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Three Generations of Black Women Overcome Boundaries and Setbacks With Love

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LOUISVILLE, Ky.  — 

At the red-brick high school Mattie Little attended in the 1960s, the idea that a Black girl like herself could go to college never crossed her mind. She hoped to become a typist, but teachers in her rural Kentucky town urged her to set aside that dream and focus on getting work as a maid.

“Those were the rules,” she recalled. “And that was how it was going to be.”

Mattie would prove those teachers wrong and decades later beam with pride as she watched her granddaughter, NaKayla Little, walk across the stage at the University of Louisville to receive her bachelor’s degree, becoming the first in the Little family to graduate from college.

It’s a classic American story, one generation building on the work of another. But progress isn’t always linear and neat. That’s certainly true of the paths followed by Mattie and her daughter, Myya, who is the mother of NaKayla.

The story of the Little family women — Mattie, Myya and NaKayla — is one of perseverance, of pushing a bit further than the previous generation and yet still starting from behind.

Mattie Little hugs her grandchildren as family members begin to arrive for dinner in Louisville, Ky.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

For each, there was no trust fund or inheritance, but a lineage of wisdom and love from Black women striving for better lives and leaning on one another to get there. That too is a classic American story.

::

In 1965, Mattie was an 18-year-old high school senior in Lebanon, a town 70 miles southeast of Louisville, known for Club Cherry, a stop on the famous Chitlin’ Circuit, a network of theaters and clubs where Black musicians could perform safely.

She would walk to the club with some of her siblings — more than a dozen brothers and sisters — and from the outside hear the smooth sounds of saxophones and a piano fill the air.

Her mother worked as a cook and her father at a hardware store.

This was the year the Voting Rights Act, which banned racial discrimination in voting practices, became law. Still, Jim Crow was inescapable. She knew which restaurants wouldn’t serve her, which shops she wasn’t welcome to buy a pack of her favorite bubble gum.

“It was how it was,” recalled Mattie, 73. “My mom could work in the restaurant, but her own family couldn’t even sit down and eat inside it.”

Mattie Little at her church, St. Augustine Catholic Church, in Louisville, Ky.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Her high school had integrated years before, but Mattie remembers most of her classmates being white. “And the teachers, who were also white, no doubt gave them the most attention,” she said.

During her freshman year, none of Mattie’s classmates looked like her, and she remembers wanting to ask questions but stifling them out of fear they would tease her.

“I failed that geometry class,” she said.

But the following semester she transferred to a different geometry class, one with a handful of Black classmates, whose engagement with the coursework gave her confidence. This time, she earned an A, and continued to thrive throughout high school. Still, college felt like a faraway island, nearly impossible to reach.

When the principal, a white man in his 40s, asked seniors what they planned to do after graduation, Mattie replied that she wanted to take typing classes to land a clerical job.

“That wasn’t going to be needed,” she remembered him saying. “Because most of you would do domestic work.”

The reply still stings. “He thought I’d spend my life cleaning houses.”

After graduation, Mattie moved to Louisville, where she had an older sister. “It was the big city to us back then,” Mattie recalled with a laugh.

She found a job at the VA Medical Center, delivering dinner trays to patients’ rooms, and married her boyfriend, Jarvis Little, who had just gotten out of the Army.

In 1969, she left the VA and entered a six-month typing class funded by the Urban League. She soon got a job as a secretary at a furniture store, where she worked for a few years, before becoming a data processor at a company that would eventually become BellSouth.

The woman who had been told she would be cleaning houses was now working for a major telecommunications firm. Mattie remembers the relief of getting a job where, in 1970, she earned about $67 a week. The job, which would later become unionized, funded courses at Spalding University, and Mattie took classes here and there but never finished as she started a family of her own.

She had a son and then, in 1976, she had Myya.

“There was so much joy in also having a girl,” she recalled.

As the family grew and money stretched increasingly thin, Mattie began applying for positions with more responsibility within the company, but the promotions almost always went to her white colleagues, she said.

“They were for one, white, so they were at an advantage because all the bosses were white,” she said. “They also had college degrees.” She never got promoted.

Mattie preached the importance of an education to her children — college, she often told Myya, would be a ticket to a better life in America.

