Women Without Boundaries

Times Staff Writer

The West Coast section of the Women's Convoy to Central America arrives today in Los Angeles. Having started in Seattle, 18 women will stop first at the House of Ruth, a shelter for battered women in Boyle Heights, said Mollie Lowery, a local convoy organizer.

The convoyistas, as the women sometimes call themselves, will help relandscape the shelter's back yard, lunch with residents and drive to Temple Shir Shalom in Mar Vista, where they will be guests at a potluck supper given by the temple and St. Bede's Episcopal Church. The women will camp at the temple, then head for Texas in the morning.

There, 73 women and 23 trucks, buses, and vans from across the United States will converge in Austin before heading across the border for Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

With the slogan "Between women there are no boundaries" as their rallying point, the women--supported and organized by hundreds of others--will head off for five weeks on a combination grand adventure and noble mission. They are bringing "solidarity and material aid" to 20 grass-roots women's groups in towns and cities in the five countries.

Organized by a steering committee that included North and Central American women, the convoyistas are "a good mix of color, age, money, class, sexual preference and religion," Lowery said. "There was a real conscious effort to do so."

There also has been an effort to bring aid specifically requested by the foreign grass-roots groups--items such as medical supplies, typewriters, educational materials, kitchen equipment, sewing supplies and the vehicles themselves.

The combined cargo, Lowery estimated, is worth upwards of $100,000.

The women have learned, Lowery said, from the experience of several peace convoys on similar, previous missions and have backup plans for difficult border crossings, legal or mechanical troubles.

While this diverse group is not talking much about regional politics, most of the women describe themselves as being opposed to U.S. military intervention in Central America. More on their minds is a different type of political talk--the politics of oppression, or domination, that affect all women. They are full of talk of solidarity, support, empowerment, networking.

"What do I do?" Ariana Manov echoes the question. "There is no short answer."

One of the three Los Angeles women going on the convoy, Manov is a journalist who co-hosts and co-produces, with Joseph Megel, KPFK's "Morning Magazine." She is a mental health counselor for three shelters for homeless women and children; she is a teacher and guest lecturer on domestic violence; she is an activist who "as a fat woman" engages in what she calls body politics--"how we're manipulated by appearances--it's a form of cultural imperialism."

Raised in Western Europe, where her father worked for NATO, she is, she said, "sort of an old dinosaur of an activist," influenced first by Britain's Ban the Bomb movement of the '50s. Back home, she was "involved in the freedom rides," responding to what she calls the "clicks of consciousness, becoming aware not that there is injustice in the world, but that it is deliberate."

A graduate of UCLA in sociocultural anthropology, she has at age 42 worked in social services for variously disenfranchised people for 25 years. She shares a house in Venice with Mollie Lowery, and, for 10 years, Manov's mother, physically and mentally incapacitated by Alzheimer's disease and related debilities.

Although this is her first convoy, Manov--fluent in Spanish--is no stranger to travel in Central America. Thus, she said, she finds herself on the convoy's "border-crossing team," a potentially delicate assignment that may, she acknowledges, necessitate considerable negotiating skills. "I couldn't be doing this without the help of about 50 friends who've given me money," she said of the trip. Also Lowery and another friend will be responsible for her mother's care.

"There are a lot of other efforts that illustrate we no longer live in a world where we can say "them/us. This is one very small planet."

Why this particular trip? "The fact that it's all women, I think. It's an unparalleled opportunity to bring North and Central American women together in solidarity. There's a sense we truly mean it, that there are no boundaries. It's a celebration of that spirit and what we can create. I don't want to romanticize it. Things can be difficult. . . . And I'm just talking about the women on the convoy itself. Not to mention it's the rainy season--hot, wet and mosquitoes."

The Honda Civic in the driveway of this lovely San Marino home has KO AIDS on the license plate. Buttons of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, pictures of the late Catholic activist Dorothy Day, ads against handguns and for condoms are on the kitchen bulletin board and taped to the refrigerator. Alongside the pool and the Ping-Pong table in the back yard is a mural of a female cartoon character from "The Far Side" with "Born to Be Wild" emblazoned on it.

