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* This portion of the interview can be seen as a video clip.
AURA: We are affiliated with UCLR, the Utah Coalition of La Raza. We’re a group of high school students who are getting involved with our community and its leadersand we’re using interviews to learn the perspectives of their lives.
LESLIE KELEN: Okay, we’ll get underway, unless you want to say something briefly about yourself.
ISABEL ROJAS: My name is Isabel. As you guys probably know, my family is from Colombia. I was born in New York City. I’m the youngest of five. My three older siblings were all born in Colombia, raised there mostly, and then we moved to New York. My parents decided to come here to Utah because New York was really dangerous at the time; it was really bad. And I’ve been here ever since. We’ve been here for like 22 years. I went to West High School, and I went to the University of Utah and got my bachelor’s degree in health and education. Right now, I’m back at the University of Utah getting a master’s in public administration.
LESLIE: We are going to go around this table to ask you questions, and we’ll probably proceed chronologically, starting with your childhood and so forth… Josue, do you want to start with the first question?
JOSUE: How many siblings do you have, brothers and sisters?
ISABEL: Okay, so I have one sister, she’s the oldest, and then there’s two [older] boys. And then there’s 10 years between Eddie and my brother David, and then there’s me. [After the first three kids] my parents weren’t planning on more, and then they did. They’re like: Families are important; we should have more kids. So they had two kids ten years later, so there’s a big gap there. My older sister is kinda like my mom; she kinda raised me a little because my parents had to work a lot. That’s probably more than you were asking. I have one sister and three brothers.
JOSUE: I like when people tell me more.
AURA: You say you were born in New York City and then your parents moved to Colombia. So why’d you guys move [back] to Colombia?
ISABEL: I think my parents didn’t really like New York. They thought, you know what, our life really needs to be back in Colombia. And then when my parents came to the states first, my dad came and he left my mom in Colombia. He didn’t [actually] leave her, but he came looking for a better life. So he left her in Colombia with three small kids. And she workedshe got her dental degree; she’s a dentist there. My dad was working here. He came here undocumented, and he was working cleaning floors, and he worked for an embassy, and he made really good friends with one of the guys that worked there. The guy said, “Let me see if I can help get your family here.” So my mom and my older siblings came, and they thought, okay, we’re supposed to be here. So they lived there for quite a few years in New York before my brother and I were born, and for some reason they thought, you know what, New York is dangerous. Has anyone ever been in New York? I love New York. It’s a really busy, really fast city. There’s a lot of people, and it’s hard to have a family. It’s hard to have little kids, especially in the winter time ’cause it’s freezing and you don’t have a car and you have to take the train everywhere and you have like five kids. So my parents were likeyou know, it’s a hard life here, let’s go back to Colombia. They went back to Colombia, and most Colombians are really entrepreneurs. They like to start businesses. We need to make money and we have to progress our family, and so they wanted to start a business. So they ended up gathering money, and they built a three-story building. My mom had her dental shop on one floor, and we lived on the other floor. They made it into an apartment. On the main floor, they would rent it out to people. On the bottom my parents [also] had a little clothing store, so that’s how they made money. They built this shop and after a couple of years, they just felt like they were supposed to be back in the United States. And they’re like, well, maybe we can rent our building and still get money that way. So they went back to New York. And like I said, New York was really, really dangerous at the time. My sister went to George Washington High School, which was one of the most dangerous schools. Girls were like getting raped in the bathroom. It was horrible. There was way too many kids in the schoolit was overcrowded. So my parents decided, well, let’s move to Utah. We had an aunt here, and they’re like, “This is a place for families,” so let’s move to Utah and maybe we can raise our family there. So that’s the story I’ve heard. I’m sure there are things my parents haven’t told me about that process, but from what I understand, that’s what made them go back and forth. I think they felt like this is where they’re supposed to be for their family, so they don’t regret it.
MARGARITA: Can you describe your neighborhood as you grew up, like where you lived?
ISABEL: Here in Utah? So when we first got here, we lived in like small little basement apartments ’cause we didn’t have any money. I lived on the east side, like 12th South, like 13th South and 9th East, kinda close to the Ninth and Ninth area. It wasn’t that nice then; it was just like a regular neighborhood. I went to Emerson Elementary School. When we came to Utah, there wasn’t nearly as much diversity as there is now. They were all just white people; there weren’t people from other places. And you never saw anybody out in the streets. They were all in their houses, and my parents weren’t used to that. You go from New York and Colombia and then you come here, and the streets are empty. So that was a culture shock. Where I went to school, it was primarily white kids, [plus] a couple Polynesian kids, and [then] it was me and my brother. We went to Emerson Elementary School and I loved it. I loved all my teachers. I was really shy, but I loved all my teachers. I had a lot of friends, I never felt any different. I knew when I brought lunch my food was different than their food. I didn’t have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I had like arroz in a little Tupperware, and I had to make sure I brought it back. Everyone else had crackers and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread. I’m like, well, I know I’m different, but I don’t feel different. It doesn’t feel bad or anything. So I grew up in that same area [and] I went to Clayton Junior High, for my first year in junior high. Then my parents saved up enough money, and my mom started a business, a beauty salon. So they decided they had enough to build a house on the west side. So we moved to the Rose Park area, there’s like this little Ivory Home development area. That’s where they built their house and I went to Northwest Middle School, and that’s where the culture shock hit. All of a sudden I come to this other junior highI started my first year of junior high on the east side, my second year on the west sideand [now] everybody’s diverse. I’m like, oh, this is where all the brown people live, because there’s nobody up there. All of a sudden there’s tons of people from South and Central America, tons of Polynesian kids, a couple of Asian kids, and maybe five white kids. I was like, oh, this is different. Looking back, it was a weird experience because I felt more out of place there amongst my own people than I did when I went to the east side school. I think a lot of that was because the kids at the time would congregate with people just like them. They wouldn’t interact with people who were different. Like the Polynesians wouldn’t hang out with the Mexican kids. And that was different to me, ’cause I was used to everyone, and everyone talked to everyone, and there weren’t these differences ’cause everyone looked the same. But coming to the west side, people were clearly different. Language was different, culture was different, humor, music, everything. For me that was a huge culture shock to move to the west side and start making friends with people that didn’t necessarily want to be my friend. I’m like, just because you’re Tongan and I’m not doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. So that was a bit harder for me, but I adjusted. I ended up having a cool group of friends: two Samoan girls and two white girls and one girl from Mexico and one girl from Argentina. We were just this diverse little group from all over the place, and we didn’t care that we didn’t speak the same language. So then I went to West High School and those friends followed me to West, and that was a really good experience too. So I grew up halfway on the east side, halfway on the west side.