::

Myya grew up in the West End of Louisville, the part of town where Black families, including her own, had settled because of racist redlining practices that blanketed cities across the nation.

A man walks by a mural of Muhammad Ali in Louisville, Ky.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

The area had high poverty rates born of decades of governmental neglect, but the neighborhood boomed with pride over its native son: Cassius Clay. When Myya was growing up, Clay, by then Muhammad Ali, was retired and regularly visited the area.

“He was one of the best things about this neighborhood,” Myya said.

When she turned 18 during her senior year, in 1994, the themes of segregation and racism made global headlines. South Africa held its first multiracial elections as apartheid ended, electing Nelson Mandela president.

Back in Louisville, the school district had, for decades, used a busing plan to desegregate classrooms, which later required at least 15% and no more than 50% Black enrollment at the district’s schools.

Her school, Ballard High, was in the East End of Louisville — the white side of town — and Myya never felt like she truly fit in. There were a few kids from her neighborhood who were also bused to the mostly white school. She didn’t like leaving her neighborhood and quickly lost interest.

“It was just a place to hang out,” said Myya, now 45. “It’s sad to think back on it and say that, but it was.”

She said she felt like none of the teachers cared about her success, and she began to wonder what the point was. Despite her mother’s pleas to improve her grades, she started skipping school.

Myya Little and her youngest daughter, Lylah, in an old family cemetery near Lebanon, Ky.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Myya thinks back on her youth and how she did not understand the long-term consequences of her decisions. It pained Mattie to see her daughter not value school — especially after all she had been through in Lebanon. But, still, she never stopped believing in Myya’s potential.

“It’s your child,” Mattie said. “You never stop loving them and wanting to see them shine.”

Myya had a boyfriend, Jamal Oliver, got pregnant and in February 1994 — her senior year — gave birth to NaKayla.

Four months later, she was still able to get her diploma and even won a $5,000 grant to study nursing at Spalding University.

“It was a natural fit,” she said of nursing. She’d always been gregarious and wanted to help people.

Myya Little sits at the front desk at the food pantry where she was recently its director.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

But between rent and books and meals, she couldn’t afford everything she needed for NaKayla.

“I had this new responsibility,” she said. “I was a mother, and only mothers know what love and bond feels like when they have a child.”

She dropped out and took a job as a cashier making minimum wage. She often dreamed that, perhaps, one day her daughter would fulfill the dream she’d deferred: becoming a nurse.

::

Every week, family gathered for dinner at Mattie’s house, and three generations of women laughed and cooked together. A regular favorite: baked spaghetti. They talked about their dream trips overseas — Paris, somewhere in Peru or Africa.

Mattie and Myya stressed the importance of education — a degree, they told NaKayla, was the ticket to those far-off places they dreamed about.

“School was always No. 1 for me,” said NaKayla, who went to private Catholic schools, funded by sponsors who were members of the Little family’s church.

She was among a handful of Black students, but it didn’t deter her. She got good grades and didn’t think twice about her next step.

“There was a sense of pressure, because no one in my family had graduated from college,” she said.

It was 2012 — the U.S. was bouncing back from the recession and President Obama, the nation’s first Black president, was campaigning for a second term. But with that optimism came a devastating reality in NaKayla’s neighborhood: gun violence.

NaKayla, then 18, knew several young men shot to death in her neighborhood, she said, and she wanted to move away, so she enrolled at Hampton University, a historically Black college in Virginia.

She never felt like she fit in — some of her classmates came from privileged backgrounds — and NaKayla grew homesick, longing for those weekly meals with Mattie and Myya. Soon she returned to Louisville.

NaKayla Little on the campus of the University of Louisville, where she was the first in her family to graduate from college.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

NaKayla started cosmetology school and graduated, but soon realized she wanted a career with more earning potential. A degree in something — anything — was a better option, she told herself, rejoicing when she got accepted at the University of Louisville.

She got her bachelor’s degree in communications in 2016, but then came to another realization: She struggled to find a job that was rewarding.

She thought about moving far from home to try out life in Seattle, where she found there were plenty of opportunities in the communications field.

