A Force Of Habit
How Sister Rosa Dolores Rodriguez, hand-picked 2002 Olympic Torchbearer, became the heart and soul of the village of Pajaro.
Thursday, January 10, 2002
It''s five days before Christmas and rain is falling in sheets. After all of the families have made it through the food distribution line behind the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Pajaro, a handful of volunteers huddle inside the storage trailer next to a dozen 50-pound bags of pinto beans and boxed pastas.
Sister Rosa Dolores Rodriguez, a small sturdy woman in a blue habit, says a prayer, thanking "El Señor" for the year that''s soon-to-be past and for the people, mostly Mexican women, handing out food today. The women hush when Sister Rosa starts talking and bow heads covered by knit hats, hooded jackets and plastic head scarves.
The Sister speaks in a soft, gentle voice. She doesn''t need to raise it, ever. When Sister Rosa talks, everyone listens.
Because of the weather, a navy rain slicker covers her everyday uniform: the blue habit and a long white cardigan. Birkenstock sandals cover her nyloned feet, except on rainy days like today, when she opts for rubber-soled slip-ons that look like nurses'' shoes.
She''s a humble, smiling woman with a self-effacing streak who is in constant awe both of the people who surround her and the success of her ministry. What began in the early ''90s as a small group of women who handed out food and learned to sew has grown into a full-blown resource center for all 4,500 residents of Pajaro. At Casa de la Cultura, Sister Rosa and her band of volunteers have created a food bank, a flea market and a free health clinic. She''s brought cultural music and dance classes to kids and teens and introduced women to classes in reading, crafts, citizenship and nutrition. Here in Pajaro, people liken Sister Rosa to Mother Theresa. Most simply call her "Madre."
"Everybody knows her," says Blanca Alcazar with a shrug. Alcazar, 26, is a thin mother of two. Ballpoint pens hold her red hair in place. "One day five years ago, I needed help with the rent. Everybody said, ''Go to Sister Rosa.''"
So she did. She asked for help, and she received. Now Alcazar''s giving back. About three months ago, she started volunteering every week with Sister Rosa at the food pantry. She says she helps Sister with housecleaning at Casa de la Cultura. If her kids are sick, she brings them to the Casa''s free health clinic.
"I like helping her," Alcazar says. "If she calls me, I am going wherever she wants me."
Her story echoes those of several other Casa de la Cultura regulars. They come for the food, medical attention or free citizenship classes, and offer their time, talents and energy in return. This is how Sister Rosa has built, over time, that elusive thing called "community." It''s why she''s loved.
After the prayer is over, heads lift, eyes open and the mood lightens. Sister Rosa says she has something to show. Her dark eyes crinkle under her large rectangular spectacles as she holds up an 8-by-10 certificate. In bold print it reads: "Olympic Torch Relay 2002."
On the morning of Jan. 18 she''ll carry the torch a quarter-mile through Santa Cruz on its way to Salt Lake City, joining 200 other torchbearers selected for being inspirations to their communities. She admits she''s a little disappoin- ted that she won''t carry the flame through Pajaro, her community, where she is known and loved. And she refuses to take credit for the distinction.
When asked about the role she plays in the community, she can hardly utter the words.
"I am really touched and humbled," she says. "I don''t do anything. I hardly even clean my desk. It''s the people around me who deserve the recognition.
"I think the people see me well, I might as well say it people see me as a leader."
But at the church today it''s clear she''s delighted, and so is the group. It''s the first they have heard that Sister Rosa will carry the Olympic Torch, and the women clap, oohing and aahing over the certificate. The ones within arm''s reach hug Sister.
"Now I''ll be walking, not running," she says to the small group. "You''d better all pray that I don''t fall."
As a girl, Sister Rosa had no intention of entering the religious life.
"I wanted to travel, I wanted to buy a house, play music," she says. The youngest of 13 children, she spent the first nine years of her life in Phoenix. Then her family moved to California to work in the fields, migrating up and down the state following the crops and the growing seasons.
"I was too small to do any real contribution, but in the summers and on the weekends I would help," she remembers. "We were migrant workers ''till I finished high school."
When she graduated from Riverdale Joint Union High School in the San Joaquin Valley, Sister Rosa was offered a music scholarship to play the saxophone at Fresno State University. "And I was good," she says.
