Up From the Barrio: A Latina's Challenge

November 03, 1986|URSULA VILS | Times Staff Writer

Celia Gonzales Torres, grand-daughter of a Mexican immigrant, has "made it."

She is among the 1.2% of Latinas who have prospered and excelled and who hold high-level positions in business, education, government, the community. She is a founder and chair of the National Network of Hispanic Women, an elite group of Latina leaders from around the country.

Recently honored as the 1986 Mount St. Mary's College Alumna of the Year, she also has a master's in social work from USC and is beginning the four years she expects it will take to earn a doctorate at UCLA.

She is the wife of a successful doctor and partner with him in profitable business projects. She is the mother of five children, all of whom have or are working toward college degrees; two already have master's degrees. She is active and respected in Latino and Catholic circles for her community service.

Seemingly, Celia Gonzales Torres has it all.

Or does she?

Torres and her family are microcosms of two cultures, Mexican and American, and the times that have brought sweeping changes to both.

Her grandmother was a Mexican immigrant; her mother worked in a garment-district sweatshop. When she was a little girl growing up in Los Angeles, both cultures encountered the same problems as they do now: social problems, poverty, illness.

Young Celia saw one way out of the barrio: education. Her mother and her aunt, who was also her godmother, sent her to Catholic schools. Her teachers, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, taught her values.

She did the things expected of an educated Catholic woman in the '60s. She was a social worker, she married, worked to help her husband through medical school, had five children in seven years (all Caesarean births), gave up her profession to rear her children and to help her husband start his medical practice and his business.

Celia Torres fit her life into theirs--but never lost her sense of where she was going nor the theological and human values instilled by the Carondelet Sisters.

Torres, a petite, delicately boned woman who turned 50 this year, sat in her pleasant Pacific Palisades apartment, informal in shirt, slacks and espadrilles, and spoke of her life. She began with her family.

"My grandmother came north from Mexico and brought her family with the help of her older son," she said. "My mother was the second to the youngest of 12 children. It was the Depression. We were on welfare. We knew who the other people getting aid were because they were getting the same kind of fabric to make clothes; we'd try to find a ribbon, a trimming to make our clothes look different.

"My mother had an eighth-grade education, but she quit school because she had to work. She did errands for a penny. Then she went to work in the garment district."

Education for Celia Torres began at 2.

"I led a very strange early childhood," she said, "After the first couple of days crying, I must say I loved school. I enjoy learning. Books--that's how I still learn.

"In the second grade I went to St. Mary's Academy, the grammar school, the old one at Slauson and Crenshaw. That was in the early '40s. Sister Mary Brigid was my second-grade teacher; later at Mount St. Mary's College she was my freshman department head and my adviser. Sister Anne Marie taught me parliamentary procedure in the fifth grade.

Mother Got Tuberculosis

"I was cared for by several families. When I was in the third grade--I was 8--my mother got tuberculosis. She was sent to Olive View (at the time a county TB facility). Tuberculosis was an illness of poverty--and I went off to St. Mary's Academy. Every day I went to school, then to my aunt's after school and slept at my grandmother's at night.

"I was at St. Mary's Academy until the sixth grade. Then in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades I went to St. Vincent's parish school, where the Carondelet sisters also taught.

"It was a crucial time. I remember my teacher saying to me, 'How about being sodality prefect (leader of a religious-oriented student organization)?' I was surprised and asked why, and she said, 'You know parliamentary procedure.'

"In seventh grade I was sodality prefect again. From sixth grade through college I held at least one office per year, which was good training in leadership skills. I knew what had to be done, how to do it, so I'd do it."

Paid Her Own Way

Torres worked her way through St. Mary's Academy--she paid for transportation, tuition and books--and Mount St. Mary's College, beginning at 15 with jobs that included selling clothes on Broadway, waitressing and working at the Central Library downtown. The change between a financially poor life and that of the Mount in Brentwood, which at that time still had elements of a finishing school, was marked.

"I lived in two separate worlds," she said. "I'd go from an empty refrigerator back to the Mount. . . ."

She got her bachelor's in sociology with a minor in psychology: "I wanted social work."

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