My mother and dad came to the U.S. in 1958 from Mexico. [But] she raised us all as a single parent. We didn’t have any relatives in the U.S. Our neighbors were few and far between. And, I think because of the neighborhoods we grew up in, we spent a lot of time with each other. They weren’t very safe neighborhoods, let’s put it that way. So, I think, knowing that we only had each other to depend on really galvanized us to not just think about one of us but to think about all of us.
All my siblings worked. I think we all felt this personal responsibility. My mom never said to us: “You have to work. You have no choice.” I think we all wanted to pitch in. I think we all felt this responsibility as a family to help out. We had government assistance. I don’t know how things would have happened otherwise, quite frankly.
I always thought I’d be an attorney, but math was always my strength. But I had it in my mind — and probably not unlike many of my friends who are raised in disadvantaged neighborhoods who focus on areas of social injustice, whether it’s neighborhood crime or other issues that come from being from a disadvantaged background — I always thought that I’d go into law. We tend to want to fix things. Growing up, you usually tend to react to what you’re exposed to. So in my world, the issues that I came across were issues of social injustice: neighborhood crime, things that needed to be addressed.
In a nutshell, I was raised in the “tortilla flats” of California, and we basically didn’t go outside the house. Crime was an issue. Gangs were an issue. That type of exposure is not exactly something my mom wanted for us. So our interaction outside the home was limited, and that’s why she chose to send us to Catholic schools, not public schools. People who would look at it from the outside would probably consider that to be a scary neighborhood. But I certainly didn’t feel that at the time.
My story is not unique. That story, of coming from this type of background, unfortunately is more common than people want to talk about. It’s obviously something that’s part of me. It’s made me who I am. But it never dawned on me that people were not good in general. In fact, quite the opposite. My mom made a very deliberate intent to expose us to good people in our community. We obviously relied very heavily on our Catholic community and upbringing. I actually saw a very interesting picture of the world. I was very comforted in this village concept.
Our Catholic community is what helped us. It saved us financially. It helped us with access to education. Literally, our Catholic community was our saving grace.