East End Beacon

The New Pioneers of SEPA Mujer

Members of SEPA Mujer at a recent meeting.  |  photo courtesy Siris Barrios
Members of SEPA Mujer at a recent meeting. | photo courtesy Siris Barrios

by Jo-Ann McLean

Many Latina women living on the East End today as dependent spouses are subject to an inequity of federal immigration law that determines that their legal status is dependent on the integrity of the men they accompanied to America.

But a few brave women here are looking to change that imbalance.

Existing immigration law restricts many dependent H-4 Spousal Visa holders (generally women), who come to the United States as a dependent of an H1-B Visa holder, in their ability to work outside the home, obtain a divorce, retain custody of their children, and escape domestic violence.

This imbalance is exacerbated by “the lack of infrastructure here on the East End, the geographical isolation and dearth of family support,” says Siris Barrios, a community organizer for Riverside Rediscovered, which is working with master developer Renaissance Downtowns on the redevelopment of Riverside.

Paola Zeuniga, a new member of the board of the Flanders, Riverside & Northampton Community Association, says Latina women are not connecting with their neighbors, because housing on the East End is challenging, forcing women and their families to move often due to rent increases.

These chronic moves hinder Latina women from connecting with each other, forming friendships or establishing support systems.

Alizabeth Newman, an immigration attorney in Hempstead, founded the Central American Refugee Center back in the 1990s so that “women who were socially isolated, victims of domestic abuse and of workplace sexual harassment could begin to understand their rights in the U.S.” 

CARC has spun off another group called SEPA Mujer, which is helping make life more equitable for Latinas living here on the East End.

Their mission; to advocate on behalf of Latinas, to provide a positive environment, education and encouragement and to teach abuse victims that they are not defenseless.

SEPA Mujer, headquartered in Islandia, has three chapters: in Islandia, Hampton Bays and Riverhead/Riverside/ Flanders, with 230 members between the three groups. 

Monthly meetings may draw up to 30 women, but, spousal resistance, work schedules and child care impact each woman’s availability to attend. 

Sepa Mujer groups help to empower Latinas through a 35-hour leadership program that “teaches them what it is to be a leader, how a good leader leads, community organizing, how to use their voice, the history of immigrants in the United States, outreach, and civic engagement,” says SEPA Mujer Executive Director Martha Maffei.

Their goal is to help women participate in creating opportunities to become more engaged in the community.

Looking for a location in the Riverhead area, Ms. Maffei and Ms. Barrios established an alliance which has proven fruitful, meeting at Renaissance Downtowns’ office on Peconic Avenue.

Paola Zeuniga is one of the group’s early success stories — the first Latina to be elected to a position on the Flanders Riverside Northampton Community Association Board.

“Paola’s presence will inspire women to learn our mission, to empower them to become leaders, advocate for others and encourage education,” says Ms. Maffei.

FRNCA was helpful with SEPA Mujer from the beginning, said Ms. Barrios, applying for a grant to help with leadership training.

“I met them a few times at Riverside Rediscovered. They understood that the Latino population wanted to become part of the community and proposed me for the committee,” said Ms. Zeuniga. “A lot of people do not understand about SEPA Mujer. They think it’s all about domestic violence, but it’s not just for that. I am not abused. I like to educate myself. I like to be part of the community, and want to empower Latina women, especially because there is a lack of health care for Latina women.”

“They have no transportation, or they don’t have certain education to know about their rights,” she added. “I realized that I was so uninformed about a lot of things.  That’s when I start thinking this is a new thing that is going to help me a lot.”

Francesca Martinez Garcia, a certified health advocate specializing in women’s health, reproductive rights, and pregnancy in El Salvador,   “was, early on, involved in Riverside Rediscovered, she had a voice in the room and showed a lot of leadership qualities in the community,” says Ms. Barios.

Ms. Garcia, a resident Green Card holder, says she went from rewarding work with women in El Salvador to a neighborhood that is “completely different, with a lack of housing and health care.”

“I would like to see SEPA Mujer be more involved in health care, advocating for Latina women,” she said. “I have mixed feelings about being here. I’m happy for my children. They will have more opportunity and a better future than they would have at home, but I miss the work I used to do.”

According to Ms. Maffei, domestic violence against women is unexceptional within local immigrant communities, where many women are indoctrinated to the belief that they are powerless prisoners in a foreign land.

SEPA Mujer also addresses issues of immigration law and remedies to the difficult legal and cultural status of Latina women. 

Although the federal government recognized some of the shortcomings of the law in 1994 and instituted the Violence Against Women Act, to protect immigrant victims of gender violence, the dynamics of domestic power abuse continue behind closed doors.

SEPA Mujer works with women to “self-petition for relief under VAWA and attain their own legal status,” says Ms. Maffei.

Changes in the immigration law in 2005 established additional routes for spouses to adjust their status. SEPA Mujer advocates for women to file for a UVisa,  a certification which allows victims of domestic crimes to remain in the United States if they are willing to assist law enforcement in investigating and prosecute those crimes.

Another form of visa, the TVisa, is restricted to victims of Human Trafficking. A TVisa allows the prey of Human Trafficking, “more common in our area than you might think,” according to Ms. Maffei, to stay in the United States, provided they help law enforcement prosecute offenders.   

At their 2017 Kick-Off Conference in April, SEPA Mujer declared this the year to stop human trafficking and invited all to visit their website, www.sepamujer.org, to access their “STOP Human Trafficking 2017 Campaign.”

“We are small, grassroots, and on the ground learning what is going on,” says Ms. Maffei of the three person, not-for-profit organization. “We use whatever resources we can to bring up issues that these women are facing and to help solve problems.  Unfortunately our funding is being cut. The Hagedorn Foundation, which generously funded about 40 percent of our budget, is dissolving this year and we are afraid that the federal Office for Violence Against Women will be cut under Trump, reducing our funding another 40 percent.” 

“We could use some help as we help immigrant women take charge of their own lives, and recognize and exercise their rights under American law,” says Ms. Maffei. “We try to provide a sisterhood, a safe space for women to talk and express themselves about the dangers they face, to share with each other, connect with others, learn what others did to empower themselves.”

SEPA Mujer will be hosting their Annual Fundraising Gala on October 5 at Giorgio’s Restaurant in Baiting Hollow. They are hoping for enthusiastic community support.

Jo-Ann Santora McLean is a born and bred Long Islander who discovered and fell in love with the East End about 40 years ago and has lived here full time for about 15 years. She holds graduate degrees in Anthropology/Archaeology and Museum Studies from NYU and Creative Writing from Stony Brook. She runs her own archaeological consulting company and writes plays, screenplays and articles for the Beacon in between digging holes.


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