EDUARDO: How was it being the youngest child in your family?
ISABEL: How is it? It’s interestingI kind of feel like I’m the oldest sometimes. My older siblings, I don’t know, sometimes they make some choices, [and] I’m like, “Really?” Okay, none of my older siblings went to college. Until a couple of years ago, one of my brothers, Eddie, he’s the third, he went to get a paralegal degree because he wants to be an attorney. But for the most part, they grew up thinking like my parents: We have to work. We have to put food on the table, and they didn’t think about school. That’s how their mind works. I find myself a lot of times like counseling them, like, “Tony, you draw really well. You should be an architect.” “Yeah, I want to be an architect, I want to be an architect.” He’s like 44, and he’s got five kids. “You should do this instead of working at the warehouse.” All of my siblings are so much smarter than I am, but they don’t take advantage of opportunities. I think part of it is because they grew up with that mentality of we gotta work. We have to do enough to get by, and they can’t see beyond just getting by. In a lot of ways that has hurt them. In being the youngest, you get to learn a lot because you’re watching your siblings, and you’re like, “I don’t want to do that. I do want to do that. There’s no way I’m ever gonna do that.” You learn from their experiences, without having to make those mistakes yourself. So as the youngest, I’ve had a huge advantage in being able to observe, and I feel a lot of the choices I’ve made in my life for school and other things have been choices that they, now being 40 years old, still haven’t thought about. So I feel like I’m charting a new course in my family, which is scary for me, ’cause I can’t ask them for advice, ’cause they haven’t been through that process; they don’t really get it. It’s a little bit hard for me, but at the same time it’s exciting to be like: Where will this lead me that no one else in my family has done? What kind of outcomes can I have`cause I’ve seen the outcomes of the choices they’ve made, and some have been good. They’re happy, they have fine lives, but there are so many opportunities that just passed them by. I think it’s a huge advantage for me anyway. I’m really glad I was the youngest in a first-generation immigrant family.
LUIS: So how are your parents like?
ISABEL: My parentshere’s one classic example. My dad calls me two days ago, “Mija, I want you to know your mom and I are leaving for Colombia on Wednesday. We might be back in a month, but I’m not sure.” I’m like, “Wait a minute! You’re gonna miss Thanksgiving, and you might miss Christmas? I don’t understand.” Well, they’ve been trying to sell this building I told you guys about. They’ve been trying to sell it so they can detach themselves and not have this obligation in Colombia. [So he says], “We think we have a buyer, so we’re just gonna go over and see what happens.” I’m like, “Okay.” My parents are random like that. I mean, I love them, and I’ve learned a lot from them that I want to do and I want to become, but I think they’re well, my mom is very independent. She’s really smart; she’s all about business. “You should sell this or start this” kind of business, or “I’ll help you do this or I’ll help you do that.” She’s always been that way. One thing I’ve learned, she doesn’t know how to see in the long run. She’s not like, “You should do this because in ten years you’ll be here.” She’s: “You need to do it now. You’ll be successful if you do a little bit of these things now.” She’s shortsighted, and that’s the mentality in Colombia. You have to put food on the table. But she’s very independent. I remember when I was ten years [old?], she went to Colombia to take care of stuff in the building. There was a flood or something. She was like, “I gotta go clean up the flood.” I’m like, “Okay.” And [then] every month she said, “I’ll be back next month.” She was gone for a year! And this was when she had her beauty salon, and it was doing really good. We had ten chairs and a tanning booth and nail people. So my dad, my brother just older than me, and I, we ran the salon for that year, and we’re like, “When’s she coming back?” And [then] we stopped asking. But I guess the situation was worse than we thought, but that’s how my mom is, kinda random. My dad’s a really hard worker, but he doesn’t take risks. My mom takes risks. She’s like, “Let’s start this business. Let’s do this, let’s do that.” My dad’s just retired. He worked for IHC for about 35 years, and it was just the one job. He was driving and delivering medicine to people that were sick at home. They were bedridden or whatever, and that’s all he did. That’s the kind of person he isIf something works, if it’s putting food on the table, that’s what I’m gonna do. Whereas my mom’s always trying to think of different ideas, so it’s fun to watch. But we’ll see if they come back before Christmas. I’ll let you guys know. [Chuckles]
ETHAN: How was your family financially as you were growing up?
ISABEL: You know that’s a really good question. All I could say is what I observed, because my parents didn’t talk about [it]. My mom, anytime I needed something, she’d say, “Just tell me and I’ll give you money.” I always wondered: Where is she getting the money for things? So I never asked for anything, because I knew she had two jobs and so did my dad, and I know they were low-income because of where we grew up and ’cause the way birthdays and holidays were. But they never talked about it. They never said, “We’re poor.” My mom would always say, “We’re not poor! We know how to work hard. Tell me if you want something, and I’ll give you the money.” I later learned she would take tip money that would normally be for something else, [and] if I wanted shoes, she’d buy me shoes and then she’d have to figure out how am I gonna replace this money. And so she would sell something, or do this or do that, and move things around and come up with these ideas to fill in that gap so that I would never notice. So as I kind of started realizing, growing up you realize you have less than some kids, and you don’t go back-to-school shopping when it’s school time, you just go to school. You don’t get new stuff, and other kids get new stuff, so I learned to stop asking for stuff. I was like, “I don’t really need new shoes, unless my mom thinks I need new shoes, then I’ll get them. But I don’t really need it.” So [in] my family, we didn’t ever ask for anything or at least I didn’t. And I don’t think my older siblings did because I think they had jobs, too. But I knew we were low income, I just I never heard it from my parents, and I really actually appreciate that. They protected me from that a little bit, because again, like I said earlier, I never felt like I was different from anybody, even on the east side. I felt like I was just the same. I ate different food and I listened to different music and maybe I had an accent, but we were all the same in my mind.
BRENNAN: How old were you when you came to Utah?
ISABEL: Okay, so [in] New York I was two, then we went to Colombia, three, four, five. I was maybe seven or eight.
