Thursday, July 2, 2009
Lisa Cisneros says she’s uncomfortable with the whole “hero” label. The bilingual Salinas attorney who got her start as a community organizer has a day job (or two): Offering legal assistance to farmworkers with California Rural Legal Assistance and advancing civil rights for LGBT communities with National Center for Lesbian Rights and she leads Proyecto Poderoso (Powerful Project) a collaborative effort by NCLR and CRLA aimed at improving legal services for rural, low-income LGBT residents.
“What I offer at my job is legal resources and information, but a lot of the time LGBT farmworkers need social and emotional support, so I spend a lot of time talking with people and listening,” she says.
Then there’s her “night job,” working for equal rights for the LGBT community. But Cisneros, 29, insists it’s a group effort, and shifts the focus to people like ACLU lawyer Michelle Welch and recent graduate Bri Beltran, who, Cisneros says, organized the first local No on Proposition 8 march.
“Monterey High School students marched down to the wharf with their signs and noise makers, and I had nothing to do with it,” she says. “I’m a little skeptical about being on the hero list when there are people who have been fighting the good fight for years,” she says, rattling off names of locals who volunteered their time and energy – and, in some cases, money, art supplies and cookies – to fight for same-sex marriage and helped start Salinas Valley Equality, which now hosts local town hall meeting and LGBT bowling nights, and is working to open a diversity center.
Cisneros demurs on her role.
“Given the fact that I live and work and grew up here, in Salinas, I thought I could work with the LGBT community to make a difference in this more conservative part of the county,” she says. “At best my role can be considered a coach to a community of people who have become more active in fighting for equality. A coach is nothing without a team of people who are willing to work.”
Her fellow activists, friends and fans, however, say Cisneros is too humble. “She’s one of the main leaders in getting everybody together and one of the driving forces behind Salinas Valley Equality,” says Rosa Santa Cruz, who jokingly calls herself the “social coordinator” of the group, responsible for organizing the monthly bowling nights and planning the recent Pride Picnic at Toro Park. “The idea to have the picnic at Toro Park? That was Lisa,” she says.
Santa Cruz says she didn’t have a ride to a marriage equality summit in Los Angeles, so Cisneros drove her to it, and recounts hearing Cisneros speak to hundreds of students at a Fresno rally.
“I consider her a superstar,” says Sara Meuse. “Lisa is out there changing lives for the better, and she’s doing it in such a selfless way. Her dedication to helping the downtrodden is priceless. I think of her as a leader – even though I don’t think she thinks of herself that way.”
Cisneros, meanwhile, focuses on the work ahead. “There’s no explicit law that prohibits discrimination against sexual orientation or gender identity,” she says, noting the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, recently introduced in Congress. “There’s no hate crime law at the federal level. Most likely there will be a measure on the ballot in 2010 or 2012 to repeal Proposition 8.
“I’m just part of a team, a network of people and resources who have emerged to help LGBT people and engage in activism to help people understand we’re just like everybody else.”