Community organizer's childhood led to her activism

  • by Elliot Owen
  • Wednesday June 20, 2012
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Olga Talamante was 11 years old when her parents plucked her from Mexico to drive their family across the U.S. border, settling in Gilroy, California. Five decades later, Talamante will be riding in a red low-rider convertible during Sunday's LGBT Pride Parade as one of six community grand marshals selected by the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee for their outstanding contributions to the LGBT community.

"It's an amazing honor," Talamante said. "I've had a lot of public life, but to be acknowledged is very humbling. I feel fortunate to be one among many deserving people."

Immigrating to the U.S. was tough on Talamante as a young girl. Now 62, she remembers being held back in school because she didn't know English. After-school jobs were always waiting once class ended. Long hours were spent harvesting crops in the fields alongside her parents and other farm workers without water or bathrooms during summer. Sometimes she would even babysit for the growers' families and witness firsthand the amenities that were missing from the labor camp where she lived.

"What struck me at a young age was the power relationship between the workers and the growers," Talamante said, "the control they had over our pay and even where we lived. It wasn't so much like I envied what they had, but we worked really hard so we deserved to have good living conditions, too."

That was the point at which the seed for Talamante's community organizing was planted. Literally and metaphorically, she joked.

After learning English, she skipped a grade and moved through school easily, taking the college prep classes with the "privileged" kids and getting involved in student body activities all the while returning to the labor camp in the evenings. As if it wasn't difficult enough maneuvering between the worlds of race and class, add Talamante's being lesbian to the mix.

"In high school, I had the boyfriends but the crushes and yearnings for the girls," she said. "There was definitely a feeling of aloneness. My junior year, I wrote a poem called 'My Two Worlds.' I wondered where I belonged, who I was."

Talamante was accepted into UC Santa Cruz where she earned a degree in Latin American studies. There, she was active in the Chicano Movement, the Farm Workers Movement, the anti-Vietnam War peace movement, and in protests to increase representation of people of color in the school's faculty. She became a U.S. citizen during college as well.


Political prisoner

In 1971 while doing field research in Chiapas, Mexico, she met a group of Argentines in Mexico City that would change her life forever. Talamante kept in touch with them and two years later flew to visit.

"Eighteen years of military dictatorship had ended in Argentina and there was a democratic opening," Talamante said. "My friends said it was a great time to come, to see the democratic elections and great mobilization of people. My friends were very involved in the progressive Peronist movement and so I became involved myself."

Talamante immersed herself in grassroots organizing in the barrios of Azul for the next year. As the movement strengthened, the government cracked down and declared a state of siege, suspending all civil liberties. Police stormed a building Talamante was staying in and captured her and several friends at gunpoint, holding them incommunicado for five days. She was beaten, tortured, and interrogated.

After 16 months of imprisonment for subversion, the Argentine government released her.

"The State Department claimed they didn't know I was there but to this day I don't believe that," she said. "I think it was that I was a radical from California, a poor woman from Gilroy."

After returning to the U.S., Talamante joined the Argentine Commission for Human Rights, where she had a hand in pressuring the U.S. to cut off military aid to Argentina. In 1978, Talamante moved to San Francisco where she joined the Democratic Workers Party, began working at Head Start, and organizing in the Mission district.


Coming out

Two years later, she moved in with her girlfriend and qualifies that period as her coming out. While her very Catholic family eventually accepted the woman Talamante was with for the next 18 years, she admits that there were challenging times.

"There was a time when I came out to my brothers and one of them had a reaction," she remembered. "He was having a hard time with it but it evolved into them all feeling totally comfortable. It just took some time."

In 1986, Talamante became vice president of the Western branch of Inroads, an organization that helps students of color gain college scholarships and corporate internships.

Around the same time, the AIDS epidemic had tightened its grip on San Francisco. Talamante remembers organizing within the LGBT community to create support groups for friends infected with the virus.

"We needed to take care of our guys," she said, "bring them meals. I lost some dear friends."

Talamante continued with Inroads during the 1990s and took her first step into official LGBT advocacy in 2002 when she joined the advisory board of Gente Latina de Ambiente (GELAAM), a community-based organization that primarily serves the queer immigrant Latino community in San Mateo. Knowing well the complexities of identity, Talamante welcomed the opportunity to learn about another layer of the queer community.

"GELAAM gave me a very privileged perspective of trans Latinas," she said, "their incredible challenges and realities. I was very humbled in becoming more educated and conscious. Our movement has its own process of breaking down barriers and in the last few years it's been much more conscious of the trans community."

In 2003, Talamante became the executive director of the Chicana/Latina Foundation (where she remains today), a nonprofit that empowers Chicanas/Latinas through personal, educational, and professional advancement. A year later, she joined the board of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, where she eventually co-chaired.

"I felt like I had come home, like my two worlds had come together," she said. "When I was at NCLR, I brought my Chicana consciousness and when I'm with Chicana/Latina, I bring my queer consciousness so that we all learn from each other. They're two worlds but now there's much more a seamless interconnectedness for me."

She currently sits on the boards of the Horizons Foundation, an LGBT resources and funding group, and the Greenlining Institute, a multi-ethnic public policy research and advocacy organization.

"Olga brings a deep international perspective to the foundation's work and just as great, she's a true sparkler, lighting up the room and lighting a fire under any project she takes on," said Jewelle Gomez, director of grants and community initiatives for the Horizons Foundation.

Talamante's girlfriend of five years, Vola Ruben, and fellow community activist Eleanor Palacios, will be riding with her in the convertible during Sunday's parade. Her contingent will be emphasizing the "undocuqueer" (undocumented and queer) community.

"We'll have a message for President Obama on a banner reading something like 'Thank you for evolving on same-sex marriage, please evolve on immigration,'" she said.

There's no doubt Talamante loves who she is but it hasn't always been easy. Her advice for gaining self-acceptance is simple.

"Be yourself, be true to your heart. Know your story and own your story. Find your voice and speak your truth. You have to start with yourself."

By the way, she can make the best chile rellenos you've ever had in your life.