BRENNAN: What experiences do you remember from the different places you’ve lived? And what ones were sort of more important?
ISABEL: That’s a good question. I hardly remember Colombia at all. I went back for the first time when was 15, ’cause my parents wouldn’t let us go back ’cause Colombia is dangerous, and they thought you were gonna get kidnapped. So when I went back for the first time I remember the building. When I saw it, I remembered playing on the steps, and I remembered what the kitchen and our apartment in the building looked like. But I didn’t remember that until I went there. I don’t remember much of New York, and I think it’s because I left when I was really little. I remember when we came from Colombia back to New York I had a turtle. That’s all I remember. Actually, I think I had two turtles. They were the little kind. Actually we lost the turtle in the apartment, we think it went down the heating vent. But I remember having two turtles. I think my fondest memory was when we came from New York to Utah, because we left in the middle of the night. This is how bad [it was]. I think I told you my sister was being stalked, and it was really bad apparently. So my parents left all their furniture in the apartment, and whatever we could fit [we packed] into our van, and we drove to Utah. And back then the speed limit was like 45 or something, so it took a week to get here, and so I remember that. I remember camping on the side of the road. We’d pull over and just pitch our tent and camp… and then we’d get back in the van the next day. I remember, maybe I shouldn’t share this, but I remember we would hop fences in motels to get into the swimming pool, because we didn’t have money for a hotel, or to stop and take a shower. I remember going to lots of parks, and it was just kind of like a vacation, but it wasn’t. I remember getting the chicken pox. My brother and I, we both got the chicken pox in the minivan, and we got it for a couple of days and then it went away. I thought that was fun, so I remember all of that. And I remember our van breaking down and we had to take a bus. I don’t know where my parents got the money. I think they sold the van for parts, and we had to take a bus to Utah. I remember coming into the old bus station when it used to be downtown, and my cousins and my aunt picking us up. And that’s it. Now I love campingthat was such a great memory. My sister, who’s the oldest, who was 20-something at the time, she hates camping because of that experience. But that’s probably one of my fondest memories.
LESLIE: Can I ask you a quick question? Your father first came from Colombia by himself, what was it that made him and your mother want to come to the United States? Did they ever describe that to you, because your father came and then your family went back. So the drive to leave Colombia for the U.S., what was that about?
ISABEL: You know, I think my parents purposely don’t talk too much about certain things, but from the little bits that I pieced together, I think that they didn’t, that both of my parents grew up in really, really hard poverty. They were both the oldest of like seven kids, and every day literally they’d wake up with all their little brothers and sisters who were just babies, and they’d be like, okay, I have to go get breakfast somehow. What can I sell, because I have to feed my little brothers and sisters? So for the most part, they weren’t worried about feeding themselves. They were worried about their brothers and sisters, because their mom and their dad were somewhere else working or something, and so they kinda had to take care of the day-to-day. I think that they wanted to kind of get away from that, kind of get out of that cycle a little bit. No one in my mom’s family had come to the United States, and actually I only have, well, now I have a couple of aunts that have. My mom was the first one, her and my dad, to kind of break out and really try and get away. But my mom doesn’t talk about that very much, ’cause her mentality is we’re not poor, we’re not poor, we’ve never been poor. I think she really tries to kind of isolate that experience, like I never want to feel like that again, like I wonder what are we gonna have for dinner, I never want that again, ’cause she grew up that way. So I think that part of it was to kind of break away from that cycle, and I think it was a huge risk for my dad to leave through Mexico and somehow make it all the way up to New York. I don’t know why he picked New York, and to leave my mom with three smaller kids and she was getting her degree to be a dentist and all this stuff. Like those were really hard times, and I think it was really brave of him to do that, and I don’t know where the courage or the sense that I’m gonna be better if I can just get there, and all the sacrifice is worth it, I don’t know where that came from inside of him. I’m glad that it did, you know and I think that they were right in many ways for doing that. And I also think; What would it have been like if I grew up in Colombia? And I think we would have been okay with the building and everything, but I feel like I have so many otherI feel so free here. I have so many opportunities that my cousins in Colombia don’t necessarily have. It’s just a different life. So I don’t know exactly. That’s kind of what I’ve observed, but I’d like to ask them a little bit more to find out and see how much they’ll tell me. But my mom, in particular, she doesn’t really like to talk too much about things like that.
JOSUE: I have a question. [Laughter] Calm down guys. Tell me a little bit about your mission.
ISABEL: My mission? Okay, so I’m LDS, well, before I tell you about my mission. I’m LDSmy parents were Catholic in Colombia. They weren’t practicing Catholics; they just were [Catholics] because their whole family was Catholic. And my dad didn’t want to have anything to do with being Catholic. My dad first heard about Mormons actually when he was in a bar. He was in a bar with his buddies ’cause he’d go to the bar after he’d work, and this was in Colombia, and his one friend was really drunk and he’s like, “Man, can you believe it? There’s these people that believe you could be with one woman your whole life?” My dad’s thinking to himself, “Well, yeah, that’s kinda what it should be.” So he started saying, “Can you believe there’s people that…” and he started spouting all these different things they believe in the [LDS] church, that you can actually be with your family after you die?” My dad is sitting there, and he’s listening, and my dad’s like, “I think that’s how it should be. Yeah, I think that’s how it should be.” So he started hearing all these things, and the guy noticed he stopped drinking and the guy was like, “But Luis, we’re not like that! We’re not like that. We have to enjoy life!” And my dad was like, “No, I am like that!” The guy’s like, “No, because I’ve known you since you were little,” ’cause my dad ran away from home when he was eight, and this man kind of raised him. He’s like, “I’ve known you since you were little. You’re not like that.” He’s like, “No, I am like that, and I was like that before I was born.” The guy was like, “If all of a sudden you’re saying that you’re this”he didn’t know it was a religion, he didn’t know what it was“it’s like as if I never knew you. If this is who you think you are, it’s as if I never knew you and I don’t want to see you again.” He was putting my dad in this position where either you’re deciding that you’re who I’ve always known, you’re Luis, you’re my buddy [or you’re not my friend anymore]. And my dad’s like, “No, this is who I am.” So he came home at three in the morning, tried to wake up my mom, and she’s like, “You’re drunk.” He ended up trying to find out who are these people that believe in this stuff. Someone told him about a church in Colombia, so he walked in and he’s like, “I don’t know what this [is], I just know how I feel. I feel like it’s important, and I feel like I need to do something, and I don’t know if this is a church or I don’t know what it is, but this is how I feel.” So he sought out the LDS Church, and he found it in Colombia. He became a member and my mom and my three siblings, so, technically, they’re all converts to the LDS Church. And that’s part of the reason, I think, they wanted to come to the United States, and I know that that’s why they came to Utah.And I know that’s why they had two other kids ten years later because they were like: Family is important. And if we should have more kids, let’s have more kids. So, technically, I’m here because my parents became Mormons.
