Maria Leon came to the United States more than 40 years ago at the age of 12. She migrated from Jalisco, Mexico to meet her mother, who she had been separated from for two years. Maria’s story as an immigrant in the United States is one in search of knowledge and of empowerment in a country where she had to make do with what little she had.
Ever since she was a young girl, Maria remembers wanting to go to school. She recalls the longing that comes with wanting something that you can’t have. Even in the United States, she wasn’t able to obtain the education that should be a right to every child. Instead, she had to stay home and help take care of her younger siblings while her mother worked to provide for them.
What Maria Leon lacks in formal education, she makes up with ambition. She hasn’t settled for a job if she new she could do better. Even with the little education she has had in this country, she still managed to hold a job while studying to earn her GED. Today, she is a proud member of Project SPELL, the UCLA Volunteer Center’s English tutoring program for UCLA employees. Maria is one of the few people in the program who are willing to study English during their lunch break. In addition to demonstrating her determination, this also highlights an amazing part of her character. She values the knowledge she has gained from Project SPELL, whether that be computer literacy, writing skills, or the the insight she has gained through reading.
One of her favorite books is reflective of what she values and of what she has fought for in her own family. She told me about a book that takes place during the Civil Rights Movement, when schools were beginning to be integrated. She spoke to me, with pride in her eyes, of a black teacher who was fired from her job for allowing her daughter to attend a school with white children. Maria looks up to that woman who fought for her daughter’s right for an equal education because in a way or another she sees herself in that woman.
Maria Leon has also fought and worked tooth and nail to make sure her daughter has the education and the future she couldn’t have. Maria’s daughter graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara and is studying to become an attorney at Loyola Law School. Her daughter has been to places Maria could only dream of as a child in Mexico. Maria raised her daughter with the belief that, “the sky is the limit.”
Maria’s story is reminiscent of the stories of many immigrant mothers, including my own mother’s. I was born in Mexico a little over 20 years ago, and in these 20 years I have received more education than my mother has had in her nearly 50 years of age. She left everything – her family and the comfort of our home – to make sure that I never had to suffer. Like Maria, my mother, too, has raised me with the belief that the sky is the limit. My mother has told me repeatedly that if she can’t leave me riches and jewels when she passes, she’s grateful that at the very best, she left me with education.
Maria and my mother, and many women like them, come to this country because they see an opportunity to have a better life. It should be reiterated that people don’t leave all they love and hold dear to wreak havoc in another country. They leave their language and their people because they desire to make a better life for themselves, one that allows them to pursuit what is not a given right in their countries. The sacrifice and courage that comes with leaving all you know in search of a dream that gives hope should be celebrated. I hope that by writing about some of the stories of Project SPELL learners, people can better understand that we, the so-called “alien” folk, are not “criminals.” We are simply like Maria Leon, people who refuse to settle for less than what we can achieve.