2006 Honorees

Juana GutierrezJuana Gutierrez
(b. 1933)

Political Activist and Community Organizer
2006 Women's History Month Honoree

Born in 1932 in Mexico where she lived until she was in her early 20s.  In 1954, she married Ricardo Gutierrez and two years later the young couple moved to Los Angeles where their nine children were born.

In the late 1950s, many Latinos who lived in Los Angeles were forced out of their homes to make way for the East L.A. freeway interchange. The Gutierrez family was uprooted twice during the highway construction.  Such uprooting was akin to the experience of those families in Chaves Ravine to make way for the construction of Dodger Stadium.

Gutierrez was a mother and homemaker who worked to make the community safer by being involved in a network of parents who started neighborhood watch and sports boosters programs throughout Boyle Heights. Then, in 1984, when she learned that a proposed prison was to be built near her home, she decided that she had had enough. She began knocking on her neighbors’ doors, asking them to join her in taking action to protect her community.  It was the beginning of her direct and dynamic political activism which resulted in forming Madres de Este Los Angeles (MELASI).

MELASI got its name because the at-home mothers were the only ones available to be the voice of East L.A. residents at the hearings, which were held during the day when others were at work. MELASI appealed directly to mothers as part of their outreach strategy.   They asked, Are you ready to defend and protect your family? Their motto was, “Not economically rich, but culturally wealthy. Not politically powerful, but socially conscious. Not mainstream educated, but armed with the knowledge, commitment, and determination that only a mother can possess.

Before MELASI was formed, corporations found it easy to get rid of their wastes in the Latino community by using smoke-and-mirrors tactics.  Having MELASI in the courtroom made all the difference. First, they defeated the prison proposal and saw a bill passed that declared no state prisons could be built in Los Angeles County.  However, no sooner was that mission accomplished than MELASI discovered that East L.A. was being targeted for a municipal waste incinerator and an oil pipeline that was routed 20 extra miles through East L.A. so as to miss the affluent beach communities.  MELASI became effective in defeating a proposed toxic dump and oil pipeline in the vicinity of thousands of residents. MELASI also helped with the problems of crime, unemployment, failing schools, dangerous working conditions, and pesticide-filled foods.

The organization became proactive and established a scholarship fund that gave in excess of $300,000 to local students. They established a water conservation program that employed twenty-two community members with benefits and established a community garden among their many projects.

Under Gutierrez’s passionate leadership, MELASI also became a model for other mothers to form community environmental justice action groups throughout the country. Her work has been featured in the former Soviet Union, Australia, and Europe as well as in numerous books. Her archives are part of the Urban Archive Collection at the California State University, Northridge.