Film, “Justice for My Sister,” becomes movement for eradicating violence against women

Kimberly Bautista (right) filmmaker of “Justice for My Sister.” (Courtesy Kimberly Bautista)

Kimberly Bautista (right) filmmaker of “Justice for My Sister.” (Courtesy Kimberly Bautista)

Many have heard of the mysterious killings of the women in Juarez, Mexico, but filmmaker Kimberly Bautista is traveling from country to country to spread the word about what she says is the femicide that’s also common in Guatemala and other Central American countries.

Her award-winning documentary called “Justice For My Sister” is about a 27-year-old Guatemalan mother of three who left for work one day and never returned. It was revealed shortly after that her boyfriend had beaten her to death and had left her on the side of the road. According to Bautista’s data, 580 women were murdered in Guatemala in 2007, and only one percent of those cases have been solved.

The film, which promotes awareness of violence against women, has made the rounds in film festivals in the U.S. and Central America and will screen in San Jose, Costa Rica, Wednesday. It was named the best long-form documentary in Central America as well as in the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival this past October. But most importantly, its anti-femicide message has turned into a movement.

“The goal is to replicate what we’ve done in Guatemala across Central America and to raise awareness about violence and for ways women can get help,” says Bautista, who has also started Texting Peace – a program which allows women to report threats or harassment via text message.

Another aspect of her anti-violence campaign is training youth to learn about the cycle of violence, and engaging men in the conversation.

“Most violence against women is a result of male privilege, because society is constantly justifying their actions – that contributes to more violence,” says Bautista who gets funding through different embassies. “Once they receive their training, they present events in their specific communities.”

Bautista, 28, is originally from Pasadena, Calif. and is born to a Colombian father and Irish-American mother. However, she has been an activist against the violent killing of women in Juarez since 2003.

“I think that to a certain extent domestic violence against women is so marked by silence that I wanted to offer a platform to intervene in that,” she says. “There are many facets of violence – sexual, physical, verbal – it’s just so pervasive…A key part of violence prevention is to provide people with a safe space to develop their leadership skills, so they can be active community members and call out violence when they see it.”

She says she the anti-domestic violence movement in general becomes more proactive through community building and holding people accountable.

“I want people to understand that this isn’t just an issue between two people, — it’s a societal issue,” says Bautista. “When people see the film, they tend to relate to the characters. At the screenings, we’ve heard stories of rape, economic and emotional violence.”

The filmmaker is no stranger to violence herself. During the end of the 4-year period it took to make the documentary, Bautista herself was held hostage and raped by armed assailants in the house she was staying at in Guatemala. Her camera equipment was stolen, but to this date, there’s no resolution to the case, and it’s unclear if the perpetrators had targeted her because of the work she was doing.

“We were able to identify two suspects, but they were released,” says Bautista, which is a similar occurrence that happens in other violence against women cases in Central America, according to the film.

She explains this act of violence towards her made her realize her film could be used as a prevention tool and hopefully encourage especially men to take a stand against violence.

“In the process of making this film, we were able to take justice into our own hands in a transformative way,” says Bautista.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

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Latina Leaders: U.S. Army Colonel’s mission is to help others succeed

Colonel Irene Zoppi (Courtesy U.S. Army)

Colonel Irene Zoppi (Courtesy U.S. Army)

Many of us have high ambitions, but very few aspire to be a U.S. Army general.

That is a goal Colonel Irene Zoppi is striving for next. Currently, she’s one of only 15 Latinas in the U.S. Army Reserve who holds the rank of colonel. She also happens to be a full-time professor at Strayer University in Maryland, a wife and mother of three, and a Gulf War veteran who holds a doctorate in education policy, planning and administration and a masters in business.

“I think that I’ve taken every opportunity given to me,” says the 47-year-old who moved to the U.S. mainland from Canóvanas, Puerto Rico 26 years ago, barely speaking any English. “Often, as immigrants, we don’t get every opportunity so we start looking for them. Once we find them, we continue working at them so we can get ahead.”

As a girl in Puerto Rico, she says she used to wander around the naval station where both of her parents were stationed, admiring the uniforms and the discipline around her. She ended up joining the Army at 19, while continuing her studies at the University of Puerto Rico, because it “had more opportunities for women” than the Navy.

