My Dad is from Mexico, my mother from El Salvador. Sometimes when people think about crossing the border they don’t realize that some people cross multiple borders to get here. My mom left El Salvador during the civil war in the 1980s. She was imprisoned for several weeks in Mexico and in the U.S. when she was sixteen — for wanting a better life. She still cries when she tells me about her journey. If you met my mom — she is the sweetest woman ever. To think of her in prison — especially at that age — makes me emotional too.
When family members — relatives from El Salvador and Mexico — crossed the border, they would stay with us. We were the first stop. My dad would help them find work. They were all looking for a better life.
I completely understand the need for borders, but I don’t understand the idea of calling a human being illegal. I used to watch the news with my dad in Spanish — listening to how politicians were treating the Latino and immigrants communities. I would think—“ I don’t get it — why would they want to treat hard working people like my dad so badly?”
My ideology began at the young age of five or six, watching my dad come home late, greasy, smelly and tired and sometimes not even making it to the dinner table, passing out on the couch from working multiple jobs. He was bailing alfalfa. He learned how to fix the farm machinery and eventually he realized that truck drivers made more money, so he became a truck driver. On the weekends he fixed cars in the neighborhood and did lawn work. He was always working. My mom cleaned houses, took care of kids. Now my mom works in a hotel in Las Vegas cleaning rooms. We never starved. We had a place and food. I am always thankful to them for that. But even as a kid I would think, how is it that they work so hard and we have so little?
Childhood and youth in California and Nevada.
I was born in Torrence, California. I grew up around Asian and Black culture. In California my classmates were immigrants, Samoan, Vietnamese. I knew I was Latino, but there was not that racial divide that you can see elsewhere.
I was very young when I got this idea that if I wanted to help my family, I needed to get involved with the decision-making entities. In third grade I ran for class president. I organized the Latino kids. I thought we needed to play more with the African American kids. I figured out who their leader was and said to him: “I think we should have class games. One day we play basketball with you and then the next day you play soccer with us.” We did it!
Sixth and seventh grade were difficult. I went from my elementary school where I thought I was a pretty smart kid, to a magnet school where I couldn’t even do the homework. I started thinking maybe I’m not as smart as me and my parents thought I was.
Before eighth grade my parents decided to buy a home in Nevada where it was affordable. In my new school in Las Vegas I was again at the top of my class. I felt like I knew everything and wasn’t challenged. When I reflect back, it makes me realize the inequalities between school districts.
I went to the the oldest high school in Las Vegas and took advantage of everything it had to offer, running for student council, and reinvigorating the school’s Latino club. I rallied people around the DREAM ACT and immigration reform. My goal was to create a network of Latino youth in Las Vegas that could mobilize but I knew to get people interested we needed to do social things as well. I asked my group what they wanted and they said “ When they have prom or home coming dances they never do Latino music or dances. Why can’t we have a Latino dance?
I had to convince the administrators. They didn’t think there was a need for a Latino Dance. I told them we never get to dance the Salsa or Merengue at school dances, and the school is 50% Latino. I got four teachers who were willing to chaperone. They said I would have to pay for security. I said, “Why can’t the school pay for it upfront and we will pay you back afterward with the money we get?” They said no at first, until an adviser intervened.
So now I had to raise money. I printed 100 tickets. I worried that if we only attracted the Latinos at our school we were not going to make enough. So I went to five other Las Vegas high school Latino clubs and asked them to sell 10 tickets each. That was my first experience talking to people I didn’t know. I said “I’m sure you want a Latino dance too. You should organize one, but in the meantime why don’t you come to ours. If you sell ten tickets I will give you one free ticket.”
The night of the dance, me and the twelve other members of our club got to the school early to decorate the room. At six o’clock it was time for the dance to begin. No one was there. Then at 6:15 I started to see cars. By 6:30 we had a line! We started the music.
The first kids from another high school showed up and said “Sorry we are late. We sold the ten tickets but we still have another 20 people coming. Is that OK?”
I said “Sure!” Pretty soon we had so many people the school officials told me we couldn’t let anyone else in. We made two thousand dollars that night.
Becoming a first generation college student.
In my junior year I applied to go to the Latino Youth Leadership Conference at the University of Nevada. We stayed in the dorms. It was life changing. Suddenly I did not feel alone. There were fifty high school students from Las Vegas and Reno, who felt like I did, who wanted to work for a change. The conference was facilitated by college students — the first Latino college students I had ever known.
Before that, I knew I needed to go to college but I didn’t know how to get there or even what college was. The conference connected me to people like myself. We divided into groups we called familias. The conference developed a leadership sense in me. I learned confidence in my skills.
When I started my senior year, it was these new college friends that let me know what I needed to do to get into college — like take my SATs.
When there was an announcement that there was going to be a recruiter from the University of Nevada coming to our school, I told my teacher I wanted to go down to meet them. He thought I was trying to get out of class.I had to convince him I was really going to go down there.
