One of Elisa Sanchez's earliest memories is of marching in a picket line and going to jail with her mother during a zinc miner's strike near her hometown of Silver City, N.M.
"In those days (the early '50s'), Chicanos did not believe in baby sitters; children went everywhere with their mothers.So when the miners went on strike and were legally prevented from picketing, the women went on the picket lines.
"My mother took me and my sister with her - to the strike meetings, on the picket lines, and to jail when she and the other women were arrested," Sanchez said.
All during the summer of 1950, the women and children walked on the picket line, she said. When fall came, Sanchez and her sister had to go back to school instead of staying out like some of the other children.
"My parents insisted that we go back. They had a very strong education ethic," she said.
Her parents' activism and their commitment to education got her through college - she has a BA and an MA in education from Western New Mexico University - and is responsible for her own activism today.
Sanchez is president of the Washington-based Mexican-American Women's National Association (MANA) which is ending a three-day conference and business meeting at the Capital Hilton today. The 4-year-old organization, which pushes for the advancement of the country's 3 million Mexican-American women, has more than 300 members in 16 states.
The majority of the 200 participants at the conference are professionals education. But nationally, they are the exceptions.
On the whole, Mexican-American women average 8.4 years of school, according to MANA. Their income is the second lowest in the nation. Forty percent of them work, but they tend to have the lowest-paying jobs; many of them are clustered in the textile industry and other manufacturing industries.
The conference was billed as a training conference and focused on teaching the participants how to use the political process at the state and federal level, how to become involved to social policy, how to increase Mexican-American involvement in programs on employment, health, education and economic development.
Their workshop on assertiveness training was packed with participants.
According to Sylvia Gonzales, a professor at San Jose (Calif.) State University. Mexican-American women have been cast into particular roles by their own men and by society.
"Chicanas have been stereotyped as passive and defenseless," she said, "and historically Mexican men have considered Chicanas to be either prostitute or virgin, mistress or wife."
The current Mexican-American feminist movement is viewed by some men in the community as being destructive to the family, she said, and these attitudes have a harmful effect on the gains Mexican-American women are trying to make.
Speakers at the conference gave up-dates on the legislation which would affect women in general and Hispanic women in particular. Among the things they discussed were the effects of the end of most abortions paid for by Medicaid.
"When that was proposed, we knew our women would suffer because they can least afford to pay for safe abortions," Sanchez said. A Mexican-American woman from Texas who sought an abortion in Mexico was the first recorded death as a result of the Medicaid revision, she said.
Sanchez said the MANA is trying to get society as a whole to recognize that Mexican Americans exist outside the Southwest and that they need services that other women and minority groups don't need.
As an example, she said that when a House committee was taking testimony on domestic violence, all of the other witnesses overlooked the need for providing services for battered women and their families in Spanish.
"When a Chicana is hurt, she hurts in her own language and she come from a culture which has traditionally taken care of its own.
"Now, with more and more traditional extended-family dispersal, she no longer has those supports. And when she needs services outside the family, she needs someone who speaks her language and who understands her culture," Sanchez said.
Sanchez said that Mexican-American women's aims and the aims of the white feminist movement are alike in many ways and that they have joined together on some issues. One experience has left her bitter.
"When they were organizing the ERA march, we were asked to send representatives and to donate money. We gave some money and organized Hispanic groups from all over the East to join in the march.
"They had one Hispanic on the program that day - just a token. We're tired of being tokens.
"They ask for help on other things, and we do what we can, but when it comes time to make policy decisions, we're not invited.They show very little respect of us," Sanchez said.
"We had to fight our own men to work with the (white) feminists - our men believe that fighting racism is more important than sexism - and then we are not involved when they start making policy-decisions," she said.