Cynthia J. Zapata grew up in the Twin Cities suburbs with few Latinx classmates around, and with adults who didn’t seem interested in the journeys and cultural backgrounds of first-generation Minnesotans. That included a third-grade teacher “who made me hate being Mexican.”
Those memories, painful for any 8-year-old, are among the reasons why 26-year-old Zapata is working now to create a space where culture and community are the central focus for young girls of color in the Twin Cities.
Zapata is helping recruit girls ages 8 to 11 to form the area’s first troop of Radical Monarchs, a Girl Scouts-like alternative focused on the needs and experiences of girls of color.
Launched in Oakland, Calif., in 2014, the Monarchs’ mission is to “create opportunities for young girls of color to form fierce sisterhood, celebrate their identities and contribute radically to their communities.” They are organizing troops this year in Los Angeles, Denver, New York and the Twin Cities.
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‘Monarchs get to figure it out’
Zapata, Camila Dávila and Iman Hassan are currently recruiting and say they want to create a place where young girls of color and girl-identified youth of color can express their “radical joy,” celebrate their culture and learn in a space that protects and nurtures.
Radical Monarchs wear vests reminiscent of Brownies, but their focus is very different.
The berets they wear signify their radical roots, connecting them to activist organizations like the Brown Berets that were part of the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles or the Black Panther Party, whose leader, Huey P. Newton, was famously photographed wearing a beret sitting on a rattan chair, holding a rifle and spear.
“Radical” merit badges are tied to social justice issues that disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous and communities of color, as well as women, low-income communities, immigrants and refugees.
With girls of color making up a growing percentage of children in the Twin Cities, the women say the need for the Radical Monarchs is clear.
Many young girls don’t have a social network of older women of color to guide them through conversations about race, gender and class, said Hassan, 32, an attorney and racial justice activist based in northeast Minneapolis who will co-lead the local troop with Zapata.
Thinking about the lack of mentors, she said, “always broke me, because I did have friends that were like, ‘How did you cope with all of this?’”
Hassan is the fifth of seven siblings, including five sisters. Her older sisters were in college when she was in middle school. She credits them with helping her make sense of the world as a young Black, Muslim girl and recent refugee in a post 9/11 world.
She’s excited to be able to create the same kind of community. “Monarchs get to figure it out and become their own critical thinkers,” she said. “We’re just here to facilitate that, as adults.”
‘Change the world’
The eldest of five children, Zapata had wanted to join a Girl Scouts troop growing up in the south metro area, but the family’s working class circumstances put that out of reach. Looking back, Zapata said it’s probably good it didn’t work out. “I don’t think that a troop out in the suburbs of the Twin Cities would have been beneficial to my understanding of self.”
Zapata recalled being a kid telling classmates about attending a quinceañera in Mexico. Among other things, the quinceañera celebrates her 15th birthday, leaving behind childhood and beginning her journey of becoming a woman.
“At a quince, you slaughter whatever animal is in the yard and you eat it because that's what we do,” Zapata said. “That's not weird. People butcher their own meat.”
That show-and-tell resulted in a call home from the teacher. “She called my mom and was like, 'I think your daughter is mentally disturbed, she told this story of your dad killing a goat.' And my mom was like, ‘Nah man, we butcher our own meat. I don't know what you’re talking about.'”
Zapata has one younger sister, Daisy, and like Hassan, feels that the bonds of sisterhood were influential in wanting to work with the Radical Monarchs.
Daisy, just turned 14 and is already getting ready to celebrate her quince años next year. She’s still deciding what color she wants her dress to be, but knows that she wants to serve tortas and wants there to be daisies all around.
“I'm glad to be Mexican. I'm glad I have this culture. It's really beautiful,” said Daisy.
‘Monarch in her blood’
Marlene Rojas, 39, heard about the Radical Monarchs from Zapata and saw it as a great fit for her daughter, Lisa Pahnke Rojas.
“I actually got really excited,” Rojas said. “Reading through the whole program, I thought, ‘Oh, this is just perfect for my 8-year-old kid, and also for my niece!’”
She said she’s overheard her daughter and niece talking about racism and social justice and that kids are a lot smarter and more aware than adults realize.“I think it's a really great opportunity to have little kids get into these programs.“
Lisa said the troop interests her as someone who wants to change the world.
"I want to become a Radical Monarch because I want to learn more about marches. I want to learn more about my history,” she said. “I want a girl president … and I don't want to see kids like me in cages.”
The name for the Radical Monarchs organization was chosen by the participating youth and is inspired by the cross-border migration of the ephemeral creatures and the transformation they represent, according to Anayvette Martínez, the group’s co-founder.
Rojas is from the city of Tarímbaro in the state of Michoacán, where monarch butterflies migrate to every winter. Rojas came to Minnesota when she was 16. She’s making sure her two daughters speak Spanish, are proud of their culture and stay connected with family back in Mexico. They also attend immigrant rights marches as a family.
“She is already a Monarch,” Rojas said of her daughter. “She has Monarch in her blood.”
The Radical Monarchs are currently accepting applications to join the Twin Cities troop until June 4. Applications and more information can be found at the Radical Monarchs website. The cost to join is between $84 and $284 based on family need. Zapata says fundraising efforts to reduce costs are underway.