So anyway, so my brother and I, we grew up in the LDS Church and everyone else is a convert. And I’ve always for some reason, ever since I was little, I’ve always known I was gonna go on a mission. I was like, “Yeah, I want to go on a mission, I think I should go.” So after high school I got a job, I saved up money because I wanted to pay my way, I didn’t want my parents to pay for like my choice. It’s my choice to do it, I should pay for it, ’cause you pay your way when you go on an LDS mission. And so I saved up almost enough money to go, and I went, and I got called. You don’t get to pick where you go, you just kinda get an assignment. You submit your application and you send it in, and then a couple of weeks later they send you a letter telling you where you’ve been assigned to go. I was assigned to go to New York City, which is like where I was born, right? I’m like, What
?which is great ’cause I love New York City. So I went to New York and I was there in Manhattan for a year and then I went upstate New York, White Plains, for the remaining six months, ’cause it’s a year and a half for girls. And it was probably one of the best experiences of my life. I learned what I don’t
like. I wanted to go into psychology ’cause I like the way people think and like figuring out…why do people do this? And how come kids grow up this way and then some kids grow up this way, you know? But on the mission I learned that I take on people’s problems too much and I worry about it, and I don’t know how to separate that. So I’m like I can’t do psychology. I have to do something broader. So I learned a lot about myself, which is interesting, ’cause you go there to help other people, kinda like what you’re doing with the Coalition of La Raza, or service projects, right? You go to help someone else, and you’re like: Oh, I’m gonna feel good because I’m helping someone else. But at the end of the day, you’re like helping yourself, and you feel good because it’s you and you’re different, right. It changes something inside of you when you help other people. And it helps them too, and that’s a good thing. But you’re never the same after you’ve served someone for whatever reason, whether it’s a faith-based thing, or just because it’s another type of service. So I came back feeling like I understood myself and my inspirations and my motivations a lot more from my mission experience. So that helped me a lot, and I got to meet a lot of really cool people that like to this day are really good friends. So it was a good experience. And it was really hard. That’s kind of a side note.
AURA: Who do you think you see yourself most as, your dad or your mom?
ISABEL: I think I see myself in some ways like my dad, because I’m trying to be like my dad. My dad is really wiseI think he has a lot of wisdom. He didn’t go to school so it’s not like he’s like intelligent in that way, but he has a lot of wisdom, which is worth sometimes a lot more. Sometimes, like I told you guys, I counsel my older siblings. I feel like I have this wisdom that for some reason they either didn’t inherit or they didn’t learn through life experiences. So I feel like I have this weird like inherent wisdom I got from my dad and I’m trying to cultivate. I want to be wise. I feel like I kinda got that from my dad. From my mom, I think I’m random and spontaneous the way she is. And even in school, I think, if I do this then I can do this. I think as an entrepreneur, as a social entrepreneur instead of a business entrepreneur. I’m like what are new ways to address needs in the community, as opposed to what are new ways to make money and start businesses. So I think those are the two main things that I got from them. There are some other things I’m not too proud of that I got from them, but you inherit what you inherit.
LESLIE: Tell us what you’re not proud of. Tell us one thing.
ISABEL: Well, I’m really impatient. I’m very impatient with myself. I’m like, okay, why can’t I just get this? Why can’t I get it? And I’m impatient sometimes with other people. Like I had my nephew who is 10 years old, and he’s like, “You need to be more patient with me.” I’m like, “You’re right!” So I think I’m really impatient. I get anxious, I wish things would happen faster than they would, and I’m learning to kind of manage that, ’cause life doesn’t happen the way you want it to or as fast as you want it to. So that’s one thing.
MARGARITA: What were some of these challenges you faced growing up, in your life?
ISABEL: You know, I guess it’s all perspective. I feel like I’ve been really lucky. I feel like if I’ve had challenges, but they haven’t felt like challenges. They’re just things that you have to do. Sometimes you just have to do stuff to get somewhere. If you want to see what’s on the other side of the wall, you have to climb over the wall, or you might as well just go somewhere else. So I can’t think of any real barriers, other than financial stuff, but I’ve been fortunate to always get like financial aid from school and things like that. But I can’t think of any real barriers. They haven’t seemed like barriers to me, so I’m not sure how to answer that question.
EDUARDO: How was it on your trip to Utah from New York City?
ISABEL: You mean when my family moved here? Yeah, it was my favorite experience. Like I said, after that experience I loved camping and being outside and swimming pools. So it was a good experience. My siblings hated it because they’re older. It’s like if your parents made you go on a road trip right now, however old you guys are, for a whole week and you didn’t get to stay anywhere but in a tent or sleep in the van. That doesn’t sound very exciting, right? But if you’re a little kid, it’s like the best thing ever. So it was a good experience for me. My siblings hated it, though, and my parents probably. It was probably really hard on them, too, plus I got the chicken pox.
LUIS: How was college for you when you started it?
