Petra Iniguez said she felt like a prisoner in her own home until she joined a neighborhood women's parenting group in Venice.
A recent arrival from Mexico, Iniguez, 39, found life in the United States perplexing and frightening. But joining other women in a similar plight has given her the strength to cope, Iniguez said. It also has taught her how to get along better with her sons.
Iniguez's sister, Maria Cruz Iniguez, credits the parenting group with teaching her several skills. In weekly meetings, she has learned not only how to discipline her children but how to read and write in her native Spanish.
"We have to help one another and go forward to better ourselves," said Candalaria Pena, 67, the oldest group member. Pena teaches the women basic reading, using principles she learned in an educational program sponsored by the Mexican consulate.
Every Thursday the women meet with about a dozen others from Latin American countries in a bright classroom at St. Clement's Elementary School in Venice. Children in tow, they come together to talk about their problems.
A Need to Talk
Those problems are not much different from anyone else's. And like most people, the women need to talk about them and get advice. At the parent-support group and child-care center they can do just that--in their native Spanish.
Although parent-support groups are not uncommon in the English-speaking population, sessions conducted in Spanish are rare, said Gloria Guerrero, a licensed counselor. And as more people emigrate from Mexico and Central America, the need for such groups grows, she said.
Some of the women have young children with school-related problems; others must cope with a hyperactive son or daughter. Still others are concerned because their teen-agers are spending more time with their friends than with the family.
Although the program is labeled a parenting-support group, conversations also focus on husbands, in-laws and work opportunities. Last week, the women discussed how opportunities for women in the United States differ from those in Latin America.
The support group is the brainchild of Sister Diane Clyne, who leads it with Guerrero.
A member of the Sisters of Mercy who works at St. Joseph's Center--an organization that offers food, clothing and social services to the needy--Clyne believes passionately in the group.
Chance to Grow
"The group gives the women a chance for their own sense of self-worth to develop," Clyne said.
Fluent in Spanish, Clyne treats all the group members as longtime friends, inquiring about their families and enthusiastically organizing potluck dinners.
However, Clyne said it is the neighborhood women who help each other. Guerrero and Clyne simply guide them. "They have the answers for one another, " Clyne said.
"A lot of the people that come here are very socially isolated," Guerrero said. "They left their families behind and are having a hard time making friends."
The support group can help ease that isolation as the women gain a sense of trust and form lasting friendships, Clyne said.
"You're not trapped in the house and you have the opportunity to share your problems so you feel more secure," Iniguez said.
As the women discuss their problems and offer advice, they also embroider lace doilies, knit or sew patches on a quilt. Their colorful needlework, kept neatly folded on shelves lining the classroom's walls, will be sold at church bazaars throughout the year. It brings the women a few extra dollars, said group member Alicia Redondo, 26.
"There's a specialness about this group. . . . There's a lot of interest (among the women) in bettering themselves as parents," Guerrero said. "They have a mutual care and respect that you sense."
Clyne agreed. "There's a real trust among the women. It's taken a while to develop that," she said. Some group members have been meeting for almost two years, she said.
The assurance of confidentiality adds to the women's sense of mutual trust, Redondo said.
Having a place to bring children also helps to keep attendance and spirits up.
"If there wasn't a place for children to play here, I would not come," Redondo said.
Getting out of the house is particularly hard for mothers with very young children, Clyne said, compounded by the stresses of adjusting to a new culture. And child-care facilities are scarce for the poor on the Westside, she added.
"Pressures to remain at home and care for children can be greater on Latinas," Clyne said. "I see the Spanish-speaking woman as having the least access to services."
Although the husbands of some of the women initially opposed their joining the group, many of the women said their husbands now see the benefits of the program.
"I get along better with my husband and he's much calmer," said Luisa Gomez, 36. "He doesn't fight with me. It has helped me a lot to talk about what goes on here."
Although the specific problems discussed will undoubtedly change as their children grow older and start school, the women say they plan to continue meeting indefinitely.
"As long as I'm welcome here and they keep putting up with me, I'll be here," Gomez said.