Action Figure // Maria Pesqueira // Mujeres Latinas en Acción

When your middle name is “Socorro”-the Spanish word for “aid”-helping people must be ingrained in your DNA. Or so it seems with Maria Socorro Pesqueira, the CEO and president of Mujeres Latinas en Acción (Latin Women in Action), a social service agency in the Pilsen neighborhood that assists upwards of 7,000 families. Founded in 1973 to help runaway teens, it morphed into an organization that assisted victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Today, it also offers child care, afterschool tutoring, parenting classes, a variety of health resources, and other programs.

The same year Mujeres was begun, Pesqueira left Mexico to join her family in Chicago, where her father had found work a few years earlier. Today, a petite, charismatic 39-year-old, she greets a guest warmly with an offer of tea, recommending a lemongrass variety

reminiscent of her grandfather’s brew from her home state of Guanajuato. She then relates how the organization’s founder, Maria Mangual, encouraged her to take over Mujeres and jump-start its floundering capital campaign. With no show of false humility, she describes her reaction to that request: “Me? Little me? Run this great organization?”

Don’t mistake her modesty for meekness. When it comes to improving the Pilsen community, Pesqueira is a real fighter. When she joined Mujeres in 2000, she had already spent eight years as development director of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, leading a capital campaign that raised $7.5 million-enough to build a new wing and establish an endowment. And last February, little more than five years after Pesqueira came on board and revitalized the organization’s fundraising, Mujeres moved into a new 14,000-square-foot, $3.4-million facility. But even that new building, insists Pesqueira, is no match for the 41 employees and 80 volunteers who work there. “There’s so much corazón in this organization,” she says, using the Spanish word for “heart.”

Pesqueira has also introduced a number of new programs. They include a mother-daughter leadership course, designed to help put the brakes on the burgeoning Latina teen-pregnancy rate, and Project Sanctuary, which provides a safe space for noncustodial parents to hold child visitations. There’s a new satellite office in Cicero, and the staff has converted Mujeres’ former headquarters into a youth facility.

As for Mujeres’ new home, it is a well-scrubbed brick structure that overlooks the surrounding bungalows. In the late afternoon, sunlight filters into its upstairs rooms-an apt metaphor for a place where women are encouraged to step out of the shadows of abuse. “When we finally moved into this facility,” says Pesqueira, “one woman asked, ‘Wow, is this really for us?’ And we said, ‘Yes, it is for you.’ And she said, ‘But it’s just so nice.’

“Well, you should be able to have services and programs with dignity,” continues Pesqueira. “We can be the most versatile group of people and make an office out of a closet, but we can also make our dreams come true in a bigger, nicer space.”