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Honoring a Son Who Went Far

La Piedad, Mexico, proudly presents the key to the city to a native who left as a baby and now is a Santa Ana councilman.

March 30, 2004|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

LA PIEDAD, Mexico — In the shadow of a golden colonial church dome, noisy schoolchildren in red and blue uniforms paraded along gritty streets Monday to embrace a native son this remote city barely knows: Santa Ana City Councilman Jose Solorio.

Never mind that his parents left for California's Central Valley when he was 8 months old, and that he stopped returning for summer visits when he was 12.

He was, this day, a marquee celebrity, a local-boy-done-good.

Here is a man, civic leaders boasted, who lifted himself up from California's cotton fields, attended universities and today is a successful municipal politician.

And here, too, is a man who might broker gifts for this city, whose 80,000 residents rely heavily on checks and money orders sent from relatives north of the border.

Solorio, in coat and tie, beamed, but seemed flustered by the attention shown him by the children and local leaders. At every turn, people remarked on his resume, including his master's degree in public policy from Harvard University.

"Who likes gum?" Solorio asked the children, ages 4 to 12, who gathered in front of the outside dais at City Hall. "Well, at least I got your attention," Solorio said. "I am hear to tell you that if you study, you can be something. You can be anything, here or in the United States ... a doctor, a lawyer, the mayor of La Piedad.... You must study. You must bury yourself in your books."

And it was clear Monday, at City Hall and at appearances elsewhere in the city, that Solorio was an outsider in the town of his birth.

He spoke Spanish with an American accent. He wondered aloud why a street was named "November 20," only to be reminded that it was the date of the Mexican revolution. And he was alarmed when he stepped in a puddle on a dirt road.

But Solorio and the city quickly warmed to each other. Local officials gave him a brass key to the city and a certificate naming him a distinguished citizen -- even though he was last here 13 years ago.

Mayor Jaime Mares Camarena said Solorio was probably the most successful person ever born in La Piedad.

Solorio was recognized not only for what he became, but also for what he had not become. In La Piedad, it seems, everyone either intends to move to the United States or knows someone who has. The city's population has dropped by 10,000 since 1990, according to the census, because of emigration to the United States and elsewhere.

The exodus is even more severe in Solorio's neighborhood of Ticuitaco, five miles from downtown La Piedad, where the population has plummeted from 10,000 to 1,000.

And for all who leave, few achieve the American dream.

"We're lucky if they come back alive," said Mares Camarena. "Many die just struggling to get there. Those who get in first think the United States is a panacea. That without working they can be a success, that through gangs and drugs they can get quick money. It's a simplistic vision. It is not what Jose Solorio did."

Knowledge of Solorio's election to the Santa Ana City Council three years ago didn't reach here until recently, when the newly formed Federation of Michoacanos of Orange County and Santa Ana contacted the governor of Michoacan, the central Mexican state in which La Piedad is located.

The connections between Michoacan and the United States are undeniable: 5 million residents live in the Mexican state, and 3 million live in the United States, according to Rafael Herrera, who helped form the Michoacan Federation in Santa Ana and organized the events Monday.

The governor's secretary, Guillermo Rizzo, a former La Piedad mayor, learned about Solorio, and he was invited to make a hero's trip home. When news of the event appeared in La Piedad's newspaper, Solorio heard from cousins he didn't know he had.

And on Monday, they praised him. "It is easy to triumph in your own country," said one of his cousins, Lorenzo Solorio. "To do that in another country is much, much harder. Jose Juan had the opportunity and he took it. I am so proud that there's a Solorio who has taken our name to the United States and made us proud."

Said the man from Santa Ana: "It seemed like overnight, I became sort of a folk hero."

Solorio, a vegetarian, was served a midday meal of tuna crepes with beets, broccoli and cauliflower, and while a dozen cows were herded down the street, officials lauded him and serenaded him with ranchera songs.

It brought him back to memories he had not embraced in years.

Jose Solorio visited Ticuitaco every summer until he became a teen. It was the birthplace of his grandparents, and the place where his parents met. There are 169 Solorios in the La Piedad telephone book, far more than the number of Garcias or Gutierrezes.

His mother took Solorio and a sibling from Mexico to California in 1971 to rejoin his father, who had gone ahead.

The parents, struggling farmers and unschooled past third grade, moved near Delano, where the children learned of the achievements of Cesar Chavez, and that a man could make changes with hard work.

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