I was nine years old when we left Mexico. I love my country. I didn’t want to leave, but we had to. My dad had been a student organizer for many years in the 60s. During that time, student organizers started “disappearing” so many had to go to into exile to save their lives. Somehow he didn’t have to escape back then. Later, when I was nine, he started teaching in the University, someone recognized him, and he was threatened.
I remembered one day, I was so young, my mom talking to him and crying and she said, “We have to go.”
At that time, I didn’t understand why we had to leave. “We have to go where?” I asked.
“We have to go away” is what she told us.
We just all got on a plane; we had passports and visas. My dad was already in the States, working for a banking institution. My mom tried to protect us and said, “We’re just going to stay with dad for a while.” But we never came back.
(My grandparents, my brothers and cousins at their 50th wedding anniversary. I am the child in the light blue dress on the far right. This picture was taken a few days before we moved to the U.S.)
I’m the oldest of five. For me and my brothers and my little sister, it was fun. We though, “We’re going to go to Disney Land” and stuff like that, but actually my dad had some distant relatives who lived in Anaheim, California who took us in. But they weren’t the nicest people, and they would make comments that I was not able to understand. They were very derogative. They would make comments, “Why are these wetbacks here?” and “Why don’t they just go back to where they came from?” At the time, I found such comments odd, since they too were immigrants who like my father had left their homeland for hopes of providing a better life for their family. Besides, they were family and isn’t family supposed to help each other?
Then, my father, who is a university grad, who is a professor, has to take a job at the Marriot as a busboy, under the radar, to take care of his family and keep us safe.
“What’s going on?” I kept wondering. I love my country, my cousins; we never went without, we were fine. I was very resentful. And I thought, “Why are we here when the people are treating us like we were lesser than?” At the time, I was nine years old, and I could not understand why my father had brought us to a strange place, taking away from our family and support system. I was resentful and often ask my parents, “Why are we here? We couldn’t we have gone somewhere else?”
We stayed in Anaheim for a few months until my dad was fed up, and we moved into this small apartment with my grandma, who had also been threatened. We are grateful we never had to go through crossing the dangerous border, the way so many of our brothers and sister immigrants do. Risking it all, with the hope of escaping violence, abuse, poverty and political corruption. Being so young, I simply could not understand.
(My brother an I at 5 and 3 years old in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico)
My dad worked; my mom took care of us. In spite of everything, all his hardships, you would think he would’ve been bitter, but my dad never complained. He worked his butt off, and he was always so genuine and sweet. We were the only Mexican family in a predominately Caucasian neighborhood. Just looking at us, nobody would have known; we were all fair-skinned. But the fact was, we didn’t speak English. Whenever people would ask why we didn’t speak English, my dad, would say something like, “That’s because we’re from Mexico” in broken English. He was always so welcoming to everyone. He would tell the neighbors, “Come, come eat.”
One time my little sister was going to be baptized, and we had a full-on Mexican party in our fenced in suburban front yard, and everyone kept looking. My dad said, “Come here, come here, you want a taco?” And that’s how we grew up. We didn’t feel like we were any different than anyone else. In fact, we celebrated where we came from.
It wasn’t until I went from high school that I realized I was any different. Kids would ask really inappropriate questions, even teachers really crossed the line. Saying, things like, “Is it true that you Mexicans don’t flush the toilet?” which I would often answer with anger and resentment by saying, “What? What are you talking about? Of course we flush the toilet.”
When I entered school, even though I had phenomenal grades, somebody took it upon themselves to put me in ESL classes. I was in remedial reading and ESL, and I thought, “What the hell am I doing here?” Coming where I was coming from, I asked one of the teachers, “Why am I here?” Then I spoke with one of the counselors, who said I needed to test out of ESL, so I took the test and I passed it. But being in those classes, I had made friends with all these other Latino immigrant kids and so I said to them, “Hey, they are holding us back. You have to take this test. We’re going to pass, and we’re going to show these people.” So, one day, they all came to my house and studied hard and all of them took the test. Only one kid did not pass. Then all of a sudden, I was persona non grata among the school’s administration.
In the meantime, I noticed there were a lot of more immigrant kids coming in to the school, so I went to the administration and said, “Hey, you owe it to these kids to create a support system.” And I remember the vice principal said, “You think so? Then you create it.” So, I did, pretty soon there was a solid group of 6 or 7 brave Latino immigrant students who were banding together to make sure everyone had a fair chance at a good education and a safety net of support.
Back then the school had assemblies, rallies, for the local teens, and they used to have these talent shows but they were all in English. Quickly, our school was about 47% Latino, so I went and talked to the administration, and as soon I walked into the office, I could see the look in their faces, I knew that they were probably thinking, “Here she comes again, when she is going to graduate?”
