“I wanted to help marginalized people learn about their rights.”

I grew up in Cusco, Peru, which is an incredible place to grow up. My great-grandfather was the president of Peru and then my dad was the mayor of Cusco. People come to Cusco from all over the world. We grew up entertaining all kinds of people in our house. We always knew that we had to be welcoming, and to treat everyone, no matter who it was, with respect.

Photos by Megan Monday

Gladis Benavides | Madison, WI

“We lived in Cusco most of the year, but we also had a ranch up in the mountains of Urubamba. My siblings and I spent a lot of time there, running around and getting into trouble. We would climb trees and jump in the river. The river was really strong and there were a lot of mountains. 

Then there was a little town nearby with mostly Ketchikan Indians and so we got a lot of interaction with them. We were pretty blessed.

My siblings and I were very close. We also had Nana; a Ketchikan Indian who helped my mom raise us. Really I think of Nana as the one who raised us, because my mom was kind of aloof. My mom painted and wrote, which was wonderful, but she struggled with depression and was in her own inner world most of the time. But Nana was a wonderful person. It wasn’t that she let us do everything that we wanted. On the contrary, her expectations were very rigid, but there was always a lot of love. My brother, my sister, and I spent most time with her.

My dad, being the mayor of Cusco, was a very visible person. We had to be proper and nice and all that kind of stuff…everything had to be perfect. Maybe that’s why, even today, I rebel a little—I don’t like ‘proper’ and ‘perfect.’ I went to school in Cusco with very serious nuns, all the way up to high school. We had to wear uniforms, and the nuns had us stand up every day so they could check the length of our skirts.

I skipped a couple of grades and finished high school when I was 15. My parents sent me to Paris, where I stayed with the Peruvian ambassador. It was a privilege to be there, but in practice it was way too confining. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere or do anything. People around me were older and I just didn’t like it. I didn’t want to be there.

My family was very international, and at the time I had a cousin at college in Wisconsin. I convinced my parents that if they sent me to Wisconsin, I would be okay. My cousin was a sweetheart and had a wife and kids. I had been in confining situations my whole life, and I wanted out.

So I moved to the United States, to Wisconsin. Then, shortly after settling in Beloit, I met my husband. He was a musician. When I met him, I was like, ‘Wow, he’s a musician! How free he must be, how wonderful!’ And I fell in love with him. With him I felt like I could finally have freedom. I felt like I could live a real life.”

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“I loved the fact that my husband was a musician. He told me that he wanted to leave his corporate job and focus on music full-time, and of course I’m going like, ‘Oh wonderful, why not? I’ll just raise our kids and you can go and, you know, play your horn.’

Soon my husband was traveling all the time. I was in Beloit by myself, and then with two kids, and another, and then another. I started to feel very isolated.

I did have my husband’s family there, but my mother-in-law was very cold and dismissing of me. My father-in-law was a good man and he was more accepting, but he was very quiet. She kind of ran everything.

It’s going to sound really weird, but I didn’t know about racism then. I had not experienced racism before, back in Peru or Paris. I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. I didn’t realize for a while that my mother-in-law was cold to me because of my race and my culture.

There was an African-American family who lived half a block from the house, and another African-American couple across the street. These people saved my life. They helped me understand what was going on. They explained to me that it didn’t matter that I had come from a much higher social class in Peru. I was still a Latina. I wasn’t white. That was something I really didn’t understand for a long time. I grew up in high society, in an international home; I was always taught to respect all human beings.

One time I called my family in Peru and just said, ‘I want to come home.’ They got all upset about it, and my dad was going to send me a ticket. But I thought more about it. I already had kids, and in the end I decided I should stay and try to figure it out.

If I didn’t have the people that embraced me like these two families did, I probably would have gone home. My African-American neighbors weren’t derogatory about my in-laws, but they explained to me about what happens to people of color in this country, and that I was part of that now.

My husband and I ended up buying a house across the street from his parents. But really it was my friends and neighbors that became my new family. Eventually the kids started growing and I had time to explore my own interests. A friend of mine was running a project called the Community Action Commission. It was a special project funded by the federal government with the goal of serving Latino individuals and families in Wisconsin that needed assistance or translators. She asked me if I would be interested in being part of that. I was.

