Activist's 60-year fight for justice

Times Staff Writer

She's been a quiet rebel for six decades, organizing grape boycotts for Cesar Chavez, helping welfare mothers find work, and founding, along with Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, a powerful women's political group.

But the greatest battle for Lupe Anguiano, 78, the soft-spoken daughter of Oxnard fieldworkers, came early in life, when her political activism as a Roman Catholic nun put her at odds with Los Angeles church leaders.

She ended up leaving the convent after 15 years.

"It took me a year to decide to actually leave," she said. "I had taken perpetual vows and was very close to the Lord. But I decided I could still do as a civilian what I would have done as a nun."

Anguiano's little-known story, from nun to seasoned activist to policy advisor for Democratic and Republican presidents, was recognized last week in a tribute at UCLA.

The university announced the opening of her archives at the Chicano Studies Research Center as part of the school's new Mujeres Initiative. The program seeks to preserve and make accessible to scholars the history of Latinas in the United States.

Anguiano was an ideal figure to kick it off, said Chon Noriega, director of the center.

"She has over 50 years of service in dealing with key social issues for the Latino community," he said. "This is clearly an area we want to expand so that a new generation of scholars can use them to write the history of what's happened over the past century."

At a celebration to mark the opening of the archives, Steinem and former Clinton administration Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros praised Anguiano as an unsung civil rights heroine.

Cisneros got to know Anguiano in the early 1980s when she was in San Antonio to create a welfare-to-work program called the Women's Employment Network. He was mayor at the time and Anguiano wanted the city's support, Cisneros told The Times.

Her low-key, gentle demeanor belied an underlying persistence, he recalled.

"She is not going to take 'no' for an answer," Cisneros said. "She never raises her voice, but there is a core of steel that is irreducible. She just wears you down with sweetness."

Anguiano was the fourth of six children born to Mexican migrant workers in La Junta, Colo. The family moved to Oxnard when she was a young girl, and Anguiano remembers picking apricots and walnuts after school.

"I've never considered working in the fields degrading," she said. "My dad used to say, 'All work is dignified.' "

By the time she graduated high school, Anguiano knew that she wanted a religious life. At 20, she joined Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters and took the name Sister Mary Consuelo. She chose the Indiana-based order, Anguiano said, because it was known for being a great advocate for the poor.

Her first posting was in East Los Angeles, where she taught religion to Garfield High students. From the start, she got out into the community, working to improve the lives of the poor families around her.

"I didn't want to hide behind a convent wall," she said.

In 1963, the California Legislature passed the Rumford Fair Housing Act. Anguiano strongly supported the law, which banned racial discrimination by landlords, because she had seen how Latinos and blacks were being kept out of some Los Angeles neighborhoods.

When the California Assn. of Realtors set out to reverse the law with a state initiative the following year, Anguiano was vocal in her opposition.

She joined picket lines and wrote letters to newspapers, she said. The then-archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal John Francis McIntyre, wanted priests and nuns to stay out of the fight, and sent a letter instructing Anguiano to stop her activities.

She removed her habit as a concession, Anguiano said, but continued her public opposition. One day, her mother superior entered her room.

"She said, 'Sister, you are not obeying the rules. You are not obeying the cardinal. Why are you staying?' " Anguiano recalled. "And I thought, 'You are right! Why am I staying?' "

That night she wrote a letter to the pope, asking to be released from her vows. It took a year, but she left the church in good standing, Anguiano said.

She crisscrossed the country in secular life, going wherever she thought she could help. Chavez sent her to Michigan to organize grape boycotts, a job she did for $5 a week, Anguiano said.

In East Los Angeles, she worked on youth training and employment programs. Through that work, she met a lot of poor, single mothers on welfare and developed programs to get them jobs, Anguiano said.

That propelled her into President Johnson's administration in 1965, where she was an education specialist in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. While there, she helped write the nation's first bilingual education bill.

When Richard Nixon became president, Anguiano again worked as an advisor on Latino and women's issues. She also was an advisor on private sector initiatives for the Reagan administration.

In the 1970s, she met Steinem, who already was a central figure in the budding women's movement. Steinem and Anguiano were among a group of women who created the National Women's Political Caucus, a training ground for female political candidates.

Steinem appointed Anguiano to chair a welfare reform committee. Anguiano used the platform to push for changes in the welfare system, which then focused mainly on providing checks to needy families.

The seeds of Anguiano's effort came to fruition in 1996, when Congress passed landmark welfare reform legislation that contained many of her welfare-to-work ideas.

"I thought women should be able to support their families through employment," she said. "They are the head of their family."

The former nun did marry once. But the union lasted little more than a year, Anguiano said.

"It just isn't for me," she said.

A decade ago, she moved back to Oxnard to be closer to her family. She has turned her focus to environmental causes, working with the California Coastal Protection Network to stop construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal off the coast of southern Ventura County.

Still, Anguiano senses that her days of activism are coming to an end. She looks at the expanding number of female policymakers now in office, many of them Latina, with a sense of accomplishment.

"Nancy Pelosi, she's doing such a good job, isn't she?" she said of the Democratic Speaker of the House. "And if Hillary Clinton is elected president, it will be the highlight of my life."

Closer to home, she is a mentor to Port Hueneme Councilwoman Maricela Morales and Oxnard poverty lawyer Carmen Ramirez. The next chapter in the history of American Latinas will be made by them, she said.

"I am 78," she said. "I am passing the torch."

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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