Granny Gangbusters

Church and civic leaders in Salinas have turned to a new team of experts to combat gang violence. Eliot Ness and the Untouchables they’re not. You won’t find them riding shotgun in squad cars on patrol, either. So who exactly are they? The abuelitas.

Abuelita is a term of endearment for grandmother in Spanish. Now the grandmothers of Salinas are being asked to use their influence within extended families and the larger community to inspire youth to end gang activity. To help launch the program, Bishop Richard Garcia of the Monterey Diocese and Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue turned to SCU’s Sister Ana María Pineda, R.S.M.

Pineda, who was born in El Salvador, joined the Santa Clara University faculty in 1997 and teaches courses on Hispanic spirituality and theology. She is also past director of the Graduate Program in Pastoral Ministries. This summer, Pineda was honored by the Mexican American Community Services Agency for being one of the 100 Most Influential Latinos of Silicon Valley. SCU colleague Francisco Jiménez, professor of modern languages and literatures, was honored as well. They were two of only 10 educators so recognized.

For the inaugural abuelitas workshop this past July at the Church of St. Mary of the Nativity in east Salinas, Pineda served as facilitator and delivered the keynote address—with the goal of inspiring her audience and reminding the grandmothers that they could be a powerful force in curtailing gangs.

Fractured families

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Someone to look up to: a Salinas woman attending the first abuelitas workshop Photo: Kevin Drabinski

The Salinas Valley has been afflicted with gang violence for decades, and today the issue is frequently met with feelings of cynicism and fear. Salinas’s agricultural-based economy attracts a large number of migrant workers who are often forced to separate for work. These fractured families can make children feel torn between cultures, isolated, and often lacking in direct supervision—ingredients that can easily lead youth to join a gang.

The Observer, the newsletter of the diocese of Monterey, reported that dozens attended the first abuelitas workshop—most of them who either knew a gang member or someone killed as a result of gang violence. Grandmothers frequently fill the space left by an absent parent, becoming primary caregivers and keeping families together.
“Women often provide knowledge of cultural identity,” Pineda says. “In the Latino community especially, grandmothers pass on to their children and grandchildren religious and cultural traditions.”

In preparing for the workshop, Pineda spoke with Santa Clara students from her courses. They told her that some powerful examples she had shared with them seemed to offer lessons here, too: stories of women who, in the face of intolerable oppression and violence, found creative ways to turn the tide. Among them: the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina—whose children were “disappeared” under the dictatorship between 1976-83.

In Salinas, Pineda asked her audience to find ways they can make who they are and what they believe in a force for greater good. The abuelitas drew inspiration from each other, brainstorming ways to set strong examples—be it leading a drug-free life, praying, encouraging involvement in sports and groups like Boy Scouts, or working to provide each child in the city with a library card and supporting reading. And they left with a stronger sense of affecting change within their community—with more gatherings planned.

So where did the idea of tapping the abuelitas originate? Bishop Garcia said he was inspired by conversations with prison inmates about the positive role that grandmothers played in their lives.

As for asking the abuelitas to step up, Pineda offers a counter to the old adage that you’re never too old to learn. “You’re never too old to educate someone,” she says. —EE

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Seeing the future: a woman and child at the Salinas meeting Photo: Kevin Drabinski
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