Miriam Wong’s Heart of Gold…

Miriam WongIt was raining hard on a cold grey day when I drove up to a small home in a neighborhood in Richmond, CA. The homes were all neatly kept up on a modest street that was quiet when I arrived. However, I knew it was located less than a mile away from “The Iron Triangle”. One of the most violent neighborhoods in Northern California that experienced a great deal of shootings, domestic violence and crimes.  I was meeting with Miriam Wong, Executive Director of the Latina Center.

When I first heard Miriam’s name…Miriam Wong, I was little confused. I thought, a Chinese woman running a Latina Center? I needed to know more about her story and how she came to be here. Miriam cheerfully opened the door and invited me into this home that had been converted into a center for all Latinas who needed support and help. The rooms were neat and brightly painted and there were a number of women in a meeting. She explained that many of the women that day were attending a workshop on diabetes and the affects on a family. There were some children playing with toys in the corner, the staff worker fielding phone calls and a lot of energy displayed throughout the center.

Miriam told me her story. She was born in Lima, Peru and came to the U.S. when she was 29 yrs old. Her father was Chinese and her mother Peruvian. Her parents divorced when she was young and her mother and grandmother brought her up. She grew up in a neighborhood where there were a lot Chinese and Japanese families who settled in Peru. The school she went to was diverse and she had Peruvian, Chinese and Japanese friends.

I asked her if her mother voted in Peru and she said yes, occasionally. However, she said the goverment and politics in Peru are radically different than the U.S. In Peru, the goverment was known to be corrupt for many decades. The people understood that voting oftentimes was meaningless because the outcomes were already predicted and guaranteed. It didn’t matter how the vote was tallied. People didn’t have faith in the system and endured a lot of regime changes that made them become disaffected with the government. She said that the feelings of powerlessness, and distrust of the government affects many immigrants that come to the U.S. When they emigrate, even though they become citizens and are eligible to vote, they fail to register and cast their votes. They bring distrust, alientation and a sense of apathy from their homelands.

I asked her what it would take to motivate these women to vote. First off, she said that many of the women who came to her center were from homes where they endured domestic violence from their husbands. They needed to take care of their families basic needs like food, shelter, jobs and healthcare before they could think about voting. She shared with me a very telling story…

One day, a woman came to her center. She was accompanied by her 90 year old mother. The woman was so overwhelmed by all her difficulties: lack of food, abusive husband, many young children to care for, lack of money…the list goes on. She was so depressed that she wanted to commit suicide to escape all the oppression and suffering she was going through. She couldn’t see a way out of her life and was giving up.

Miriam spent the next few hours comforting, hugging and  listening to this woman. She explained to her that there was support, caring and a community that would listen, protect and provide her with help. She wanted the woman to know that she was an important human being and that there were people to help provide her with solutions. She had no food, money nor hope for the future. Miriam had just collected some food donations that people had brought and told the woman to take all of it home to her family. She encouraged her to come back to seek support and talk about ways that she could plan for her future and reach out for help. At the end of the day, the woman felt comforted, welcomed and most of all… cared for.  She promised to come back and Miriam would help her find her footing and develop a plan for a way out of her situation.

At the end of the day when the woman and her mother were about to leave, something truly wonderful happened. The woman’s 90 year old mother shared her story with Miriam. She said that she had lived with her abusive husband for 60 years. She endured the punishment, humiliation and emotional abuse for all her life. When her husband died, she finally felt relieved and glad that the oppression had been lifted. However, when she saw that her daughter married, had a family and then lived in the same abusive cycle of domestic violence that she experienced, she felt helpless. It was bad enough that she had to endure it. Now her own daughter was going through the same agony, torture and suffering she had undergone. She couldn’t stand it and brought her to Miriam.

As she was getting ready to leave with her daughter who was now feeling hopeful and more positive about her life, the mother did something extraordinary. She dug around her pockets looking for something. She dug deeply and felt around the corners of her pockets. She finally fished out a small crumpled piece of paper. She said:

“I do not have any money, but this dollar is all that I have. Money cannot buy what you have given to us today. Please take it and thank you for all that you have done for us.”

At this moment in Miriam’s story, we were both tearing up and feeling so grateful that people can reach out and help one another. We are all human beings and we all need help. It is not about money and services….it is about the human spirit to give and help another person out. To believe in someone else, no matter what the circumstances and to appreciate life at its most basic level.

Miriam said it was the most beautiful thing that happened. She is an amazing woman and a heroine to many people. The Latina Center www.latinacenter.org is her own non-profit. She started it with her own money without any Federal or State grants and funds it through local city grants, services and donations. She doesn’t have enough funding to pay herself nor her staff, the center was freezing cold because they can’t afford a lot of the utilities and she receives some in-kind services for immigration and medical support.

As a result of meeting this incredible woman who truly is a guardian angel and has saved countless lives and supported so many women, we are committed to telling her story and hoping that women can volunteer and help her receive funding so she can continue to provide the much needed services the community needs.

Miriam is a big believer in voting and seeking higher leadership roles for minority women. She provides educational outreach and sponsors year long classes in leadership participation and teaching the women about civic duty and responsibility. I have been gathering  all my children’s clothes, toys and have encouraged my friends to do the same so that I can pick them up and deliver them to the Latina Center. If you’re interested in helping Miriam, please contact her at the Latina Center www.thelatinacenter.org

I salute Miriam Wong as one of the unknown heroines who has saved countless lives and families as a result of her dedication and work.  She is a true inspiration.


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