When I got there, nobody else was there — just me and the recruiter from the University of Nevada. I thought “This is weird.” Our conversation went like this:
Me: I want to go to college.
Recruiter: Do you have your transcripts, test scores?
Recruiter. “I can’t help you if you don’t have those things.” He stopped talking to me and started reading his newspaper.
He was going to be there two more days. The next day I went to the librarian and asked her how I could get my transcript. She sent me to the office and I got what I needed. I went to the recruiter. Still no-one else there. I showed him my stuff.
Recruiter: “OK, but before we start, Do you have your $50?”
Me: “For what?”
— “It cost’s $50 to apply.”
— “Shit! I didn’t know applying for college costs money!” I was making money — working at a swap meet, hustling CDs, finding ways to sell things (no drugs). Fifty dollars was nearly all I had. I gave him my cash.
— “You need a check”.
— “I don’t have a checking account.”
— “Doesn’t your Mom or Dad have an account?”
I would never ask my parents for money. I told him, “My Dad’s a truck driver. He is out of town for a week. Is there any other way?”
— “You could get a money order, but that’s going to cost you money”.
— “Where do I get that?”
He told me a few places. I came back the next day with the money order. He looked at my SAT scores. “These scores are not good enough to get into college”.
I told him I wanted to apply anyway.
Weeks later I got a letter from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. They were going to let me in. They averaged the two SAT numbers, and while my reading and writing score were low, my math score was high. I’d have to take remedial courses in writing and reading that would not count as college credit.
At that point I was determined to go. I had to figure out how to register for classes. Luckily I got help from the college students from the Latin Youth Conference. They were now juniors and seniors. One of them saw me at the library trying to figure out how to register for classes. He sat there with me for two hours and helped me through the process until I was done.
The first week of school he saw me again and asked “Do you have a job?” He got me a job where he was working, as a bilingual tutor.
The first semester was super hard. I had never written more than a page for any assignment, or read more than a book a month! But I made it through my first semester.
I became determined to help other Latinos and people of color go through the process of applying and starting college. I knew about student council from high school. I thought I would connect with the Latino rep on the University council. But there was no Latino rep! In fact,there were no people of color in student government. Everyone who had run in the past had lost.
I decided to run. Everyone told me “Wait until next year. No-one wins as a freshman.” I thought “There are no Latinos, and no freshman. I’m going to do it!”
I learned the process of campaigning. I went to all the ethnic council groups. I went to the Black Student Union and told them, “Here is where we’re at — no students of color on the council. I’m running . Next year it can be me and one of you guys.” I think people believed me because, I ended up winning by nine votes.
I had to learn Robert’s Rules of order. It was so frustrating. Every proposal I made I couldn’t even get someone to second the motion. I finally got on the Ways and Means Committee. Student government controlled $1.5 million. One of the things they did was approve funding for student groups. There were 100 organizations. All of them got approved for funding except one: A Latino based organization. They said they were too radical.
I said: “Are you kidding me? These folk are my friends. They are helping people like me figure out how to succeed in college. You are giving all these other political groups money and not this one?”
I was the only one who voted to fund the Latino group. We needed a unanimous vote. We were there for four hours before one of them said, “Lets postpone the vote.”
That was all I needed. In a few days I was able to organize all the ethnic groups to come to the next meeting. I met one of the Latino professors. Even the media showed up. We won. It was my first victory. People began to see what one senator could do.
Shortly after that there was a random opening in the Student Senate. We packed the room and got one of us to join me. Now we had someone to second my motions.
Next election I recruited eleven people to run and nine of them won. Now out of 27 senators we had a third. The year after that, we were in the majority. In my junior year people said I had to run for student body president. I did.
I lost by 20 votes. We doubled the number of people who voted. I ran again the next year, and lost again by even fewer votes. The number of people voting doubled again. The people voting against me were fraternity folks. The people who voted for me were first time college students, people of color. My campaign galvanized interest on both sides.
The affect of our work was long lasting. The following three student body presidents after that were Latino.
I majored in Women’s Studies and Political Science. Women’s Studies gave me the language to articulate how I felt about machismo and gender roles. It provided me with critical thinking skills, a way of presenting myself as a person of color — all that came from Women’s Studies.
The “Real World.”
When I graduated I worked in a law firm. I didn’t like it. At the law firm, I was making money, paying my college debt, helping my mom, but I never felt good about what we did. It was a personal injury law firm I didn’t like how clients made less than lawyers on lawsuits. I knew they weren’t doing much. I was the one putting together the paperwork. It got to the point where I would tell clients “You know you can do it yourself.” I typed an instruction sheet and gave it to them and said “You don’t need our firm.”
A few weeks later they would call back and say. “Hey I want you to represent me. I called other firms and they promised me the world and I soon realized that they were lying to me and you were honest with me, so I want you.”
So everyone I talked to signed up with us, often weeks later. So obviously the attorneys loved me. They said “You are our best recruiter.” They didn’t know what I was saying in Spanish to the clients.
