LLL Today #4 – Tribute to Carolina Evans de Villa

I never fully grasped the significance of my mother being a La Leche League Leader until I became an adult.

I remember coming home from school and finding the living room full of mothers and babies.

On one occasion we hosted an American woman. With my limited English I couldn’t understand the importance of this guest. Years later, looking through photographs, I realized this was none other than Marian Thompson, one of the founders of LLL.

My mother dreamed of breastfeeding her children. However, she was not successful with my three older brothers. It so happened that when I was a baby and my mother was visiting her parents in Chicago she came across a tiny ad in a magazine advertising support to the nursing mother. Without missing a beat she called the number. I was the happy recipient of the benefits that came after that phone call. My mom breastfed me until I was almost three.

Today it moves me deeply to realize that I was the baby who inspired her to become a Leader. I recall very little of my mother’s journey from being a breast-feeding mother herself until becoming a LLL Leader. I just remember the living room full of moms and happy babies. I also remember her giving rides to many women who had no transportation. She would load up my father’s old green jeep with women and babies and drive downtown to Dora Luz’s beautiful colonial home. I remember seeing a group of at least twenty women sharing that one and only space which exudes such power and determination, when mothers decide—no matter what it takes—to breastfeed their children.

I remember my mother returning from those meetings. She looked radiant.

I remember my mother returning from the International Conferences. She was energized and oh so happy.

Those who met my mother knew that she was all kindness and yet totally humble. Since she was not one to boast, it was not until I was an adult that I came to understand that she was the one who started La Leche League in Colombia. And that thanks to her, many other women became Leaders, not only in Colombia but throughout Latin America.

My father worked in community development, striving to help the underserved of Colombia. He was constantly supporting and encouraging my mother in her work with breastfeeding. He understood this as being essential; healthy children was the basis of a society where peace and prosperity reigned.

Those who knew my mother perhaps remember that she did not have endless energy. How I remember her praising the other Leaders who followed her, for their projects, for their determination, for their work. Yet, in her quiet and humble self, her influence was like no other.

Those who knew my mother remember that her commitment to breastfeeding and good nutrition reached well into her kitchen. Years ago, when organic and vegetarian food was not yet a trend, Carolina already cooked amazing meals with no need of animal protein.

I remember sensing the depth of her commitment to breastfeeding when our dog, a beautiful German Shepherd, gave birth to 11 puppies. At home we were vegetarians. So I was shocked when my mom returned from the butcher shop with a giant bone, stuck it in a big pot and a few hours later had a protein packed soup. No, it was not for her own children but for the dog. Carolina, who did not care for the pets because—in her words—they were naughty and dirty, allowed her LLL experience and love for lactating beings to cross to the animal world.

I remember the phone calls. The old black phone would ring in the hallway and my rascal brothers would answer. If a soft and tired voice, with a crying baby in the background could be heard, they would muffle the phone and moo, imitating a cow calling its calf. The one and only time when I would see my soft mother become annoyed, she would give them the look as she took the phone from their hands.  In an instant she would be her wonderful compassionate self, offering loving support to yet one more mother. This was perhaps my very first lesson in the art of supporting women—an attitude which I try to emulate in my current work as a nurse and lactation consultant.

Back then, the way of communicating with mothers was through the phone or through mailed letters. The internet did not exist, let alone social media. I remember my mom, sitting at the dining room table, typing furiously and with such speed, piles of paper and carbon paper in between each page, attempting to make the last copy as clear as the first. She would write long letters to Leaders across Latin America. She had been tasked to lead these Leaders. Was such an honor deserved? Well, little did I know because, once again, my humble and quiet mama did her work without boasting one bit.

When the fax system appeared, her life became so much easier. Now she didn’t have to type with such determination. Just with writing one copy, with the help of the magic little machine, it meant that one of her Leaders in Peru could read her words within a few minutes.

I believe it was my father who encouraged her to write a book on breastfeeding.  This is how “Querer es Poder” began. My father’s kidnapping cut this project and her heart in half. But years later, she was able to finish it. The dedication says it all:

I dedicate this book to the memory of my husband Alvaro Villa,

whose enthusiasm helped me begin it

And whose legacy has given me the strength to bring it to conclusion.

One of the last trips which my parents were able to go on as a couple was to Quito, Ecuador, for an LLL meeting of regional Leaders. The host was going around the room, asking people to introduce themselves. My father was perhaps the only man in the room, and he sat quietly in one corner.

“And the gentleman?”, asked the host.

And my rascal and charming papa replied: “I am Carolina’s chauffeur and husband and I have been trying to become a Leader for 30 years and they continue to deny my application!”

My parents were definite Leaders and persons ahead of their time—something I did not come to understand until I was an adult. Today it is an honor to call myself the daughter of Alvaro and Carolina. Breastfeeding promotion was just one facet of everything they were trying to do to serve. Today I recognize that the motor which drives my personal and professional life, I owe it all to my mother. She understood that the art of supporting women in breastfeeding extended way beyond helping a mother and her baby. A good mother is without a doubt, the structure on which the well-being of humanity stands.

May my mother and all of the thousands of Leaders around the world be blessed.

María Sara Villa