For nearly half her life, Rosa, a petite woman of 52 with a streak of gray in her red hair, considered herself a "champion" drinker. She said she used to chase down shots of hard liquor with glasses of beer every day until she would fall down unconscious.
Rosa, a widow who ironed clothes for a living, said she tried to stop drinking many times on her own, but couldn't. Two years ago, she enrolled in a co-ed, residential alcohol treatment program. She lasted only three days. She left, she said, because "it was mostly men in the program instead of women."
Language was a problem, too, since Rosa, who spoke through an interpreter, understands little English. A native of Guatemala, she has lived in the Los Angeles area for 12 years.
For two months now, Rosa said, she has gone without a drink. She stopped in December when she moved from the small apartment she shared with a roommate into an airy, two-story house at 530 N. Ave. 54 in Highland Park, where California's first bilingual residential recovery program for Latinas has been established.
There, along with five other women alcoholics, Rosa (who asked that her real name not be used) said she is learning to "help myself with the problem of alcohol."
Known as Mujeres Project, the 90-day recovery program is part of an effort by Los Angeles County's Office of Alcohol Programs to address what the county has identified as a priority for the next few years: the need for more services for alcoholic women.
"New money and projects have been committed to meet a parity of services for women by 1988," said Al Wright, director of the county's alcohol programs.
Alcoholism among women in Los Angeles County is a growing problem, Wright said, but most of the $20 million in alcohol services that the county provides annually is channeled into programs for men.
According to the California Women's Commission on Alcohol, of the 75 residential recovery programs in the Los Angeles area, which includes 60 self-supporting programs and 15 county-funded programs, only 17 are for women.
For the more than 2 million Latinos in Los Angeles County, there are even fewer services, Wright said.
There are a few counseling and out-patient programs with bilingual staffs, Wright said, but until the inception of the Mujeres (which means female) Project, there was only one bilingual residential program in the county. That program, run by the East Los Angeles Health Task Force, is for men only.
Mujeres Project, which accepted its first resident in October, could serve as a model, Wright said. "If it works well here, my anticipation is that it will be copied in other parts of the state."
Fee Based on Ability to Pay
The program is free to women who qualify for public assistance; others may be charged a maximum of $500 for the 90-day program, based on their ability to pay. Under a renewable one-year contract with the county, Mujeres Project is being administered at a start-up cost of $160,000 by the California Hispanic Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, an arm of the state Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs.
The commission contracts with counties to administer alcohol and drug programs in the Latino community, besides providing training and technical assistance for other alcohol services.
James Hernandez, commission director, said there are few recovery programs designed for Latino alcoholics because "we all expect existing programs to serve our population." But the majority of the programs, Hernandez said, are viewed by Latinos as "cold, uninviting and intimidating."
Three women have completed the recovery program at Mujeres Project, which relies on peer-oriented, group-support techniques.
Women in the program were referred by alcohol-service agencies or went on their own after hearing about the program on Spanish-language radio and television shows. The Mujeres Project staff does not provide medical treatment or individual counseling and therapy, but will make referrals if such services are needed.
Women must be sober for at least 24 hours before going to live at the house. A typical week for the women at Mujeres Project is filled with support-group meetings, workshops on such health matters as nutrition and exercise, guest lectures by representatives of other alcohol services, arts and crafts, and classes in aerobics and English.
Besides the services provided by the staff of Mujeres Project, two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are held at the house each week, one bilingual and the other conducted only in Spanish.
There is a secluded spot, called "Serenity Hill," at the rear of the home's huge terraced backyard.
Most of the time "it's one lady helping another lady," said Maria Lojero, who directs the project's six-member staff, all of whom are women.
Because the staff is bilingual and bicultural, Lojero said, "we can relate to the women in the program as far as food, as far as language, as far as attitudes and cultural traditions."