For 20 years, Gilda Larios has made significant contributions to the work of Mary’s Pence –– first as a Mary’s Pence grantee in Mexico, then as a Mary’s Pence board member, and now as a staff person based in Mexico City in her role as ESPERA Team Lead. Throughout her work, Gilda’s solidarity with women can be characterized by her tenderness, which she describes as a way of “being in the world based on love and its power to generate mutually enhancing relationships.”
In recognition of International Women’s Day on March 8th — the annual day when our global community recognizes the contributions and achievements of women — we want to honor and thank Gilda for her work and share her inspiring story of her dedication to ensuring justice, dignity, and solidarity for all.
The Beginning of the Story
Gilda grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, and now lives in Mexico City. The daughter of business owners, Gilda’s father recognized the value of speaking English and encouraged her to learn the second language –– a skill that served Gilda well over the years, especially for her work with Mary’s Pence. She earned a degree in social work from 1973 in 1977.
Gilda’s strong connection to the people of Central America began in 1980 when she marched in solidarity in Mexico City with the people of El Salvador following the murder of Monsignor Oscar Romero. It was this experience that first inspired her to share her life and skills with Salvadorans refugees in Mexico.
Working with Refugees
In the early 80’s Gilda found herself helping refugees who were fleeing the violence and civil war in El Salvador. She worked with the American Friends Service Committee, which owned a house in Mexico City and provided shelter and services to immigrants and refugees. As part of her work Gilda helped people create economic initiatives to financially support themselves. It was here that she met Laurana Moreno, a woman who would become an important part of Gilda’s story, who was working with Guatemalan women at this time.
In 1984 Gilda took a year-long sabbatical to travel throughout Europe and Ethiopia. Upon her return to Mexico, she joined an organization called the Comité del D.F. (the Federal District Committee), which worked with Guatemalan refugees. Part of Gilda’s responsibility was to support women who were being trained as mental health promoters for refugee women and children. As part of that movement, Gilda became active with other international NGOs, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), working to implement the safe return of refugees to Guatemala. She accompanied refugees to New York and Geneva where they negotiated their own proposals for safe passage back to their country.
Working with Women and Money / Mary’s Pence Grantee
In 1998 Gilda partnered with her aforementioned friend Laurana to work with women and economics. Together with the women in Mexico, Gilda and Laurana co-created a venture of savings and loans. Thanks to Luisa María Rivera, a longtime friend who would subsequently join the Mary’s Pence board, Gilda and Laurana met with Catholic sisters who introduced them to women’s groups in the state of Morelos in Mexico. The duo founded Women’s Empowerment and Income Generation (MUGEM), starting with 6 organized groups of women that were part of the “comunidades de base.” Convinced of the importance of women having access to financial resources, Gilda and Laurana started providing programs that focused on savings and later expanded programming to include loans for small economic initiatives.
The strength of each group was their faith connection in their respective community, as well as their commitment to transparency. All the women knew the status of the savings and loans, and they were all involved in the decisions.
In those initial years, Carol Johnston, a Sister of Charity and a Mary’s Pence Compañera, was working in the region, and had a chance to observe the MUGEM program. She remembers that she first found Gilda in a small Mexican community teaching women basic financial skills at the blackboard. Six months later Carol returned to find Gilda in the back of the room while the women were at the blackboard doing the math, solidifying practical knowledge and teaching each other. On her third visit Carol joined Gilda outside playing with the children while the women met together around the blackboard.
The work of MUGEM united two causes that Gilda holds most dear: the liberation of women and the empowerment of women through community-based economics. MUGEM opened up a space in communities for women’s leadership. It created an opportunity to bring forth the power of community among the vulnerable.
Sister Carol introduced Gilda and Laurana to Mary’s Pence, and MUGEM received grants from Mary’s Pence in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Not only was this Gilda’s first introduction to Mary’s Pence, but the lessons learned from working with the women’s groups informed the founding of ESPERA years later.
Life Changes / Mary’s Pence Work as a Board Member
In 2003 Gilda joined the board of Mary’s Pence, while continuing her work at MUGEM. As a board member, Gilda visited Mary’s Pence grantees in Nicaragua. She recalls traveling for a week or so on less than $100. The grantees graciously welcomed her and took great care of her. Gilda, in turn, carefully listened to the women to best understand their hopes and needs.
During this time Mary’s Pence was looking at how to best support women in Latin America. Since our inception in 1987 Mary’s Pence had been awarding grants to women across the Americas and it was time to look strategically at the needs and discern what was possible. Gilda helped Mary’s Pence explore ways to be most effective, especially in Latin America. It was clear that the work needed to be in relationship with the women, and that the focus was on women’s empowerment and economic security.
