Professor Sujey Vega from Arizona State University gave a Women’s Studies Colloquium presenting research on how the Relief Society impacts Latina members of the Church.
PROVO, Utah (Mar. 11, 2016)—Every LDS woman knows the familiar words and tune to “As Sisters in Zion”: “We’ll comfort the weary and strengthen the weak.” According to Dr. Sujey Vega, the sisterhood of the Relief Society is of great importance specifically for Latina sisters in finding solidarity and sharing their stories.
The subject of her lecture stemmed from the chapter Vega wrote from a volume she is co-editing with Dee Garceau and Andrea Radke-Moss titled Race, Gender, and Power in the Mormon Borderlands. Vega’s research collects the stories of Latino members of the Church from the past and present. Though her work is focused in Arizona, she also includes some of her experience in Indiana, where she first came in contact with LDS Latina sisters.
Vega’s interest in the unique stories of Latina sisters was sparked by an entry in the Mesa mission president’s journal from March of 1936, found in the Church History Archives: “Had to settle a difficulty and iron it out between Elder Fred T. Ash and Sister Garcia. Which was settled and hoped it would last.”
“Those words rang out over and over again in my mind,” Vega said, and as she searched for more information, all she seemed to find were more questions. “What was the difficulty? Who was Sister Garcia? How was it ironed out? To no one’s surprise, I never found out those details,” Vega admitted. What she did find in the records of the branch was a Sister Francesca de Garcia and her husband, Elder Tomás Garcia, who were active participants in all areas of the branch, from leading sacrament meetings to giving lessons from 1928 to 1936. But after the entry about “a difficulty,” both of the Garcias disappear from the records.
Despite this, Vega said, “I choose to view Sister Garcia with admiration. I see her as a self-assured Latina female, someone who regardless of the historical and gender expectations upon her at the time had honestly something to say,” enough to need the attention of the mission president. “I wonder, how could a woman in 1936, and a Latina, Spanish speaking woman, demand such attention?”
From this curiosity began a research project into the untold stories of Latina sisters in the Church. Through interviews, oral histories and church archival documents, Vega began to compile these stories; as she said, “Like Sister Garcia before, they all have a story to tell and a strength ready to be recognized.” What she found running throughout these stories was a particular sense of comadrazgo, or “co-mothering,” a female social network of women supporting their fellow women with resources and friendship.
This “sisterhood of the heart,” as Vega called it, has important benefits for these sisters. Mental health professionals have shown that these kinds of relationships help Latinas combat loneliness, anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. Senior Latinas especially benefitted socially, emotionally and physically from the care and attention of their sisters.
Vega mentioned how this purpose of the Relief Society aligns with Lucy Mack Smith’s view of the organization at its founding. “Smith vocalized the sisterhood bonds that are deeply embedded in comadrazgo,” Vega said. Smith declared that the Relief Society’s mission should be for sisters to offer relief for its members.
Beyond the sisterhood of relief, Vega said that particularly for Latina sisters, the structure of Relief Society offers leadership opportunities they might not have otherwise. “In the Church structure, women and girls are asked to participate in and lead lessons, something that does not often occur in the outside world where they are bombarded with racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender and xenophobic stereotypes.”
Vega concluded by stressing the importance of supporting Latina sisterhoods. She said, “This next generation of Latina LDS women will need each other. They will need their hermanas of the heart to help them co-mother each other.”
—Alison Siggard (English Education ’17)
Alison covers Women’s Studies for the College of Humanities. She is a senior studying English teaching with a minor in music.