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Sons Live Out a Dream

Four couples crossed the border from Mexico with little but hope. Now all have children serving on L.A.'s City Council.

May 07, 2006|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Andres Cardenas married Maria Quezada in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, in 1946. Young, poor and with little in the way of a future, the newlyweds immigrated to the United States.

Andres' education went as far as the first grade, Maria's the second. He started picking crops near Stockton, later became a day laborer and eventually started his own gardening business. He and his wife settled in Pacoima, where they raised 11 children.

The youngest, Tony, was elected to the state Assembly in 1996 and to the Los Angeles City Council in 2003. Today, at 43, he is one of four council members whose parents grew up in Mexico and came -- and are here legally -- to the U.S. for work and a better life.

With waves of marchers filling the streets around City Hall in recent weeks to protest the nation's immigration policy, the four -- Cardenas, Jose Huizar, Alex Padilla and Ed Reyes -- have had a unique vantage point. They are on the inside looking out, having come from families that made the leap in just two generations from poor immigrant laborers to elected leaders in the nation's second-largest city.

These four are not the first Latinos on the council, but their families' stories are all variations on the classic American immigrant tale: the sadness of leaving one's native home entwined with the hope for a better life in a country that offers both promises and obstacles.

Immigration policy, a federal matter, lies far outside the purview of the council. None of the four offered detailed visions of immigration policies they would support. But each voiced a general view that the U.S. should find ways to allow those willing to work to come here legally.

After all, it's what their parents did.

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The Cardenas Family

The Cardenas family had a bit of good luck. Maria Cardenas was born on Catalina Island, making her an American citizen. When she was 3, her family returned to rural Temastian, in the state of Jalisco, where eventually she met Andres Cardenas.

After moving north, Tony Cardenas' father got his first job in the United States, picking crops in the fields near Stockton. Today a giant photo of him digging potatoes resides on the wall behind his son's City Hall desk, a reminder and a promise all in one.

The family settled in Pacoima in 1954 and bought a house the next year. Cardenas' father eventually began his own gardening business and didn't have to look far for help. His five sons quickly learned that weekends, holidays and summer vacations involved spending time with a shovel.

"My parents didn't speak English. They learned it little by little," Cardenas said. "They realized that education was the ticket to a better future in their own rudimentary way. They kept the house clean, kept us on the straight and narrow, and none of us ever got into trouble with the law."

Of the 11 Cardenas children, eight went to college. One son drowned in a 1971 accident. Tony Cardenas started his own realty firm and then decided to run for the Assembly, in part, he said, because no one from Pacoima had ever before made it to Sacramento.

Today he represents parts of the northeast San Fernando Valley on the council.

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The Padilla Family

Padilla's father was from Puerto Vallarta, on Mexico's western coast, and his mother from the desert city of Chihuahua, not far from the Texas border. They came to the U.S. independently of each other, met at a dance in downtown Los Angeles and wed in 1967 or '68.

To this day, Padilla isn't sure if, initially, his parents came here legally. After marrying, they returned to Mexico and applied for legal residency in the U.S., which was granted.

His father, Santos Padilla, was "master of the griddle" at several of the Du-Par's restaurants -- he's still working as a cook -- and his mom, Lupe Padilla, had a regular stable of homes that she cleaned. In the afternoons during the school year, the public library in Pacoima served as baby-sitter for the three Padilla children. In summer, they switched to the local pool.

"We would swim until noon and then they would shut down the pool for an hour, and we would go to a free lunch program because we lived in a poor census tract," Padilla recalled. "It would be something like a cheese sandwich, a government-issued orange juice, and we'd be back in the pool by one o'clock."

In 1990, much to his own surprise, Padilla was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had applied to, but not visited, the school and had never traveled east of El Paso.

Although he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, he returned home after college in 1994 and fell in love with the world of local politics. He said he was driven largely by that year's Proposition 187, which called for denying illegal immigrants many social benefits but which was overturned in federal court.

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