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GLOBAL | summer 2004


Cecilia Tait / Caretas

Peru: Standing Tall

She was raised in a one-room shack in the slums outside Lima. There was no electricity or plumbing, but there was a makeshift volleyball court just outside the door. That was lucky for Cecilia Tait, who by age 14 was “too tall for a girl,” almost 6 feet.

A standout spiker, she borrowed her brother’s shoes to try out for a club team. From there, she made the national team, but mostly to carry balls and fetch water — until a right-handed attacker sprained an ankle during a match with the Soviet Union, and the coach yelled to Tait, “Hey, you!” He didn’t know her name and she was lefthanded, but Tait delivered such a bravura performance — “all adrenaline,” she recalls — that Peru won. A new “Zurda de Oro,” Golden Lefty, was launched. Tait was 16.

She then played professionally, in Japan, Italy and Brazil. But in 1988, at age 26, she returned to lead the Peruvian team to Seoul for the Olympics. Peru was wracked by civil war at the time, but as their team moved forward, all factions put down their guns to watch the games. The country was united for the first time in a decade.

Peru lost the gold, but won the silver, and Tait became a national hero. Presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa tried to lure her into politics, but she was more interested in playing sports. Then she hurt her knee: “My childhood diet was insufficient to build a really strong body.” She went to Germany for surgery, and there married, bore her first daughter, opened a sports clinic — and left her husband. Still, she missed the “God or the devil intensity” of Peruvian life.

So she returned in 1996, and with her own money set up a volleyball program for girls, marching through the slums, calling out, “Anyone who wants to change her life, come here!” She was soon training 800 girls, but more needed attention, so she sought government funding. It wasn’t forthcoming. That’s when Tait decided to run for office.

She joined the ticket of populist candidate Alejandro Toledo in 2000, and was elected by a huge popular vote. While in office, Tait gave birth to her second daughter. “I worked till the day she was born,” she beams. “The advantage of sports!”

Tait’s mission in the Congress, where she is one of 20 women among 120 congresistas, is to extend that advantage to everyone. She worked to raise the Youth Sports Director to a cabinet position, and has pushed for phys ed teachers in all elementary schools. Her goal is to “change the vision of people in poverty. Sports build character, hope, dignity.”

Tait knows, too, that women leading and cooperating in teams is fine training for organizing in their communities, “Since it’s the women who do it,” she smiles.