Once in the office, I said, “We want our own talent show or want to be incorporated in yours”. Reluctantly they agreed to allow us to put together our own talent show and we created this play all in Spanish.” Once, we had everything we needed for the show, I went back to the office and asked the administrator for a time and date to showcase our play. They said it was fine and that they would pull the Latino kids out of class and have them go. And I said, “No, it needs to be open to everybody, just like your rally is open to everybody else.” So, once again they said yes, and there were about 1,100 kids that came to watch our play. It was so empowering. And not just for the Latino immigrant kids but it helped the other immigrant kids, realize that they too had a right to belong and empower them to be proud of who they were. We were all immigrant kids victims of a corrupt world that forced our families to have to leave the comfort of their beloved homeland.
It just kind of carried on through high school and then in college, I was really interested in human rights and law. I went to school for criminal justice; I wanted to be a prosecutor. During my senior year, I interned at the local county Victim Services and Advocacy Program I was one of two only Spanish-speaking people, and I was assigned to the sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse unit, which was very challenging. I grew up in a good home with loving parents. I had no idea what a problem that was in our Latino community, and I just thought, “What is this?”
I excelled in my internship and made some very good contacts. My assigned mentor and deputy district attorney took me under her wing and helped me grow professionally. She continuously pushed to be a better public servant and to take calculated risks. My job as an intern was to prepare the prosecution witnesses; my job was to encourage them to cooperate and to tell them that it was ok to tell the truth. In informed them of their rights and advised them that if they fear for their safety we could relocate them to a safe environment. Soon, I became very successful with helping these folks be empowered to tell their story.
Then, my career took an unexpected twist and through our county court house, I met a judge whose mom happened to be Mexican and whose dad was Scandinavian. He had presided over several of my cases and I had become impressed at his discipline and search for justice. This judge was now planning on stepping down from the judicial bench and decided to take a chance at running against the local county district attorney.
It just so happen that one of my mentors was running his campaign, and she said, “He really thinks highly of you, and we really want to reach out to the Latino community. If he makes it, he would like you to write a proposal to outreach and engage the Latino community.” I was 22, and I realized this is why my dad made the sacrifice, he made of leaving his country to give us a chance at a better life. Just like my dad, I took a chance and wrote a proposal, and when this judge was sworn in as the new county D.A. he made good on his word. I suddenly became the Latino spokesperson for the local County D.A.’s office, and in addition, I managed the Vietnamese outreach program as they were the second fastest growing immigration population in our county. I was 23 years old and really didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I just wanted my people to know that the law applies to everyone, not just people with papers.
In 1999, the local GOP chapter began, speaking out against the immigrant population and started putting a lot of pressure on the local authorities to act as sort of deputized immigration officers, due to this kind of political pressure there was a law passed in California that would look to prosecute anyone who utilized a fictitious social security number in their application for state IDs and driver licenses. This law mandated that everyone now had to carry a State I.D., and if your social security number didn’t check out during your application process, you were automatically arrested for providing false information. That did not sit well with me, given that I too was an immigrant. After all we were not talking about common criminals; we were talking about good people, like my dad, who were only trying to raise their families in a better and safer environment.
I went to my boss and said, “Why are we being part of this unjust law?. My parents came here illegally and you know what they produced. They produced good kids who serve and are productive members of the community .I look at the very people our office is looking to prosecute as common criminals and I cannot in good conscience be part of an entity that is persecuting people like my parents.” I told him, “I can’t do this.”
By doing this, I knew I was putting my career in the local D.A.’s office in jeopardy, after all this, I was making very good money. I was only 25 years old. In addition, by being part of the criminal justice system made my parents proud. After all, I had managed to beat the odds, managed after lots of hard work I had accomplished at 25 years old, what other people had not accomplished in their mid-40’s. But, at the end of the day I felt like a hypocrite and a traitor for being part of what I considered a brutal and unnecessary assault on people’s inalienable and human right to make an honest wage and support their family. After all, I am the product of good immigrant parents and a contributor to my thriving new community.
After I said, what I needed to say, he looked at me and said, “I understand what you’re saying. I had family members from way back who did the same thing. Now, if you repeat this, I will deny it. I have hired people who are undocumented but the law is the law.”
I said, “So, Jim Crow was the law, slavery was the law, do you agree with that?”
“The law is the law,” he told me.
And I said, “Well, thank you for the opportunity. I appreciate it. You’re a good person, but you’re a politician, and I’m not. I’m leaving. We can spin this however you want. I want you to know that I’m leaving, because what you’re doing is wrong.”
And that was it; two weeks later I left the D.A.’s office and never looked back.
