UCLA student leader, daughter of immigrants, bridges gulf between two worlds


The No. 2 bus is packed each weekday morning for the journey westward. In East Hollywood and Echo Park, many of those getting on are hotel workers, janitors, domestics and nannies headed for jobs in Bel-Air and Westwood.

Cinthia Flores knows that bus well. When she was around 14, she sometimes took it on Saturdays with her Salvadoran mother to Beverly Hills. They would get off on Doheny Drive and go clean houses together. Esperanza Monterrosa says her daughter would do the “easier” jobs: cleaning windows and scrubbing stoves.

Now, after visits home, Flores takes that same bus line down Sunset Boulevard and keeps going — past Doheny and Beverly Hills, to Westwood.

Flores is one of the bright, privileged young people on the UCLA campus, an about-to-graduate senior reading Plato, Rousseau and Malcolm X. But the memory of riding the No. 2 bus to clean houses keeps her humble and focused in the classroom.

“I still see all the workers get off on Doheny,” she told me when we met on the campus inside the brick and stone of Kerckhoff Hall. “I’m the only one who goes all the way to UCLA.”

After her first few weeks at UCLA, Flores told her mom: “I think I’m the poorest student there. But I’m also very smart.”

Four years later, as she gets ready to graduate, there are still moments when Flores feels the great gulf between worlds she crosses on that hourlong bus ride. “It’s like you’re in two places,” she told me. “You ask yourself, ‘Do I really belong here?’”

I talked to Flores, a 22-year-old political science major, after a week of reflection on the campus about UCLA and the immigrant experience.

First there was the stunning public fall of Nancy Salas, another 22-year-old daughter of Salvadoran immigrants whose mother cleaned houses.

Hoping to hide from her parents the fact that she had dropped out of UCLA and wouldn’t be graduating with her classmates, Salas ran away to Merced and told police she’d been kidnapped.

A few days later came word of the death in a car crash in Maine of two recent UCLA graduates who were themselves immigrants. Cinthya Felix and Tam Tran both overcame many obstacles to complete their educations. They were undocumented yet managed to win acceptance to prestigious Ivy League graduate schools.

On Monday I attended a campus memorial service for Felix and Tran, and heard of the many remarkable things they had done in their short lives: from skydiving to making documentary films and testifying before Congress.

Hearing their stories, I thought: It isn’t easy to be a bright child in an immigrant family.

If you’re lucky, you grow up listening to family stories of loss and separation. And when you reach adulthood it’s with the burden of knowing that you can make your parents’ sacrifices worthwhile simply by doing well in college.

If you’re not lucky, however, your family might question whether they can even afford to send you to college.

All this baggage causes some to drop out. Many lower their sights and settle for less lofty dreams. But others are driven to extraordinary heights.

For Cinthia Flores, the history that looms over her is that of her mother, who left war-torn El Salvador in the mid-1980s. Flores’ father abandoned the family soon after, when she was 3, and her mother was left to raise four children on her own in L.A.

“A woman in that situation has to do any honest work that comes her way,” Monterrosa told me in Spanish. “I did everything. I cleaned houses. I looked after kids. I worked in the garment factories.”

When Cinthia was a baby, Monterrosa got an industrial sewing machine and began doing piecework in the family’s one-bedroom apartment. She’d work late into the night as her children slept.

The sewing machine is still there in the Echo Park apartment, squeezed between bunk beds and a wall with a framed copy of the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper.

The newspaper shows Cinthia Flores grinning widely as she stands over a crowd of students. It was taken last year, on the night Flores was elected UCLA’s student body president.

Flores is the first Latina ever to hold the post. I talked to her in her Kerckhoff Hall office, a room only slightly smaller than the apartment in which she grew up.

She’s lived the economic “contradictions” of the city firsthand, she told me. “It messes with you.” Our conversation turned quickly to what Flores has learned at UCLA about racism and the historical roots of the Salvadoran diaspora. She doesn’t have much patience for those who turn their back on their roots.

“A lot of people think I’m an angry person,” she told me. “Well, I’m dealing with a lot of baggage.”

Back in Echo Park, her mother and a family friend tell me they don’t think of Cinthia as angry. Instead, they look at her and see the intensely curious little girl who was always acutely aware of her surroundings.

“I always said, ‘That girl is going to be on TV one day,’” said Maria Teresa Flores, a friend who often worked alongside Monterrosa. “I would say, ‘She’s going to break the chains for all of us.’”

As a child, Flores, a U.S. citizen, was tracked into gifted programs at L.A. schools. Still, she applied to UCLA against the advice of her counselor at Marshall High. She was able to attend with the help of several scholarships.

These days Flores takes the bus home to Echo Park only for the occasional visit, and Monterrosa worries because her daughter never seems to rest. Eventually, she’ll be going to graduate school. And she tells her mother, now 54 and suffering from a variety of ailments, that she won’t have to work much longer.

“She tells me, ‘All of this is going to change,’” Monterrosa said. “ ‘You’re going to have all the things you never had.’”

It must not be easy to be the woman who will “break the chains,” I thought. To be the one who will liberate her mother from a life of work. But those are the cards life has dealt Cinthia Flores — and many more L.A. students like her.

She has to think about her mother, and her community, first.

“If I could,” she told me, “I would put my mother’s name on my diploma next to mine.”