To be able to pursue that opportunity, I needed to move my family to Madison. But my husband, he continued traveling. Eventually we ended our marriage because he was pretty much gone all the time. After that, it was just me, the kids, and the various animals we had. We had a tarantula, rats, dogs, and cats, and it was amazing. Just the kids, the animals, and me.”

“The more I worked with the Latino community in Madison, the more I saw ways that I could be helpful. There are patterns of discrimination that happen, and sometimes people don’t have the ability to challenge the things that needed to be challenged. I thought ‘Okay, I can be an advocate. This is it. This is what I want to do.’

While in Madison, I got to know an amazing man named Reverend Wright. He was one of my mentors, and he and his wife took me under their guidance while I was raising my kids. Reverend Wright was one of those people who very quietly changes you. He does not push. He was the director of the Office of Civil Rights for the city of Madison, and he taught me about investigating complaints and doing things in the communities to help make people aware of their rights.

I started working with him at the Office of Civil Rights for the State of Wisconsin, Department of Health and Family Services as an investigator for the state. One of my roles was to investigate workplace complaints that had been filed throughout Wisconsin. The complaints I investigated often involved discrimination of some kind, where someone reported being treated unfairly because of their race or appearance by a boss or co-worker.

Before this work, I had no idea how horrible racism and discrimination could be in the lives of people around me. So for me it was not just, ‘Tell me what’s wrong and I’ll try to fix it.’ I was actually learning a lot on the job. I had to not just feel sorry for people, but really understand their situations and work towards positive change.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a situation where I was doing an investigation on a workplace complaint and faced some form of discrimination myself. I would walk in without my briefcase, dressed casually and they would say ‘HOW… ARE… YOU…?’ (slowly) and I’d say ‘I’m fine, thank you.’ Then they would ignore me. Keep me waiting for 20 minutes or longer, until I would go up and say ‘Here’s my card. I am here investigating a complaint. We need to talk.’

The difficulty of being an investigator is that you cannot afford to feel angry. You are not there to be angry. You are an advocate for truth. You are not even an advocate for the person that filed the complaint, you are strictly there to understand what’s going on and guide it toward a fair outcome. You have to do this in a way that helps people to be respected, do their jobs, and not be discriminated against. You have to be a bridge from one culture to another.”

“I wanted to help marginalized people learn more about their rights, so I spent time traveling to different communities to talk about these issues. Eventually I started my own business—I was helped by Wisconsin Women’s Business Corporation — and I would go and teach companies within the private sector about how to be fair.

I developed a series of training programs and led others. One of them, in the 1990s, was called Study Circles on Race. We had open, facilitated conversations about race and equity in these groups. I wanted to not just teach at people, but to explore our cultural differences and come to a place of understanding. When I was working at the Office of Civil Rights, I found that people who are offended tend to file a complaint rather than start a dialogue about what happened. So I wanted to give people an opportunity to speak, and for others to listen.

In talks about race and race-related issues, I find it fascinating when people say something like, ‘Well, I know because my friend is black.’ The assumption of knowledge is there. But as a Latina from Peru, I come from a totally different experience than Mexican-Americans have had in this country or Afro-Latinx people. It is important to understand this, that everyone is coming from a different place. You have to have that context.

Today I am concerned about how the system is changing. Due to funding, the Civil Rights Office of the state is closed. There used to be an affirmative action officer in every department, and at least one investigator. There is nothing like that anymore. When we talk about racism, I’ve even heard people say ‘No that doesn’t exist anymore, we don’t discriminate.’ This isn’t true, it’s just less obvious.

So I feel that we need to keep advocating for people who cannot advocate for themselves. We need to continue these conversations about context and race. We need to create bridges across people and cultures.

The work has shifted, and we’re not seeing this work in the government as much anymore, but you do see it in the cultural groups and advocates. You also can see it sometimes in the churches. The ones that do very direct and solid civil rights action as their moral work in the world. My reverend, for example, talks about real issues that people face. I’m seeing it now in the people themselves.

There’s still a lot of work to do, and I have so many resources from my career that I want to share. It’s time to pass it forward to the next generation.”

-Gladis Benavides | Madison, WI

Editor’s note: Gladis has been the recipient of many awards, including the Dane County Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award, the Hispanic Woman of the Year, the Latina Business of the Year from the Latino Chamber of Commerce, and the Club TNT Water Bearer award for outstanding contributions to her community.

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