By 21, she got commissioned as an officer and had a bachelors degree in foreign languages – which she calls her gift. She eventually learned five languages and earned the nickname, “the Visa card,” among her fellow servicemen, because she often served as the translator for them.

Zoppi says moving up the military ladder and learning to acculturate to American culture — especially as a Latina — was not easy.

“A lot of time I was put down,” says the tough but light-spirited coronel who admits to having had trouble deciphering English for a long time when it was spoken too fast. That, however, was the impetus for her to work harder.

“The diversity wasn’t there at that time — so it was difficult and a lot of work. I was battling everybody — I didn’t go partying like everybody else so I could do better.”

Zoppi has seen her share of tough situations as she has advanced in the Army, but she clearly believes in her mission.

 ”One of the most impacting moments in my life was being in combat,” says Zoppi who has earned countless metals for her service, including the Bronze Star. “Although I believe in peace and diplomacy, sometimes the ultimate price we pay for democracy and freedom and national defense is war.”

The military first began accepting women into its ranks in the early 20th century. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Defense, as of 2011, approximately 13 percent of active duty military are women.

Today, as a professor and colonel, Zoppi is very motherly and even hugs her soldiers. She says she really cares for them and often gives them advice.

“In order to become successful, you have to know yourself by going to school, taking advantage of career centers, taking personality tests, and then develop a plan — long term and short term,” she advises. Zoppi already planned her life to age 100. “I have created a map of things I want to do, but also remember to be flexible and adaptable and don’t forget to be spiritual and give back.”

The Puerto Rican colonel advises to continue seeking opportunities throughout one’s life.

“Don‘t just do what feels good, but contribute to the good of our Earth,” says Zoppi. “We have to consider each other.”

In order to do her part in giving back, Zoppi often offers her time as a keynote speaker, motivating women around the world. She says she enjoys helping other women, especially Latinas, to get ahead.

“I want to help other women see they can do it.”

Dr. Irene Zoppi being promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1987. (Courtesy Irene Zoppi)

Dr. Irene Zoppi being promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1987. (Courtesy Irene Zoppi)

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Latina Leaders: From psychologist to online networking leader

Dr. Angelica Perez (Photo/India Perez-Urbano)

Dr. Angelica Perez (Photo/India Perez-Urbano)

If Dr. Angelica Perez sees a young 20-something girl working in a store, it’s not rare for her to ask, “Are you in college?”

“That’s something I’ve always done, and I’ll do that forever, until I die,” she says. “That to me, is my life mission.”

Dr. Perez has always been an independent thinker. When she was a teenager, although all of her peers applied to the nearest high schools, Perez never limited herself. Instead, she thought, “I want to go to the best school I could go to.”

Today at 45, that way of thinking has taken her far. Besides having her own clinical psychology practice, she also is the publisher and CEO of New Latina — an online resource for other career-driven Latinas, and the newly created online ELLA Leadership Institute, which after only a week of existing, already has more than 2,000 members worldwide.

“What I love the most is when I can help a woman truly identify her potential and embrace it,” says Dr. Perez. “When I can help her see how much bigger she is than she thinks she is, that’s true empowerment… Having them own that, makes my day.

Growing up, as the eldest daughter of immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic, she says she grew up very fast in a neighborhood known for drugs and shootings in the 1980’s.

“You’re what they call the ‘cultural broker’ or bridge — I was always empowering people around me,” says the woman who as a girl made her bedroom a little classroom. “I never felt like I had a childhood or teenage-hood. I almost felt like I was a social worker growing up — putting fires out for a lot of people.”

She says little by little she learned by observing people, how to resolve issues.

“Psychology was a perfect match for someone who wanted to help people and intervene,” says Dr. Perez, who originally set out to be a pediatrician because of her father’s dream.

Eventually, she went on to complete her PhD in clinical psychology from Fordham University.

“The majority of my work is on women,” says the mother of four children, about her 25 year career.

“What I started realizing is that a lot of these Latinas coming to my practice were coming in because they were frustrated by the challenges they were facing in trying to become ambitious Latinas, and figuring out what they need to do,” she says. “So I found myself doing more career coaching than psychiatric evaluations.”