NaKayla knew a little about Myya’s dreams of becoming a nurse but had never given it much thought as a career option for herself.

She prayed on it.

Then, nearly 25 years after her mother enrolled as a nursing student at Spalding, NaKayla followed in Myya’s footsteps, quickly discovering she shared her mother’s love for the profession. She graduated from nursing school in 2019.

For most of the pandemic she has been too consumed by the job to think much about her student loans — about $65,000 — which she hopes she can pay off within a decade. The long hours inside intensive care units and concerns about getting the coronavirus have consumed her.

“The work has kept me busy,” she said. “I need to work and stay healthy.”

::

NaKayla, Myya and Mattie Little enjoy an evening on the front porch in Louisville, Ky.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

On a muggy evening a few months ago, Myya and NaKayla sat on the porch of Mattie’s house in Louisville, the home where both women were basically raised. A helicopter buzzed across the sky and the hum of cicadas echoed off the neighbors’ houses.

“There’s going to be a lot of joy this year,” Mattie said, now that “we have a new little one on the way.”

NaKayla smiled, resting her hand on her growing belly. She and her boyfriend, Lealand Robinson, were expecting their first child.

NaKayla and Myya had also started to think about opening their own business — something for both women to do on the side. A family friend has a food truck and NaKayla recently looked up the price: $1,200.

Myya had cooked plates of food — fried fish, baked potatoes, rice — and sold them during the early months of the pandemic, when she was between jobs and needed to make money. Myya was inspired by NaKayla to think about working for herself. They want the truck to specialize in some of the vegan recipes Myya has been testing.

“We can work for ourselves, now wouldn’t that be nice?” Myya said.

“It’s what we’ve always wanted,” NaKayla nodded.

Being your own boss. It’s another classic American goal.

But, bit by bit, the three Little family women have achieved fundamental goals. It’s a story that’s played out time and again across this country.

Mattie overcame bigotry and exceeded expectations to create a home for her daughter. Myya set aside her dream to raise her daughter and helped NaKayla discover her passion. Now, NaKayla is inspiring Myya.

Mattie, the matriarch, smiled at her daughter and granddaughter as a bright sun slipped under the horizon.

NaKayla smiled back, continuing to rest her hand on her belly.

She and Lealand had recently picked out a name for their child: a daughter, Amelia Eleanor Rose. She was born Wednesday.

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Why Mexico’s President Is Promoting a Recall Against Himself

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MEXICO CITY — 

Standing before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in downtown Mexico City’s central square, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saved his most striking comment for the end of his speech.

He urged the Mexicans packed into the Zócalo to participate in an April referendum to decide whether they want to boot him from office more than two years early.

“None of, ‘They chose me for six years and I can do whatever I want,’” López Obrador said at the rally Wednesday to mark his midterm. “If one who governs is not up to the task and obeying the people, revoke their mandate and out!”

The president, 68, likely believes he has nothing to worry about.

Recent polls show that about two-thirds of the public approve of his performance since taking office in 2018 on a platform that promised a radical transformation of Mexican society to combat corruption and inequality and to roll back free-market economic policies.

Families and marching bands making their way to the Zócalo passed vendors hawking gray-haired López Obrador dolls and posters with the hashtag #QueSigaAMLO, or “may AMLO continue,” referring to the president by his initials. Many said they view a referendum, authorized by a 2019 constitutional reform spearheaded by the president, as proof of his honest character when compared to decades of presidents accused of corruption.

“AMLO is the first president that dares to put himself to the test before the people,” said Debanhi Andrea Garcia, 22, who drove 14 hours from the state of Nuevo León with her boyfriend. “Because he’s like that, we support him.”

Supporters of López Obrador hold banners in support of the president at Mexico City’s Zócalo.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

Mexicans have until Dec. 25 to sign a petition supporting the referendum, which can move forward only with the signatures of at least 3% of eligible voters, among other caveats.

So far, the initiative has received more than 703,000 signatures from Mexicans who have valid voting credentials, or 25% of the required total, according to the National Electoral Institute, an independent agency overseeing the process. (That tally includes signatures that will be discarded because they are duplicates or have other irregularities.)

