IMPERIAL VALLEY, California — I went to my journalism class recently anxious to find out what my assignment was going to be. I wanted to write about something interesting and riveting.
I was sure that as soon as I got the assignment I was going to walk right out of that classroom and start on it. But I didn’t know it was going to be broad and would require a lot of thinking on my part. My professor offered input and insight to all my classmates, telling each of them where she wanted them to go with their stories. Then she called my name. “Women of the border,” she said. I waited for what seemed like an eternity. No input. No insight. But she did offer this: “I came up with the title but I’m going to let you figure it out.”
What? Everyone else got an assignment that would be easy to identify and interesting, but what the heck was I suppose to do with “Women of the Border?” That could be anything. Later that evening I got an email from her saying she wanted “successful women of the border.”
Successful women? The Imperial County, which borders the major third-world Mexican city of Mexicali, has earned the dubious distinction in the media as the nation’s recession capital—not to mention the most illiterate region in the country. This desert valley is only about 150,000 strong and just a little more than 48 percent are women. The U.S. Census Bureau didn’t have much good news for me either in its report that there are only about 18,000 women in the Imperial Valley who own businesses.
Finding these “successful” women was going to be hard but I figured there had to be at least a few inspiring women who have successes, despite the odds.
A few days later, I went to see Barbara M. Shavers, Ph.D. She teaches at both the Imperial and San Diego campuses of San Diego State University. She is also the executive director of the Center for Family Solutions of the Imperial Valley. I wanted to get her take on why there are so few successful Hispanic women. Was there some kind of phenomenon or was it just a cultural issue?
“Because their families are not wanting them to take that step of independence,” Shavers said. She explained that women of the border face special issues that people elsewhere wouldn’t such as health issues and mainly trying to find their identity as Mexican-Americans. “While their traditions are Mexican and they have a lot of language and culture, ethnic foods, and music and things, they are really more American than they are Mexican because their expectations, their rights as women are based heavily on what they live in the United States,” she said. Shavers said young women of Hispanic descent aren’t driven to succeed. They don’t get as much encouragement from their families to go off to college and become successful.
This was a shock to me because I remembered as a little girl my family always telling me that education was the most important asset to have as a woman. No one could take that away from you and that in order to be able to succeed in this world you need an education. And I come from a Mexican-American family. “In my classes I see a whole lot of middle-aged women whose children have grown and married and they really wanted to go away to college, but they didn’t do it when they were young and so now they are in their 40’s and 50’s, and they’re coming into my classes. I love to see people of all ages in my classes because then we all learn from each other.”
Okay, so young Hispanic girls aren’t as driven to succeed as others are. So, I wondered, what exactly was happening to them that they didn’t want to compete or excel? Well looking for answers, I found Ruth Montenegro, president of the Imperial Valley chapter of Mexican American National Association (MANA), whose mission is to empower Latinas through leadership development, community service, and advocacy.
Montenegro said that young Latinas from a border town are not as successful because these “girls don’t get the opportunity to be exposed to professionals working in non-traditional jobs for women.” Normally we have the doctor, teacher, and the lawyer, said Montenegro, and while those are all well respected jobs young women here don’t aspire to them because they just don’t see women working in those fields. But, MANA is trying to reverse that by exposing local Hispanic girls in the sixth and seventh grades to career and education opportunities by offering a Young Latina Conference and the Hermanitas mentorship program. “More information gives them the chance to make more informed decisions,” Montenegro said.
With that information and my own introspection, I decided that success means that a woman may start her career in a situation that appears hopeless, but she keeps looking for that better future and makes that goal happen despite all obstacles. And I found two women who achieved that ideal: Linda L. Barrientos and Dr. Clara Padron-Spence. The very obstacles many people run from drove Barrientos and Padron-Spence to keep on going.
Barrientos’ office on Heber Street in Calexico sits right in front of the city hall. In the office’s front window is a little sign in the left hand bottom corner that reads, “Linda’s Real Estate.” I entered a quiet front office and was greeted by her secretary, but behind that placid scene things were humming. Barrientos is on the phone with clients while the assistant prints out paperwork and faxes documents. It’s kind of surprising considering how sluggish the real estate market is supposed to be. Barrientos, 52, opened her real estate agency in 1992. In 2005, during a bustling seller’s market, her company generated more than $50 million in residential and commercial real estate sales. I was eager to find out what her path to such success was.
Most successful Realtors would want to move to a bigger city in order to conquer bigger accounts, but this woman won’t be doing that any time soon. “I know my heart belongs here because I have been blessed with the people that I have run into, and if I go somewhere else I am going to be in love with the city and the architecture and that’s all cosmetic. But you know all the cosmetics can be gone and at the end of the day what you want is not the cosmetic, but the heart, and I think this is where the heart is,” said Barrientos, referring to the Imperial Valley.
Barrientos grew up in Mexicali, across the border from Calexico. She said she liked partying and being with her friends like so many young girls do. However, her aunt gave her the opportunity to finish school in Los Angeles. Her aunt knew that Barrientos loved English and she would get a better education in Los Angeles.
