Ada María Isasi-Díaz often quipped that she “was born a feminist on Thanksgiving weekend in 1975,” when she attended the first Women’s Ordination Conference in Detroit. At the time of her unexpected death in May at age 69, after fighting an aggressive cancer, she was acknowledged as the full-fledged mother of mujerista theology and recognized around the world for her critical contribution in shaping a feminist liberation theology for Latinas in the United States.
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Ada was “a pioneer,” Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether told Sojourners. “She gave us a vision of justice and integrity for Latina women in the U.S. and the world that was inspiring”; her work is “an integral part of feminist theological thought.”
Ada María Isasi-Díaz was born in Cuba in 1943, the third of six sisters and two brothers. Her father worked in the sugar cane mills, and her mother nourished in Ada a love of Catholic religious practices and the importance of staying in the struggle (la lucha) for what one believes. Her family fled Cuba after years of civil war, and in 1960, at age 17, Ada arrived in the U.S. as a political refugee. Soon she joined the Ursuline sisters and, in 1967, was sent to Lima, Peru, as a missionary.
“I lived there for three years,” Ada wrote. “This experience marked me for life ... It was there that the poor taught me the gospel message of justice. It was there that I learned to respect and admire the religious understandings and practices of the poor and the oppressed and the importance of their everyday struggles, of lo cotidiano.”
Her research on lo cotidiano—the dynamic daily lives of Latino/as—argued that theology didn’t have to be only about God in the abstract, but should include what people know about God and how they acquire that knowledge. In this way she identified Latinas and their community, traditions, habits, moral judgments, and self-definition as the primary source material for learning about their God experience. By relocating her primary theological sources out of the academy and to the kitchens, laundromats, home altars, and familias of Latina women, Ada flipped the locus of power, authority, and agency.
“She enlisted the words of Latinas in both their work and in their resistance,” said Gabriel Salguero, her first archivist and now president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. “She was a pioneer because she gave voice to an authentic struggle for dignity amidst the exploitation of Latina women in their work as domestics. She had a capacity to develop people in speech, to bring forth voice, both with them and on their behalf.”
Ada returned from Peru in 1969 and left the Ursuline Order. In the early 1970s, she worked as a tutor, finished her bachelor’s, taught high school in South Louisiana, and spent 16 months in Spain. In 1975, she was living in New York and had been working as a sales clerk at Sears. Ada’s friend Denise Mack insisted she attend a women’s conference in Detroit. Ada had no money for the travel, hotel, or registration—but went anyway. At the conference’s closing liturgy, the presiders asked all women called to ordination to a renewed priestly ministry within the Catholic Church to stand. Ada recalled that she was at the front of the auditorium. “I didn’t want to stand. I’m tired of battles. But I knew I had to be honest and stand.” When she looked behind her she said, “I found myself surrounded by a ‘cloud of witnesses.’” This would be a struggle in which she would not be alone.
In 1988 she published Hispanic Women: Prophetic Voice in the Church with Yolanda Tarango. It was one of the first theological books from a Latina perspective published in the U.S. For 37 years, Ada María Isasi-Díaz forged a community of women’s voices—with Latina theological experience and wisdom at its center—and fought fiercely for its recognition within the academy. More important, she empowered Latina working as domestics, in maquilas (factories), and in the fields with the courage to define themselves. Latinas dedicated to a preferential option for women found a name: mujeristas.
“The concept of struggle, la lucha, and the name of Ada María Isasi-Díaz will always go together,” New Testament scholar Fernando Segovia told Sojourners. “This was a struggle that she inherited from the political legacy of exile and alienation ... and a struggle for which she empowered many along the way. She waged it with profound conviction, steadfast determination, and unremitting hope.” Ada María—presente!
Rose Marie Berger, author of the book Who Killed Donte Manning? (available at store.sojo.net), is a Catholic peace activist and a Sojourners associate editor.