My Journey to the Canal, to Citizenship, and to Community Engagement Work for Canal Alliance
By Cristina Parra-Hernandez
Civic Engagement Coordinator
MY FIRST VISIT TO CANAL ALLIANCE
It was 2013 and I was a newlywed, living with my new husband in a rented apartment in the Canal neighborhood of San Rafael. I was home recovering from a long battle with cancer, unable to work as a chef or barista in cafes and restaurants as I had for the ten years since first coming here from Mexico. My husband, Santos, was also at home. He’d injured his back at work as a mechanic and could hardly stand. With both of us home, we knew we were going to be unable to make rent, rapidly coming due.
There was a knock on the door. We picked each other up, hobbled to the door and opened it.
Maria, our neighbor, was concerned. She hadn’t seen us outside, coming to and from work as she usually did. We told her what had happened and how fearful we were about not being able to pay rent in a few days. What Maria said next forever changed the trajectory of my life.
“Go over to Canal Alliance right away. Go now. They will help you.”
We did. Canal Alliance and St. Vincent’s together gave us cash for our rent that month. Combined with the mountain of pupusas my mother’s friend Sara sold that week, we were able to stay in our apartment. But, sometime during that visit to Canal Alliance, paying rent became the smallest of my aspirations. I had always had dreams, of course, but I think the relentlessness of the challenges of my life here as an immigrant had nearly extinguished them. Maybe the cancer had too. The respect and support that the Canal Alliance staff offered us that day reignited something inside of me, something almost forgotten.
I remember saying to myself right then and there, and later to some dear friends, “One day I am going to help my people the way I am being helped right now.” I said this – and believed it – with such power and conviction that I think the universe heard me. Everything I hoped for that day has since come true.
But here, in the Canal, isn’t where my journey begins.
WHERE MY STORY REALLY BEGINS, IN MAGICAL MICHOACÁN
My story starts in Jacona, Mexico, where I was born. Located in the state of Michoacán, Jacona is a magical town, and a town full of love. It is a place where people know each other, take care of one another, and raise one other’s children. It is also a region of breathtaking natural beauty. What I remember most are the winters there – that at Christmastime our town would fill up with loved ones and joy as family members returned for the festivities after long periods away working in agriculture in the United States. I also remember the butterflies. Monarch butterflies, like our relatives coming home for the holidays, also came back each December, nesting by the millions in the nature preserves in the region.
My life there was idyllic, my parents were happy, and I remember daydreaming as a little girl of my future wedding and life as a grown-up happening in this spectacular setting.
Then, when I was 11, my father passed away.
My mother, Micaela, now responsible for raising my brothers and me on her own, was forced to move us to Ciudad Juárez. It was the year 2000 and I was heartbroken. Maybe I was still mourning my dad, but maybe it was this city.
Juárez is the sister city to El Paso, Texas; it’s right on the border with a bridge over the Rio Grande. It’s a place of dramatic extremes. I remember the sadness I felt staring out at the expansive desert around us, missing the verdant hills of Michoacán. I remember bracing my small body against the absurdly inhospitable weather; we had snowstorms and sandstorms both, heatwaves and ice.
I quickly learned that in Juárez there are people from all over Mexico. It was my real first exposure to how diverse Mexico is and the vast variety of cultures and ethnicities and cuisines that coexist within my home country. For years I felt I was living among strangers, but eventually Juárez did capture my heart. My mom had raised us to make an effort toward people, and in time I found my place. I befriended my neighbors. I finished elementary and high school. I studied cosmetology. I was able to secure my paperwork to work legally on both sides of the border, in Mexico and the U.S. My mom worked in a factory to provide for us, and as we got older, we worked too. One of my brothers, Filemon, had already moved to San Rafael in California; another went to Colorado in search of opportunity. I found work in a factory as a laborer and then as a secretary.
Eventually, in 2003, I followed Filemon. With just one suitcase I arrived at his door in downtown San Rafael, terrified but hopeful I could build a better life and do my part to provide for my mother and my youngest brother, who was still in school.
MY JOURNEY WITH CANAL ALLIANCE
After arriving in Marin, years of challenges followed. I battled cancer. I lived in apartments in the Canal neighborhood so crowded that my husband and I spent as much time as we could out of the house during the day, returning only to sleep and shower. I remember hours spent in our car, desperate not to have to go back home any earlier than necessary. I was taken advantage of when negotiating leases. The list of hardships is long but suffice it to say it was not easy.
