Nuestra HERencia brings local Latinx women’s legacies to light

When the Latino Community Coalition began seeking nominations from the Latinx community for its Nuestra HERencia project, plans were to honor one deceased Latinx woman who had laid a foundation for her community in the Grand Rapids area as the award winner.

As part of the Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. “Women’s Way” alleyway activation initiative, that honoree would have a downtown alleyway named after her. When the HERencia nominations began rolling in, the selection committee had a difficult time whittling the 15 nominations down to five. And then, they could whittle no further.

“How can we choose just one? They all were uniquely magical and uniquely powerful,” says Eleanor Moreno, selection committee member. 

While a decision to make the awards an annual event hasn’t been solidified, it’s looking like a good possibility. And while the name of the alleyway hasn’t yet been decided, the five following women will be honored as this year’s Nuestra HERencia awardees —

Matilde Chavez-Ayala came to Grand Rapids in 1954. Her family members wrote, “She was the glue to our family. As her children got older and started their own families, she made sure they would all come back to her home once a week … she told her children to make sure that they continued to gather together, even though she would not be there.”

Migdalia Garcia,
born and raised near Caguas, Puerto Rico, moved to Chicago then Grand Rapids with her husband. Soon on her own as a single mother of five, she sought education first to learn to speak and write fluent English and then to become a nurse, working in a skilled care facility to support her family.

Ofelia Osorio Islas
immigrated to Grand Rapids, worked in a factory, and took classes to learn English. She began routinely bringing food and reading to Latinx patients in local hospitals. Her family member wrote, “Ofe always found a virtue in every person she met.” When she decided to train for a 10K race, she recruited 45 other women to train with her.

Juanita Murillo
was born and raised in Saginaw to Mexican parents. Her family wrote, “Though forced to quit school to work in the eigth grade, in her late thirties she began to study, in secret, for her GED.”  In the late 1960s, she obtained the license to open her own hair salon, one of the first Latinx salons in Grand Rapids.

Bertha A Ramirez
came to Michigan in 1990 seeking the American dream. She worked in the fields, in greenhouses, and in factories, was proud to pay taxes and never sought government assistance. She and her husband, Juan, raised five children and welcomed 18 grandchildren and three great grandchildren. Bertha survived breast cancer in 2000. After years of seeking citizenship, she finally obtained it in 2018. COVID-19 took her life in February 2021.

The English translation of the Spanish word “herencia” is inheritance. These five women have left a rich inheritance for their families, their Latinx community and for the local community at large.

“We were really wanting to look at not only the legacy that they are leaving from the work they were doing, but how they continued to build their communities and created a foundation for their families and the next generation,” Moreno says. “We don’t have a good archiving system for the Latinx community. In the Grand Rapids Public Library archiving system, we are less than 10%. We are also seeing this as an opportunity to collect our stories and the stories of those women, the matriarchs who were behind the scenes working, and never recognized.”

Photos courtesy of Latino Community Coalition