Leti Alvarez

As Interviewed by Madeline Jones, March 18, 2012

Leti Alvarez: In Her Own Words

My name is Leti Alvarez and I was born in Mexico City, and I moved here when I was eleven years old, so it was a little different back then. I was a little bit in Ohio, and then I moved to Austin so Iíve been in Austin for over twenty years, aside from college. But when I moved here, it was a different Austin than it is now and I came from a kind of middle-upper class family in Mexico. My father worked for the embassy, and being white-skinned you know, I was different than the kids who were darker skin colored, back in the 70s. People didnít know that I spoke Spanish because I looked like a white girl.

I wasnít discriminated against because, like I said, people thought that I was white and that I didnít speak Spanish. But I would hear them speaking to the other kids, and this was in a time when we didnít embrace bilingual and dual languages like we do now. Now thereís campuses that are dual, and people take their kids there from across town so they can learn two or three languages. But back then they wanted you to just choose English. In fact, funny story, when we moved here, my mom tried to enroll me in St. Ignatius Parochial school, because almost everybody that can in Mexico goes to private school because the public schools arenít very good. Well the nuns didnít accept me because I didnít speak English yet, so the nuns actually shunned me. My mom was appalled because, you know, itís a Catholic school, and theyíre like ďNo, she doesnít speak English yetĒ and they didnít want to mess with me. So then my mom put in me Travis Heights Elementary School, and by the end of one year I was reading, you know to the little ones.

Because I did come from Mexico, which is a very poor developing country, itís emerging, itís not the same as Madagascar or Africa or Asia, but nonetheless, itís poor, and people donít have the same opportunities. So ever since I was young, I had the passion to help those who donít have as great a voice as I do, so to speak, who donít have the same opportunities. Itís always been in my heart, and Iíve done that either as a volunteer, or a worker, since I was thirteen years old. Iím from Mexico, which is a poor country, but yet I looked like a white girl in South Austin, well I came from the middle upper-class in Mexico. I mean I had a maid and so forth, and you go to private schools if you can and have a housekeeper. And then I come here, and itís so different, so many people didnít have the same opportunities, or they were discriminated against because their skin was brown.

And we say that theyíre taking jobs because theyíre crossing over here. I was legal the whole time. Not everybody is, but nonetheless theyíre still contributing to society. Theyíre the ones doing the jobs no one else wants; theyíre scrubbing toilets, they are washing dishes. And you know people will scream, ďTheyíre taking our jobs,Ē but those are the jobs that no one wants at minimum wage. Itís just kind of hypocritical. That theyíre going so far as discrimination like fences, IDing, profiling because of their skin color and then being hypocritical and using them for cheap labor, in construction, in restaurants. So all that I saw as I was growing up, but I wasnít directly discriminated against, except for the language barrier at first. And I just took it upon myself to do nonprofit work for people that couldnít. They just donít have the resources.

In 2006, I went and did two and a half year stint through the Peace Corps. I was there for over two and a half years, I ended up extending to almost three years because I liked it so much. I got placed in Madagascar, working in environmental education and conservation in the rainforests of Madagascar. I was placed in a tiny village, that was accessible only by boat, deep in the rainforest of Madagascar. And you had to take a dugout canoe there. There was one public boat a day. And my title was community liaison, between the forest people and my professional partner was the Wildlife Conservation Society, and I also had a farmer that I partnered with in the village. So I was there to try to teach them sustainable livelihood skills such as enhanced farming, rice farming, maybe poultry raising. In addition to that I created an environmental club, that was middle and high school students, and they rocked my environmental club so much. I taught them all about why their forest was so important to the environment and to their livelihood.

Madagascar has a huge biodiversity of animals, but they donít know about it. I taught them not to kill the lemurs or chop down the trees because sometimes they saw it as a food source or money. Now I do believe in breakfast before conservation because if youíre starving or your familyís starving your first priority is to feed your family, not worry about whether a little lemur is cute. So these kids who were fourteen and fifteen years old learned how to make money off their land without chopping it down or using lemurs for food. So that maybe the next generation would be a little more understanding. I was trying to build up tourism as well, so that they could make money from it.

