By Joel Zapata
Cecilia Rodriguez was born and grew up in El Paso, Texas and is a second generation American. She has dedicated her life to social justice. She has focused her work to advocate for the human and civil rights of Mexican immigrant and Mexican-American women. Aware of discrimination and injustice Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans have faced in the United States, she worked for social justice from a young age.
As a child, Cecilia Rodriguez was punished for speaking Spanish in her school. She was attending school in El Paso in the 1970s when a judge ruled that local schools had historically practiced segregation against Mexican-Americans. She knew Mexican-Americans, and all Latinos, were treated unfairly not only in her hometown but nationwide. She wrote about this unfair treatment for her high school newspaper, but her writing was banned by the school administration. However, Mexican-American students at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) published her work in the university newspaper. When Cecilia Rodriguez started college, she joined groups like the Movimiento Estudiantil De Aztlan (A Chicano student civil rights group). In college, she protested for Mexican-American’s housing rights and labor rights. Then in 1977 she moved to the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas to write a newsletter for a local TV station. There she worked for the rights of farm workers and autoworkers in Brownsville, Texas.
Returning to her hometown in the 1980s, Cecilia Rodriguez helped organize La Mujer Obrera (The Woman Worker) in 1981. La Mujer Obrera is a workers’ advocacy group that began working for the rights and fair treatment of garment workers along the border. The group has since advocated for the civil and human rights of all women workers along the U.S. Mexico border and beyond. Cecilia Rodriguez helped fund La Mujer Obrera because she saw women in dangerous work conditions while being paid little. Sometimes garment factories withheld women’s wages. Meaning, women were not paid at all. Cecilia Rodriguez, along with other women of La Mujer Obrera, organized two hunger strikes that pressured the government to investigate women’s unpaid wages. Because of the hunger strikes it soon became a major crime in Texas not to pay workers their earned wages. The hunger strikes also helped workers get holidays off work.
More so, Cecilia Rodriguez led La Mujer Obrera in providing women on the border with free health screenings. Another program she helped start with La Mujer Obrera was a literacy program for illiterate women, or women who did not know how to read and write. Cecilia Rodriguez also helped start programs to aid women with immigration issues and programs to prevent them from becoming homeless. Much like she did in high school, Cecilia Rodriguez wrote articles for a worker’s newspaper that she and her husband handed out in garment factories. Most importantly though, La Mujer Obrera, led by Cecilia Rodriguez, worked to include Mexican-American women in the political process. She helped open doors for Latinas to become stronger in their families and their communities. She helped women become strong role models for future Latino generations.
Cecilia Rodriguez’s work goes beyond the United States. In 1994, she was invited to the Mexican state of Chiapas to aid Indigenous people with land problems. The problem was that Indigenous people in Chiapas had their land taken away by unfair government moves. Their land now belonged to a few rich individuals. While in Chiapas as a human rights advocate, she was raped by men who wanted her to stop fighting for social justice in Chiapas. Cecilia Rodriguez responded by making her attack public. She said, “I will not shut up, I will not stop my work or travel to Chiapas or my work in the United States.” She continued to organize health and educational projects in Chiapas for years.
In 2001, Cecilia Rodriguez moved to California to find a new way to serve others. She entered John F. Kennedy University and earned a master’s degree in transpersonal psychology. Presently she works as a family and marriage counselor in California and has focused her work on low income individuals. She continues to speak for civil and human rights. She blogs about her experiences as a Mexican-American woman and about injustices people face. She continues to push for immigration rights, environmental responsibility, workers’ rights and women’s rights—especially Latinas’ rights. Cecilia Rodriguez works for a more just and fair world.