Barrientos took her aunt up on the offer, but she didn’t finish high school as was planned. Instead, she got married. At the age of 18, she was a wife and a soon-to-be mother. And not long after that sequence of events, she lost her job in L.A. She decided that it was time to move back to the Valley, despite her husband’s refusal to join her. That marriage ended in divorce, but a new chapter in her life began.
With no job and a child that she needed to provide for, she ended up at the unemployment office in Calexico. She went on every interview that the unemployment office gave her. “I went several places and they thought I was overqualified,” she said. And then unemployment worker, Loli Torres, took a chance on her. “Everyday that I would come and see her— at least twice a week,” Barrientos recalled, “she felt that she got to know me and then she picked up the phone and probably within a week or so she got someone to trust me.” Torres had called restaurant owners, the Campillo Family, on behalf of Barrientos.
“And she said, ‘You know this gal is someone that I can recommend even though she’s not from Calexico.’ But she made it seem like we knew each other for a long time,” she said. As Barrientos started the much-needed job at the Las Casitas Restaurant, Torres told her it may not be the job she was looking for but it’s a “first step.”
“And I said ‘thank you.’ God bless her, so I took it,” said Barrientos.
After some time in Calexico and occasionally having to rely on welfare, Barrientos felt it was time to pick up the education trail she had abandoned in L.A. So, she moved to San Diego to attend college. But that was also short-lived. “I was very broke, you know, because being a roommate and paying rent there,” Barrientos remembered. “I came back to the valley and I was so broke I didn’t even have a car.”
Barrientos then got married for a second time and had her second son. “Having my sons, focusing on my children, has been my success because I think, how can I provide and how will they be proud.”
And then she got the real estate bug. After passing the California real estate exam she became a licensed Realtor. “I always wanted to go into real estate,” she said. “I use to go to San Diego and try to get the classes and they would tell me that I wouldn’t like it.”
Barrientos realizes that she dealt with a lot of obstacles, but you won’t hear her complain about them. “I love those, yes. They have made me a better person.”
After speaking to Barrientos, I was inspired myself. I am a married woman with a wonderful husband who is away in Iraq and I am here raising my eight-month-old baby girl while going to school. After hearing her story it made me want to do better, not just for me, but for my child. I went looking for more Hispanic women who are driven.
“I was very driven,” said Dr. Clara Padron-Spence, who owns a family practice in El Centro. Padron-Spence’s parents were migrant farm workers. As a child, seeing her parents feel uncomfortable with their own socio-economic status she was motivated. “I think it was just my parents’ perception of their economic status that they wanted more for their children. That’s what drove me; they drove me to get an education,” said the “forty-something” Padron-Spence.
She was born and raised in El Centro to a Mexican mother and a Filipino father. As a child her mother would always tell her that she needed to be a doctor. “After a while her dreams became my dreams,” Padron-Spence said. “At first when you’re little your parents will tell you what they want you to do and after a while it became my dream, too.”
After finishing high school, Padron-Spence attended Imperial Valley College (IVC), the local community college that I am currently attending. “I worked two part-time jobs and paid for it all myself,” she said. “I went to school full-time and worked nights and weekends. I worked at a movie theater and a clothing store.”
She had a plan, and that plan was pre-med. IVC was just the first step. The University of California, San Diego would be the second. “As soon as I got to IVC I met a counselor there and he and I just planned it out. I mean, I remember him opening up a book and saying, ‘Okay you want to go to UCSD, you want to be pre-med, then these are the classes you have to take here,’” she explained.
“I was lucky enough at UCSD to get a lot of financial aid. My parents were migrant farm workers, so we qualified for lots and lots of aid,” Padron-Spence said. Her parents did try to help her while she was attending school but it wasn’t economically possible. “They helped me with whatever they could, but you know with their little education, you know all they were able to tell you is, ‘You need to go to school! You need to study! You need to do better! You need to do better than I did!’”
After finishing pre-med at UCSD, Padron-Spence took a surprising leap—especially for a young Hispanic woman—from the sunny beaches of Southern California to the frosty fields of the Midwest. She was accepted into the University of Iowa’s medical school. “The struggle drove me —I could not quit,” she said, and finished her medical degree at Iowa. She returned to UCSD to do her residency in family medicine.
A major turning point in her life occurred when her father died. It was time for her to go home. “I couldn’t be away from the heat and my family,” she said. She started her own private practice in El Centro and set her own hours and that allowed her to have a little more time for her and her family. But, there are times when she has to choose between her job, herself and her family.
“This job is so demanding that I either have to choose my job, myself, or my family and sometimes I have to choose the job just because there are sick people, and that’s what they ask from me, so in that sense its very time-consuming,” said Padron-Spence, who is also a mother of three. “As a woman I feel great being a doctor, because I was able to accomplish something that I think many minority women are not able to do, so I feel great being able to accomplish that.”
When I asked both Linda Barrientos and the doctor what their advice would be to young Hispanic women or any young women, Barrientos said, “Be prepared for what you want and know what you want.” Padron-Spence offered this: “Education opens so many doors for you. Never quit and never give up no matter what anyone tells you what you can or cannot do.”