A Legacy of Strength: Three Immigration Stories, One Common Goal

MEDA often hears from our stakeholders and funders how impressed they are that the organization takes risks. Yet MEDA’s risk-taking pales in comparison to the risks and sacrifices taken by the majority of the 7,400 clients we annually serve, many of whom had to cross borders to support their families. 

A number of MEDA staff have similar stories to those of our clients, creating empathy and passion for the organization’s work.

The story of risk-taking and crossing borders is not a narrative of weakness: It is a collective story of strength.

MEDA CEO Luis Granados: Immigrating as a teenager (crossing — 1977)
During his formative years, Luis Granados resided in bustling Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Being a few miles from the United States meant crossing the bridge that passed over I-10 to El Paso — the largest metropolitan area on the Texas border. 

Those border crossings hold challenging memories for Luis to this day.

Whenever the Granados family would cross the border to work, shop or to visit relatives and friends, immigration officers invariably questioned their motives and, through their dismissive treatment, convicted the family on the spot of being immigrants. They were not treated as a humble family living a normal, dignified life — a binational existence still common today. (The Atlantic story.) 

After immigrating to Long Beach, Calif., in 1977, a teenage Luis harnessed the power of education and hard work to obtain the American dream.

While his parents sacrificed much by leaving the only home and life they ever knew, the strength they mustered to legally enter the U.S. was driven by their seeking opportunity for their children. For Luis, that opportunity was first showcased by the master’s degree he obtained from the University of California, Berkeley. Once on his career path, Luis 20 years ago took the opportunity to take the helm at MEDA, a nonprofit borne out of El Movimiento, the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s. That was a time of dramatic political change, as la raza harnessed their inherent strength — the same strength shown by his family via their immigrant journey.

Luis honors his parents’ sacrifice every day, and this is what drives his work at MEDA to build equity through Latino wealth, place and power not just in San Francisco’s Mission District, but as a refueled El Movimiento across the land.

MEDA Director of Policy & Advocacy Norma Paz García: First Generation (crossing — 1915)
The Mexican Revolution, and a strong desire to keep her children safe, is what compelled Norma Paz García’s 19-year-old grandmother Lázara to pack her bags and head north to the U.S. in 1915. She made the journey on her own with three of her young children, compelled to leave one son behind in their hometown of Torreón, Coahuila — the site of some of the largest clashes of the Mexican Revolution.

Landing in the Los Angeles’ Palo Verde neighborhood, part of Chavez Ravine, Lázara found many other families like her own, seeking refuge from the vestiges of war. As the sole support of her household, Lázara went to work as a domestic, cleaning and cooking for families on the West Side of Los Angeles. Lázara was also an accomplished seamstress, and taught her children the value of a strong work ethic. Her children all had jobs — delivering bread or newspapers, and shining shoes– so that all could contribute to support the household. Daughter Ana, now the oldest of six siblings in the home, dropped out of high school at 15 years old to take on the same type of jobs as her mother, because the family’s economic needs came first. Ana and her siblings diligently toiled daily, for they were taught that what mattered most was how well they did their work rather than what kind of work they did.  

Lázara carefully tended the family’s savings and one day, much to the surprise of her children,  she announced that she had bought a house, paying all cash because no bank would give her a loan. The family then moved to their own house in Boyle Heights, which remained in the family for 60 years. 

Ana was determined to finish high school. After attending night school, at age 19, she earned her high school diploma and was selected as her class valedictorian. College was out of the question, as her family did not have the resources to pay for her to attend.

After a friend extolled the virtues of life in San Francisco, Ana headed north. There Ana resumed her craft as a seamstress, working in numerous garment shops throughout the city. It soon became apparent that Ana was more than a seamstress: She was an artist and began working in San Francisco couture houses designing fancy special-occasion dresses. Skill, attention to detail and a strong work ethic are some of the qualities that made her stand out in her workplace.  Ana’s passion for justice and equity surfaced during her time as a seamstress: She was a driving force behind the unionization of the garment industry in San Francisco. After she saw the benefits that unionization had brought to her workplace, Ana became an impassioned organizer, and brought the 13 Chinatown garment shops she supervised into the union fold.

Along the way, through a mutual friend, Ana met Jose, a proud Mexican living in San Francisco.  Though the couple was a bit older, they started a family and settled in the Mission District. Soon arrived Norma’s older brother and two years later Norma was born.  

The drive for justice was ingrained in Norma’s DNA. Norma’s father was very involved in his union as well; she often accompanied her parents to lively meetings, where the Latino community gathered to discuss how to achieve equity and power. More than anything, her mother’s fight for equity was contagious, and Norma knew her young life would eventually head in the same direction.  

In addition, while Norma was in high school, the Chicano movement was in full swing and figured prominently in her life. Both her parents and the movement compelled her to do something that no other member of her family had the opportunity to do — go to college.  Norma took this responsibility seriously. She was thrilled to be accepted at the University of California, Irvine through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP); nonetheless, she experienced a culture shock when she got there as one of the few students of color at that time.  Navigating student life in the heart of affluent and conservative Orange County was like “walking on the moon” compared to the diversity of her Mission District roots, where children of all backgrounds were welcomed into each others’ homes. But Norma persevered and thrived.  