An activist lives here. Her name is Mary Nalick. She is: a lawyer who has worked with the mentally ill and homeless on Skid Row; a spring graduate of USC's School of Social Work who is a counselor and advocate for AIDS Project L.A. (APLA); a supporter of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community who stood with them every Monday morning for 1 1/2 years on the corner of 6th and Hope streets from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m. demonstrating against U.S. military intervention in Central America; an anti-nuclear protester who got arrested at the test site in Nevada. She has also been married for 25 years. She and her husband, Richard, a physician, have four grown sons.

She delivers a lickety-split run-through of her 45-year life history by starting out: "I was born in Pasadena. I've not gotten very far."

She dropped out of college after one semester, got married and worked as a medical secretary while her husband finished medical school, then started having babies. Her activist phase started when her husband got drafted as a doctor and ordered to Vietnam. She wanted to go to Canada; he convinced her it was only as a doctor that he would go. She accepted that. He went to Vietnam and she went into action.

"I was furious (that he was drafted). I was not a nice person at that time. . . . I decided the world was going crazy and I wanted to change it. I decided to go to law school."

Now that she also has finished social work school, she said, her priority will probably be to continue working with people with AIDS, she said. "When I was interviewed at APLA I was asked if I was homophobic. I said, 'I'm probably homo-ignorant. I'm a San Marino housewife.' They were wonderful with me. Very tolerant."

Her activism won't stop there, however. As a graduation present to herself, she had intended to go to Cuernavaca in Mexico to study Spanish for a month. Then she heard about the convoy and changed her plans.

"This will be a lot more meaningful. I have a ton of reasons for going, selfish and unselfish. Growing and learning, being able to contribute something. I think it's going to be the trip of a lifetime, probably life-changing. You can't help but be more active around this issue having done this. When I get back I'm going to take the month of August off. Come September, I'm going to think about the rest of my life."

Edna Williams is the associate director of LAMP, the Los Angeles Men's Place, a project that serves chronically mentally ill homeless men on Skid Row. A sunny, laughing woman who greets the world with great enthusiasm and warmth, she says she does paper work at LAMP, cleans the place, develops programs and cooks.

One recent Saturday morning, she stood in the kitchen at the center waiting for six fresh-from-the-oven mince pies to cool. "Out of the box, into the oven. That kind of mince pie. Nothing impressive," she hastened to explain.

She has worked at LAMP for the past two years, she said, adding, by way of background, that she was born in St. Kitts in the Caribbean, lived in England for several years and moved to New York. There she went to school, and, since 1972, worked in the field of mental health, sometimes doing dance and recreational therapy. Now 40, she has been in Los Angeles for a few years.

"I prefer to work with the young mentally ill who are very active and resistive to the traditional mental health system. I'm a very active, energetic person," she said, explaining that it gave her an empathy with them. "I think it's why I'm on Skid Row. These men have a tremendous amount of energy and coping ability. They can use that in another way, a way that is more nurturing and care-taking."

Becoming a convoyista is a new experience, she said with a grin, especially her assignment to drive a one-ton diesel truck. But she is no stranger to social action. In New York, she was involved in the "black movement," worked in Harlem for gang and delinquency prevention, and since the '70s has been an advocate for patients' rights for the mentally ill, she said.

She had not been involved much with Central-American issues, she said, but became interested in the convoy through Lowery, who directs LAMP. Now she is itching to go and has raised the $1,000 fee with the help of family and friends, a number of whom had a fund-raising party for her.

"There's a connection with being from the Caribbean," she said of her desire to go. "Also I want to learn about those folks there, get to know their culture, help them as they start empowering themselves. One group in Chiapas (in Mexico) asked for a lot of kitchen stuff. They want to start a preschool for kids and have a kitchen in it. So a lot of our supplies are for that.

"These are grass-roots organizations trying to make a change in an aggressive, positive manner. We want to be supportive. They're in a difficult time and situation."

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