Happy 80th Birthday, Lillian!

If you’ve attended any LJIST session, you’ve undoubtedly heard me talk about my mentor, Lillian Roybal Rose.

I have the life I have today because of Lillian.

I’ll never forget my first workshop led by Lillian in February 1994. I couldn’t have known how those two days at the YWCA in Watsonville, California would forever alter the course of my life. It was like that now-meme moment in the movie “The Matrix” where Morpheus offers Neo the choice to see the truth. As the story goes: “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill…and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” The red pill has come to symbolize the path for a human awakening to the truth.

Lillian offered the precious gift of becoming aware of the true nature of oppression, internalized oppression, and the power—my personal power and our collective human power—to heal completely. I took the red pill. And I’ve never looked back.

It hasn’t been an easy road, but I wasn’t looking for easy. I was looking for liberation. And Lillian made the path beautiful, significant, full of love and connection, and lots of laughter and tears.

Over the twenty-plus years we traveled and worked together, both Lillian and I have shared the story of her metaphorical pat on the head (because I was “too young,” of course!) in response to my ask to work with her. We’ve also both shared the story of my persistence and her (eventual) willingness to say, “yes” to me because, although I admired her and recognized her brilliance, I wouldn’t put her on a pedestal to be adored. I saw her. All of her. Her humanness and struggle and beauty and power. I didn’t just want her attention and the “shiny, pretty” parts. I wanted all of Lillian. And I wanted a place to lead where I could be all of me too.

Lillian’s generosity paved the path for me. She invited me to start traveling with her. She taught me a workshop design that she developed through trial and error and crafted after attacks and challenges to her and her credibility. She opened up her client world and friendships to me. She shared advice about starting and running a business. She modeled the power of being hired for my mind, my Latina mind. This was something I had never imagined: people want to know what I think. I am asked to think in a myriad of contexts about a range of complex issues related to oppression in various sectors and in so many different parts of the world.

The surprise and wonder of this are difficult to explain, but we understood because of our shared experience as Chicanas in the US.

What we didn’t often share with others is the ways the restimulations—similar kinds of hurts from our shared experiences as Chicanas in the US—set us up to hook with each other: I pinned my feelings about my mother on her. At times she treated me like her daughter and not her peer. Sometimes I’d push back or feel competitive. Sometimes she’d push back and feel competitive.

Based on the teachings I learned from her and that we shared in our workshops, we shared a process for working through these restimulations and we held an abiding commitment to each other. We would recognize the basura for what it was—internalized oppression. With integrity, we would use the Constructivist Listening practice, doing our work to heal early hurts from our past. We understood that we had been set up against each other as Latinas and we refused to believe the basura. Each time, we would find our way back to each other: stronger and clearer because of it.

Over the years, I understood in an embodied way what it meant to be in a relationship where we didn’t pin stuff on the other one, where we didn’t blame the other one for how we felt. That was a radical concept. It still is. I learned to be responsible for my end of the basura, as she modeled owning hers. She not only gave me the tools to do this but practiced them with me… and, by invitation, I stretched to meet her.

I learned through Lillian the power of commitment, to coming back, again and again. This is what the radical foundation of transformational relationships both offers and requires. Showing up.

It wouldn’t be, and could never be, about us being perfect (what’s that anyway?) or getting it right all the time. It was about not going away. And Lillian didn’t. She stuck with me. And I with her.

We didn’t often share with others (and I’m sure I don’t even know all) the times Lillian lost clients or was asked not to bring me along. I sometimes share about and am forever grateful for the time she risked losing one of her most important clients. By “most important” I’m not referring to “revenue” nor “prestige.” I mean importance in terms of heart: a first-of-its-kind national Latina leadership training program.

Lillian helped design the curriculum for this 9-month program. Twenty-two Latinas from all sectors and from all over the country were selected to participate each year and she was their first trainer. This was what she referred to as “heart work.” The first year she brought me in to train with her, three participants organized an attack against me. They escalated their complaint beyond the President to the Board. And the Board sent Lillian a letter which read, in summary: they’d welcome Lillian back the next year as their trainer, but not me.

It still brings tears to my eyes how, I much later learned, she wrote back to the Board that she would either return with me or not at all. She explained this attack was both adultism—because I was a young adult at the time—as well as internalized racism and internalized sexism. She made it clear she would not give in to the attack. She stood up for me, for herself, and for every Latina caught up in this dynamic of internalized oppression. She couldn’t know what their response would be, but she knew what hers was. (The next year, and for the next nearly two decades, I returned to deliver this training—at first with Lillian and then, after she retired, on my own.) She was willing to risk losing this “heart work” to live into her values—however uncomfortable or inconvenient that was.

Again and again, I witnessed Lillian act in integrity. She stayed consistent with the values that we taught and yet we both acknowledged have been challenging to live by.

We didn’t often share with others about how on our days off on the road, in between workshops, we’d go for long walks, share stories about our families—not just the good but also the heartbreak. We didn’t often share with others about how we’d tuck ourselves into our hotel beds, order room service, and watch movies together. We didn’t often share with others about the laughter and tears we shared together as a release from the intensity of the work.

I miss all of that. I miss her.

I learned from Lillian not to do this work alone and in isolation. She helped me know why I wanted partners to do this work with.

Luna Jiménez Institute for Social Transformation is Lillian’s living legacy.

The next generation is learning her stories from me, how to teach in a way that connects people’s hearts to the theory and tools that can transform their lives—should they choose the red pill. Amel, Bert, Vicki, Alan, Melissa, and Eileen are the next generation. And we are gathering more. Not quickly, but solidly. A core group built one relationship at a time, just like mine and Lillian’s.

Lillian lifted me up. She would oft repeat: “Your shining, Nanci, takes nothing from mine.” She invited me to shine fully. And thanks to her I now know how to encourage that shining in others a little bit more.

Thank you and Happy 80th Birthday to you, Lillian.