Mujeres of the Northwest:
That’s the unlikely word that Rosa Castillo-Romero, irresistibly dressed in a long, flowing coat and a black felt hat perched on her head, uses to describe her feelings as a Latina in Seattle. Walking into her vibrant art gallery Isis on First, I notice the colors dance off the canvases in her small corner shop, the air filled with tantalizing music and the soft Columbian lilt in her voice. “It’s surprising how many people think that Latinas just arrived in the Pacific Northwest,” she says. “We’ve been here for hundreds of years, making important contributions to our communities. Yet, for so many of us, especially professional Latina women, we’re the unknown factor.”
That limited understanding of the Latina culture inspired Mujeres (Women) of the Northwest. Originally the dream of Maria De Lourdes Victoria Muguira, Mujeres has expanded to include almost 30 Latina and Hispanic women — women who found it difficult to find support and fellowship in the Pacific Northwest. Born in Veracruz, Mexico, Maria Victoria has lived in Washington since 1978. A lawyer and writer, she was a finalist for the Mariposa Book Award, Best First Novel in Spanish for Les Dejo el Mar. Still, she found herself yearning for a community of like-minded women and found it difficult to connect with other Latinas in the Seattle area. She wasn’t alone.
Castillo-Romero, known as “Rosita” in her ever-expanding circle of friends, understands that isolation all too well. An educator, business owner, activist and recently appointed member of the State Arts Commission, she says that claiming her place in society is a right that was instilled in her at a young age.
Born in Columbia, Castillo-Romero was raised by her strong-willed paternal grandmother, learning to be an advocate for her family at an early age. “I was very outspoken,” she laughs, “a real product of the ‘60s. Very anti-macho, and sometimes that caused problems!” She credits her grandmother for teaching her that she had a right to be active in her community, a right to be a part of society. She says those ideals live on in her work in Seattle and in the role she continues to play as a mentor for her two daughters, as well as her female relatives still living in Columbia.
THE DREAM BEGINS
But the Columbia of 1976 proved to be a very dangerous place for the Romero family. Having become a Montessori-certified educator, she returned to open a school while her husband began his private psychiatry practice. They became increasingly cautious as people throughout Columbia began disappearing due to the ongoing drug cartel wars and the government’s forceful response. When her husband was unlawfully detained, they made the decision to return to the United States, moving to Seattle in 1982.
Castillo-Romero returned to school and earned a Master of Education degree from the University of Washington, with an emphasis in early education. She’s an outspoken proponent of early childhood education and believes our system of education fails in that aspect. “Our education system can be so contradictory to what human beings need,” she states. “We tend not to see education as a base; instead we see it as the goal. I wanted children to see their options, to have new experiences. Those experiences cause you to discover something totally new and exciting.”
She went on to become a teacher-trainer at several local community colleges, and continued to instill a passion for early childhood education in her students until 1995. “At 50, I wanted something new, something different,” she explains with a smile. “Art excited me — and my gallery came out of that love.”
Opening her gallery in downtown Seattle, Castillo-Romero showcased local artists as well as a few select international artists. She was prepared to work hard — what she wasn’t prepared for was the inability of the public to recognize her as the director of her gallery. “It happened frequently; a patron would enter the gallery, look at the canvases and then ask me if the owner was due to come in. It surprised me at first,” she continues, “and then I realized they didn’t see it possible that a Latina could be the owner.” That inability to view Latinas as professional, gifted members of the community moved her to action.
“Maria Victoria was working on her novel, Les Dejo el Mar, and mentioned to some of us that she felt very isolated during the process,” Castillo-Romero remembers. “She, Nancy ‘Rusty’ Barceló, the former vice president of minority affairs at the University of Washington, Dr. Diana Lindner, and other Latina women began a discussion on the difficulties and loneliness that occurs when you’re the ‘first one’ to reach a goal. Twelve of us got together and began to consider Mujeres as a possibility.”
For over a year, the core team met to discuss and plan the
mission of the group — and once bylaws were created, a retreat was
conducted to finalize the hopes and dreams of the organization. “We
needed to understand how to support one another — and how to keep
the initial excitement alive,” Castillo-Romero says. “These
are successful women, already involved in their communities; we wanted
to establish a way for them to gain support for their dreams.”
Completing her residency in Pediatrics and her fellowship in Pediatric Endocrinology at the UW, she practiced at Group Health Cooperative for 30 years. Now working at the Eastgate Public Health Clinic in Bellevue part-time, she believes she’s the first bilingual and bicultural pediatrician that many of her clients have ever met. “This area of Bellevue, contrary to common belief, has large pockets of poverty and many unmet needs from a large immigrant population,” Lindner explains. “It’s so important to me to assist these children in making the best adjustment possible to their new life in North America.”
Her belief that pediatricians have a unique role in the community led Lindner to volunteer at Lake Hills Elementary School in Bellevue as a member of the Getting School Ready team (GSR). Aiming to build relationships among families, child care providers and schools to boost children’s confidence and learning, the GSR implements neighborhood-specific strategies to enhance early literacy and reduce non-academic barriers to early learning (language and translation). This dedication to the children of “her” community makes Mujeres an important part of Lindner’s vision for the future.
“Our core belief in Mujeres is that there should be a voice for Latina/Hispanic/Indigenous American women,” she says. “We come together to network for our not-for-profit projects; we share our stories, keep our ties to our homelands, foster a circle of trust, and seek each other’s advice. We also have fun!”
Castillo-Romero agrees, adding that the monthly meetings of Mujeres take place in members’ homes throughout the Seattle area. “We cook, drink wine, tell stories, listen to each other,” she laughs. “When our group started to grow, we thought about moving to a separate location — away from members’ homes — but everyone wanted to stay in this format. We love the feeling it creates as we enjoy each other’s successes.” While conversations flow between English and Spanish during the meetings and all members are encouraged to invite prospective guests from throughout the community, the bylaws created by Mujeres require that 90 percent of the board be Latina. The mission statement adopted by their board is clear: The purpose of Mujeres is to unite so that our voices will be heard in all communities of the state of Washington.
Recently Mujeres members assisted NARAL in their outreach program to Latina women, which had been a difficult undertaking in the past. The “Viva La Musica Club,” which hosts almost 30 patrons at the Seattle Symphony, began as Castillo-Romero’s answer to a request from symphony directors for ways to reach the Hispanic community. Mujeres members established the first Latina Guild (Latinos Unidos por los Niños) at Children’s Hospital, with the goal of establishing a $50,000 endowment to be used as emergency assistance for families with children in treatment at the facility. “These families are the poorest of our poor,” says Castillo-Romero. “Many of these children die and their families can’t even afford funeral costs.”
Dr. Diana Lindner understands that strong communities create children who will thrive; she believes that Mujeres offers that same system for Latina women who seek a supportive community for their dreams. “We attend readings from new works by Latina writers and poets,” she says. “In the future we may become more active in civic involvement through education and by electing people who will contribute to our causes.” Castillo-Romero sees those days nearing. Her hope as a member of the State Arts Commission is to understand how the commission works and to pass it on to Latina artists. “We can increase funding for our projects and help support our artists,” she explains. “But most of all…we can help people see us for who we are. Smart, creative, capable women.”
Leaving her gallery on a cold, blustery day in November, Rosita Castillo-Romero answers a call on her cell phone and breaks into laughter as she banters in English and Spanish. It’s hard to imagine that these women — these Mujeres of the Northwest — will remain invisible or unknown for very long.
©2007 Caliope Publishing Company
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