Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sandra Serrano Sewell

Born and raised in Lorain, Ohio in the early 1950s, in an environment, which she fondly recalls as ‘Suzy-homemaker-esque,’ Sandra Serrano Sewell began championing human rights at a very young age. Prompted by her parents’ involvement in the Progressive Party, liberal politics, and Communism during the McCarthy era of FBI investigations surrounding the ‘Red Scare,’ her early years were centered around celebrating Lorain International Week, dating boys of different ethnic backgrounds, and the steel mill (along with its Union), where her father worked. She said (jovially) in her oral history, “I remember, like, most kids are told fairy tales. I remember being told about the shirt factory fire in New York when I was little. I remember being told union stories, not Andersen’s fairy tales.” Her interest in labor unions and labor rights had peaked at a really young age, due to her family’s fervent beliefs.

With few career prospects after high school, Sandra spontaneously moved to Pasadena, without any notification or discussion, in hopes of discovering her passions, away from the Midwest. Soon after her hesitant arrival to southern California, Sandra immersed herself in the Robert F. Kennedy campaign, Young Democrats, and Martin Luther King Westside Study Center. Meeting her future husband [Mario Sewell] at a Peace and Freedom meeting through Young Democrats, gave her a glimpse into the ‘Hippie’ California culture of the time. Soon after a quick marriage and a life dedicated to the “mommy” world, Sandra’s distance from political advocacy began to take a toll on her. She broke from her mommy routine soon after, by attending her very first NOW (National Organization for Women) meeting. The meeting however, turned into a gathering of scrutiny against Sandra. Her decked up going out attire, complete with makeup and done-up hair was not welcomed by the crowd of “Anglo women in jeans, no bras, and sweatshirts, and all looking pretty skuzzy.” Her bold (and expected) response to the situation however, was to defend her choice of lifestyle. “I didn’t feel ashamed that I was a homemaker and I didn’t feel ashamed that I had two children and I didn’t feel ashamed that I didn’t finish my formal education.” Scarred from the NOW meeting, Sandra very hesitantly attended the Comision Femenil Mexicana Nacional just a few months later, after her husband’s deliberate insistence. There, Sandra discovered her passions at the intersection of women’s leadership and Chicano politics.

Four years after her attendance at the Comision Femenil Mexicana Nacional conference, Sandra was the national president of the organization. In advocating for equal treatment of women regardless of their education or career choices (formal education or lack thereof and homemaker or career woman), Sandra’s dedication to the truest values of the organization won her the seat as the president. In her oral history she confirmed, “I wanted to raise the profile of the homemaker [as President], and…I wanted us to take a stand on choice, on sexual preference and choice. That was an issue that we had been avoiding as an organization because most of the women were Catholic.”

In the years of her presidency and leadership, the activist women in Sandra’s immediate surroundings were mostly single. The way, in which Sandra was able to be attentive to her children, her marriage, and her work, was truly exemplary. Her children attended many of her meetings with her and developed an early sense of activism from their surroundings. As the Commissioner on the Pasadena Commission for the Status of Women, Sandra was uncomfortable by the numeric and ethnic representation of the women on the commission and advocated for diverse opinions, which impacted all women, rather than giving attention to particular racial issues. In her role as a Latina commissioner, for example, she was asked to design a program, which would encourage Latina women to take birth control. When Sandra questioned the reasoning behind the need for this program, the answers pointed towards “issues of trying to control the fertility of Latinas.” Dissatisfied with the operations of the commission, which had so much potential to create effective change, Sandra fought through, true to nature.
In 1972, the Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional founded Centro de Ninos. The organization provides free and low cost quality childcare/child development, social welfare and education services to families in a safe, secure, learning environment where parents can confidently leave their child during the work-week. Without any formal training, and only one-year of community college, Sandra stepped in to serve as the director. And took it upon herself to make Centro de Ninos a vessel for community change. Sandra stands as a testimony to the need for sheer passion in order to affect change.

Sandra Serrano Sewell will be a panelist at the Celebrating Los Angeles' Women's Social Movements on February 24, 2014 at UCLA.

--Radhika Mehlotra

Radhika Mehlotra is a Public Policy Graduate Student at the Luskin School of Public Affairs and a Graduate Student Researcher for the CSW. 


1. http://oralhistory.library.ucla.edu/viewFile.do?itemId=2852895&fileSeq=2&xsl=http://oralhistory.library.ucla.edu/xslt/local/tei/xml/tei/stylesheet/xhtml2/tei.xsl

2. http://www.centrodeninos.com/

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