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Las Abuelitas of Santa Barbara Revives Ancient Tradition of Elders Mentoring Youth

A recently awarded seed grant from The Fund for Santa Barbara supports the initial phase of a new organization, Las Abuelitas of Santa Barbara, in its revival of the ancient indigenous tradition of elders serving as guides, mentors and advocates of local youth.

Its first free bilingual public function, Viernes Social, an alcohol-free Latino version of TGIF, will be held from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24 at Presidio Springs Community Center, 721 Laguna St., at the corner of De la Guerra St.

“We have had inquiries from an amazing number of individuals, families, youth, potential abuelitas and local organizations that want to know more about us and explore collaborations. So, all are invited to share food, fun and networking in a relaxed environment,” program coordinator Dr. Barbara Lotito said.

The mission of Las Abuelitas links Santa Barbara to the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers that encourages groups of female elders across the globe to respond to local community needs. In essence, Las Abuelitas of Santa Barbara offers an intergenerational empowerment model that recognizes, respects and mobilizes one marginalized group, female elders, as a peace-making, educational, mentoring and advocacy force for another, at-risk youth and their families, especially in the Latino community.

This multilingual diverse group of female elders is allied with women and men of all ages and local organizations to broaden access to the opportunities, advantages, equity and social justice enjoyed by many born into the mainstream culture of Santa Barbara.

The concept of Las Abuelitas of Santa Barbara came in a dream to Dr. Lotito the morning of Jan. 1, 2012. She had spent New Year’s Eve 2011 sharing with a friend a video of the Mayan messenger Ac Tah in which he spoke of the 2012 paradigm shift as that of female leadership and ended with his call to action.

She had previously met Ac Tah in October 2010 at a weekend gathering at an Ecopark in Manzanillo of more than 60 spiritual leaders, shamans, and international supporters of indigenous wisdom.  This event marked the ceremonial opening of the first of three astrological portals initiating the shift in consciousness predicted by the ancient Mayans for 2012.

“This gathering was truly a utopian experience,” Dr. Lotito said. “After an evening of group drumming and dance, Ac Tah returned unannounced from his mountain top meditation. He invited each participant to create a personal intention for 2012 to add to the ceremonial fire. Though I was caught off guard, as I approached the fire, the phrase ‘In peace and love for all’ literally spoke itself from the core of my being.”

Prior to this Mayan event, Dr. Lotito had previously apprenticed to the internationally known Abuelita Margarita Núñez for three years in Mexico, living for six months at the intentional community that is home to her mentor. Dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of this hemisphere’s indigenous peoples, the community welcomed Dr. Lotito to participate in its meetings where consensus decision-making was the norm.

Since moving to Santa Barbara in 2007, Dr. Lotito has led retreats in Spanish for Latina women at La Casa de Maria based on indigenous wisdom. In February 2012, she coordinated a visit from Ac Tah to offer seven different Mayan experiences for local residents in Santa Barbara, Ojai and Ventura.

In December 2012, she shared the idea of Las Abuelitas with City Councilwoman Cathy Murillo at a chance meeting at a vigil for the victims of the Connecticut school shooting. In July, Murillo invited Dr. Lotito to present the concept of Las Abuelitas at the first meeting of the Pro Youth Movement. A core group of five abuelitas came forward to make the dream a reality by defining their mission and goals and deciding to apply for a seed grant from The Fund for Santa Barbara.

The six-month action plan of Las Abuelitas of Santa Barbara centers in the recruitment, training and empowerment of 25 female elders (women of all ages and men who support female elderhood are also welcomed) in two major areas: the indigenous Medicine Wheel’s perspective on the four stages of life, and the Alternatives to Violence Project. Monthly meetings take place on the first Saturday of each month and are structured to acquaint new abuelitas with the fundamentals while offering the growing number of “seasoned” abuelitas training in consensus-decision making and other relevant skills.

The group of 25 will be divided into teams of five abuelitas, each team working in one of these five areas: 1. educational advocacy and interface among school personnel, students and families; 2. criminal justice advocacy; 3. emergency peace-making response to community needs; 4. family support; and 5. multilingual/multicultural educational programs for the community.

“We anticipate new areas of involvement and see networking with existing groups already doing such great work in the community as key to our mission,” Dr. Lotito said. “We always work in teams of two or three abuelitas and share from our collective experience, wisdom and training. At our advanced age, our motto has become, ‘Take care of yourself so we can support each other to do the work each has been chosen to do.’”

Last month, five abuelitas attended a training in working with at-risk youth at Juvenile Services. Three abuelitas are completing the facilitator’s training in the Alternatives to Violence Project this month. While the initial focus is on the selection and training of the 25 abuelitas, the organization plans to begin meeting in February with groups of teens and local organizations to listen and learn to see where Las Abuelitas’ efforts are most needed.

In March, the 25 abuelitas will also begin pilot projects already programmed into its action plan. A large community meeting is planned for May to involve and empower other members of the community in this dynamic model of social change. Panorama, its proposed major fundraiser, is scheduled for Sept. 14, celebrating Grandparents’ Day and Hispanic Heritage Month. It will feature music, entertainment, art and food from the diverse cultures that create the mosaic of contemporary Santa Barbara.

As program coordinator, Dr. Lotito brings a long history of working with local communities to bridge the language/cultural gap. As a tenured professor of Spanish and Latin American studies at the University of Connecticut, she pioneered courses in Spanish language and Hispanic culture at its Schools of Medicine, Social Work and Law as well as a for personnel at the eight state mental health facilities. She counseled first generation Latino students and developed courses geared to their needs, interfacing with local Latino organizations in the process.

Dr. Lotito is the author of Entre nosotros: Communicating With the Hispanic Client (Harper & Row, 1988), a comprehensive Spanish language/Latino culture text. She has worked as a diversity consultant to educational, government and community organizations in the U.S. and Mexico, scripted and produced educational videos and was a teacher-trainer for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, emphasizing the need for “practical” Spanish classes that reflect the Latino presence in the U.S.  In Santa Barbara she has taught classes at SBCC’s non-credit divisions, including the Omega Elderhood, bilingual conversation, a class on Spanish films on immigration. She has served on SBCC’s Continuing Education Visionary Task Force and the Board of Directors of PUEBLO and continues to works closely with the city’s Pro Youth Movement.

“We are very grateful to the Fund for Santa Barbara, the Pro Youth Movement, La Casa de Maria and the Alternatives to Violence Project for their support of our efforts,” Dr. Lotito said, “as well as to our recently acquired fiscal sponsor Arts Without Limits (AWOL). By operating under their non-profit 501(c3) status, Las Abuelitas of Santa Barbara can accept tax-deductible donations and apply for other grants to implement and expand our action plan in which artistic expression is integral to our work of empowering youth.”

For more information, contact Dr. Lotito ([email protected] or at 805.968.1646), come to Viernes Social on Jan. 24 (RSVPs appreciated), and/or attend the next monthly meeting of Las Abuelitas of Santa Barbara at 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1 at Presidio Springs Community Center, 721 Laguna St.

— Barbara Lotito is the program coordinator for Las Abuelitas of Santa Barbara.

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