Little girls hoping to be matched with "big sisters" in the East/Northeast Little Sister Program fill out a questionnaire that asks, "What is the best thing about you?" Frequently, according to interim director Sandy Mendoza, the girls can't think of anything to write in that blank.
And that is what the program is all about, providing positive Latina role models for girls between 6 and 16 who, because of societal prejudices, alienation from the dominant culture or perhaps economic deprivation, may feel little self-worth.
$50,000 in Donations
After a shaky start, during which a well-meaning group of Latina volunteers learned that such a program takes funding and a full-time director as well as good intentions, the Little Sister program, sponsored by the Latin American Professional Women's Assn. and modeled after the Big Sisters of Los Angeles, is under way with $50,000 in donations and six matchups.
On a recent evening, four of these big sisters and their little sisters--all of them meeting their counterparts for the first time--sat talking around a table at the organization's headquarters, a converted firehouse in Lincoln Heights leased from the city for $1 a year.
The women, all single professionals, talked about shared girlhood experiences as Latinas--of struggle, of prejudice, of parental expectations for them, or lack of expectations, of the Latina's other stumbling block to career success: the Latino man.
First Visit to a Mall
Their little sisters spoke of rather simpler things--the fun of sharing with these new friends cookie-baking, a first visit to a shopping mall, an hour or two in a museum, a helping hand with a school science project.
One thing that was apparent by evening's end was that the lives of both big and little sisters are affected. Rosie Mares, 28, a government auditor who grew up in East Los Angeles as one of six children (her father, a high school dropout, was a golf course superintendent), said she has always felt "a little bit deprived" culturally because of her parents' determination to raise "American" children who would fit in. Along the way, Mares said, "I kind of lost something. Ever since, I've tried to go back into my culture."
When she signed up as big sister, and was matched with Veronica Rueda, 13, a Mexican-born seventh-grader living in East L.A., Mares was hoping that the commitment to spend meaningful time with a child three hours each week for a year would "enrich my life and enrich her life."
What Mares and the other big sisters bring to the program, in addition to a heritage shared with the children, is what Sandy Mendoza calls carino , a word for which she could find no exact English equivalent. Loosely translated, it means loving understanding.
It means being a concerned friend, a good listener and an interested companion, not a bearer of lavish gifts. In short, Mendoza said, the program is looking for a woman who will "take the best in these little girls and try to bring it out, and maybe because of her that girl will be the person she can be 20 years from now."
Latinas helping Latinas--that is the idea. The first matchup of big and little sisters was made about 10 months ago between Irma Cunes, 34, of Sherman Oaks, director of marketing for a life insurance company, and 8-year-old Daisy Lopez, a Lincoln Heights second-grader. "I wanted to give something to the (Latino) community," Cunes said, "and I thought helping an up-and-coming young lady would be a good way to do it."
Daisy's need, in Cunes' perception, was simply to have exposure to the world outside of East L.A. Daisy is one of six children; her father works in a factory by day and is a security guard at night, and her mother works as a housekeeper. "There are 11 people living in one room about as big as my bedroom," Cunes said. "Their main emphasis is just to have the basics in life."
Cunes and Daisy buy books and read them together. Daisy was born in El Salvador, moving here with her family only two years ago, and Cunes, who is of Mexican descent but was reared in Arizona by American-born parents, is able to help her with her English and grammar. Some of their time spent together is a bit more frivolous--Cunes learned, for example, that Daisy had never been to a shopping mall.
In the fall, both Cunes and Daisy modeled in a benefit J. C. Penney fashion show that netted $3,000 for the Little Sister Program. (Big and little sisters will again be models for a fund-raiser fashion show to be held April 13 at the Biltmore Hotel.)