Officially called the “revocation of mandate,” the measure follows other efforts by the president to increase citizen engagement in public policy. López Obrador has also backed referendums to decide whether former Mexican presidents should be prosecuted for alleged crimes, on the construction of a new airport near Mexico City and on the development of a tourism train line that would run through the Yucatan Peninsula.

“He does conceive his power as being a function of people reiterating their support actively,” said Francisco González, a professor of Latin American politics at Johns Hopkins University. “He wants it officially confirmed to give him that comfort of being the popular leader who is doing the right thing for Mexico.”

Since taking office, López Obrador has also expanded social welfare programs while introducing sharp austerity measures. He has halted renewable energy projects, promoted a constitutional reform to increase the country’s control of the electricity market, and given more power to the military — putting it in charge of projects such as the tourism train.

President López Obrador gives an address to mark the midpoint of his term.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

His critics say that he hasn’t done enough to reduce high levels of homicides, including many killings of women and attacks against journalists and public officials. Dozens of candidates across the country were assassinated ahead of last spring’s midterm elections for governorships and legislative and mayoral seats.

Critics also are concerned about López Obrador’s attacks against democratic agencies that could check his power, notably the National Electoral Institute. He has repeatedly disparaged the independent agency, which last May sanctioned him for making statements in at least 29 news conferences that it said could be considered government propaganda that could influence the midterm elections. In Mexico, such statements by public officials are generally barred during the election season.

But the president’s vision of transformational change continues to resonate among many voters who view him as a paternal figure. López Obrador is in constant dialogue with his electorate, holding press conferences every morning that last hours.

“The figure he has constructed of an honest man, an honorable man, an incorruptible man — that helps him in a society that is used to seeing terribly corrupt politicians,” said René Torres-Ruiz, a political scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

Even if enough signatures are gathered, hurdles to a referendum remain. The National Electoral Institute’s members have said that the agency doesn’t have the budget to carry out the vote and at least 40% of eligible voters must participate for the referendum to be binding. The referendum on former presidents last August fell far short of the 40% voting figure.

Ariadna Gomez, left, and another volunteer collect signatures for a referendum on whether Mexico’s president should continue.

(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)

Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America, said that winning a referendum would increase López Obrador’s perception that he could move forward freely with his agenda.

“What he wants is to come out of the vote, supposing there is one, politically strengthened with this renewed and amplified popular mandate,” she said.

Opposition parties have accused the president’s supporters of twisting the stated purpose of the referendum into a tool to promote López Obrador’s agenda. The 2019 reform called for a referendum to “revoke” a president’s mandate rather than “ratify” it and a complaint before the National Electoral Institute by the National Action Party referenced how volunteers have registered voters next to posters that advertise the referendum as a means of promoting the president rather than recalling him from office.

Luis Cházaro, a congressman from the Party of the Democratic Revolution, told The Times that the referendum “has been transformed into a promotional tool for the party.” He does not plan to participate.

In Coyoacán, a cobblestoned neighborhood in Mexico City known for Frida Kahlo’s home, volunteers last Sunday gathered signatures at a plaza in front of posters of the president that said “may AMLO continue.”

Ariana Garcia, a 24-year-old volunteer, said she uses the term “ratification” for people she senses like the president and “revocation” for those she thinks oppose him.

“People tell you, ‘But I don’t want my president to leave,’ so we tell them, ‘OK, then in this case you can ratify your support for the president,’” she said.

A supporter of López Obrador listens to his speech at a rally to commemorate the president’s midterm.

(Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)

Roberto Garcia, a systems engineer in Mexico City, said that he would vote against the president, uncomfortable that the federal government recently issued a decree that requires federal agencies to automatically approve infrastructure projects that are deemed to be of interest to the public or national security. He also sees the referendum as “a type of manipulation,” suspicious of why the president has contradicted the National Electoral Institute, saying it has enough funding to hold a vote he himself has fought for.

María de los Angeles Resendiz, a grandmother of 10 from the state of Mexico, will support López Obrador without hesitation.

Resendiz, 62, watches the president’s 7 a.m. news conferences each day with her husband while preparing breakfast and washing dishes. If she needs to skip one, she’ll track it down later on YouTube. She also listens to summaries in case she’s missed something.

