In Corona, Queens, a group of Latinas meet every day for aerobic dance classes. Most of the women are undocumented and speak little English. Many are mothers.
But the group of about 25 women have been doing more than dancing. They’ve also become activists in their community. Eager for the introduction of a new bike lane in their neighborhood, they’ve been attending town halls and community board meetings, learning about their rights and how to advocate for better policies.
“That’s precisely what we’re doing here, getting people a chance to get involved,” the group’s founder and workshop leader, Veronica Ramirez, 38, said. The group, called Mujeres en Movimiento, is trying to close a gap between undocumented communities and civic life, where English language skills can be a barrier for entry.
Corona’s population is 74 percent Latino, according to 2010 Census data. Many are undocumented.
The group hasn’t succeeded in getting the proposed lane approved. Members of Community Board 4, which includes Elmhurst and Corona, oppose the lane which would run for half a mile along 111th Street, part of a larger safety redesign of a road heavily used by immigrant cyclists. “Coming to these meetings is their civic responsibility,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez immigrated from Mexico 19 years ago, and works full time as a cleaner. In the past she’s worked odd jobs, including babysitting.
In March 2011, she started visiting Immigrant Movement International, a community space on Roosevelt Avenue in Corona, where her daughter was taking music lessons. She noticed that the space was soliciting ideas for classes. Still recovering emotionally from losing a baby in childbirth, she thought dance and exercise were what she needed.
“I wanted to exercise because I was so depressed with my loss,” Ramirez said. She didn’t have money to pay for working out in a gym, and she liked that IMI was a space that treated women differently than what she was used to.
“I was thinking of how we are programmed to be housewives, moms, and caretakers,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez spread the word about her new exercise class by telling other parents at her daughter’s school. But on the first day of her dance class in March 2012, no one showed up.
The next four scheduled classes were the same, she says, with no one in attendance but Ramirez, equipment in tow. “I was here all by myself with everything ready to go,” Ramirez recalled, laughing.
Eventually, though, women started showing up. Ramirez decided to call the group Mujeres en Movimiento or “Women in Movement,” a nod to the space that hosts them, and refers to the women as compañeras. [Camila Cibils interviewed some of the women of Mujeres en Movimiento in the video above, which refers to the group by an alternate name in English: Women in Motion. Ramirez says she prefers Women in Movement, however.]
Ramirez was born in Puebla, Mexico, where she was used to biking. But when she came to New York, she lost confidence in herself as a biker. “I started to lose faith in being a bike-rider,” she said. “I started telling myself that’s for younger kids.”
Supporting a new bike lane
A year and a half into the founding of Mujeres en Movimiento, in late 2013, a group called WE Bike NYC that promotes “Women’s Empowerment Through Bicycling” brought a series of bicycle maintenance workshops to IMI. WE Bike’s program granted a free bicycle after 10 workshops, which was a motivator for Ramirez. She took her first bike-ride since moving to NYC, cycling around Flushing Meadows Corona Park. She started to get her confidence back, and the other women in Mujeres en Movimiento followed her lead.
“From that moment forward, we started to come together for more bike-riding together around the community,” she said. Since then, the group has done the Tour de Bronx three times, and three of them did the 40-mile TD Five Boro Bike Tour together.
In 2014, Ramirez took over WE Bike NYC workshops when an instructor was offered a job in Seattle. By the summer of 2015, Ramirez was holding her own five-workshop series on the basics of bike mechanics.
Jose Serrano, 36, works as a community organizer for the Queens Museum inside Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and acts as an unofficial advisor to Mujeres en Movimiento. He thinks community members who are opposed to the Department of Transportation’s redesign – which has numerous changes to improve safety, as well as a bike lane – felt left out of the conversation at first, but feels it’s important that the community board listen to Mujeres en Movimiento.
“It isn’t easy to see things from the perspectives of others, but for the women that we’re supporting, their perspective is that they have really young kids who cross that street every day,” Serrano said. Some accidents that have occurred on 111th Street may not have been recorded because the victims were undocumented and afraid to report the incidents.
“There’s definitely a kind of general behavior in this community when it deals with official government agencies that it seems that people are fearful,” Serrano said.
Francisco Moya, the Assembly member who represents Corona, has been one of the most vocal opponents to the proposed bike lane on 111th Street. Moya, as well as members of the local community board and some business leaders, claim the bike plan would cause congestion.
At a town hall hosted by Moya in October, Moya took the women aside, they say, and briefly addressed them in Spanish, then addressed the crowd in English. The women felt Moya had brushed them off.
“We came away with the sense that we weren’t really being heard, we felt like we weren’t really even supposed to feel welcome,” Ramirez said. “He’s an Assembly person, we’re a group of concerned mothers in the community, there was not a sense that the sense of safety was important.”
Assembly member Moya’s office did not respond to questions for this article.
Ramirez said that hosting bilingual meetings would be helpful. “It would be a huge thing for people’s participation in this place, it doesn’t have to be a fully bilingual event, it could be that we have an interpreter who shares what’s being discussed,” Ramirez said.
Adonia Lugo, an urban anthropologist who co-founded LA’s bike festival CicLAvia and teaches at the Urban Sustainability program at Antioch University, said it is not unusual for immigrant women like those in Mujeres en Movimiento to support bicycle advocacy. Yet her own experiences, she said, have left her feeling that bike advocacy is an exclusionary space and many advocates are “not open to concerns about people who are not like them.”
One problem is that bike activism often centers around bicycling as a choice, Lugo said, but this perspective doesn’t factor in lower-income people, for whom bikes may be the only affordable form of transport available.
Do Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center who has studied immigrant bicyclists in the city, agrees that bike policy and activism is overwhelmingly white and doesn’t always reflect bicyclists. Lee says that in 2008 the Department of Transportation used an English-only online survey to gauge bicycle use in the city, which he felt did not reflect the large community of Latino immigrant bicyclists.
“You’re obviously going to skew it towards a certain demographic and it’s not going to be representative at all,” Lee said. He believes there is a hesitance to include working-class immigrants in bicycle policy, both at the city level and among bike activists, because they aren’t seen as policy experts.
Silvia Juliana Mantilla Ortiz, the Corona organizer at Immigrant Movement International, believes community board meetings and town halls could make immigrant groups like Mujeres en Movimiento more welcome.
‘A kind of awakening’
But members of Mujeres en Movimiento continue to try to forge a path to greater civic engagement within their communities.
“I’ve been learning about my rights, that my immigration status doesn’t define me,” said Valeria Librada, a mother who regularly attends Mujeres en Movimiento’s workshops.
Librada said that when she first came to Mujeres en Movimiento, she was depressed. Soon after joining, she was regularly participating in dance classes and attending different marches with the group, including a march against domestic violence.
Eventually, she joined the community council at IMI, and this gave her confidence to be more involved in her daughter’s schooling.
“Before I was also afraid to speak up or participate in the school of my daughters. Now I’m active and I participate in the PTA,” Librada said through an interpreter.
Mujeres en Movimiento has been invited by City Council member Julissa Ferreras to be part of an advisory board, along with about 40 other groups, for the Flushing Meadows Corona Park Alliance, a nonprofit that will support the upkeep of the park, which has a large Spanish-speaking population.
Ramirez said that while Mujeres en Movimiento began because many women in the community wanted a form of exercise, its scope has grown. “There’s also a kind of awakening,” Ramirez said, “where we see ourselves as an important part of the community.”