Gilda’s experience at MUGEM with women’s savings and loans was a gift to the discussion. She shared the importance of economics in women’s lives, and her knowledge of working collaboratively in a group where information and decision-making was fully shared.
During this intense time of discussion about Mary’s Pence’s future path, Gilda received a diagnosis of breast cancer. Through her sorrows and challenges she speaks about the full-hearted accompaniment she received from the women of ESPERA and all of Mary’s Pence. For her, it was a message about the power of community. For Gilda, tenderness is at the core of all relationships.
Her health crisis provoked a change both in her thinking and in her way of being. Across the world women often feel like they have to be all-powerful and save others, and Gilda was no different. But at this point she had a change of heart; she no longer felt the need to be all-powerful, or as they would say in Mexico, she didn’t need to be the “Virgin of Guadalupe.” Her ego was humbled, her identity changed. Her perspective shifted, deepening her commitment to the power of women to envision communities of the future.
New strategic plans created a bold change for Mary’s Pence. With the launch of the ESPERA program, Mary’s Pence started partnering with existing women’s organizations in Mexico and Central America to develop lending pools collectively owned by women to support their investments in individual and collective economic initiatives.
ESPERA / Gilda as ESPERA Staff
In 2008 Mary’s Pence hired Gilda as the first staff person of the ESPERA program. Gilda brought great heart and professional skills to the work. The ability to trust change and to trust women has always guided the approach of Mary’s Pence. Since the beginning, the genius of listening to the women in Central America and Mexico with an open heart and an open mind has allowed ESPERA to readily move with the women of the partner organizations.
Cambia, todo cambia. Change, everything changes. Faithful to its mission over time, ESPERA has evolved. In response to the women’s growing economic initiatives, business skills beyond loans became the central focus of ESPERA’s work. Based on women’s experiences, Mary’s Pence has since added an emotional wellness component to ESPERA –– a critical component that is able to address historical trauma, and the effect of gang violence and machismo in women’s communities and homes.
Gilda has led the ESPERA program for 12 years. What started with 3 organizations has since grown to 10 organizations, and nearly 1,300 women. Each group is organized around local community issues, with an emphasis on putting women’s needs and voices at the center of community decision-making. Within each group, ESPERA helps women focus on business development skills that promote economic autonomy for women within their households and communities. About half of the businesses started by ESPERA women involve crop and animal production, the other half includes food preparation, shops or tiendas, artisan crafts and more. Across the 10 groups, ESPERA supports women’s businesses with a total loan pool of $150,000 and has provided more than $800,000 in loans over its lifetime.
Looking to the Future / The Pandemic and Laudato Si’
Gilda has now been with Mary’s Pence for 20 years. Reflecting on the changes brought by the global pandemic, she marvels at how ESPERA women quickly began innovating community connections and supporting each other in new ways. Travel, even to near-by communities, is difficult in Central America; Covid-19 has exacerbated these challenges. As virtual meetings have become common, many groups have taken this opportunity to rely ever more creatively on one another, developing local strategies, sharing information more fluidly and fortifying home markets. Through it all, thanks to Gilda and her ESPERA colleagues Eva Martinez and Brenda Valladares based in El Salvador, ESPERA has remained responsive to local needs.
For someone who used to say that she practically “lived in the air” because she traveled so frequently to visit ESPERA women in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, as well as to Mary’s Pence board and staff in the U.S., the pandemic has “grounded” Gilda. She’s closer to herself, to her passion for justice, all the while widening her embrace. Relating with the women’s groups via Zoom and meeting with new communities and learning opportunities, she welcomes faith’s energy to pause, to dare, to celebrate; and she acts from that authority. Just one example of new ways: starting this month women of ESPERA are embarking on a year-long online leadership and organizational development program. ESPERA is evolving as women in Mexico and Central America author their lives in community.
Having seen first-hand the interweaving of movements to create spaces for justice to flourish, Gilda is newly moved by the lively commitment of Pope Francis to the integral heart of our common home, Earth, in the 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’. Haven’t women always been attending the “home?” Gilda wonders. To create justice, we need the wisdom of women, the wisdom of Earth. “How can that ever be,” she asks, “without enhancing our sisterly love for each other’s place?” Gilda’s question sums up the commitment of ESPERA, indeed of Mary’s Pence, to the women of the Americas.
“What I have done in Mary’s Pence is my life; it’s not my work, it’s my passion.” Gilda