By Matthew Rodriguez
Pasadena Weekly Deputy Editor

A handful of Latinas gathered in 1981 hoping to answer a single question: What can we do to help the community?

“A number of us belonged to another Latina women’s group that just stopped, it no longer existed,” Cristina Fuentes said. “We wanted to continue… We wanted to be more community-driven, helping out the community.”

Soon after posing that question, Fuentes, along with three other women — Lois Gutierrez, Nena Maynez-Castro and Jessie Lopez — formed the Community Organization of Pasadena for Advancement.

In 2021, Pasadena’s longest-running Latina organization has been forced to shut down after 40 years due to a drop in recruitment.

“I think it’s an incredible achievement,” Fuentes said. “We should be proud of the fact that we lasted 40 years… In our own little way, we’ve left our mark and I know we supported a lot of people.”

The group originally named itself the Chicanas Organized for Progress in Aztlan. Chicanas means American women of Mexican descent and Aztlan is the ancestral homeland of the Aztecs. Roughly translated to the “Land of Whiteness,” some have referred to Aztlan as the land the United States annexed from Mexico after the Mexican American War.

Understanding education to be the great equalizer, the group soon supported young Chicanas by providing college scholarships. Every year they chose one Latina of Mexican descent from each of the public high schools in Pasadena and granted her a scholarship of, at first, $500. The scholarship was later increased to $1,000. Throughout the years, they have help around 180 young women, some of whom were living in abject poverty.

“The struggle of a lot of them going through to just survive,” president Darlene Leyba said before choking up.

She recalled a student telling her about how her father made money by collecting cardboard. That student was later awarded a scholarship.

While the scholarship’s amount may pay for one semester at a California state school, the grant focuses more on acknowledging the young women’s achievements. 

“It wasn’t so much about the money because they weren’t big grants,” Fuentes said. “It was about acknowledging them, acknowledging their efforts and empowering them.”

When COPA began, just like many new nonprofit volunteer organizations, they were strapped for cash.

Lacking grant funding, the women made money any way they could, whether it was selling drinks at the Pasadena Jazz Festival, peddling cookbooks to residents or even hosting garage sales.

“It was just a group of really hardworking women,” Fuentes said. “We were just very dedicated and really wanted to help the community in any way possible.”

While the organization’s focus was to empower Chicanas, it helped residents register to vote, and donated gift baskets, clothes, shoes and purses filled with toiletries for Mother’s Day.

“Whoever needed help we would help them,” Gutierrez said. “If they couldn’t pay for their water bill or electric bill, we (paid) them. If they needed something done in their homes, like plumbing and we knew they didn’t have the money to do it, then we would pay for it.”

Throughout the years, COPA has been honored by politicians and the community, with benches in Gwinn and Eaton Blanche parks and tile in the Rose Bowl entrance. COPA also inspired other Latina-led organizations throughout the city, including its successor Latinas Inspired for Tomorrow. But as COPA nears its end, the fire and passion to help the community are still present.

“I was hoping that we could keep going,” Gutierrez said. “I think I still have a few more years.”