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As we celebrate the diverse and powerful voices of Women’s History Month, AAE was joined by award-winning Latina activist, author, social justice warrior, and founder of Urban Light, Alezandra Russell. In 2019, Alezandra received the Mother Teresa Memorial Award for her social justice work; empowering the lives of boys affected by human trafficking in Thailand, and continues to be a tireless advocate for trafficking survivors, migrants, refugees, and marginalized populations.

Recently, I had the privilege of connecting with Alezandra to hear her unique and inspirational story. Here are the highlights from that discussion.

All American Entertainment: Tell us a little about yourself and how you got started.

Alezandra Russell: As I celebrate Women’s History Month alongside AAE, I celebrate that I am Latina, that I am an author, a Mother Teresa humanitarian awardee, and especially that I am a female activist. My activist journey started decades before I was born when my fiercely-brave mother was brought to Washington, DC at seventeen. My mother, who had signed on as a nanny, had no idea she was embarking on a journey that would test not just her English but her courage. Activism soon entered our generational makeup when she was forced to flee the home of her boss and soon-to-be military dictator.

Social Justice advocate Alezandra Russell's family and early beginnings
Pictured: Russell’s aunt, Argentine artist Alba Canteros, her son Rodrigo Canteros, Russell’s older sister, Kimberly Russell, and her Mother, Entrepreneur & Spiritual Activist Ina Canteros Russell

Emilio Massera was an evil man and an even crueler boss who years later returned to Argentina to overthrow the Peron government in a horrifying coup d’etat. It was under Massera’s dictatorship that over 200,000 activists, philosophers, journalists, students, and professors disappeared – and my mother realized just who she had escaped from. Decades later, I too would experience an almost identical fate to my mother’s, and wildly enough, also at the hands of a military dictatorship.

The odyssey of my mother was what propelled me into my own journey of self-discovery and adventure. It was my mother’s history, Argentina’s history, and the plight of the thousands of mothers who marched in Buenos Aires protesting the disappearance of their sons and daughters. Their silenced voices amplified my personal protest.

Latina activist and mentor, Dolores Huerta, once said, “If we don’t know our stories, if we don’t know our history, we really don’t know who we are.”  It was Huerta’s words that pushed me to travel to Argentina decades after the war crimes of the dictators had ceased. I had just turned seventeen, the same age as my mother when she first left her home country. My mother, still safely living in the U.S., still feared retribution despite decades having passed since she fled her captor. Much to her panic, I soon found myself walking with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, protesting the war crimes committed by her former boss and captor. I had experienced my first taste of protest walking in solidarity in front of the very same balcony where Evita Peron famously sang to her supporters years before. I discovered my life’s purpose in that Plaza on that Thursday in Buenos Aires surrounded by mothers in handkerchiefs. 

AAE: What do you think has been your greatest social justice accomplishment?

Russell: Led by my internal revolution to bring about social justice and my spit-fire stubbornness, I soon found my soapbox relocating from Plaza de Mayo in Argentina to the red light district in Thailand. I had aimed my protest at the exploitation and trafficking of young boys, leading me to launch one of the first social impact organizations dedicated exclusively to empowering boys. (#Boys)

Urban Light is a social justice foundation dedicated to helping eliminate child sex trafficking in Thailand

Starting Urban Light, I did what any activist would do – I pawned my wedding ring, my engagement ring, and anything I could think of to use towards start-up capital (this was before GoFundMe existed). Urban Light has since worked with over 9,000 boys impacted by exploitation, human trafficking, abuse, and violence. To this day, it has been my greatest accomplishment.

AAE: Tell us about your experiences as a woman in a male-dominated industry. How has it impacted your work?

Russell: As a woman working in the international anti-trafficking space, I’ve had the pleasure of encountering angry pedophiles, threatening pimps, violent police officers, and endless judgments. However, it’s not so much the threats or violence that scares me as the biases of peers, hesitating partners, and friends who doubt me simply because I am a woman. 

Be a good Latina wife and just stay home.

Who cooks for your husband if you’re off traveling?

You can’t possibly have babies doing the work you do.

Oh, and my favorite microaggression: “It’s not appropriate for a woman to be running all over the world as you do.”

Every doubtful eye that glances my way only further fuels my desire to break these gender biases and roles.

Those closest to me soon understood that my personal soapbox would not be compromised by my culture, by a husband, by a glass ceiling, and not even by a dictator. Although little did I know, I would soon come to know firsthand the pain and loss faced by female activists, vocal Latinas, and spirited daughters like me.

Every doubtful eye that glances my way only further fuels my desire to break these gender biases and roles.

Nine years after I had started Urban Light, my megaphone of outcries finally caught up with me when I was suddenly forced to flee Thailand. Facing the possibility of seven years in a Thai prison, I was being charged with defamation for an article that had been written about my organization. Operating in a military dictatorship under extreme censorship meant even honest information was seen as a threat and a crime punishable by jail. I would soon have a whole new set of speaking topics to add to my AAE repertoire. (See them here!)

My weapon – my voice – had finally gotten me into a whole lot of trouble, and not so much the good kind of trouble. As a child, I had witnessed firsthand what dictators and governments were capable of. I saw my mother’s fear, I heard her doubts about returning to Argentina even though 20 years had passed since she saw her family. Thankful for my freedom, I still came out having lost a country and people I had come to adore.

AAE: What does Women’s History Month mean to you? Can you share any women in your life who you look up to or who influenced you?

Russell: I spent most of 2018 (and 2019) angry. Angry at Thai dictators who wanted to scare me into silence. Angry at dictators who had left my mother country-less for decades. Angry at Argentinian dictators who had thrown sons and daughters out of airplanes over the ocean. Angry at Colombian dictators who kidnapped and murdered a friend and activist when her only offense was protesting the construction of an oil pipeline in the Amazon. Angry at Burmese dictators who savagely destroyed entire villages, stories which my Godmother documented.

Social Justice Advocate Alezandra Russell describes her homeland of Thailand

It’s safe to say I have grown up surrounded by countless female heroines, and therefore I absolutely knew the risks associated with stirring the pot (or the male ego). It was the fearlessness of these women and the many courageous women before them who molded my determination.

As I celebrate Women’s History Month, exiled from Thailand, but still with my voice, I also celebrate the long legacy of fierce females who came before me, paving the path to give my voice more space to shout, protest, and share. I am honored to be able to contribute to this space as a Latina, as a female, but especially as an activist. Thank you, AAE for providing a platform for women to be honored, not just this month but every month.

This Women’s History Month, we are celebrating Alezandra’s inspiring story as a female activist and social justice warrior, as well as the inspiring and motivating stories of women who came before her and women who will follow in her footsteps. Learn more about Alezandra’s speaking topics, and check out the many other resonating female voices of 2022.