From migrant to volunteer, woman finds love in helping others and becomes a U.S. citizen


Born in the Mexican town of Canutillo Durango on Sept. 5, 1953, Cleo Parrish struggled to gain United States citizenship for 45 years. On Sept. 14, 2016, her 45-year wait came to an end when she was declared a U.S. citizen.

“It was a surprise to me because I struggled understanding and learning English while I was crossing over,” said Parrish, 64. “I was nervous about the exams and my documents because they (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) ask for so much. But God worked it out for me and it felt amazing to finally get this right.”

In fiscal year 2016, Parrish became one of 752,800 immigrants who were naturalized nation-wide, a 14 percent increase from 2015, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“I would cross over with my cousin and learn English a little bit at a time,” she said. “It was a relief to leave home as a kid because I always wanted to live in the U.S., and get good at everything English in order to become the U.S. citizen.”

In 2015, 516 people became U.S. citizens in El Paso during a unified gathering at the Abraham Chavez Theater. In addition, 43 percent of El Paso County’s population growth between 1970 and 1990 was a result of international migration of both documented and undocumented people, according to Center for Immigration Studies.

During that same period, immigration to the area contributed to an increase of 50,000 new workers to the local labor force, and an additional 20,000 to 25,000 that were commuter workers, residents of Mexico who travel to the U.S. for work.

Applicants for U.S. naturalization must meet certain requirements, including being at least 18 years of age, being a lawful permanent resident (green card holder), and having resided in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident for at least five years. In addition, they are required to have been physically present in the U.S.for at least 30 months and be willing and able to take the Oath of Allegiance.

The ultimate deciding factor is an exam called the “Path of Citizenship” that tests applicants’ ability to understand the English language through speaking, reading and writing. A knowledge of U.S. government and history is also required.

“The verbal part of the exam was easy but I was nervous about the writing part,” Parrish said. “I had a choice to take it in English or Spanish so I took it in English and the guy (proctor) was surprised. I ended up passing with a 99 percent.”

During her 45-year journey of traveling back and forth from Mexico to the U.S., Parrish worked to help others at local public schools in Northeast El Paso.

“I didn’t cross to work,” she said. “I crossed to learn new things (English) and try new things in order to help others.”

Her husband Jerry Parrish, 71, a now retired U.S. Army Veteran, joined the service in 1968 and met his future wife four days after Valentine’s Day of 1977 in El Paso while stationed at Fort Bliss. Early in 1978, the couple moved to Germany because of Jerry Parrish’s involvement with the Army, and returned to the border region in July of 1981. They bought a house in Northeast El Paso, a few minutes drive from Desertaire Elementary.

It was at Desertaire where Parrish started to realize her love for helping others.

“Right away she got involved,” Jerry Parrish said. “If she gets involved with something she stays with it.”

The couple has three children. The oldest, Renee, 40, another daughter, Lucia, 37, and a son named Jerry Jr., 36. Renee was born four months before the couple moved to Germany and Lucia was born in Germany four months prior to their return to the Sun City. Jerry Jr. was born in El Paso at William Beaumont Army Medial Center.

With the couple’s oldest (Renee) having to deal with a health complication, the family hasn’t stopped loving one another despite the difficulty.

“Renee has had some problems in her life so she’s living with us,” Jerry Parrish said. “Being bipolar has unfortunately taken a toll on her and caused a lot of problems but I’m proud of all my children and love them all equally.”

The Parrish’s family bonds are as strong as Cleo Parrish’s devotion to volunteering. Her drive eventually led her to her first paying job in the U.S. as a cafeteria worker at Parkland High School in November of 1991, just minutes away from where she volunteered at Desteraire Elementary.

Her job at Parkland consisted of cutting fruit, making burritos during breakfast hours, and seasoning and preparing the food. Aside from dealing with the food, Parrish helped in any way she could.

“You have to cook with love, with your own love,” Parrish said. “Some kids (students) come to school hungry, looking for a meal every day and to know that I helped in making sure they ate was special to me.”

After 26 years, Cleo retired from Parkland High in June of last year. She said considers that period in her time there was better than anything else she had ever done in life because of what she was contributing to the local community.

“I would buy things like shirts or chocolate from the students or whatever they were selling because it helped them,” Cleo said. “Me and Jerry still go to the football games today because we’re fans of the school; we care about this place.”

Wanda Reyes, the current assistant manager at Parkland High School’s cafeteria, first met Cleo when she first arrived on campus in 2011. Reyes said that Cleo was not only a hard worker that cared for others, but was pretty good at the cooking part too.

“She worked everywhere and was here the longest,” Reyes said. “She was a server, she was a cook, she did salads and helped in just about every food section. Her work ethic was always excellent and (she) is still an awesome cook.”

Although now retired, Parrish continues to visit her former coworkers at Parkland High and sometimes even volunteers.

“They’re like my family,” she said. “I volunteer, I help others, it’s what I do.”

Today, Cleo works part time at a local EP Fitness in Northeast El Paso and says she is the happiest she has ever been.

“I love my job at EP Fitness,” she said. “I love the members and all the special people I run into that I knew from my time at Parkland. One lady came in one day with her husband and she said ‘we graduated in 1993, do you still work there?’ and I told her ‘No, I volunteer.’”

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