The Serene Activist
A visit with Dorothy Granada

Claudia Meléndez Salinas


If you want more information, or to contribute to the María Luisa Ortíz clinic and women’s center in Mulukukú, Nicaragua, contact:

Women's Empowerment Network
309 Cedar, PMB 547
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Tel/fax: (831) 768-7004






"CAFTA is going to make the situation even worse. It’s a war against poor people."

Photo courtesy of Dorothy Granada  

There’s an intangible serenity, a luminescence that radiates from many a community worker, an activist, a person who carries on her or his shoulders the daily struggle of hundreds, thousands of people, many of them the poorest of the poor. It’s there in Rigoberta Menchú, a simple woman of such peacefulness it almost makes you want to ask for her blessing. It’s there in Adrienne Rich, a woman whose words give voice to the concerns of the world.

And it’s certainly there in Dorothy Granada, a Chicana/Filipina nurse who, for more than a decade, has been working for a women’s health clinic in an impoverished Nicaraguan village.

At her age, the 75-year-old woman could very well be spending her golden years enjoying life in Shangri-La. But the petite, strong Dorothy continues to jet between the Central American nation to work in the clinic, and the United States, where she receives much-needed monetary support.

During her latest trip to North America, Granada spoke against CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement that’s being praised by the elite as the salvation for the Central American nations. Just like NAFTA was for Mexico, right?

Petite and vivacious, Granada moved to Nicaragua in 1989 with the intention of finding an organized group of women who would be interested in having a health care center. A long time peace activist, she did not want to become what she described as the typical “gringa” organizer who parachutes into a community and tries to tell people what to do. She wanted to be invited, and she wanted her host community to know they wanted a project like she had in mind.

“I traveled to different places looking for an organized group of women, and after a few months I found a group of women displaced by the war, who had organized in a cooperative to be able to survive" she explained in Spanish while sitting in the sunny dining room of her host family in Santa Cruz, Calif.

They had lost everything in the war. Their cooperative was called Maria Luisa Ortiz, and they had rebuilt their homes with international aid. They formed a brick factory, they were all single or abandoned women, most of them were illiterate, and they had gotten together to survive.”

Smack-dab in the middle of the country, near the confluence of the Rio Iwas and the Rio Tuma, Mulukukú was born as a refugee settlement for families displaced by the U.S.-supported civil war. Today it’s home to about 30,000 and to one of the strongest women’s movements in the country: the cooperative has helped set up a block factory, a carpentry workshop and a literacy program.

Granada, who had visited Nicaragua in 1986 with Witness for Peace, found that most women in the countryside were afraid of visiting the Sandinista clinics with problems in their reproductive system such as vaginal discharge. They’d never had a pap smear and didn’t seek help if they had infections.

“I realized that in the Latin American culture, women have learned that our bodies are dirty and that we should be ashamed, and that I believe it is the legacy of the Roman Catholic Church. I think that before the Spaniards arrived, there wasn’t such shame about the female body.”

Granada speaks with passion, with an intensity that seems drawn from the deepest confines of her soul. The daughter of a Filipino father and a second-generation Mexican-American, she was the first Chicana in the nursing school at an L.A. hospital, where she helped delivered babies until she finished her degree. At one time, she was an upwardly mobile doctor’s wife. But there are topics she’d rather not touch, and her former life, the life she led before she thrust her life into activism, seems off limits. She skillfully deviates from that topic, and moves on to talking about her mission in Nicaragua.

In Mulukukú, even though the women were organized and they had a Sandinista clinic, they did not go for their intimate health care needs. There weren’t any women they could trust.

“They were looking for a nurse, but back then they didn’t find a Nicaraguan nurse because Mulukukú was infamous for its violence. In that region, the war was terrible and we’ve had violence up until 1998. The war was officially over in 1990, but many of the Contras continued.

“The women found me, and I liked them because they were organized. I was going to work for three years, I thought we were going to have everything by then.”

Granada began with family planning, pap smears and other woman-oriented tests in the clinic. She made sure to include the herbs and natural medicine that have become displaced by the use of expensive pharmaceuticals. But the everyday contact with the women made her discover other needs: they didn’t know how to read or write, many were homeless, and some of them showed signs of abuse.

After the clinic came the literacy classes, the domestic violence programs, the legal assistance: all the programs are run with donations, with volunteers who come mostly from the United States.

“I really like (working with) volunteers,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to create consciousness, not just to be charitable but also to learn that there are a lot of poor people. And to know that when people are poor, they lack good medical care, good education. That’s how we hope to contribute to the education of gringos, because we don’t want charity.”

“Ever since 1990, we’ve had the ‘economic adjustment,’ a formula the government has to follow according to the dictates of the IMF and the World Bank. It’s a formula so the government can pay the interests on its international loans,” Granada said.

It’s the same bitter medicine that all the so-called “developing” nations have had to swallow for decades. It’s a recipe for disaster that recommends paying down international loans instead of investing in social services for the poor, and privatizing state-owned services so the free market forces can bring the corporate sharks and establish pricey programs that only the rich can afford. The poor, they can eat cake.

“The international companies take all the profits back to their countries, they don’t invest them back in the country. There isn’t any development to help the people develop, it’s just what the government and international banks want. And if the people want to work, well, we can bring a factory so they can make some jeans,” said Dorothy.

In Dorothy’s Mulukukú, students learn first hand the meaning of neoliberalism: the lack of international barriers so corporations can set up maquiladoras anywhere. The companies pay few taxes under the excuse that they’re providing jobs. But when the workers want to organize, they lose their jobs.

“It’s a system for big corporations to make the most profit by using people,” said Dorothy.

CAFTA would be an invitation to even greater inequality. Modeled after the North American Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA would end most tariffs and import restrictions on the more than $33 billion in goods traded between six Central American nations (Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica) and the United States.

In practical terms, U.S. companies would be able to set up factories in any of the tiny nations, knowing that there would be not import taxes, tariffs, to hurt their bottom line. Also, the heavily subsidized U.S. farmers would be able to sell their products in any of the Central American countries, where the poor farmers would have no chance of competing. Experts and free trade agreement foes are predicting grave consequences for low-income workers who have no chance to compete against the economic behemoth of the north.

“CAFTA is going to make the situation even worse. It’s horrible, it’s a war against poor people. Poor people are excluded from education, from health care,” Granada said. “There are clinics, doctors, nurses, and sometimes there are medicines for small children. But if there’s no money, how are people going to get better? Just with papers?”

Not surprisingly, U.S. President George W. Bush is a big supporter of the trade pact, and has been pushing for Congressional approval in the last few weeks. A staunch advocate of the free market, Bush believes the unfettered movement of goods is bound to help the workers who produce them.

Just like NAFTA helped Mexican workers, right?

© 2005 El Andar Magazine