My job was very large in encompassing health and hygiene. These children donít own as much as a toothbrush, and they come from a very poor village. So along with the environmental club that I trained and taught lessons to, they would go and walk to another village, sometimes for a whole day, and they would teach health and hygiene and we would give everyone toothbrushes. They would brush their teeth, most for the first time, ever. Then we would make a healthy meal that would have vitamins in it, using local produce, just something that came out of the forest. There were no stores, no running water, no electricity, so what we take for granted isnít there, you have to teach the very basics. It was exciting.

So I think itís more us, not just the U.S. but other developing strong countries, that may exploit the poorer countries, by going over there and mining, you know for the little components of phones, tablets, computers, even for making clothes. Weíre the ones that donít treat them fairly because of the demand for all that here, then weíre gonna use cheap labor over there sometimes in unsafe conditions for them, that can cause them to get sick, or mining can cause accidents that are kind of covered up by large corporations. And they see it as a job and an opportunity, but sometimes itís not the best. So Iím real careful about everything that I put in my mouth and on my body. And itís really hard in this world that we live in because that happens so much, so much of your clothes are made overseas, in China, our food is exported, weíre heavy on electronics. And Madagascar isnít as big as some of the other poorer countries like in Asia or other parts Africa, but nonetheless thereís still mining going on there. And sometimes when people did chop down the redwoods and the precious forests, youíre not supposed to; itís illegal, theyíre trying to conserve the redwoods, but they would because theyíre getting paid by a middle man, a Frenchman or something. The French had contracted them to illegally go and exploit the forest and chop down redwoods and then export them to China. And that guy thatís going out in the forest all day, chopping down, taking him all day, doing it physically and manually, and just getting a fraction of the pay. So itís hard.

That gave me tons of experience on projects, and I had a conservation club that consisted of fourteen through eighteen year olds. We would travel in the forest, taking lessons of conservation, health, and hygiene, to these tiny villages, so that helped a lot. But my heart has always been in nonprofit work, and serving underserved communities.

Since then, I am on the founding board of members for a nonprofit, here in Austin. Well there are founding board members all over, but we are taking educational opportunities back to Madagascar. We are raising money in order to build a community house and library. Because children there, you normally only go to school until fourth grade, and then youíre family needs you to work the rice fields, farming. Or else you go to the next village and stay with somebody else. Because not all them have high schools or middle schools in their village. Just the basics we take for granted, education, health, hygiene, food, full tummy donít exist in many parts of the country. Unfairness, just things can be as basic as somebody getting turned down in a food line or something, to something as large as not having the same opportunities because of your skin color or lack or money or lack of education.

And I work for the Girl Scouts of Central Texas now. Now, my job entails not only creating new programs, but also trying to integrate the underserved communities, so I have the east side and southeast schools, so that they have opportunities so that they can live more fluently in Girl Scouts. The girls from east side: first of all, they donít have an understanding of what Girl Scouts is, they donít have that history, maybe theyíre African-American, Mexican, maybe newly immigrated, and they donít know how Girl Scouts can help them with scholarships, help them to learn life lessons. So I try to teach them about that, and their parents, and then I create new programs that must just be open to them, like rock climbing or backpacking. I create programs that may be open just to those girls so they get a chance. Although itís not that expensive, they donít have extra money, so I offer it to them with a scholarship. Get them integrated into the programs, get them to learn a lot. Weíre trying, I mean Texas and the United States are becoming a lot more diversified, not just Mexicans, but Asians, more blacks, Muslim girls, and then some other Latin American countries. So whether we like it or not, we need to be a lot more inclusive of everybody.

We are going to try to have a training in Spanish for leaders. Because at the learning fair we had almost 200 leads, girls that wanted to get into Girl Scouting, mostly Hispanic girls. And we donít have places for them. Hereís another thing, kind of prejudicial, because theyíre all Hispanic girls that speak English, maybe their parents donít but the girls do. But we canít find troops for them because all these established troops, that are kind of cliquish of fifth and sixth graders that have been together for a long time, so itís hard for the new girls to feel welcomed. You know you have to be very open, and theyíre not all like that. Itís not that the troop is mean necessarily, but the parent might not feel very comfortable either.