ISABEL: First of all, I didn’t think I could go to college. I always wanted to go to college, but I didn’t think I could go. I didn’t think I had the grades, and I probably didn’t. I feel like I’ve been lucky to get as far as I’ve gotten, because when I went to West [High School], after a while I stopped going to some of my classes. I really shouldn’t tell this part… I stopped going to some of my classes because I was kind of bored, especially with math. I’m really not good at math, and math is hard ’cause it’s like they teach you something and then they teach you something else, but it’s based on this. Then they teach you something else and it’s based on these other things, so if you don’t get the first part, you don’t get the whole rest of the year, right. Well, that’s kind of how I was. I never would get the first part, I couldn’t get it, and so I was like, why even go? I’m just gonna fail and the last thing I need is like to have an “F” on my paper and then you feel bad about yourself and you think you’re not smart. So I didn’t go to some of my classes, and it’s a miracle that I graduated. It’s a miracle that I was accepted to go to the U. I wanted to go to college, but I thought, maybe in a couple of years and I’ll start at Salt Lake Community College. Fortunately, now, looking back at the time I didn’t like it, but I did something called Upward Bound. Yeah, I did Upward Bound. I didn’t like Upward Bound at the time, ’cause they make you take your whole summer and stay up at the U campus, I’m like, this is not fun. I’d rather do other things. But they showed me that I could go to college, and they’re like, this is what you have to fill out, ’cause like I said, my siblings didn’t go to college, my parents didn’t go, so who am I gonna ask: How do I enroll? Or how am I gonna pay for this? I don’t have the money, so I’ll just work for five years until I save up money to go to college. There has to be another way, but who am I gonna ask? So Upward Bound and programs like that gave me a venue to go and ask people that are willing to say, “All you gotta do is this and ask your parents this,” and that helped a lot. Because of that program, I started at the U instead of Salt Lake Community College and I went right after high school instead of waiting a couple of years. So I’m forever grateful to Upward Bound, even though I didn’t like it at the time, but I’m grateful to them because who else would I have asked? None of my teachers were really that interested to say, “Well, this is what you should do.” And it was hard because I wasn’t used to it, and like I said, I didn’t have siblings to ask for help. Like: What do you do with this class, or what classes should I take. I just took random stuff that I thought sounded good. Slowly, over time, I started defining what I didn’t like, I really don’t want to do that, and what I kind of like, and that helped me decide which classes to take, ’cause there’s no one to ask. After that I went on my missionso I started school a little bit, I went on my mission for a year and a half, and I came back and finished my bachelor’s. I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to get a master’s, but I started working for this non-profit organization called Comunidades Unidas, which in Spanish means Communities United. It’s just down the street actually. My boss at the time was a really good mentor, and she kept telling me, “You like social issues, you like broader community stuff, you should do public administration as a masters.” So she helped me. It’s like there’s people along the way that help you define your own mind and kind of what you want to do. I think I’m forever grateful for her and for other people I can think of along the way that just kind of helped. They were kind of my anchor, a little bit. If you don’t have these anchors, you’re always just kind of floating and unsure of yourself and of the world and everything. So I think these anchors really helped kind of keep me on track through school and to this day.
ETHAN: So did you really enjoy going to college?
ISABEL: When there were classes I liked, or when I was surprised and I was like, “Man, this class is gonna suck,” and it was a really good class, I’m like, “Wow, I really like this.” I feel like it’s made me think differently about people and stuff, but also about myself. In that way, I really enjoyed it. I like arguing something that I don’t agree with because it helps me understand it better. In school you get all these perspectives, and you’re used to thinking one way, ’cause that’s how you grew up or that’s what your parents think or whatever. But all these perspectives just kind of add to it. So I enjoyed schoolit’s hard, but maybe that’s why I enjoy it so much more, ’cause it’s not easy.
BRENNAN: What was your first job, and how did you feel about it at the time and how do you feel about it now?
ISABEL: Well, [in] my first unofficial job my mom had a beauty salon, so I had to work for her in high school ’cause I wasn’t allowed to work anywhere else. I washed hair and I swept floors. I didn’t call it a real job, but I learned how to cut hair. So when I turned 16, I would cut hair and I would work for tips or whatever she’d pay me. After that, my first official outside of high school job was at Deseret Book Distribution Center. It was a warehouse, and it was just packing products that were being shipped out across the country. I don’t knowI think because my mom had a beauty salon, I learned to work whether you like it or not. You have to work, and it’s better to workso I learned to have a good attitude about that. You just have to do what you have to do. I appreciated that. And being in the working world [now] hasn’t felt nearly as hard as those first years when I was in high school working for my mom, ’cause I was learning to work. Now I feel I know how to work hard, and I’m willing to do whatever it is I have to do. I’m willing to do it as opposed to being likeOh, I don’t want to do that. Should I do that? Maybe I shouldn’t. In my current job and working with Comunidades Unidas, the nonprofit organization, when you work with [the] grassroots community it’s really hard. You have to be willing to push through all the barriers so that you can see some success.
LESLIE: Can you tell us a little bit about the job with Comunidades Unidas?
ISABEL: Yes, I worked there for about four years. I got that job right after I had gotten my bachelor’s and I was in charge of coordinating a state network. The focus of CU is helping immigrant and refugees integrate. Integration is a two-way thing. It doesn’t mean that everybody that comes here has to stop being Latino, or Bosnian, or Asian and become American, that’s not integration. Integration is that this community adapts and so does the receiving societywe adapt to each other so we can become a cohesive community. So the focus ofComunidades Unidas is to help eliminate disparities or the huge social gaps that these communities have when they come so that they can integrate and be successful. At the same time, we have to educate the receiving society, the people that are here, because we don’t want to create these divisions in different classes. So my first job there was focused mostly around health and then it kind of evolved. And Sabrina and I, my boss at the time was Sabrina Morales; she was my mentor, too. At first Comunidades Unidas only focused on the Latino community and health issues, help them get their shots or whatever. But we expanded it to focus on all immigrant populations and on how to help them integrate to all the systemsto health, to education, to income, to civic engagement. So most of the stuff I did at CU was working on civic engagement and coalition building and letting people know that when legislation comes up, if they’re willing, we can show them how to call the legislator and say, “I really don’t want you to support this,” or how their immigrant story can impact legislation. So that’s primarily what I did at CU for those three-and-a half to four years.
LESLIE: It sounds interesting. Maybe we’ll follow up with that. Please go ahead, Josue.
JOSUE: When you were small, what motivated you?
ISABEL: When I was little, and to some extent still today, what motivated me was my parents and thinking they work so hard and they’re gone all the time ’cause they’re working. Someday I want to work hard so they don’t have to. That was my motivation. I want them to be with me because I’ll take care of them so they don’t have to do that. I remember thinking that as I was littleI was like, it’s not fair that they have to work so hard.
AURA: How has CU helped you?
