Victoria Vergara possesses a third-grade education and the confident voice of a natural leader.
She makes beds and cleans bathrooms for a living but tells her daughters that the U.S.A. is a country “where you can fly if you want to.” After listening to her tell her story in her humble home in West Adams, I was inclined to agree.
Thanks to the magic of American possibility and her own Latina tenacity, Vergara has escaped the cruel poverty of southern Mexico and reinvented herself as a U.S. citizen and homeowner.
In her life’s journey, she’s crossed paths with many great and famous people. In October, she met Sen. Barack Obama. And she knows his nominee for Labor secretary, U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis.
“Hilda is a very humble and down-to-earth person,” Vergara told me in Spanish. “I don’t think I’m wrong about her. She’s not a person who will ever turn her back on us.”
When Obama nominated Solis to his Cabinet, it was a deep bow of respect in the direction of Los Angeles and its working people. Obama was acknowledging, albeit indirectly, the power of the Southern California labor movement, a strength that’s been built with the sweat and struggle of immigrant workers like Vergara.
Immigrant activists revitalized the American labor movement in the final decades of the 20th century. They made Southern California a hotbed of union militancy. Solis, 51, has strong ties to that movement.
Union dollars and precinct walkers helped send Solis to Washington in 2000, when she defeated an incumbent congressman. She is the L.A.-born daughter of immigrants from Mexico and Nicaragua -- her father was a Teamster shop steward at a battery-recycling plant in Industry.
“My vision of the Department of Labor is rooted in who I am,” Solis said Friday at her Senate confirmation hearing in Washington. “The fact that I’m sitting before you today as a child of an immigrant family, a working family, is proof that in America anything is possible.”
Vergara, 52, was born in Michoacan, Mexico, and is a “room attendant” at the Westin Bonaventure, where she earns an hourly wage of $13.60. She’s also a shop steward in her Los Angeles union, a position she earned thanks to her loyalty to labor’s collective cause and her willingness to speak her mind.
“I want you to write this,” she commands me. “That we Latinas are not all on welfare. I’ve never taken a dollar of assistance. Not even when I was left alone with my two girls because their father died. . . . We are workers, not beggars.”
Before local activists launched campaigns to organize drywall installers, janitors, garment workers and other low-wage employees in the 1990s, immigrant laborers were thought to be impossible to organize -- too fearful and too transient to risk their livelihoods in a union campaign. But nothing about that description applies to Vergara.
“I’ve always stood up for my rights, even when I was a little girl,” she said. “I only went to school for three years. But in those three years, no one ever tried to beat me up on the playground.”
One of 14 children, Vergara left her rural town, or “rancho,” at age 11, to work as a nanny in Mexico City. “There wasn’t any future for me there,” she said. So in the early 1980s she set off alone for the United States, and was smuggled into California in the back of a moving van.
Her first L.A. job was at a garment factory, where she was paid for piecework in pennies and nickels. Her first paycheck was $27 for one week of labor.
She was still a garment worker when she met the father of her daughters, a Mexican immigrant who died in a car accident when she was pregnant with their second child.
Eventually she applied for amnesty and became a legal resident. In 2000, she took the oath to become an American citizen. By then, she had found a job at the Bonaventure and been noticed by organizers with Local 11 of Unite Here, the hotel and restaurant workers union.
In 2004, she was arrested after she and other union activists placed half a dozen hotel beds across lanes of traffic on Figueroa Street downtown: Vergara made the beds, one after the other, to illustrate how hotel jobs can resemble factory work.
She was arrested again in a 2006 protest in solidarity with airport hotel workers. And she’s volunteered for so many local election campaigns that she speaks with a cozy familiarity when discussing politicos like the mayor of Los Angeles."The next time I see Antonio, I’m going to tell him how angry I am with him,” she tells me. Among other things, she says, she’s upset with the mayor for being out of the country on May Day 2007, when police beat demonstrators at an immigrant rights protest in MacArthur Park.
It’s as an activist that she has crossed paths with Solis -- once in Washington, D.C., where she and other workers wound up at the end of a cross-country “freedom ride” in support of the legalization of undocumented immigrants.
Solis is a strong backer of immigrants’ rights, including the Dream Act, which seeks to grant legal status to undocumented college students.
Writing in The Times last month, Harold Meyerson, the liberal columnist and longtime observer of California politics, called Solis “one of the gutsiest elected officials in American politics” and “the best of the new Los Angeles.”
In 1996, as a brand-new member of the state Assembly, Solis tapped into her campaign cash to provide seed money for a voter initiative to increase the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.75 an hour. California voters passed the initiative by a large margin.
In 2006, as the debate over immigration reform reached a climax, Solis accused Republicans of carrying out an “assault on immigrants.” Such rhetoric has endeared her to people like Vergara, who support legalization even though their own papers are in order.
It was on behalf of her fellow immigrants that Vergara slipped a note into Obama’s shirt pocket during an October campaign rally in Reno. She was in Nevada working with union activists on his campaign.
“I asked him in Spanish not to forget us immigrants, and to work to get us legalization,” she said. “But I’m sure that note ended up at the dry cleaners.”
Maybe not, I said. She gave a conspiratorial grin and raised her eyebrows at the possibility.
“I’d like to know if he read it,” she said. “I’m going to pray that one day I find out.”