But instead, she moved to Los Angeles to work with her relatives in a Sears department store to help her family pay the bills.
She says she didn''t decide to become a nun. "It was a call. Little by little, I decided I needed to make the move. I knew it inside." In 1966 she joined the religious order of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.
She moved to Pajaro from Morgan Hill in 1989, drawn by a desire to help with relief effort following the Loma Prieta earthquake.
"In our [Daughters of Charity] community, you get missioned," she says. "I was in Morgan Hill because we had opened a new hospital there. Then we had the earthquake. Our community was looking for volunteers who spoke Spanish to come over and help, so I did."
After the immediate emergency passed, Sister Rosa wanted to do something more.
"I talked to the priest about the vision I had of organizing a group of women to do service," she recalls. "We knew there was a whole lot of nothing here-especially for the women. Some women came forward and said, ''We want to help you.''"
In 1991, Sister Rosa and six or so other Mexican women set up shop in a small room behind the church rectory and met two or three times a week to learn how to sew.
"So little by little, we started sewing and talking about their needs," Sister Rosa says. "People started asking if they could come by for food. And lo and behold, people started bringing food for us to distribute. People came to ask for food and we gave it to them."
The women continued to meet in a small room in the church before graduating to a slightly larger portable. Sister Rosa had grand dreams of meeting in a larger space and offering more classes as well as a free health clinic, but those plans were put on hold in 1995, when the Pajaro River flooded.
When the community was under water, local residents and Red Cross volunteers looked to Sister Rosa to coordinate the food, clothing and blanket distribution site. Shortly after the six-foot high waters receded, leaving behind trash, rats and rotted houses, Sister Rosa noticed a vacant building damaged by the flooding across the street from the church.
"I told the owner about the vision: a clinic, a cultural center, and activities center," she says. The owner bought into Sister Rosa''s vision, and in 1996, Sister Rosa and the women moved their tiny operation across the street and established Casa de la Cultura, a six-room building at 225 Salinas Road.
"We came over here, and we''ve had classes here ever since."
She sits back and shakes her head, in a kind of a reflective awe, as she does often.
"I''m not really the driver," she says quietly. "Someone else is driving this car. Do you know what I mean?"
In Sickness and in Health
Today at Casa de la Cultura, Sister Rosa and volunteers operate a flea market, an emergency food pantry and translation services. They also teach Spanish literacy, exercise, sewing, mariachi and folklorico classes for more than 50 kids and teens.
Every Tuesday night, Casa de la Cultura transforms into a free health clinic where volunteer doctors and nurses screen adults for high blood pressure and high cholesterol and treat kids with ear infections and the flu. Sister Theresa Linehan, an R.N. and the Casa''s diabetes specialist, sees follow-up patients. The other medical staff stay as late as 10:30pm, or until everyone has seen a nurse or a doctor.
It''s about 6pm on a Tuesday and about 15 people sit waiting at Casa de la Cultura to be treated for coughs, high blood pressure and other aches and pains. Sister Rosa places a sign-in sheet on a fold-out table.
"Quien esta enfermo?" she asks. "Who is sick?"
A family of four sits on plastic chairs, waiting their turn. Six-year-old Marilyn Aguilera and her brother, Marco Albert, who''s four, have the flu.
"How many days have you been sick for?" a nurse asks little Marilyn, who''s wearing a reindeer pin on her green hooded sweatshirt.
"Un dia, dos dias?" The nurse counts on her fingers up to five. Marilyn shakes her head no.
"Muchas, muchas, muchas dias?"
Marilyn nods yes.
It would cost over $50 each to bring the two to the doctor''s office, says dad Marcos Martinez Aguilera. "Sometimes you go in and they don''t even have any sickness, but you''ve already spent all that money."
When they are not here as patients, they often help out at the clinic, Marcos says. He''s been helping Sister repaint the Casa de la Cultura, and his wife Maria helps with food distribution. She attends English and nutrition classes and learned how to cook a turkey for Christmas.
Marcos says they usually stop by at night after work. "To help her out, if she needs. Anything she needs."
Casa de la Cultura is more than just a resource center, Marcos adds. It''s the center of the community.
