This month I celebrate my 60th birthday. It took me by surprise, it did. As the song goes, "I feel too young to be this damn old."
But as it approaches, I find myself reflecting on my life's journey and all who influenced me along the way. And what a journey it's been! There were lots of adventures and successes, but many memories too painful to revisit.
The most interesting realization has been that I lived through and actively participated in a time when women and people of color were making history. Throughout it all, it was these women who made the biggest impact in my life, and in the long and hard battles fought for equal rights and unity for all.
As a Puerto Rican, I was surrounded by strong women who taught me independence, strength and perseverance, about laughing when you wanted to cry, and that nothing was impossible. I learned Spanish and English simultaneously growing up in Massachusetts, and quickly picked up on the differences between the culture in my home and that of the outside world.
When black families started to migrate from the South and into the community, I found myself immersed in a rich culture where the women united the community through stories, food, music and humor. They taught me that our challenges were not so different, and you never give up hope.
I have marched for civil rights and lived through the race riots. I have lobbied for laws to protect women and children from domestic violence and have seen too many die. I have fought for the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment and the Human Rights Amendment and find that today we are still fighting battles we thought we had won. For years I stood side by side with white, black, Latina, Asian, biracial, gay and straight, all marching, rallying, petitioning and organizing. Many times I have fallen and, like the phoenix, I rose out of the ashes to start again, always with the help of women.
Building a bridge to unity was and continues to be my purpose. I believe that building a community of women for peace and equality means not only lifting each other when we fall, but building each other up. Yes, we are different. But what if we chose to recognize and respect these wonderful differences as individuality express
ing itself, and celebrate our commonalities every chance we get?
My shining bright does not have to take away from your shining. Yes, looking back, I can say I am a pretty phenomenal woman influenced by many phenomenal women, all daring to be authentically "them."
What is the truth? I wrote this quote, author unknown, in my personal journal more than 30 years ago:
"Nobody told me the truth about change how the shedding of skin leaves a scar. As I rise from the flames of another season's change, touch the earth as I reach for a star. My blood holds the memory of every cocoon, every flight, every time that I fell.
"And nobody told me how hard it would be growing up, letting go, seeing clear, living true to myself. So I'll tell you I climbed over the rainbow. Like climbing a mountain it wasn't so easy. So don't let them tell you you've nothing to lose, oh you'll pay out your changes in blood.
"No matter which fork in the road that you choose there'll be times you'd go back if you could. For there's no golden highway that shines out the truth to guide us to emerald dreams. So don't be surprised if the light hurts your eyes, as you open and tremble and stretch out your heart and your wings.
"Nobody teaches the lessons we need, when to hang on and when to let go. Bluebirds may fly but they're born for the sky, you and I, born of earth born to grow. So come proud with your history, come brave with your hopes. Know the world may not always be kind. But take it in stride hold a rainbow inside, all your colors and thunders and flights full of fancy and pride.
"Come with me. I'll climb over the rainbow again and again, there's no need to pretend that it's ever so easy, It's never so easy, oh no."
This year, I thank and celebrate all the phenomenal women in my past, present and future generations yet to come, because "Maya Angelou didn't just want to be phenomenal herself, she wanted all of us to be phenomenal right alongside her." -- Michele Obama.
Maria V. Zavala, M.A., is a life coach, motivational speaker, author, presenter and trainer. Zavala has lived in Manatee County for 15 years. She works closely with migrant and farm-working families and their children through Whole Child Manatee, and is president of Latinas of the Women's Resource Center. She can be reached at email@example.com
Coming next Sunday: Susan Timmins, local business owner, mother and Anna Maria Island resident, traces her ancestry in Halifax, Nova Scotia.