ISABEL: It’s helped me a lot. When I first started working there, I had no idea what I was doing and they kind of threw me into this position where I had to work with people who were older than I was. Most of them were white men and I was younger. And people usually think I’m a lot younger than I am, so they’re like: Why is this girl leading this meeting or coordinating this effort? What does she know? CU put me in that position and threw me into it, and I had to catch up real quick. I had to be assertive and confident in myself in order to get stuff done. So it really helped me tap into skills that I didn’t realize I had, and I was like, “Oh, I’m good at this. I can do this.” Anytime you work for a non-profit, that’s what they’re gonna do. They throw you [out there] because they have limited funds, so you end up having to do more and learning more skills than you would in like a big corporation where you’re hired to just do one thing. In non-profits, you have to fund raise, you have to lead meetings, and sometimes you have to speak in front of a lot of people. Sometimes you have to testify at the legislature, or someone wants to interview your organization and the first person they find is you, so you learn to rise a little bit, because you’re thrown into the situation. That’s how it’s helped me.
MARGARITA: Are you married or have a boyfriend…? [Laughs]
ISABEL: Do you have a brother? Just kidding. I’m not married. I’ve been dating someone but it’s not serious. Do I want to get married? Oh, yeah, I want a family. I love kids. I used to be like, when I was little, “I want to have eight kids,” ’cause it has to be an even number, `cause you don’t want a middle child, no offense to middle children. You don’t want a middle child. You want them to be like little buddies. Everywhere they go they pair up. So it’s either eight or six. If I have seven, I’ll get a dog so they have a buddy, or I’ll just have eight kids, that’s what I used to think when I was little. Now I’m not so sure. If I really was serious about that, like let’s say I got married and I was like, okay, six kids, I would have to be in a position where I could be there with them most of the time, because I wouldn’t want to be like my parents that were gone a lot and have the older siblings help raise [each other]. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I feel like every generation kinda gets better. You have to push for that, or else you stay in the cycle of the same type of thing. So you want to push for every generation to be more secure in this country and more secure in themselves and more secure in their identity. So if I have six kids, I want to be in a position where either I have a business I can work from home, or something like that, [so] I can be there with my kids. If not, it’ll probably be like four or five, which probably still sounds like a lot, but I love little kids.
EDUARDO: In your lifetime, have you ever felt like you couldn’t go on with life?
ISABEL: Like I couldn’t go on with life?
EDUARDO: Like you got put down and you couldn’t do anything else?
ISABEL: I think I’ve felt like that a lot. I think it happens kind of in cycles, which in some ways it’s kind of healthy. I think as long as you don’t stay feeling like that for a long time, ’cause that’s not good. But I think it is healthy ’cause it kind of forces you to kind of reassess what’s going on in your life and what you want to do different, or you what you want to be different. And so you kind of have to take a minute to be like, I don’t like this and I don’t like this and I don’t like this, but of those things, what can I change and what do I have control over? And then you decide: Am I willing to do that? And you just kind of move forward. So as hard as those times are, I think that they’re also like probably the most important times, like inside of yourself, ’cause you really are forced to step back and be like, can I keep doing this? Sometimes, at least like in my experience, it’s just a matter of, especially with times when you’re like, the feeling I don’t know if I can keep going, whether it’s school or whatever, sometimes you just have to like put your head down and go anyways`cause sometimes you can talk yourself out of things. It kinda reminds me of this bike trip I was tellingI don’t know what your name is, with the camera.
ISABEL: Jonathan. So I went on this bike trip. This was last summer…and I’m not a biker. This is road biking. I’m not really a biker. But this bike trip was with me and my friends, and we were going along the Oregon coast. And we were gonna be riding like 60 miles a day for five or six days. And it’s kinda like this [makes up and down motions with her hands], ’cause it’s mountains and like the ocean’s right there, it’s like this, we’d be up the mountains, and it was hard
’cause I’m not a biker. But you have to finish the hill. So there were a lot of times, and even my friends were like, “I don’t know how you finished that,” because I never trained for it. But there were a lot of times when I’m on the hill and I’m like, we have a car that was driving with us in case anyone got hurt, I’m like, I just want to stop and call the car and be like I’m done. My legs are shaking, I feel like I’m gonna pass out, I’m thirsty, and the hill keeps going like this. There’s no end to this hill. I hate this hill. And I’m going, and I’m thinking about it, I’m like, I just wanna quit. Why don’t I just stop right now? I could just call Kat and she can come pick me up. And then I see my friend up there and I’m like, well, as long as I can see her in the distance, I know I’m doing okay ’cause I’m not completely alone. And I would talk my way through it. Before I knew it, I was at the top of the hill. And there were some times when I was like riding like this and all I could see was my feet and the ground, and I’m like, I’m not gonna look up until I know that we’re going down, because there’s just no way. I gotta finish this. And I finished it! And I was like, Oh! I felt so good. And as we were riding or driving home I was like, there’s so many things you can take from that, right? ‘Cause things will always, you always get in those ruts, and it’s healthy, but sometimes you just have to go because you have to, `cause no one’s gonna go for you. No one’s gonna ride that bike for me. And then when you get to the top it’s amazing. You’re like: I didn’t know I could do that. Just like with sports or anything else, when you do something you surprise
yourself and you’re like, I had no idea I had it in me, and that’s worth it. So I always get in those ruts. It happens regularly. I have a sense of how to get over it now, but it’s taken years.
LUIS: Is there one thing that impacted you through your life?
ISABEL: One thing that impacted me?
LESLIE: Remember, we talked about those moments, those rites of passage…those things that change you…
ISABEL: Yeah, like pivotal moments? Yeah… I think I’ve had several rites of passage, and most of them have been around education. When I graduated from high school, I thought everyone should be graduated from high school, so that wasn’t really a rite of passage. But when I got into college, as little as that might be, or like when I got the acceptance, ’cause I got the letter and I’m like, this letter is gonna say, “I’m sorry, your grades aren’t that great, your GPA sucks, you can’t come into the University of Utah. Try SLCC,” that’s what I thought the letter was gonna say. But when it said I got accepted, I was so excited and I wanted to show my family. But at the same time I didn’t want them to feel bad, because they didn’t go to college. So in many ways, I felt like I kind of had to grow up at that moment and be like, I’m a grown-up now. This is kind of like big kid stuff. Now I’m gonna go to college. That was an important moment for me. When I graduated, I was asked to speak at the graduation ceremony. That was a huge experience for me, because my family, not only did they not go to college, but they’re gonna go and see me speak in a ceremony, and so it’s a really humbling experience at the same time, because I wish my siblings could feel this, too. But it’s a pour[ing] of cold water sometimes, like a wakeup call, like wow, this is a big deal. What else can I do? I’d say most of my rites of passages have been around education.