I won’t deny that this was a very hard decision, particularly because I was afforded such an amazing career opportunity at such a young age. In addition, I knew that the financial hit would be hard since I had financial responsibilities and creditors who didn’t care about my convictions or values, but just wanted to get paid. But, I knew that if I stayed there, it would be a slap in my parents’ and my people’s face. And with that I decided to start over, left my community and moved to another State to continue my education and to continue to find a more constructive purpose.
During my transition, I met a wonderful person who would later become my husband, and decided to continue on my journey to start over but knew to keep my options open. After three days of moving into my new community I found a job as a victim advocate at a local women’s shelter. Without hesitation, I entered into this new and sometimes intimidating phase in my career, the stories I heard from the amazing survivors opened my eyes and refocused my efforts into a new found passion. I found a way to be proactive instead of reactive, particularly when it came to violence against women and children, to me, by the time these case came to us at the prosecuting office, it was way too late, to mend the hearts and souls of these battered women and children. I immediately saw this as an opportunity, and as my new found my calling, to empower these survivors see that there’s a better way to live without the constant threat of intimidation and violence. I was spent about 7 months away from my friends and family, learning as much as I could from my new mentors, when suddenly I received a call from a former police detective who had too grown disillusioned with our judicial system and who now was a director at a women’s shelter. She shared that she was looking for a new outreach director and encouraged me to apply for the position. I took a leap of faith, took a deep breath and moved back to what had become my adoptive homeland.
Six months into my new role, the existing Executive Director of the organization made the decision to retire. I soon got a call from one of our board member, a county deputy prosecuting attorney whom I had met during my time with the prosecuting office, she encouraged me to consider taking on the role of interim Executive Director knowing my qualifications and I once again, took a leap of faith and grasped at the chance to continue to advocate for all survivors of abuse and violence.
I soon found myself running a shelter in for battered, human trafficking, and sexual assault survivors for 7 years. During my tenure with this wonderful and progressive organization, we were able to help hundreds of women and children, and even men.
After meeting and helping hundreds of survivors, we were approached by a local partner about possibly providing services to a male survivor of human trafficking. Our partner shared that he had attempted to kill himself and due to the fact that he happened to be a male survivor, he had very limited options since most shelters only providing housing to women and children. As a male survivor of human trafficking, his only options were homeless shelters, which were not able to provide the specialized advocacy and support that someone in his situation needed. After some discussion with our management team, we decided to take him into our program and put him up in an undisclosed hotel type facility with the goal of gradually assessing if he and our women survivors who were currently in our shelter could cohabitate in the same environment.
One of our male advocates who also had been a victim of child trafficking picked him up and after giving him a couple days to settle in, under close supervision, I showed up along with another colleague to introduce ourselves and our program.
At the time all we knew about him was that he had been a survivor of severe child abuse, trafficking and agonizing physical and mental torture. I can remember meeting him at the hotel where he was staying. He was short in stature, appeared to be in a daze after having been transferred by a hospital in Los Angeles where he had been placed in a 72 hour hold for attempting to take his own life having grown tired all of his suffering.
As we entered the room, we introduced ourselves and our programs. As we spoke my colleague and I quickly noticed, visible scars all over his arms, he simply looked defeated and exhausted. He shared he had been born in Oaxaca, Mexico. After our very short conversation, he politely but firmly said “say what you need to say and get out.”
I coincidentally, had just come back from Oaxaca and had absolutely fallen in love with its people and the culture. During my travels I picked a beautiful silver beaded rosary. I simply bought the rosary not for spiritual purposes but because of its beautiful designs and craftsmanship. I happened to be wearing the rosary that day, as we spoke; I soon noticed this survivor looking at my rosary and he said, that looks like to rosaries in Oaxaca, I then took the chance to share memories of recent trip there and saw that his look quickly soften. We then shared some delicious Oaxacan food from a local restaurant and the barriers between us seemed to fade.
I told him, “I understand you’ve been through something; I want you to know we’re here to help you.” We made light conversation for the next hour and I said, “Listen, we’ll be back. Please call us anytime if you need anything. We’re going to try to find you a place where you can be safe and comfortable.”
My colleague and I went back to the shelter and gathered our management team, I told them, “We have a male survivor who needs our help and if we are too stay true to our mission, then we must be prepared to help all survivors. I think he needs to be around people who can make him feel he’s not the only one. Why don’t we ask the women in our shelter how they feel about a male survivor being in the shelter, and we can base our final decision based on their input. And so we did.
Back at the shelter, we gather the women and informed them that he needed our help. We told the women, “Listen, this guy is just like all of you. He’s been victimized, and I hope you’d consider him as a fellow survivor and brother who needs help. We didn’t get into the specifics of his abuse as it was horrific.