"There are no other social activities," he says. "It''s that or TV."
To reach the population that doesn''t come to the Tuesday night clinics, Sister Rosa gets behind the wheel of La Casita de Salud, a huge camper, and drives to the fields twice a month to bring health screening and diabetes education to farm workers. Casa de la Cultura acquired the mobile health clinic three years ago via donations from Whole Foods Market and Daughters of Charity.
"It is very well documented that Hispanics are at a very high risk for diabetes and everything else that comes with it," Sister Rosa says. According to the American Diabetes Association, 10.6 percent of all Mexican Americans have diabetes.
"It''s only the tip of the iceberg," Sister Rosa says. "Prevention and educa- tion are the most important things."
Inside the empty camper, Sister Rosa demonstrates a 15-minute Spanish presentation that she takes to the fields, comparing a healthy body with one that lacks a constant balance of insulin and glucose.
"I have my wonderful visual aids," she says, pulling out two glass bottles. One is filled with clear red liquid-"blood," she says. "Now this is a body that has diabetes," and she displays a bottle filled with thick, pink sugary water.
After the demonstration, Sister Rosa says she invites the farm workers to come into the camper to get tested. There''s a folding table in back for exams.
The bulk of the services offered at Casa de la Cultura are aimed at helping women, Sister Rosa says. "The greatest contribution we have given is to the women," she says. "The word, of course, is empowerment. Valuing their opinions. They have the right to express their opinions."
Sister Rosa mentions a woman who volunteers for the food bank and the health clinic.
"Leonor was one woman who would not speak up at all," she says. "She came to the citizenship class, and when it was her turn to answer a question she would get up and go to the bathroom. Now she''s a citizen. And you saw her at the food bank, all the volunteers-they were doing it, I wasn''t. Olympia does the shopping, Blanca [Alcazar], she helps. The people are so wonderful. So gracious and so beautiful."
There''s a huge gathering at Casa de la Cultura on Dec. 17. Red plastic tablecloths cover folding tables, and Christmas lights hang from the walls. Mary and Joseph statues sit on the center table, adorned in evergreen boughs and white lights. It''s a traditional Mexican Posada celebrating Mary and Joseph''s pilgrimage to find a place to stay the night in Bethlehem. After the candlelight procession is complete and traditional Posada songs are sung, the guests enjoy a Mexican feast while a mariachi band plays and sings.
Men and women, from teenaged to middle-aged, take turns in front of the microphone. For most, it''s their first performance, the culmination of weekly mariachi classes at Casa de la Cultura. Their voices are loud and strong, and some even sing on key. They all receive supportive yells and applause from the 100 or so audience members packed into the Casa''s main room.
Jeans and parkas or heavy sweaters are the general attire, and a mix of white and brown faces dot the room. People chat around fold-out tables and in plastic chairs lining the walls. They relax and listen to the music, eating tamales, guacamole, fresh salsa and tortillas and other dishes from steaming casseroles on the serving table.
After most people are done eating Sister Rosa steps up to the microphone.
"I want to thank all of our instructors that help us out in our ministry. Almost everybody dreams of singing mariachi-I even dream of singing mariachi-and that dream is being realized here," she says, motioning to the student singers behind her. Then, as an afterthought, she adds, "Really, my dream is to conduct an orchestra."
She finishes giving the accolades and praise to everyone who has helped her and the Casa throughout the year. She starts to walk away from the mic when one of the guitar players calls her back. He calls six teen guitar players, young men standing in the back with serious faces and slight mustaches, up to the front of the room.
"She has a dream to direct an orchestra," he says to the guests in Spanish.
Someone finds Sister Rosa a stick and she willingly takes center stage in front of the mic. Smiling and using swooping arm movements, she directs the guitar players, the mariachi singers and the audience in a hearty "De Colores," alternately facing the band and the audience, pointing at people with closed mouths until the entire room is singing. Some women in the audience link arms, and those standing sway to the music.
"Do you get the idea that she''s in charge here?" asks Phyllis Damey, an R.N. who volunteers at the weekly health clinic. "She''s on track. And she''s very well loved."
TOFIND OUT THE TORCH ROUTE ON JAN. 18, CALL CASA DE LA CULTURA AT 763-0702.