She soon realized what the underlying issue was.

“They were coming in without mentors at work and not having role models,” says Dr. Perez about her patients who had parents who have never worked in corporate America, or attended college. “I hardly have women who are depressed, they just don’t have a lot of confidence.”

She says just as our mother’s were pioneers in a new country, the new generation is now navigating their way into the unchartered corporate world.

“That’s why it’s important to give women connections to influential networks, and teach them what is the strategy to succeed in their career sector,” says Dr. Perez who has been working on creating the Ella Leadership Institute for about a year. “What I want to do is not have inspirational events anymore where women are inspired, and then go home and there’s nothing. What I want to do is create an event that’s value driven.”

She plans on hosting an annual conference and networking events that are TEDx style, with an exchange of ideas. What started off as a group on Facebook, is now an online network of more than 27 groups of like-minded women, grouped by region and expertise.

“I really believe that Latinas are going to globally take over the world,” she says.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Latina Leaders: A social worker teaches to use your own experiences for empowerment

Cynthia Santiago at a workshop. (Photo/Rachel Breitman)

Cynthia Santiago at a workshop. (Photo/Rachel Breitman)

Cynthia Santiago is not your typical clinical social worker, she works full-time as a program director for counseling in New York City public schools, she has a private practice, and offers workshops in self-development which has helped thousands of Latinas and families in the city. In addition to writing her own blog called, Latina Wellness, she contributes to Vidavibrante.com and SoLatina.com.

For Santiago, social work was a pretty obvious path, because she remembers clearly wanting to help others from as young as age 4.

“I was always a very sensitive, compassionate kid,” she says. “I would cry when other kids would cry. I couldn’t really see other people in pain without being impacted. It would kind of crush me.”

She grew up in a home where her step dad used to abuse her mom, emotionally and physically, and one of Santiago’s first roles as a social worker — after graduating with a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University — was working with battered women and children.

“I could think, ‘Oh I had a horrible life,’ that’s where a lot of people go,’” says Santiago, who instead learned from her experience — not to be a victim and to use bad situations to her advantage. “It’s a way of empowerment and dealing with life, because life is life and stuff is going to happen.”

Her life experience, trained her for her future career.

“I always loved helping people, but I didn’t like the models I was exposed to,” says Santiago, describing the theories she learned in school. “There was an idea that you start wherever the client is. There’s also this idea that you have to let people be, but just being doesn’t allow for change.”

So she says she made the decision to be innovative and started offering her patients alternative ways of thinking – at least to provide them with the opportunity to have another view. She would ask them, “Have you thought about this?” or “What if you shifted or reframed where you are right now?”

“That was very different from what I was originally trained to do, and that’s why I started coaching,” says Santiago. “I really believe in helping women, and people, be their best self.”

She says her job gives her complete joy. Her absolute favorite part is writing her blog, because of the fulfillment it gives her.

“My second favorite part is running the group coaching sessions,” says the 44-year-old. “There is such a wonderful tremendous energy I get from sitting in a gathering of Latinas who show up because they want to figure out how to live their dream life. They want to grow and change and improve. It’s so inspiring that I leave those sessions on a natural high.”

She says the other night 22 women came to her workshop, and it was so full of inspiration and energy that she had trouble sleeping afterwards.

“I was explaining to them how much I do, and over the years, I have not really thought about not being able to do it, but how to make room for it,” says Santiago whose typical day starts at her program director job counseling for schools, where she oversees about 24 people. “I’m not really in an office. I go out to the schools and move around. I do Latina Wellness and see clients in the evenings.”

She says she sees a lot of people wanting to make a change, but they feel stuck and don’t know how to start.

“Most people, when they are facing a challenge, will automatically think, ‘I don’t know what to do about this,’ but I help them think, ‘What are my options?’,” says Santiago. “There is always another way, but you have to be in a place to think that way to make that possible.”

Ultimately, she says everybody wants to live a life where they feel meaning and purpose, and that’s why she started Latina Wellness –  to give Latinas the tools to do that.

“I hear from women all the time that they feel empowered, and I can’t express enough how grateful I am to live my dream, and what it means to help others live their dream,” she says.

This article was originally published on NBCLatino.com, and was nominated for a 2014 NASW Media Award.