‘Symbol of leadership’ for migrants

Times Staff Writer

When Pomona Mayor Norma Torres returned to Guatemala in October, it was the first time she had been back to her native country since she was a child.

But Torres got a hero’s welcome.

As she toured the country she barely remembered, people everywhere recognized her on the streets.

“She’s the mayor of Pomona,” they said. Some brought magazines with her picture on the cover and asked for an autograph. They called her “the pride of Escuintla,” her hometown, and “the hope of all migrants.”

Crowds were so thick that the government sent police to escort her from town to town.

“It was like being a rock star,” Torres said.

At one event, as she and her husband, Louis, got into an SUV, they were mobbed by people who threw handwritten notes into the vehicle. Some of the notes were pleas for help from people wanting to come to the United States.


Torres, 42, was deeply moved. After all, these were the same dreams her parents had for her.

“They sent me here for a better life,” she said. “They wanted me to have a good job and maybe own a home.”

Torres would achieve more than her parents imagined. In December, she became the first person outside Guatemala to be awarded the Order of the Great Knight, the country’s highest honor.

Torres was only 5 years old in 1970 when her parents sent her to live with an uncle in Southern California. Guatemala was nearly a decade into a 36-year civil war that would leave hundreds of thousands dead and tens of thousands missing.

Torres’ father, Samuel Barillas, 72, who now lives in Alhambra, feared for his family’s safety because of the dangerous political climate. “The situation was so difficult at the time,” he said. “Any little thing could bring an accusation, and one would have to suffer the consequences. I didn’t want that for my daughter.”

Torres has only a handful of memories of the country she left behind: her grandmother’s house, where she would sneak after midnight and curl up next to her abuelita; the fairy tales her grandfather told; and the winding steps that led from her family’s house to the fields of sugar cane where her father worked.

“I remember all the green and open fields,” Torres said.

In California, she lived with her uncle and aunt, Everardo and Julia Barillas, in Whittier, a quiet suburban community once known as “the city of trees.” It was a world away from Escuintla.

“Everything was very organized,” she said. “I wasn’t used to seeing streets lined with homes.”

It was also alienating.

“In Guatemala you know the entire family. Everybody is like your parent,” said Torres, whose mother died of a heart condition a few years after her daughter moved to the U.S. “In Whittier, there were a lot of strangers, people coming in and out of their homes, going to work. You didn’t really meet the neighbors.”

Assimilation came quickly. She learned to speak English in a few months. She grew to admire the ritual of a neighbor who raised his American flag every morning.

But in Los Angeles County, assimilation also meant picking up a thing or two from the region’s large Mexican immigrant community.

Torres’ aunt, who was born in Mexicali, taught her how to make flour tortillas and chile verde and introduced her to the trumpet and guitar rhythms of mariachi music. At Sunday family gatherings, Torres listened as her aunt’s family told stories about growing up in Mexico.

Life was good. But as an adult, Torres became troubled by how immigrants were sometimes treated in the U.S., and she was moved to do something about it. Guatemalan immigrants, many of whom are political refugees, have a long history of activism, particularly in Los Angeles County, where they number more than 200,000 -- the largest population of Guatemalans outside their country.

For Torres, the turning point came in 1994, when she was working as an LAPD dispatcher. A young woman had called 911 to report that her uncle was threatening her family with a gun. The caller didn’t speak English and was put on hold until a Spanish-speaking dispatcher could be found. Nobody knows how long she waited before Torres, who was handling other calls, could answer. She picked up in time to hear the pleas of an 11-year-old girl -- and then a gunshot.

The memory of that child, who died from her injuries, still haunts Torres.

“It changed her,” said husband Louis Torres, who tears up when he tells the story. When department heads were slow to hire more bilingual dispatchers, his wife and her supporters took their battle to the City Council and won, he said.

It was the beginning of Torres’ political awakening. She got involved in union organizing, immigrant rights work and crime prevention. She continued her activism when she moved to Pomona in 1990 with her husband and two sons -- she now has a third -- and began working with the local Neighborhood Watch group.

In 2000, Torres won a seat on the Pomona City Council. Six years later she became mayor, winning by a narrow margin -- only 250 votes. But Torres is a reflection of the community she represents; about 70% of Pomona’s 150,000 residents are Latino.

The city is the fifth largest in Los Angeles County and is home to a major university, Cal Poly Pomona. But it also faces a number of challenges. About one in five residents lives below the poverty line, and gang violence is a persistent problem.

Because of her work as a police dispatcher, Torres pushes hard on crime prevention and doesn’t seem to mind a political fight.

“She’s the type who stands up to anyone and anything,” said Councilman Freddie Rodriguez, who won his post with Torres’ support.

In December, Torres engaged in a public feud with Pomona’s popular Police Chief Joe Romero, whom she criticized for not doing more to reduce crime. Even after Romero threatened to resign, Torres chastised him in a local newspaper editorial.

“Under the chief’s watch, murders have increased by 30%, and as mayor it is my duty to find out how our Police Department is planning to turn this around,” she wrote.

But Romero argued that many of the homicides were unpreventable. He kept his job and now says he prefers to “focus on the future and not the events of last year.”

Also in December, hundreds of Guatemalan immigrants, community leaders and elected officials gathered at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, where Torres was formally honored by the Guatemalan government. Local youths played the marimba and sang opera.

“The fact that she has been able to put herself in such a positive position, in this country, is amazing,” said Byron Vasquez, director of the Casa de la Cultura de Guatemala, which hosted the event. “She is a symbol of leadership for us.”

Today it is poverty, not politics, that pushes many Central Americans to come to the United States. Most do not land in middle-class communities as she did, Torres said.

Many settle in working-class neighborhoods like Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park area, which serves as a base for thousands of Guatemalans and Salvadorans, many of whom work as gardeners, nannies and housekeepers.

Torres, who is considering a run for the state Assembly, knows her experience is different from other Guatemalan immigrants. She did not live through years of civil war or come to the United States with nothing. She was among the fortunate few.

“I had opportunities laid out,” she said. “The typical Guatemalan comes here and, legal or illegal, they face very different challenges.”