Unanimously the women said, “We don’t have a problem, let’s help him.”
After our meeting, I drove to the hotel where he had been living for the past 3 days and told him about the shelter. Reluctantly he agreed to come with us and he was given a private room with a private bathroom.
During his stay in our facility, the transformation was obvious, he just blossomed. Everybody loved him. He cooked for the women, cleaned and was sweet and caring to all the kids. In a few months, we were able to legally certify him as a survivor of human trafficking and he was able to receive a special visa and work permit that allowed him to remain legally in the U.S. and work.
As time passed, this broken soul shared with us that his abuse began at the tender age of 7. He was abused by his father and his brother, who did whatever they wanted with him and sold them to whomever they wanted. After running away to escape his abusive environment, he went on to encounter further abuse by a man who posing as a good Samaritan offered him a place to stay. After hearing his story, I knew why he had lost his faith in humanity and that his healing journey would be challenging due to the horrendous abuse he had endured.
After completing his program and knowing how helpful he was taking care of our facility, he ended up being the house manager for our transitional housing program. For the first time in his entire life he was able to make his own decisions, earn a living and come home without the fear of exploitation and violence.
One day, I was walking through the hallways, and he said, “Quiero hablar contigo.” (I want to talk with you.)
We went to my office and sat down, and he said, “Can I sit close to you?” I said “sure and I sat in my office chair next to him. He then started to cry, and he said, “I just want you to know, that when you came to see me at the hotel, the whole time I was thinking, I don’t even what to hear what these women have to say, I’m done. I will be gone in a few hours. I’m not worth it. I don’t even understand who these people are and what their motive is for helping me. To be honest, I was planning to kill myself as soon as you ladies left me alone in that hotel room. Throughout you speaking to me, I can’t remember exactly what you said, but I remember looking at your eyes and feeling the sincerity of your words and for a moment I thought, maybe these people are real, and they’re going to help me, accept me and I’m going to be fine.”
Unfortunately his is one of many cases of the devastating effects of human trafficking, fortunately for this survivor he was able to find the opportunity and support system that helped him overcome his abusive past and start a new life.
He is one of the many survivors who left an indelible print in my heart and to this day, I consider him a friend and a beacon of light and hope for other survivors. I’m just in awe, not just of him, but of all the survivors I’ve met. I don’t know how they get through what they’ve been through; it’s just such a miracle. I don’t know how else to put it. To hear their stories and knowing where they’ve come from and seeing them overcome insurmountable obstacles and abuse is a tribute to all the brave and hardworking immigrants like my parents.
It was then and it is still, now my opinion that the tyranny of our current immigration laws allow and create an environment for the inhumane treatment of those who assume the risk of leaving their country and risking their lives for the hope of a better life and the opportunity to be able to earn an honest wage and feed their family.
I get very upset when I hear all these hateful and anti-immigrant conversations. These ignorant and hateful people claim that all of us immigrants are doing nothing but committing crimes, bringing diseases and mooching off the government. My own experience proves them wrong along with millions of stories of honest and hardworking immigrants who have earned everything they have with their sweat and tears.
To imply that all immigrants are here with the hope of sitting back and “mooching” off the government is not only offensive but frankly, enraging. I think about all of my years I have dedicated to helping all survivors of violence and think, what would have happen if I had taken a similar hateful attitude towards people who are different than me and said to them, “Oh sorry, you are part of my community, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation; then I’m not going to help you.” After all we are all an integral part of our community we are people who have something to contribute and there is beauty in diversity. We are not illegal aliens, WE ARE HUMAN BEINGS!
After 5 years of marriage and another relocation, my husband and I have settled in our new community, had a beautiful son and I now work with a non-profit organization that connects children with critical care in 8 different partner countries which includes central America and the Dominican Republic.
(My son, myself and my husband)
Against all odds, my parents have managed to raise 5 productive public servants who serve their community as best they can. In fact my younger, sister works for one of our members of Congress and is determined to continue to make our parents and people proud.
One of the greatest lessons I learned from my parents was to be of service. My parents would often say to us, “As immigrants and members of our new community we all have the responsibility to serve and give back.”
Through our immigrant experience, we were given an opportunity, to make our people proud, and to prove to those who hate us without knowing our stories and struggles, that we are an important part of U.S. history and like all human beings, simply want the opportunity to strive for a better life. To these hateful people I say, “We have earned everything we have and have worked tirelessly to serve our community without prejudice or hatred.
I hope that by sharing my story I can be part of the effort to continue to educate people about the immigrant struggle. I strongly believe that by sharing our stories, we can illustrate the beauty and importance of diversity.
(Mom & Dad’s wedding 1972)