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Ms. Applauds Two in Southland for 'Feminist Values'

September 17, 1997|BEVERLY BEYETTE

Two women who call the Southland home are among "21 for the 21st," a group of outstanding young feminists featured in Ms. magazine's 25th anniversary issue.

They are Julie Su, 28, a staff attorney at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, and Nohelia Canales, at 23 a veteran social activist and now studying medicine at the Mayo Clinic.

In presenting its "21"--promising feminists 30 and younger whose fields include journalism, the law, academia, science, politics and the arts--Ms. lauds them as "smart and savvy . . . young rebels [who] are creating their own groups, transforming existing institutions and bringing feminist values to their professional work."

In August 1995, Su led the first of 72 Thai garment workers to freedom following their rescue from an El Monte sweatshop where for three years they'd been virtually imprisoned and forced to work 17 hours a day for $2 an hour. Su, a lead lawyer in negotiating the workers' release on bond, later helped them find jobs and housing.

The daughter of Chinese immigrant parents who came to America as students in their 20s, Su is passionate in her determination to use her elite education at Stanford University and Harvard Law School to fight for justice for low-wage immigrant workers and people of color.

"Immigrants contribute so much and have always contributed so much," she says. "It takes a certain amount of courage to cross an ocean or cross a continent and find a new home."

She adds, "My mother came when she was far younger than I am now, with no money, not speaking the language of this country. She raised me with a deep love of the country she adopted and a deep faith in limitless opportunities."

Her good fortune, she believes, carries with it a responsibility "to ensure that those gains aren't lost again. I think doing civil rights law and serving poor people is helping to preserve all of those principles that make this country so great."

Canales was 5 when her family, granted political asylum as a result on an attempt on the life of her father, a top government official, immigrated to the Los Angeles area from Nicaragua. She spoke no English.

In 1996, Canales graduated from Mount St. Mary's College, where she was a scholarship student and an activist. She then put medical school on hold for a year to intern for Freedom Summer/Fall '96, a Feminist Majority Foundation voter registration and affirmative action project.

"I learned from my dad the importance of being politically aware and politically involved, says Canales, who organized and mobilized college students, many of them in East L.A., to fight Proposition 209, the ballot measure to eliminate affirmative action programs. The measure passed, but Canales learned that "in politicizing a person, you change them forever. That consciousness stays with them for the rest of their lives."

Canales has volunteered at a Head Start and at a "safe haven" youth project in South-Central L.A., taught adult ESL classes and tutored inner-city eighth-grade Latinas. In May, she was one of three recipients of Gloria Steinem Awards at ceremonies in New York.

She is now in the tumor biology program of the Mayo Clinic, an eight-year course leading to a combined MD/PhD degree. "My ultimate goal is to do research in breast cancer and to work in community medicine, specifically focusing on Latinas and reproductive health," she says.

Canales says, "My life is in many ways a way of thanking my mom, for what I am." Her mother was married at 18 and was about her age when the family immigrated. "Not speaking a word of English, she had to figure out how she was going to help get food on the table."

Educating Canales and her two younger sisters was paramount for her mother, says Canales, "She knew as Latinas, as women, we had to have a very strong education."

And, she adds, her mother taught them "you need to give back," not just "take and run."

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