Damaris Cortez in Chiapas, Mexico
The little girl wanted to sit next to Damaris Cortez at an event in Chiapas, Mexico, and the 6-year-old boy told the girl she couldn’t.
Cortez, a University of Houston-Downtown student, picked the girl up, scooted children down the bench and sat the girl next to her.
“You should have seen the look on the little boy’s face, that I, a woman had gone against what he said and stood up for myself. I was surprised at the level little girls are separated and put in their role,” Cortez said. “I did not realize the stereotypical role behavior was engrained so early. Teachers at the children’s school told me little girls need more examples of women standing up for themselves.”
Cortez was in Chiapas doing research for a paper on women’s empowerment. The native of El Salvador said she plans to submit the finished paper to a peer reviewed journal.
Cortez is part of UHD’s first cohort in the Bachelor of Social Work Program, and the National Association of Social Workers – Texas recently named her Undergraduate Social Work Student of the Year for 2011. She received her award at the organization’s state convention in October. She also has received the Houston area association’s top undergraduate social work student award and the UHD BSW program’s Community Service Award.
Her Chiapas project grew from a deep-seated desire to spend time in the Central American countryside and study women’s empowerment. “I always wanted to connect with my indigenous roots,” she said.
Cortez has some firsthand knowledge of difficult circumstances and strong women. She survived Hurricane Mitch in El Salvador and helped with disaster relief. As a teenager, she volunteered at an orphanage and helped collect and distribute medical supplies and clothes to rural El Salvador.
“I enjoyed doing that. To me it was service for other communities that were less privileged. I never thought about it in the frame of a profession,” Cortez said. “I didn’t know it was called social work.”
Then, in the early 1990s her mother gathered the family and left El Salvador for Canada to escape the civil war. Cortez eventually settled in the United States in 2001 to attend school and join an aunt who already lived in Houston. Cortez found a job and started learning about the education system. She eventually enrolled in Houston Community College-Central. Her finances limited the number of classes she could take. Eventually she was able to get financial assistance and transfer to UHD’s new social work program.
In Houston, she has volunteered for several organizations including Patient Pal and Teen Room Pal at Texas Children’s Hospital. She and five others started a social justice group focused on providing people with healthy food choices and information about community gardens.
Two summers ago, she left Houston for a Chiapas volunteer youth hostel with little more than a letter of introduction. She lived in the rural Zapatista communities and volunteered with Alternativa Tzotil, an organization devoted to teaching Mayan children to read and write in Spanish along with mathematics and social studies from a social-political-historical perspective, she said. Many of the children had not been to school because their families had been displaced when the Mexican government took their land. Her research focused on women’s empowerment and political expression through collectives. The families had no land to farm and surprisingly the women were the ones gaining in political strength.
“They said, ‘we have to feed our children.’ They could sew, embroidery, and they were selling their work on the streets, making contacts with other vendors, creating networks for economic gain,” she said. “It was about more than the money. They had a voice, they had friendships and empowerment.”
Back home, Cortez is excited about the UHD Bachelor’s of Social Work Program as well as its instructors: Jo Bailey, associate professor, and Dawn McCarty, assistant professor.
“This is the best program ever. Not just the program, but Dr. Bailey and Dr. McCarty who make the program happen. They are really good at motivating you,” Cortez said. The instructors recognize that many of their students work jobs while going to class, and they emphasize the strengths of each student which challenges students and helps build positive self esteem.
“They help you develop this passion to want to help people and learn from different communities. They are just so awesome,” she said. “It makes me very proud to be part of the program and to be part of the first cohort.”
The UHD program and her experiences have solidified her desire to be an activist in the political arena lobbying for social welfare policies. Once she completes her bachelor’s degree she plans to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work.