Obama visited Cuba. So that happened. Call it good bad or indifferent – it’s a change either way and people are talking. The shift in private enterprise is a big part of that conversation, and it’s a fascinating conversation, but I’m more interested in the ones doing the talking, namely the women of Cuba.
I have so many questions.
Who are the women of Cuba? What do they do? How do they spend their days? In what ways do our lives overlap? How do they diverge? And what about the women my age – especially the ones my age.
Who are the female cuentapropistas, the entrepreneurs, and what is their life like? What kind of business do they do? How has the landscape for cuentapropistas evolved? When did it begin? Did 12/2014 do something significant to change it? In what ways?
What are their stories?
I want to find out. Of course I’ll start with the interweb, but constrained internet access in Cuba means limited access to the inside from the outside, so I’ll have to hunt and gather a lot of information the old fashioned way: reading, calling, exploring. Not having the excuse of the Internet makes this process of discovery about humans more human.
Congregants of the International Women’s Group of Pinellas (IWGP) gather around two tables pushed together in a Thai restaurant off Largo’s East Bay Blvd in February. It is their second monthly meeting in 2016. Sara Im, the group’s co-founder, leads the conversation from the middle.
Every month there are new members and so introductions are always the first cycle of the monthly roundtable discussion. IWGP co-founder Sara Im leads. “The first thing we’re going to do today is go around the table, and everybody will say,” she pauses to think, “who they are, what country they’re from, and how long they’ve lived in the area.” The topic of the second rotation is more flexible. One by one the women dish on family, work, origin stories, love and so on. Conversation never runs dry.
Sara started IWGP in 2013 to offer support to immigrant women in the Tampa Bay area. She got the idea after making friends with Lucy, the only other international woman in their women’s bible study group. Shared experience fostered an immediate bond. “We kind of gravitated to each other,” Im said.
Like Sara, Lucy’s first language is not English, so Sara invited her to a local English conversation class. The social protocol in a language conversation class facilitates structured interaction but does little to foster meaningful relationships. Lucy, an immigrant housewife, felt a sense of loneliness and confinement in her daily life. She craved the intimate socialization and English discussion that a formal conversation class could not provide. In a show of support and appreciation, Sara utilized her leadership skills and Meetup.com to start a social group for international women living locally.
English practice is a pillar of IWGP. Members are immigrants and non-native English speakers. Regular conversation groups facilitate the growth of complex language skills that extend beyond simple, daily use. With these language skills, the women are better equipped to acclimate to life in the U.S.
Above all, friendship is the foundation of this group. Conversations at IWGP meetings are far richer than the medium through which they are conducted. The underlying communication is genuine care and fellowship. “Everybody wants to be loved, wants to be supported,” said Im.
At their next gathering on Saturday March 12, members of the IWGP will gather at the Baha’I Center at Clearwater to celebrate International Women’s Day, a commemorative day taking place worldwide annually on March 8. A workshop at the event will address human trafficking and Syrian refugees in the Tampa Bay metro area. Women of all backgrounds and faiths are invited to join.
International Women’s Day marks the triumphs and accomplishments of women across the globe throughout time. The event will “acknowledge and remember all women from around the world,” said Sara.
Celebrations of International Women’s Day take place all over the world, yet celebrations in the United States are few and far between. Jaleh Fathi Siyan, a longtime member of IWGP who started hosting the International Women’s Day event in Clearwater three years ago, says that when she moved to the U.S. from Brazil she was surprised to learn that many people do not know about International Women’s Day. In response to this she began hosting a gathering to mark the day.
The network of support engendered from women’s mobilization fosters an environment in which women can share, grow and succeed. IWGP member Liz Madray says, “Women coming together, they don’t have that “Good Old Boys Club” where they are afraid. They feel free, there’s no ceiling. They have that sisterhood bond. They say, ‘yeah, you go girl!'”
“When women get together they find out about their potential,” said Siyan. In addition to attending IWGP meetings, Siyan hosts a monthly women’s group designed to promote fellowship, awareness and self-improvement. “When the conversation comes up they (women) find out, ‘oh I can do this or that.'” From inspiration comes motivation and, as Siyan points out, “we don’t want things to stay in the same place, we want things to move.”
Shared experience brings the women together, yet no one woman is like the other. They discuss their diverse viewpoints and experiences are discussed with respect. At last month’s IWGP roundtable, new member Graciela shared, “I believe that when we meet new people and expose ourselves to the unfamiliar we learn best.”