Before López Obrador took power, Resendiz tried to stay as far away from politics as she could. She became disillusioned when she was a little girl after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which soldiers killed as many as 300 people at a student protest in Mexico City.

She called López Obrador a “simple” man who has won her confidence with his anti-corruption platform. She eagerly described how his government has set money aside for youth job training and expanded welfare payments to the elderly.

“He’s given us back our dignity,” she said. “I am proud to say that I am Mexican and that he is my president.”

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Op-Ed: the U.S. Shouldn’t Ignore Mexico’s Ongoing Human Rights Catastrophe

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On Dec. 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached the halfway point of his six-year term. Since his election in 2018, López Obrador has not only failed to improve the country’s disastrous human rights record, he has worked to undo many of the hard-fought gains in transparency and the rule of law that rights groups, activists and campaigners have achieved since the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000.

The United States has been noticeably silent regarding the Mexican president’s accelerating attacks on democracy. President Biden has instead chosen to focus on enlisting López Obrador to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S. border.

López Obrador, a prominent anti-establishment figure in Mexican politics for decades, is the kind of populist leader that has become increasingly common in Latin America. He was democratically elected in a landslide on a promise to “transform” Mexico by taking back control of the country from the elites whose policies he blamed for economic inequality, social breakdown and growing violence.

López Obrador inherited a human rights catastrophe. When he came to office in 2018, 12 years of a military-led drug war had led to horrific abuses. Homicides hit staggering numbers. Thousands of people disappeared every year. But he has not addressed these problems. Soldiers continue to kill civilians. Homicides remain at historically high rates. And according to the government’s figures, more than 25,000 people have gone missing on his watch.

Even so, López Obrador has remained immensely popular with his base. He appears to believe that his continued popular support gives him the moral authority to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands and to attempt to control every part of the state to bring about his promised transformation.

He labels anyone who criticizes him or stands in his way as a “neoliberal” or “conservative,” nebulous groups of supposed adversaries whom he describes as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Leveling this charge allows him to avoid responding to genuine concerns raised by journalists who question him, women’s rights campaigners upset at his lack of action on gender-based violence, Indigenous communities who oppose his megaprojects, environmentalists who disagree with his coal and oil-focused energy policy, and press freedom campaigners concerned about his government’s harassment of journalists, among others.

He has eliminated or proposed eliminating many government agencies not under his direct control, including the independent energy and telecommunications regulators, funds for protecting journalists and responding to climate change and natural disasters, the independent transparency agency and the independent electoral authority. He recently decreed that his government’s construction and infrastructure projects would be automatically granted permits without any review and that as matters of “national security,” would be exempted from transparency rules.

He has also gone after the judicial system, which has delayed or blocked a number of his projects and proposals as abusive or unconstitutional. His efforts to intimidate the judiciary have grown brazen. López Obrador has publicly singled out those whose rulings he dislikes and called for a judge who ruled against him to be investigated.

In April, his coalition in Congress passed a law — since overturned — to extend the term of the Supreme Court chief justice who has ruled in favor of the president. And in August, López Obrador held a referendum on whether the government should put five previous presidents on trial for alleged crimes such as “neoliberalism” and the “privatization of public goods.”

The U.S. policy of ignoring López Obrador’s attacks on the rule of law came into stark relief in June, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and met with him. At the end of the trip, a journalist asked the vice president if the United States was concerned about López Obrador’s hostile attitude toward the media and civil society.

Harris initially responded that she had urged the Mexican president to respect the independence of the judicial system, the press and civil society. However, hours later, her spokesperson issued a correction to the Spanish wire service EFE, saying the vice president had been confused; she and the Mexican president had only discussed immigration and the economy, nothing else.

López Obrador will be in office for another three years. His coalition still controls both houses of Congress and he has made it clear that he is willing to amend the constitution if necessary to remove obstacles to achieving his goals. Unless the circumstances change, there are no signs he intends to alter his course.

José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Tyler Mattiace is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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Photos: As Roe Vs. Wade Challenged, Demonstrators Gather Outside Supreme Court

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Juanito Estevez, of Freeport, N.Y., holds a cross as he and abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

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