Fighting for civil rights doesn’t always mean one has to be loud or obnoxious, but it does take a lot of heart, empathy and stamina. This explains why San Juana Olivares has stayed the course to see justice for her people.
But her story begins in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico in 1984. When Juana Margarita was only six months old, a doctor told her mother that the child would not survive the night. She was battling a severe case of bronchitis.Like many Mexican mothers, Ana Maria prayed to Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos to intercede to God on behalf of her daughter’s life. She promised that she would change the baby’s name in the Virgencita’s honor if her baby lived.
So it seems San Juana Margarita has been a fighter from an early age. She began fighting for civil rights at age nine while in Oklahoma in 1993.
“I had been bullied because I was a nine-year-old in kindergarten for not knowing how to speak English,” said Olivares, who is the president of the Genesee County Hispanic/Latino Collaborative (GCHLC). “What I had not realized was that all the new Latino kids were being bullied for not knowing how to speak English. I made a promise to myself that I would succeed and learn English as fast as I could. In two weeks, I learned how to read in English and was moved to the grade I was supposed to be in originally.”
From then on, Olivares became the interpreter for not only her mother, but also her mother’s friends after they migrated north to Flint, Michigan in 1994. She saw how the undocumented and monolingual community was blatantly treated differently. She helped in medical translations, Department of Human Services appointments and parent-teacher conferences. Olivares says she did this until she was old enough to find resources for her people.
Then, in mid-2015, like many Flint residents, Olivares received a letter from the City of Flint regarding lead in the water. She began asking Spanish-speaking families what they knew about the crisis that would draw worldwide attention. Most of the undocumented community didn’t understand or have any knowledge of what was happening.
The resources that were initially made available required a valid ID or license, which obviously is impossible for the undocumented. Olivares began to lead efforts to find clean water for her people.She also began speaking with local, state and federal government officials and national organizations. In 2016, the people of Flint were pleading for their basic human right of water.
“We starting canvassing the east side of Flint, where most of the Hispanic/Latino people live,” explained Olivares. “We began accepting water donations, finding information on lead because most of our families believed erroneously that by boiling water it would help since they thought that it was bacteria making the water bad.”
Olivares was called to Washington D.C. several times to speak to congressmen and senators about how nothing was translated into Spanish or any other language.
It’s been a rough road for Olivares, especially during the last election, yet she and her family have persevered. And this past December, her mother Ana Maria had to visit another basilica of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos – this one in San Juan, Tejas – because she had to pay homage to her Lady when San Juana and her family obtained their legal residency in the United States in May of 2016. The Flint community has been blessed to have San Juana Margarita within their midst.