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Sons Live Out a Dream

Times Staff Writer

Andres Cardenas married Maria Quezada in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, in 1946. Young, poor and with little in the way of a future, the newlyweds immigrated to the United States.

Andres’ education went as far as the first grade, Maria’s the second. He started picking crops near Stockton, later became a day laborer and eventually started his own gardening business. He and his wife settled in Pacoima, where they raised 11 children.

The youngest, Tony, was elected to the state Assembly in 1996 and to the Los Angeles City Council in 2003. Today, at 43, he is one of four council members whose parents grew up in Mexico and came -- and are here legally -- to the U.S. for work and a better life.

With waves of marchers filling the streets around City Hall in recent weeks to protest the nation’s immigration policy, the four -- Cardenas, Jose Huizar, Alex Padilla and Ed Reyes -- have had a unique vantage point. They are on the inside looking out, having come from families that made the leap in just two generations from poor immigrant laborers to elected leaders in the nation’s second-largest city.

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These four are not the first Latinos on the council, but their families’ stories are all variations on the classic American immigrant tale: the sadness of leaving one’s native home entwined with the hope for a better life in a country that offers both promises and obstacles.

Immigration policy, a federal matter, lies far outside the purview of the council. None of the four offered detailed visions of immigration policies they would support. But each voiced a general view that the U.S. should find ways to allow those willing to work to come here legally.

After all, it’s what their parents did.

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The Cardenas Family

The Cardenas family had a bit of good luck. Maria Cardenas was born on Catalina Island, making her an American citizen. When she was 3, her family returned to rural Temastian, in the state of Jalisco, where eventually she met Andres Cardenas.

After moving north, Tony Cardenas’ father got his first job in the United States, picking crops in the fields near Stockton. Today a giant photo of him digging potatoes resides on the wall behind his son’s City Hall desk, a reminder and a promise all in one.

The family settled in Pacoima in 1954 and bought a house the next year. Cardenas’ father eventually began his own gardening business and didn’t have to look far for help. His five sons quickly learned that weekends, holidays and summer vacations involved spending time with a shovel.

“My parents didn’t speak English. They learned it little by little,” Cardenas said. “They realized that education was the ticket to a better future in their own rudimentary way. They kept the house clean, kept us on the straight and narrow, and none of us ever got into trouble with the law.”

Of the 11 Cardenas children, eight went to college. One son drowned in a 1971 accident. Tony Cardenas started his own realty firm and then decided to run for the Assembly, in part, he said, because no one from Pacoima had ever before made it to Sacramento.

Today he represents parts of the northeast San Fernando Valley on the council.

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The Padilla Family

Padilla’s father was from Puerto Vallarta, on Mexico’s western coast, and his mother from the desert city of Chihuahua, not far from the Texas border. They came to the U.S. independently of each other, met at a dance in downtown Los Angeles and wed in 1967 or ’68.

To this day, Padilla isn’t sure if, initially, his parents came here legally. After marrying, they returned to Mexico and applied for legal residency in the U.S., which was granted.

His father, Santos Padilla, was “master of the griddle” at several of the Du-Par’s restaurants -- he’s still working as a cook -- and his mom, Lupe Padilla, had a regular stable of homes that she cleaned. In the afternoons during the school year, the public library in Pacoima served as baby-sitter for the three Padilla children. In summer, they switched to the local pool.

“We would swim until noon and then they would shut down the pool for an hour, and we would go to a free lunch program because we lived in a poor census tract,” Padilla recalled. “It would be something like a cheese sandwich, a government-issued orange juice, and we’d be back in the pool by one o’clock.”

In 1990, much to his own surprise, Padilla was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had applied to, but not visited, the school and had never traveled east of El Paso.

Although he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, he returned home after college in 1994 and fell in love with the world of local politics. He said he was driven largely by that year’s Proposition 187, which called for denying illegal immigrants many social benefits but which was overturned in federal court.

In 1999, Padilla was elected to the City Council at age 26 representing parts of the northeast Valley. Two days later, his mother became a U.S. citizen in a ceremony at the convention center, joining his father, who had earned his citizenship in 1998.

Padilla, now 33, is the youngest member of the council and was three times elected its president. His next stop could be the state Senate.

But he has a formidable opponent for the Democratic nomination for the 20th District seat in Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando), whose parents immigrated from Mexico in 1970 and also struggled to build a better life.

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The Reyes Family

Anyone who watches council meetings knows that Ed Reyes frames most issues -- from planning to policing to the price of cable television -- in terms of how they will affect the poor in his mostly Latino district, west of downtown and part of northeast L.A.

He is not a dour man. But when he is asked to recount his childhood, it is clear that some of the memories nearest the surface are the hard ones.

His father, Luis, was born in Denver, the son of a Mexican immigrant who worked for U.S. railroads. At age 3, Luis Ramos Reyes moved back to Mexico.

He met his wife, Eustolia, in Mexico City and they returned north in the mid-1950s; she had to live in Tijuana for two years waiting for her papers. They had seven children; Ed Reyes was the first born in the U.S.

Reyes’ parents, like their peers, received little in the way of formal education. In the U.S., the councilman remembers, they tried to assimilate with a certain “humbleness.”

He has sharp memories. They include his father’s hands, swollen from working in a freezer at the meatpacking plant that made Dodger Dogs, and his mother in the kitchen of their Cypress Park home before dawn, making tortillas.

Proud of their contributions, he also saw a dark side in the form of discrimination. Reyes, 47, can recall being mocked for not being able to recite the alphabet in English in first grade and his father suffering a similar fate at work, mocked by the foreman.

“I remember my parents would make us step aside for a well-dressed white person,” Reyes said. “To see all the people come out for the marches was a way of shedding that and saying we have as much rights as anyone.”

Last Monday, on the day when hundreds of thousands marched in L.A. in support of immigrants’ rights, Reyes knew exactly what to do: He and his family put on T-shirts labeled “Team Reyes” and hit the streets.

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The Huizar Family

Jose Huizar was born on a ranch near the mountain town of Jerez in Zacatecas, in northern Mexico. His family lived in a three-room house with no plumbing or electricity.

“We didn’t own it. We were borrowing it,” Huizar said. “People would lend out their homes. Otherwise they wouldn’t be maintained, and it just kind of flowed back into the earth.”

His father, Simon, joined a U.S. government program to supply American farmers with laborers. He traveled the southwestern states picking crops, and, in the early 1970s -- when Huizar was 3 -- the family landed in Boyle Heights. Simon Huizar found work as a machinist; his wife Isidra worked on the assembly line at a meatpacking plant.

Jose Huizar hit a rough patch in middle school and was once kicked out for fighting. But he righted himself with the help of a mentor. He went on to UC Berkeley, to Princeton for graduate school and finally to UCLA’s law school. He won election to the Los Angeles Board of Education in 2001 and, last fall, captured a seat on the council to replace Antonio Villaraigosa, representing a huge swath of east and northwest L.A.

Last Monday, the day of the latest marches, Huizar was stuck in a daylong hearing on the city’s budget. The demonstration outside the building was loud, and Huizar looked like a man with ants in his pants. At lunch, he finally had his chance to wade into the crowd.

“What really hit me about the marches is that I think about what my life would be like if I hadn’t left Mexico,” said Huizar, 37. “I still have some family back there. These guys go out to work each and every day in a tough climate tending to cows, picking asparagus and peaches.

“They work hard and still live in poverty. And that could have been me.”


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