Las Comadres: Finding Common Ground And Contacts Over Coffee
February 20, 2005
Other women - about 30 in all - are crowded into the living room of the Lake Highlands, Texas, home. They share couches, chairs and even the floor, where they balance plates on their laps.
"I don't know three-fourths of these women," says Pearl Garza Fracchia as she looks around at the faces in the house. "And that's the beauty of it."
Women meeting other women is the whole purpose of this gathering of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, an Internet-based Latina network that so far is active in almost 20 cities across the country.
The word "comadre" is traditionally used by a woman to address her child's godmother, as in "co-mother," but Latinas have long used it as a term of endearment for a close friend.
The network's mission is to "build connections and community with other Latinas," but it does so without the usual organizational trappings. There are no dues, officers or committees. Members communicate through an e-mail list managed mostly by founder Nora de
Hoyos Comstock of Austin, where the group began.
Even the meetings aren't really meetings; they're comadrazos, potluck brunches or dinners held at a member's home. The structure is simple: Every woman introduces herself, describes her interests and passions, and after that each is free to connect with any of the
others during or after the comadrazo.
The comadrazos are meant to serve as a catalyst, says Comstock. They will spark the energy and generate the momentum that will enable Latinas to do everything from fostering community to supporting one another's businesses.
"We're going to build businesses and we're going to make businesses successful," she says. The comadrazos will help "build those relationships that are then like veins and arteries, and then those will take you everywhere."
The women here today have come hoping to create business partnerships, find mentoring opportunities, raise awareness about education and health issues, and simply meet other Latinas.
"Really, the objective was to come without an agenda, enjoy each other's company, really get to know one another - one on one," says Comadre Dora Tovar this morning as she opens up the introductions. "We encourage you to talk to someone you haven't already met. The
No. 1 objective is to network."
Several years ago, Comstock found that somewhere along the career and motherhood path, she had lost her cultural way. She was lonely for Latina friendships. Comstock, in her 50s, is owner and founder of The Sana Group Inc., which promotes a comprehensive approach
to health and well-being.
Professional business networks of which she was a part were all about, well, business. And she craved "the warmth, the nurturing, the embracing that our culture does," she says.
In 2000 she attended a couple of gatherings for Latinas who were looking for that same cultural connection. The fledgling group was exactly what she had been looking for. She volunteered to take the helm and keep up with membership and communications via the
Friends in other cities expressed an interest, and other groups quickly formed. Today Las Comadres has about 2,000 members across the country from California to Massachusetts. Austin alone has about 900 members. And this year Comstock will travel to some 25 other
cities to help launch other groups.
Members receive e-mail announcements daily about everything from demographic studies to job postings, from cancer awareness to financial workshops. A recent e-mail request for help from an Austin Comadre netted two truckloads of donated items for victims of
flooding along the Texas-Mexico border.
The Dallas Comadres e-mail list already has almost 300 names, and that list grows weekly. At a recent comadrazo, attendees ranged in age from their 20s to their 50s; they hailed from as far north as Canada to as far south as Chile. The only criterion for membership
is that a woman be Latina, or married into a Latino family.
"It's not to be exclusive or to cut anyone out," says Comstock. "It's an effort to connect ... to get a strong grounding and then embrace everyone. If I don't embrace myself, then how can I embrace everyone else?"
The Dallas group was formed only last summer; it's too soon to gauge the fruits of the new relationships formed through Las Comadres. But Tovar, 40, counts herself among those who have already benefited.
"I was involved 17 or 18 years ago in the development of the Hispanic Women's Network of Texas," says Tovar, a mother of two who lives in Arlington, Texas. "Although I was really active and I continue to be active with the organization, Las Comadres really speaks
to a different need that Latinas have."
While networks exist for women who have causes or specific business interests, the entrepreneur has mostly been left by the wayside, she says. This became clearer to her when she launched her own business.
After a two-year stint working in New York, in 2002 Tovar returned to Texas, where she began working as a public relations and marketing consultant. She had no staff nor outside office - just a group of freelancers whom she called upon when needed.
"It worked very well ... it was within my comfort zone," she says.
Still, she wondered: Could she have her own full-service communications agency one day?
Enter Comstock, who introduced her last year to Austin Comadre Judith Manriquez, owner of a communications firm in Georgetown, Texas. The two women found that they had similar desires to serve Hispanics.
"I met Dora and she is just a ball of energy," says Manriquez, 35 and the mother of two toddler sons. "She has such a vision about things."
"My particular strength and passion is ... taking visionary ideas and turning them into one, two, three steps," she says.
"I said, `Hey, listen - you've got tons of wonderful, great ideas,'" she recalls. "`I have wonderful resources. I think we should pair up together.'"
Last March, they launched The Tovar Manriquez Group, a communications and marketing firm, and already have met with two major food companies and a financial services company.
Like Tovar, Pearl Garza Fracchia, in her early 50s, belongs to several other organizations besides Las Comadres. For her, this group presents an opportunity to help younger women by making them aware of opportunities.
"For example, whenever boards and commissions come to me asking if I can serve, if I can't, I always offer names," she says. "Most of the time they will be women who have not had the opportunity to serve because of their age."
This brings fresh ideas to established organizations, she says.
She's also looking for young women to recruit for leadership programs.
"The more you see the women at each of the monthly meetings, you just develop ... a relationship," she says. "That's what I'm looking forward to happening in the future."
It's this kind of mentoring that Gabriela Bucio, 25, was looking for when she came to her first comadrazo a few months ago.
"I'd heard that the group was blended in age," says Bucio, a corporate sales account executive for the Dallas Mavericks. "I thought it would be neat to learn from the people who had opened the doors for us."
Women her age sometimes forget that business and career opportunities haven't always been available to their gender, says Bucio, who was born and raised in Mexico.
"I think that we kind of forget what women went through to gain professional respect and move up on the corporate ladder, as well as having a family and raising children," says Bucio. "... I thought it would be neat to talk to women in the community and share their
stories and learn from them."
This kind of opportunity is made more attractive by the warmth and camaraderie of the comadrazos, which are reminiscent of her native culture.
There is a sense of "estas en tu casa, y hay que platicar," she says - this is your home, let's talk.
Similarly, Verena Senter, coordinator for the Dallas Comadres group, has found that the group reconnects her to the culture she missed deeply since moving from Chile to Texas 13 years ago.
"I guess it's that need to feel part of something that is yours," says Senter, 32, who lives in Murphy, Texas.
"At this stage, I haven't been involved in it long enough to say that it has completely fulfilled the need for that Hispanic culture or friendship, but I see the potential for it," says Senter, a former telecom employee who is now piecing together a living with
But the name of the group alone "gives you the feeling of comfort," she says. "I have friends from high school that I see every five years and I still call them my comadres ..."
"I really don't have those friendships, deep friendships, that I would have if I was living in Chile," she says. "It's just the lifestyle here. People work all the time. We all overschedule things."
Las Comadres meetings are a time to simply be with other women, make friends and relax, she says, something that is largely missing from the American life.
Which is why the comadrazos are structured as they are, says Comstock.
"That's why I always say `no entertainment, no presentations,'" she says. "When we meet at a comadrazo, it's just for us. It's my time with you and your time with me. Let's get to know each other."
For more information see: http://www.hispaniconline.com/lstyles/