ETHAN: Overall, what do you want to achieve in life? What’s your overall goal?
ISABEL: That’s a really good question. What’s my overall goal? I’ve never had an overallI’ve never been like, “I want to be a doctor when I grow up.” I don’t really have an overall goal. I feel like I want to help people, and it’s gotta be like in a social way. I want to have a family, that’s one of my main goals, with however many kids, and I want to finish school. But in terms of jobs that I want to have, there’s nothing that I’m like, “This is what I want to be.” I’m more interested in becoming better than being something when I grow up. So I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that out. And I think it’s okay that I’m still figuring it out. You don’t have to know what you’re gonna be right now.
BRENNAN: Are there any of those moments of passage you wish you could go back and change? And how do you think it would affect your life now, if you were able to change those?
ISABEL: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. In terms of rites…
BRENNAN: Or any other moments…
ISABEL: Yeah, that I would go back and change? You know what, I’d have to think about that a little bit more, but I almost want to say, as much as some stuff really was not fun, you know, like we were talking about low moments or whatever, I don’t really think there’s anything like even my family’s income level and their situation when they first came, I could say that I wish that it wasn’t so hard for them, but I learned a lot from that, so it’s kind of a selfish reason. I’m glad that they went through so many hard things and that I was able to see that, because I became better. So I don’t think I would really change anything, at least not in my life. Maybe in my siblings, maybe if they would have more mentors or more people to inspire them in school, I would change that for them. For myself, I don’t think I would change anything.
LESLIE: It’s nice listening to you.
LESLIE: Let me ask you something. In CU, when you went out and worked with the community, I know you learned a lot about yourself, but what did you learn about the community and immigrant people and what’s happening in our community here? Could you share some of that?
ISABEL: One of the things that I learned, that as I learned it I thought about my own family, was the huge insecurity that minority communities have in themselves. We’ve always had a sense of being oppressed in our own countries and here in the United States, and we’ve always had a sense of we’re less than others. In Colombia as well, as independent as my mom is, there’s always this insecurity, and I think that especially the more humble communities that have less education in their own homeland and come here, I think they have a hard time getting out of that. They always feel like I’m less, and you’re the expert and I’m not. I’ll do what you say, and just tell me what you need me to do and I’ll do it. To me, that’s really troubling, because for the communities to rise and be successful, they need to have confidence in themselves. So a lot of what we started doing at CU was teaching people, you have rights to do these things. Even if you’re undocumented, you still have rights in this country, and that’s a very powerful thing, and you need to know what those rights are and you need to feel comfortable in using those rights.
LESLIE: What are your rights if you’re undocumented?
If you’re undocumented, obviously you have less rights than a citizen, but for example when you’re interacting with law enforcement and if a cop says, “Oh, where are you from, you look like you’re from Mexico, are you from Mexico?” You don’t have to answer those questions. You have a right to be like, “I don’t have to answer that.” Or to not say anything at all, they’re not gonna take you into jail for not answering, right? Parents especially have the right and the responsibility to be involved in their kids’ school, like PTA stuff. And sometimes parents send their kids off to school and they send them over there, but they don’t even go inside of the school, or they’re not a part. They don’t know who the teacher is. They’re not in
there because they think: Oh, that’s the teacher, that’s the expert. I don’t know, I shouldn’t be there, and so they don’t go. So they lack this confidence. But not only can they go, as you guys know, but they can be involved in making decisions for the school. So that’s a lot of power, because it changes their kids’ education and the community, but they just don’t know, or they don’t feel comfortable doing it. So things like that are definitely rights people have. Also, a lot of people worry with laws that are coming out that immigration is gonna have more power to come and do raids and start knocking on people’s houses. That’s a huge
fear, and that’s one of the workshops that I would go out and do a lotabout what immigration can and can’t do. And although they say they don’t do these things, they do do them. They sometimes come to people’s homes like Saturday morning. You’re gonna sleep in, and they come at six in the morning, and they knock on all your windows and knock on all your doors. So you wake up frantic and confused, you’re like who’s knocking. You open the door and it’s ICE. And they’re deceiving sometimes. They hold up a picture, and I know a friend that this happened to, his wife. He’s an American citizen; she was not. They held up a picture of a woman, and they said, “Look. We’re looking for this lady. She’s been committing crimes in the neighborhood. Have you seen her?” He was like, “No, I haven’t seen her.” “Well, can we ask anyone else in the family to see if they’ve seen her?” He’s like, “Yeah, let me get my wife.” He’s all concerned, trying to be a good citizen, right. He gets his wife and his kids, and his wife’s like, “No, we haven’t seen her,” and ICE said, “Actually, we’re here for you. We need you to get your belongings, and we’re gonna go.” They were like, “What?”
So they use deceiving tactics, but you have rights in your own home. And you have a right to not open the door to anyone, ever, right. Unless they have a warrant that you can see has your name on it and is signed by a judge, meaning the judge has sent me to come and get you, unless they have that you don’t have to open the door. You don’t have to talk to them. Let them knock on the windows or whatever, you don’t have to do any of that. And ICE can’t do anything; they can’t come barging in. Where people have this fear, that they’re like it’s an authority figure, I have to open the door, and then they spill all their information, “Yes, I’m from Mexico. I came here 10 years ago, but my son isn’t.” You have rights. You don’t have to say those things. You have a right to an attorney and all those things like that. But ICE will tell you, “Don’t go and talk to an attorney.” They told that to my cousin when they recently came to her house, same thing. I’m like, “Rianna, you have rights. You shouldn’t have answered the door.” She’s like, “I know, but I was scared!” “I am like, No!” Her situation was different. She came with a visa and she overstayed, which a lot of people do. And this isn’t an issue specifically to Latinos; Pacific Islanders also have this issue, they come with visas and they overstay. But we all have rights. And I think it’s just a matter of having that confidence in yourself. I think it’s partially a cultural thing. I think we have to teach [minority] cultures part of that integration, you can speak out, you can speak up, and you also have a right to be quiet. You don’t have to disclose all this information. Does that answer your question?
LESLIE: It sure does. That’s a good response, thank you. You guys want to follow up?
JOSUE: What was your GPA when you graduated?
ISABEL: When I graduated from High school? I graduated high school, it was like, oh, what was it? It was like a 2.3, something like that.
JOSUE: What was your ACT score?