I finally realized the only way for me to get out of it, was to leave.
I had not traveled abroad during college because I was to involved in the Student Senate politics. I felt like I had to be there. Now I don’t think like that. I am better at self care, but then I had this weird self-imposed duty to my Latino community that did not allow me to take one semester away.
After the law firm in 2007, I traveled to South Americawith my girlfriend at the time. We went to Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. When I got back the law firm said I could come back. I said no, but I couldn’t find other work and my savings were down to nothing.
I went back to live with my parents.
I was depressed. It was 2008 – Las Vegas. Worse time and place for a job seeker.
Getting to Minneapolis
I went on-line and I saw this job in Minnesota — YouthLink — serving homeless young adults. I had met at a woman at a training who lived in Minnesota. While I was considering the Minneapolis job, she called and asked me how the job search was going and if I had thought about looking in Minnesota. She said if you find a job here, you are welcome to come stay with us while you apply. I figured that phone call at that moment was a sign.
I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone.
I just came. I didn’t even apply. I thought, if I show up with my resume, they will know I’m serious. I went to the YouthLink office with my resume in my hand. No one answered the door. I didn’t realize I was at the back of the building. I was about to leave when someone came. They let me in, but no one talked to me. I saw someone at the copy station and went up to her, showed her my resume. I said something like — “I came here because otherwise you wouldn’t think I’m serious.”
She started writing on my resume and then said, “I’ll keep this here and we will give you a call.” A couple months later YouthLink called me to see if I was still interested in the job.
YouthLink changed my life. I always knew I grew up poor, but I was never homeless. It was an eye-opening experience to work with homeless youth. It transformed how I thought about politics, how I worked with people. I learned not assume things about sexual orientation, mental health.
I started to do work around getting homeless people to vote and get involved in political decision-making. Later I got a job with Project for Pride in Living, managing their after-school program. While working I found a graduate program that was Friday-Saturday, in Duluth. The MAPL program.
I went with my girlfriend- (now my wife) to El Salvador. I needed to see the country where my mom came from. It made me very sad — to see how poor it was, to see the conditions in which she had lived.
I applied for a job with the Central Neighborhood Association. Twelve people interviewed me, around a table. It was the first interview where I felt like I could be myself. I told them my story. They gave me the opportunity at CANDO. It was a mess. I was able to turn it around. We went from eight events a year, to 20 in six months. We got funding reallocated. Community members showed up. Our budget went from $100,000 a year to $300,000 year.
I read the StarTribune and the Las Vegas Review Journal every night– have for years. One night I was reading about the the Latino Council of Minnesota, thinking that would be a dream job for someday in the future. I looked it up — and they had a posting. I thought: this is too soon!
The next morning I had two people text me about it, telling me to apply. I put it off, thinking I wasn’t ready. My wife said “You just got CANDO in shape, where you can have a weekend off. We are about to have a baby…” That made sense, but we decided I should apply to go through the process.
The application process was long. Four cycles, meeting with legislatures. I was intimidated, until I remembered I had interned with Harry Reid. I could do this. I know how the legislative process works. Again I was just myself.
I started work at the Minnesota Council of Latino Affairs on December 2015. The Ethnic Councils are part of the executive branch. I inform the Governor’s office and state legislature on matters pertaining to the Latino community.
I have good relations with people from both parties, but sometimes their voting decisions are dictated by their party affiliation. We work to find out what issues are important to the Latino community and bring them to the legislature.
We estimate there 35-55,000 undocumented Latinos in the state. To us that is an important population to represent. We continue to work to obtain drivers’ licenses for all. It is an uphill battle, fought for eight sessions now. We try to make the argument that it is a safety issue for all Minnesotans, to make sure everyone driving has taken a drivers test and has insurance. People had access to licenses for many years — until Governor Pawlenty made a rule change. Rule changes can be overturned by the current governor.
We argue this is not just a Latino issue but a Minnesota issue.
We were about 6% of the total Minnesota population. Latinos are voting more and more. Still, only half of those that can vote turn out. That bothers me. I always tell people to think about those who can’t vote and vote for them.
My daughter is 17th months old. As a new parent I have a sense of urgency. I don’t vote for myself. I vote for my daughter and I vote thinking about my parents.
When I turned 18 I was the first one to be able to vote in my family. I took my siblings, my mom, my grandma, to the voting booth. They were proud of me. This year there were seven of us voting. My grandmother, my mom, my siblings. Now I ask my siblings to take their kids.
I always ask folks, “How many of your parents are hard working?” Everyone raises their hand. Then I say “How many of you wish they had a better life?” Again all hands. “So why won’t you do the most simple thing, to start off with —vote for your parents.”
That gets people. I think voting needs to become a tradition for Latino folks. I tell people, even if they can’t vote, they should take their children to voting locations and tell them: “This is where you are going to vote someday and when you vote, think about your mom. Think about your dad. Cause I can’t vote for you mijo, but one day, mijo, you will vote for me.”