- By Elisabeth Román
Many years ago, in the tiny town of Yásica located in the Puerto Plata Province of the Dominican Republic, a little girl went from home-to-home, holding her grandmother’s hand, inviting and convincing family and neighbors that it was time to unite for a good cause. As Ana María grew older, every summer she and her siblings were sent to the Dominican Republic to escape the Bronx, where she spent time honing her community organizing skills. Only now she would stand at the entrance of Yásica’s homes, since most had no doors, and tell neighbors: “Abuelita is having a meeting,” and they would come. Whether it was to get a speed bump in the barrio, after a child was injured due to the growing number of motor vehicles, or deciding whether or not there would be Mass on Sunday, Ana María García-Ashley’s grandmother was not only the family’s matriarch, she was Yásica’s foremost community organizer.
“My grandmother taught me that community organizing is Catholic. She always said, ‘being a Catholic is what you are, so you have to fight for your neighbors, call out injustices, question everything, and not just stand by when you see oppression.’ At times it is a heavy burden, because you always have to be standing up and protesting,” García-Ashley said. “I can’t remember how many protests I’ve attended and how many times I’ve been arrested.”
Political unrest, instability, and conflict in her native country led the family to migrate to the South Bronx when she was a young girl. “I always joke that we left a war zone to live in public housing in the South Bronx. Apparently my parents were unaware of what was going on there, but it was their way of saying the Dominican Republic is no longer a good place to raise six kids. My parents moved first and the kids were divided up among relatives. It was years before we lived together again as a family.”
It’s no surprise the little girl would grow up to become a national community organizer and the executive director of the Gamaliel Foundation, a grassroots network of non-partisan, faith-based organizations that fights for equality and social justice, and prepares leaders to embrace these struggles.
So how did her grandmother control Sunday Mass? She held the only key to the church door and would let the priest in. “I thought it was nice that the priest would come Sunday mornings, sometimes by horse—we didn’t have our own pastor—to celebrate Mass. My grandmother and I would have conversations with the priest, she would feed him breakfast, but sometimes there would be no Mass, which is something I never understood,” García-Ashley said. “l learned later that if my grandmother didn’t like what the priest was going to say in his homily that Sunday, she would not open the door to the church. In essence, she controlled the message, because there was only one key to the church. To me that was inspirational. I figured that in life all I had to be was a little like my grandmother and my life would be complete. Without a doubt this is what I was born to do.”
What heroes or heroines have you had in your life?
Who inspires you for your life journey?