ISABEL: My ACT score was, oh, I don’t remember: Thirteen, fourteen?
JOSUE: How did you make it in?
ISABEL: I know! I had like the worst self esteem, ’cause I’m like you can’t get into college. I can’t do this. When I graduated from my bachelor’s, my GPA was like a 3.2, and now at the U my GPA is like a 3.9 the last I checked, ’cause I submitted an application for a scholarship. So I’m proof that anybody can. If you work hard and you stop beating down on yourself, like I’m my biggest critic, and I get frustrated with myself, if you just kinda get over that, I’m proof that anyone can go to college and graduate and move on and do better things and be successful.
KENT: I have one question. You alluded to issues of immigration, diversity. There’s also within the country these days a lot of reactionary response to it. In our community, some people see the LDS as part of the reactionary aspect. What is your thought about both the social issues and how the part of the community that you’re a part of, the LDS community, what its role is?
ISABEL: I think the LDS community, in terms of members, our role is the same as all citizens. We have a responsibility to assess this type of legislation and see how it will impact our communities. I think what makes it hard for some people, whether they’re LDS or not, to fear these communities and say, “Yeah, they’re stealing our jobs; yeah, they’re stealing our social security numbers.” Whatever it might be, [the fact] is that they don’t ever engage with these communities. They don’t know the community. They live in Sandy and they don’t know anybody except for maybe their gardener or someone that’s Latino, and they say, “All of them are like this, except for this guy. He’s great. He does a great job taking care of my family,” or “Except for my bishop.” Everybody’s like that, except for the ones I know. Unfortunately, I think that there’s the same situation in any community here in Utah, because there’s so many people that are LDS. I think if communities aren’t interacting with each other, and all the Latinos only hang out with the Latinos on the west side, or whatever the case might be, or in schools or whatever, then others will hear this misinformation, this false data and they’ll believe it, ’cause they don’t know anyone from that community. So it’s important for the communities to engage with each other, not just wait for people to reach out to us, but for us to reach out to others and build these relationships. I think here, as members of the church, and particularly here in Utah, we have a responsibility to show that we really believe what we teach, and that we really do love each other, and it doesn’t matter what language you speak, but that we accept people and we welcome them. I think we have that responsibility, at least I feel like I do as a member of the church. But, again, I feel like people box themselves into this discriminatory mentality, because they don’t engage with people from [outside] their community. And they don’t really understand what these communities are like, so it’s easier to criticize somebody that you don’t know and that you don’t understand.
LUIS: How do you feel about your life up to now?
ISABEL: Overall, I feel good. I feel like I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity I could, against all odds, against my GPA and my ACT score. So I feel good. I wish better things for my family and for myself. You always want to aspire to do better. I mean, I’m still young and there are a lot of things I want to do. But I don’t really have any regrets.
BRENNAN: One of the questions I think we skipped over and want to go back to is What impact has being a child of immigrant parents had on you?
ISABEL It didn’t have an impact until maybe about five years ago when I started realizing that I did have a really different upbringing than a lot of my friends. I think one of the biggest impacts that it’s had on me is that it’s broadened my perspective on how I see people. I hear these stories about immigrant families today, and I think to myself, “What was that like for my parents?” I’ve had to go back and ask them questions more about themselves, and I realize that it’s very much the same. So when I’m advocating for immigrants and underserved communities in general, I’m kind of advocating for my parents, even though they don’t need that right now. But at the time it would have been great if there were people advocating for them, or even teaching them how to advocate for themselves. So I think it’s had a huge impact. A lot of my friends that are my age that are from the United States for generations, I feel like I’m teaching them how to understand these populations. They’ll be like, “Well, how come this?” I’ll be like, “Well, because of this.” And I help them understand the culture, and they come to my family and they see how we’re kind of different, and then they kinda get it. So I feel like that’s been a huge advantage for me in my social circles, just helping them open their perspective about the world and others, because then they’re like, “Oh, my family’s like this…” and we kinda start comparing, and we learn it’s okay that people are different. But because they’re different, sometimes they need a little more help. So it’s been very helpful, but I didn’t even realize that was an issue until maybe about five years ago, when I started figuring that out.
LESLIE: This is a follow up. I see you as being playful and upbeat, but I also see a toughness in you. I know you said you were shy, and then you learnt confidence. Could you tell us a little about how you learnt this toughness, this confidence? Can you talk about how you understand this process of going from a shy to a more assertive individual?
ISABEL: That’s a really good question, and that’s one thing I’m probably gonna think about more after this. A lot of your questions have been like, yeah, how did that happen, and I kinda want to figure that out. But I think, when I was little I was shy, one, because I was youngest and the other kids, the other siblings were a lot louder. So I didn’t need to say as much, ’cause they would speak for me. As I got older and I started realizing that some things aren’t okay, it’s not okay for a teacher to treat a student like they’re different because they don’t speak English, and seeing that in my own classrooms and thinking that isn’t right, I think slowly over time it kind of made me frustrated. So I think I got to the point where I would say things like, “That’s not okay.” And I knew it wasn’t okay inside of me, and I thought no one could argue with me because it isn’t okay. I think, slowly, in being confident in what I thought was right and wrong, and saying something about it instead of just letting it slide, I think that helped me build that confidence. There’s probably a couple of other things. And I think I was shy because I would think a lotlike now I’m telling you guys everything I’m thinking, which is why I answer so muchbut I would keep things to myself a lot. Now I’ve learned that it’s just so valuable to express your thoughts and your feelings, and to have other people do the same, because at the end of a conversation you’ve learned something, whereas if you don’t say anything, when you just sit there, you really don’t learn that much. So if you get stuff out and even if the other person doesn’t agree and you’re like, “Well, how come you don’t agree?” you learn and you’re like, yeah, I think you’re right. Or now I get what you’re saying, and so you leave the conversation having enlightened yourself. But if you don’t say anything, you’re expecting others to enlighten you, and that’s just not gonna happen, you have to seek it out. So I just learned to kinda stand up for things I didn’t think were right, and then I built confidence in my own words and I’m like, this is how I feel, and there’s nothing wrong with that, so I’m gonna say it. And I don’t have any problems with public speaking or talking in groups of people, because I’m confident in the things I’m saying, because it’s what I believe. And I’m okay with people challenging me and arguing [with me], because I learn from it.
STUDENTS: Thank you so much!
ISABEL: Okay. Thank you.