Lucia of Oaxaca: An immigrant’s story of what it truly means to never give up.
Lucia grew up in a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico. As a young teenager she got pregnant while living with her parents and four siblings. Money was tight for the family, and she knew supporting another mouth to feed would be difficult for her aging parents. It was hard to find jobs there, especially for girls her age, and her best option was going door-to-door selling things like makeup, coffee, and tortillas. “We would do anything. Anything to support the family.”
After her son, Martin, was born, she made the decision that the two of them would immigrate to the U.S. with a small amount of money she was able to save up.
“I left everything for my future, for my little one. It was hard. But maybe someday we can have something. We can have a better life for my son.”
At just sixteen years of age, along with sixteen-month-old Martin, Lucia crossed the border into California.
Once in California, she moved in with a few of her cousins. They would drive her around to look for jobs and convinced her that hard labor would teach her how to work hard. She began working demanding shifts in construction, giving her entire paychecks to her cousins for rent and bills. She kept thinking, “This is not for me. This isn’t the dream.”
On top of her physical exhaustion, she was living in fear. Her cousins told her that the helicopters in the sky were immigrant agents looking for illegal immigrants, and if she went outside they would get her; a falsehood that still baffles Lucia to this day. But at that time, she believed them. Living in constant fear, she kept Martin inside all the time and only went outside herself if she had to.
The stress and fear wore on her and she decided to move out. With nowhere to go, she and Martin slept in a park in front of a cemetery. “It was our home for me and my son for almost a month,” she said with tears in her eyes. “It was hard. I was crying everyday. I was asking for money because at the time I didn’t have any food for my little one. And I didn’t trust anyone.” She prayed that the “immigration helicopters” wouldn’t see them.
One day, she saw a woman in the park and Lucia thought, “Maybe I’ll ask her for something to eat.” The two began chatting.
“Where do you live?” asked the woman.
“Right here in the park,” replied Lucia.
The woman, who Lucia learned was named “Connie”, began crying and immediately called her husband to ask if Lucia and Martin could stay with them. He accepted. Connie gave them a room in their house, as well as a job at the cleaning business that she owned. “It was my big opportunity,” said Lucia.
Her new schedule was daunting: Wake up at 4 am and work for the cleaning business until 3 pm. Come home and cook and clean for Connie. At 5 pm work a shift at a restaurant until 11 pm. Repeat.
At 18, Lucia met the man who would become her first husband. “He talked to me very nicely,” she said. They got married, and she got pregnant again. “But it was not good. He was not a good guy.”
Lucia’s husband would get angry with her son Martin and spank him. It wasn’t a good situation. Lucia knew it was time to leave.
Lucia is quick to admit that she’s made mistakes in her life. But unlike most, she doesn’t let her mistakes tear her down. She says that with every mistake came an opportunity. Lemons into lemonade. No regrets. She had to keep moving forward.
She began working at a waste management company and then at a farm picking berries and feeding pigs and horses. During this time, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and was given six months to live. She passed away two months after the diagnosis.
Lucia was devastated, but knew she had to keep going; keep fighting for her and her children’s futures. She started dating a new boyfriend, but their relationship turned gravely dangerous. “He almost killed me,” said Lucia. She stated that she ended up in the hospital but didn’t go into details, as it is still difficult for her to talk about.
“It was the most dramatic part of my life. But I thank God I’m still here. God gave me the last opportunity to enjoy my life and my kids. I can’t live my life super happy anymore because this is still in my brain.”
She was unemployed again, and now had a family of her own to support; a family that she would work herself to death for. Lucia is tough as nails. When others beat her down, she rose up higher, like a seed from fertile ground.
“My kids need me. I need to work more. I need to do double! Triple!” she remembers.
Over the next seven years, she bartended at a restaurant and met a good man named José, who she is still married to.
When Lucia received her Green Card, she went back to Mexico to visit her family and friends. It was there that she noticed the beautiful products that the artisans of Oaxaca were making: clothing, jewelry, pottery and more. That’s when it hit her; she could bring their products back to the U.S. and sell them.
She brought a few things back and sold them at a small market in Hillsboro, Oregon. She sent back money and things like medical supplies to her friends in Mexico to help them. “When I see somebody happy, I’m happy.” she explained.
“Don’t forget, be a good person. If you have something, give it to another person. It’s what I’ve learned.”
She was making ends meet by bartending and selling small amounts of Oaxaca goods in her spare time, but she wanted to sell more — help them more — while making a living for her family.
Her husband and friends began pushing her to start a restaurant because her food was delicious, and Lucia knew she could sell Oaxaca gifts in the restaurant.
“It was the big idea. One day I’d get a big restaurant and bring anything I can from Oaxaca. When? I don’t know. Someday. But I need to work very hard.”
Our Empresas Small Business Program empowers Latino entrepreneurs to reach their dreams of owning their own business through business classes (taught in Spanish), technical assistance, individual coaching, and access to capital and market.
Javier Urenda, who runs the Empresas Program, graduated from the NALCAB (National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders) fellowship program, and is now passionate about serving Latino communities in a unique and ground-breaking way.
After graduating from our Empresas Course, Lucia and her husband opened La Mixteca Oaxaca, a restaurant nestled in the back corner of a grocery store in Hillsboro.
Tucked inside the restaurant are shelves and cases full of beautiful handcrafted gifts from Oaxaca. The space is cozy, with a handful of tables placed around the room and vibrant colored walls with the smell of sautéeing onions and fresh tortillas in the air. She wants her restaurant to feel like home, with the flavor, music, tradition and colors of Oaxaca. She even serves her dishes on plates made in Oaxaca.
“Empresas helped me a lot. Javier helped me a lot. He helped me almost all the time. When I need something, he’s always there. He’s my teacher!” said Lucia.
Javier couldn’t be more proud of how much Lucia has accomplished. “I feel very proud of the Empresas program because we are making a difference in the community. I know that she is putting into practice all that she learned in the Empresas class.”
But Lucia isn’t done yet. “I’m super, super happy. But I don’t feel like I’m at my goal yet. I’m still working and need to work more and more.”
“My goal is still there, to own a BIG restaurant.” Her next step is to secure a larger space where she can sell more Oaxaca gifts, helping more of her friends in Mexico.
“We need to help them first. We have everything right here. We have a job, we have a house, our kids, our health. So maybe they need a little bit.”
To reach her ‘big goal’, Lucia is currently enrolled in our Cocinemos Course, an initiative of the City of Hillsboro in partnership with Adelante Mujeres. The class is aimed at taking a deeper dive into the food industry.
“I saw the necessity of these participants having access to a commercial kitchen, being in compliance with the regulations from Washington County and the difficulty that they have finding a place to sell their food, such as community events and farmers markets,” said Javier.
Lucia says she hopes her story will inspire others to never give up on their goals. “So many people think ‘this is it’. No. It’s a start. A new opportunity. I’ve had too many mistakes. But always, there was an opportunity to get what we needed.”
Lucia redefines what hard work means. She continues to work seven days a week, reaching further and higher than the day before. Adelante.
To support the education and empowerment of women like Lucia, visit adelantemujeres.org.