The Grandmothers of Plaza Olvera

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“It’s a privilege to be a grandmother and great-grandmother,” shouts Rosa Ayala. “I became a citizen, so I could vote… but more importantly, our youth are the future and we must protect them!”

Ayala speaks from a podium placed in the patio of Our Lady of Los Angeles Church, “Nuestra Señora Reina de Los Angeles”  in Placita Olvera in downtown Los Angeles.

“They should go and study, so they don’t end up like me, cleaning offices!”

The abuela speaks to the congregation as the first Mass ends and people are leaving the church.  It’s Sunday, and together with other abuelitas she is here to participate in voter registration before the November 2nd election.

“Blessed be the Lord for each and every one of our young people and because we are a nation of warriors.”  She ends her speech and those around her cheer.  Axel Caballero, an organizer for Cuentame, takes me to the abuelitas.   They sit at a table that resembles one in a precinct, and wait for the community members to finish their prayers so they can offer to register them to vote.  A couple of laptop computers sit in front of them, facing the crowd, for online registration–“But we can register them by hand,” says one of them.  It’s easy, says Caballero and laughs.  Even an abuela can do it.”

The abuelas include Rosa Rodríguez, Guadalupe Díaz, Carmen Reyes, Rosa Ayala and Amalia González and her husband Lorenzo.  They all wear t-shirts saying “Cuéntame” in large letters.  “This is,” explains Caballero, “an interactive community of Latinos, for Latinos and the public in general.”

Cuéntame has a double meaning, including “Count Me In” and “Tell Me;” as in, “Tell me a story.”  Founded by Caballero and Ofelia Yáñez with support from Brave Film Foundation, its main presence is on the Internet, where its Facebook page has garnered an amazing 43,000 fans after only a few months.   Today, however, Cuentame staff is here in person and has brought representatives from a variety of groups and organizations who also want to mobilize the community.  Among them, Dale Walker and Marcos Oliva, two of the founders of the group Basta that seeks to fight corruption in the city of Bell and promote the recall of the members of Bell’s city council.  Both are young, idealistic and enthusiastic.

“We have enough votes to launch the recall,” says Walker, and they laugh, not sure whether they should declare this yet.  I notice Jesus from Voto Latino 2010, founded by actress Rosario Dawson and others.  Their posters read “United We Win” in English.  The heat is scorching, and those offering voter registration complete with pushcarts selling cold drinks and bacon-wrapped hot dogs.

The Grandmothers of Plaza Olvera belong to SEIU local 1877, the janitors’ union. The group represents upwards of 25,000 janitors in California and is headed by Mike Garcia, who makes a passionate appeal to those assembled to register and vote.  “The Latino vote is crucial,” he tells me.  “Whoever wants to win this election needs around 4.6 million votes, and Latinos are 3.4 million.”

Etelvina Villalobos, a Salvadoran activist, is another member of the group.  “I am a minister officiating in this church,” she announces, repeating the call for civic involvement.  She tells me that during the Mass she will announce the presence of the Cuentame people outside the church.

Like the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, the Grandmothers of Plaza Olvera are answering the call because they have no other choice.   However, they are united not by unending suffering because their sons and grandsons have been disappeared, but, instead, by the hope that members of the community will register to vote and participate in the political process.

“I still clean offices there, in your newspaper,” Rosa tells me Rosa. “We are the people.”

People begin to leave as others arrive for the next Mass.  Soon all the chairs are taken by young people and also, more than once, by another abuelita who answers the call by registering to vote.