One scorching summer day in Selma, 8-year-old Leticia Corona Gómez asked her mother why their family had to toil in the fields all summer – work that began before dawn and lasted all day, all week, and often, all weekend – for a mere 17 cents per bucket of grapes.
The answer that followed would stay with her and her sisters.
“She said, ‘That’s why you have to get an education,” recalls Leticia’s older sister, Luz Corona Gómez, “so you don’t work in the dirt like us.’ ”
I think my mom saw the despair in my sister’s eyes and she wanted something better for us.
Luz Corona Gomez
Twenty years later, Liduvina Corona Gómez and Rafael Corona Villagómez’s five daughters are now college graduates with impressive careers, including a doctor and lawyer who graduated from UC Berkeley and UCLA.
Luz says their parents raised them to help others.
“It’s not about just one person, but everyone succeeding and reaching back and helping the next person,” Luz says. “I think that’s why all my sisters and I were able to get degrees.”
Empowered and empowering
Luz, 30, graduated from UCLA’s medical school earlier this month and is a doctor in residency in Santa Clara, working in obstetrics and gynecology. She was recognized by the American Medical Association and Gold Humanism Honor Society for helping minorities and the poor, and wants to eventually return to the central San Joaquin Valley to do public health work.
The eldest of the sisters, Maria Sofia Corona-Alamillo, is an immigration attorney in Los Angeles who graduated from law school at UC Berkeley. The 33-year-old primarily represents children in removal proceedings in the United States without a parent or guardian.
She went to law school to help people use the law to “defend themselves vs. being crushed by it.”
“I came of age sadly at the time of post-9/11,” Maria Sofia says, “and there were rampant constitutional violations happening around that time – and now – and a stigma around immigrants.”
Leticia Corona Gómez, 28, is the community advocacy director for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability in Fresno. She earned a master’s degree in international relations from the University of San Diego, and has also worked for The International Foundation, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
“We need to invest overall in the most neglected neighborhoods if we want progress and justice,” Leticia says. “I took that as my motivation. … We grew up in that era where there were lots of gangs in our neighborhood, but our parents, and each other, kept us grounded.”
We should want to help each other out. That was something that was very basic in our family, this concept of camaraderie and really looking out for everyone.
Luz Corona Gomez
The youngest, Karina Corona Gómez, 26, and Guadalupe Corona Gómez, 23, work for Doctors Academy at UCSF Fresno Latino Center for Medical Education and Research, which aims to get more students into health professional careers. Karina received an undergraduate degree in molecular environmental biology from UC Berkeley, and Guadalupe received an undergrad in psychobiology from UCLA. They are considering medical and/or law school.
Maria Sofia helped set the bar high.
After asking staff at her high school lots of questions about scholarship opportunities and financial aid, she was the first in her family to send college applications and get accepted into a number of universities, including UC schools.
“I was so clueless,” Maria Sofia says. “I had no idea. I found out everything the hard way.”
She chose Fresno State for her undergraduate degree in history and philosophy, where she also learned a lot about community organizing and immigrants’ rights.
When Luz was a senior, Maria Sofia insisted her sister aim high. A week before college applications were due, the young women scrambled to get Luz’s application ready for UCLA. She got in.
The sisters continue to help each other.
“I’m super proud of what they accomplished,” Maria Sofia says, “but the thing I’m most proud of is their perspective and their dedication to helping others. They inspire me.”
The sisters’ accomplishments are even more remarkable when you take into account that their father never went to school, and their mother has a first-grade education. Rafael and Liduvina grew up working in farm labor in a rural Mexican village where they had little to eat and there was no running water, electricity or paved roads.
They came to the Valley after they were married to give their future children opportunities they never had. It was a grueling journey. Rafael came first and got lost in the desert while walking the long miles north.
Their daughters were able to stay in school, but they helped pick crops in Selma and other Valley cities during the summers. Leticia recalls how there were no portable bathrooms or shade canopies for relief from the blistering sun when they worked together in the 1990s, before legislation was passed that helped provide better conditions for farmworkers.
It was “dehumanizing” for more reasons than the grueling physical work, or the dirt that filled their nostrils and covered their bodies, becoming mud with the sweat that soaked their clothes, along with the pungent smell of grape vines. It was also the “way the greater society saw the work and treated our parents,” Maria Sofia says.
At the end of the day, we are in the same boat. … If nothing else, I hope people will reflect on that.
Maria Sofia Corona A.
“There were definitely some supervisors and farm owners who were more respectful,” Maria Sofia says, “but then there were others that were not – that screamed at people and mistreated them.”
At the same time, Luz recalls, “I remember how resilient the workers were and really, people doing anything they could to provide for their families.”
Through it all, their daughters’ education remained a priority.
During each school year, Liduvina would walk from the fields, since the family didn’t own a car, to all of her daughters’ school functions and parent-teacher conferences – no matter the miles. Liduvina now works in a packing house, where she encourages other young women to stay in school and go to college.
“She’s known as the mother of everyone,” Luz says. “She treats everyone like that. She’s very nurturing. She just has that sense of wanting to take care of everyone.”
Rafael is also a role model.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard my dad say one bad thing about a person,” Luz says. “He’s very much: ‘You don’t know someone’s experience, you shouldn’t judge them.’ He very much instilled this concept of love for each other. … He’s so in tune with others. He’ll be the first to offer if he sees someone might need something.”
‘If they are unwelcome, what am I?’
Rafael and Liduvina only recently became U.S. citizens, although Maria Sofia says her parents believe in the American Dream, “at least in the theory of it,” more than a lot of people born in the United States.
“I honestly think they had no clue back in the day (how to become citizens),” Maria Sofia says. “I don’t think they knew they could, or how.”
Communication was a barrier, since they only speak Spanish. Their eldest daughters learned English in elementary school.
And although the sisters have always been citizens, having been born in the United States, they didn’t understand this until they were much older. The fear of deportation hovered over the family like a dark cloud.
“Being their daughter, you see yourself as an extension of that,” Maria Sofia says. “If they are unwelcome, what am I? If they are not American, what am I?”
You only understand someone is pointing at you and saying you don’t belong.
Maria Sofia Corona A.
But thanks to the support of their parents, teachers, coaches and other compassionate community members, hurtful words and fears never kept them from achieving their dreams.
The sisters worry for the future of Mexican American children today, growing up in the midst of a presidential election season with “demonizing” rhetoric against Mexicans and immigrants.
“I would ask people, ‘Don’t forget that creating barriers, creating walls, is not the solution, and will never be the solution,’” Luz says. “I think once people are willing to be more accepting, everyone does better.”
We need reminders that there are lots of good people, and we should embrace each other and not find things that divide us.
Luz Corona Gomez
The family is opening their arms to yet another girl in September. Maria Sofia is pregnant. She and her husband say their daughter will be named “Emiliana.”
They want Emiliana to be proud of her family’s history that is “rooted in the humble beginnings of her grandparents.” They hope she grows up feeling “more resolved in her identity, with a sense of conviction to help others.”
“Our daughter will be more privileged than us, for sure,” Maria Sofia says, “and we hope she uses it for good.”