After obtaining a four-year degree in the humanities, Norma realized a lifelong dream – she was accepted to study law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, through the Legal Education Opportunity Program (LEOP). She graduated at the young age of 24, and credits the support of her fellow La Raza Law Students Association members with guiding her through the hard-to-navigate labyrinth that is law school life as a first-generation American.

Norma’s grandmother, Lázara, would never know that those first steps she took to protect her family from the uncertainties of war in Mexico would have paved the path for her daughter Ana to become an advocate for equity and in turn inspire Ana’s daughter, Norma, to become a lawyer, to do the same. Like Lazara’s journey, Norma’s path to becoming a lawyer as a first-generation member of her family was not easy.  Her parents became very ill after she graduated from law school, which required Norma to put some of her professional plans on hold. She struggled with the Bar Exam and overcame that obstacle by learning the skills of how to take the test from a compassionate teacher and mentor. There was the reality that she was joining a profession where today, Latinas still account for less than 2 percent of American lawyers. But like Lázara and Ana, Norma never lost sight of her goal.  

Now, after three decades of honing her craft before state legislatures, the courts and in Congress, Norma is honored to use her legal and policy skills to fight for justice for MEDA’s community.  Most importantly, although Lázara, Ana and Jose are now gone, their courage and commitment — and that of others like them — are an important part of her story and inspire her every step of the way.     

Community Member Nicolás R.*: DACA (crossing — 1990)
(*name changed for privacy)

Crossing the “Cerro”  border in the dark of night to avoid detection, two-year-old Nicolás’s family of three carefully wound their way through the barren Southern California hills for mile after mile, the child’s head poking out of a burlap sack slung over his father’s shoulder. The 2,500-mile journey north from Guanajuato, Mexico to Tijuana was just as arduous, the clan packed into a “coyote’s” van for a trip for which they paid $700 per person in 1990.

With little opportunity at home, the risk-taking family felt they had no other choice than to make this journey. The parents scrambled to have enough food to eat, with eggs and beans saved for their toddler as the parents’ stomachs remained empty for days at a time.

Once in the Bay Area, Nicolás’s parents wanted only the best for him in their adopted homeland, especially the educational opportunities they were never afforded. His dad could neither read nor write, eking out a meager living at a tortilla factory. The family lived in Redwood City in a home as cramped as that “coyote’s” van, but they were now lovingly surrounded by tios, tias and primos. Nicolás and his brother, born five years after the family’s arrival in the U.S., shared a bunk positioned next to their parents’ bed in what he calls “the equivalent of a motel in a house.”

It wasn’t until age 16 that Nicolás truly realized he was living in a separate world from his friends and schoolmates. One of the freedoms of that age is getting a driver’s license, but Nicolás could not apply since he lacked a Social Security Number. This was the first of many pauses in life for the young man.

Nicolás spent his days playing soccer — and he showcased recognized talent. So much so that he was offered a full ride at Cal Poly in the coastal town of San Luis Obispo. He studied hard, majoring in business administration, with a focus on international markets.

Then those demoralizing life pauses kicked back in: A scout saw Nicolás’s skill on the soccer field and offered him the opportunity to try out for the U.S. National team. It was a lifelong dream come true for an elated Nicolás, but it turned nightmarish because overseas travel would be involved and the athlete could not garner a passport because of his immigration status. An opportunity was lost.

Nevertheless, Nicolás found the strength to move forward, obtaining his bachelor’s degree. At the ceremony, his father told Nicolás that he was proud of him. It was the first time the usually stern family patriarch had offered such praise.

It was at this point, in 2010, that Nicolás got his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) paperwork, which the Obama Administration had put in place via Executive order. Despite having the protection of DACA status, Nicolás still lived in fear of deportation. This anxiety ultimately led to depression, and a lack of planning for the future. Despite having that college degree, Nicolás was compelled to paint houses. Work in an auto body shop. Clean apartments. The idea of building a career seemed impossible, especially when a scholarship to Stanford for a master’s in education never materialized because of Nicolás being undocumented. Another opportunity lost.

On the personal side, dating was not prioritized because of embarrassment of the menial jobs Nicolás was forced to work. The usual fun life of a 20-something was out of reach. Nicolás was very concerned that he would be sent away from his parents, now facing maladies: his father had various health-related issues from diabetes; and his mother faced the challenge of breast cancer. Ironically, his parents gained permanent residency five years back, yet they could not pass this on to the child they brought with them those many years ago. Nicolás feared being sent back to Mexico, a foreign place of which he did not even have any memories.

Always persevering, Nicolás just received some good news. His permanent residency status has been legally approved, after 29 years in the U.S. — the only home he has ever known. 

Nicolás can now travel. Think of marriage. Not live in fear of I.C.E.

When asked what advice he would offer the other estimated 800,000 DACA holders, Nicolás pauses and reflects on the fact that he would not offer the same hollow messages he heard all those years. Things such as, “Live in the present,” or “Don’t dwell on what might have been.”

Challenges remain, such as the lingering legal fees from all those years seeking the counsel of immigration lawyers — fees that have added up over the years. This is coupled with that ongoing sense of lost opportunity.

No longer in pause mode, a now-optimistic Nicolás is ready to start life anew, as he begins his third decade of life.





Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *