups that also suffered sexual harassment, verbal abuse and teased because of their gender, race and immigration status.
Within two years of arriving in the United States, I began to work as a community organizer. The organization with which I worked only focused on public education and it constantly had internal problems among the membership of the organization. Although very few men were active within the membership, several of the active women usually succumbed to the male power within the organization.
Constantly, as a female member once said: “We do all the work for them to look good.” Over time, I realized this was not the fault of the members directly but that the organization itself did not have an operating system to address gender differences internally or in the community at large.
I experienced the lack of systemic gender analysis and action directly. In my second job as a community organizer in New York, I was a victim of sexual harassment at the organization. When I complained to the head of the organization, I was told that the people involved are “important” to the organization. The head of the organization suggested that I get use to the behavior because “you are a very beautiful woman and that’s going to happen all the time.”
Years later, I moved to Florida to be with my life partner where I continued to work as a community organizer. There was very little happening in terms of social justice movements when I first moved here. There were only the unions and some social service organizations but very few organizations with a progressive vision of doing socially-centered work. In recent years, the movement for social, economic and racial justice has grown.
However, there is still a lack of gender focus in the development goals and victories of these movements. There is still a lacking gender analysis that recognizes the differences in roles among women, men and transgender people in society, the differences between the positions of power and opportunities assigned by society to each one of those groups and the needs of each group and how their differences impact the lives of everyone.
Four years ago, along with a co-worker, I founded Sisterhood of Survivors (SOS), an organization run by survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. The mission of SOS is to empower survivors to organize and raise consciousness for systemic and social change to end violence against women.
The organization has focused its work on the need for people directly affected to be part of the decision-making process and to be clear on how gender, class and race differences impact the decisions made. Despite the lack of financial support, our greatest achievements with SOS is reflected in the leadership development of our members who are focused on a campaign to ensure that Florida recognizes domestic violence as a just cause to qualify for unemployment insurance when the victim has to leave her job to protect her life.
However, beyond just the issues facing survivors of domestic violence, SOS and my work has started to become more broadly involved with the social justice movement in Florida. With the rising incidents of sexual assault and gender discrimination in South Florida, I have been called to help facilitate and establish processes and protocols within movement organizations and leaders. Hopefully, this process leads toward a transformation in the way that social justice organizations deal with gender issues within their organizations, staff and membership.
My hard work and many accomplishments with SOS has helped me to be chosen to be a participant in the second cohort of the Move to End Violence, a program of the NoVo Foundation.
In the first meeting of Cohort 2, I was asked what is my inspiration or reason for doing the work I do, I answered: “I am inspired by the Members of Sisterhood of Survivors.”
One of the major impacts so far this experience has had on my participation in the second cohort is that it has made me think more about my work, including my motives, learning, experiences, expectations and vision. After the first meeting with my group, I kept thinking more about what inspires and motivates me and the reasons I am a part of the movement to end violence against women and girls.
I’ve realized that my motives were born with me as a result of me being born a woman. The development of my motives has been determined and impacted by social behavior, individual and institutional.
As a woman, I’ve been given roles and have had expectations set for me that have created unequal conditions in the social structure of our society. In addition, my being an immigrant Latina meant that my path was anchored in multiple realities.
But at the center of it all is my being a woman, and it is from that centrality that I do my work, understand my world and do my part to transform it.
Marcia Olivo, a community organizer and advocate for domestic violence survivors, is the gender justice coordinator for the Miami Workers Center. The South Florida organization supports low-income communities of color. This blog post first appeared on the Miami Workers Center website.