While my relationship with Canal Alliance started that day in 2013 when we received immediate assistance in the form of help with our rent, that relationship continued to grow over time. After our initial visit, we began visiting the food pantry weekly. Once we had met Axel Flores in the workforce department, we came annually for his support navigating the process of paying our taxes. Eventually, I enrolled in Canal Alliance’s Adult ESL classes and then the small business development program. After I’d learned English, I got myself admitted to Sonoma State and College of Marin, pursuing certifications in human resources and continuing to advance my English proficiency.
Then one fateful day Arandu, a friend I’d made at College of Marin, told me about a job opportunity with the County of Marin, to serve as what was called a Contact Investigator and Care Navigator, someone who works in our Spanish-speaking communities to support those that had tested positive for Covid. He said that the job specifically required someone bilingual in English and Spanish, which I now was. Intrigued, I jotted down the phone number he gave me and dialed it shortly after.
It rang once, and Axel Flores answered. Certain I’d misdialed, I told Axel why I was calling and began to apologize for my mistake. To my surprise, Axel told me I had the right number and that, among other parts of his role, he often helped connect qualified candidates from our community to good-paying jobs with the County. As fate would have it, Axel made the connection for me, and I worked with the County for nearly a year, supporting my community through the worst of the pandemic.
My role with the county came with professional development opportunities, trainings with Johns Hopkins University and the University of California at San Francisco medical center. My desire to give back to my community continued to grow, so I was thrilled when a Community Engagement Coordinator position eventually came open at Canal Alliance. I applied. I interviewed. I was hired. That was 2021, and two years later I am the Civic Engagement Coordinator on our Policy, Advocacy, and Community Engagement (PACE) team, doing just as I promised myself all those years ago, helping my community as they helped me.
Canal Alliance’s transformative support has continued, even after I joined the staff. In 2021, our Immigration Legal Services team helped me apply for citizenship and our Adult Education team helped me prepare for my citizenship interview. (They also help regularly clients to prepare for citizenship exams.) I’ve also pursued ongoing professional development since working here, doing coursework with the Universidad de Monterrey, in Mexico, and leadership training with Harvard. I’ve studied collaborative change theory with the University of Michigan, business at the University of Santa Clara, and emotional intelligence for effective collaboration with the Universidad Anáhuac México. And I’ve joined a pilot program here at Canal Alliance called ESL Business English to advance my professional vocabulary.
Today I am proud to share that after nearly 20 years in San Rafael I have received my U.S. passport in the mail.
I am a citizen now. I am overjoyed.
LOOKING BACK ON MEXICO, LOOKING FORWARD IN MARIN
Sometimes, in quiet moments, I look back on my life, on my memories in Mexico, and I feel sadness. I believe when someone must emigrate, a piece of them dies in that act of leaving so much behind. For me, leaving Michoacán and later Juárez meant letting go of all the dreams I had for my future in both places. I left a part of myself behind, not once but twice.
And the challenges I’ve surmounted here, since moving to San Rafael, are monumental.
Even so, most days I think of that single suitcase I arrived with as my strength. Nothing will ever compare to the obstacles I’ve overcome as an immigrant. Nothing. I bring this perspective to my workplace, to my life, and to my relationships. This perspective affords me compassion and empathy in my day-to-day interactions with the Latino community members I serve. I understand their experiences because they are shared experiences. I understand because I am a member of this community too.
Working on the PACE team has been tremendously fulfilling for me; I know that the change we bring to Marin County will help not just one member of my community but many. I hope these changes will make Marin a place with fewer obstacles for immigrants. A place where immigrants can arrive and access education, good-paying jobs, and the security and stability that come with both. A place where the wisdom of the Latino community is valued, celebrated and shared.
I have always felt that what I needed most since arriving here in San Rafael wasn’t help or a handout, but a guide. I needed someone to light the way for me, someone to show me how to navigate the practicalities of getting myself on a pathway to success. Canal Alliance did exactly that, and now I feel grateful and unstoppable in equal measure.
When my passport arrived in the mail, the first thing I did was go with my coworkers to register to vote. I have a voice now and I plan to use it. For myself, for my community, for Canal Alliance, and for a better Marin.