October 17, 2003

Va Por México: Héroes Auténticos

By Raymond R. Beltran

(Pictured clock-wise from upper left) Liliana Aguilar (center) with two of her friends. Bea Estrada (standing) preparing LULAC members for another busy year. Ofelia Escobado (left) with her sister Connie

It is difficult to recognize a hero when someone is living in the everyday scramble of routine life, especially Mexican towns across San Diego where people pass in and out of barrios, downtown city blocks, and even in the Chula Vista suburbia. Although, the chances of walking passed a hero are greater than one could imagine. As might be perceived, not all heroes are glamorized on the big screen, nor are all heroes given one minutes worth of recognition on the air. People who’ve profoundly changed the lives of many still walk on two feet, and those feet continue to stand firmly in the ground of our communities at all times. A few of these people making a difference in San Diego are those who the Tecate beer industry has named the Unsung Heroes.

A year ago, the Tecate public relations team began considering the idea of connecting more with the Mexican American living in the United States, along with the idea of what it is to be a hero in the Latino community. The result is the soon to be annual award program titled Va Por México: Héroes Auténticos. Granted that all heroes aren’t recognized for their efforts, Tecate has collaborated with La Prensa San Diego and Spanish television station, Univision, to put the spotlight on Latinos that have gone out of their way to build a stronger community.

“[A hero] is what was discussed most of the time,” says Senior Brand Manager of Tecate, Andres Siefken, about the initial queries of the project. “[A hero is usually defined] as a very well-known person, but in reality our Tecate brand stands for Mexican-Americans as everyday people … doing something above the standards. The people of the community can nominate the hero and explain why these people are heroes.”

As an award program that officially had it’s first turn in the Los Angeles county, "Va Por México" has currently set its focus on the Latino community of San Diego specifically. Three award winners were sought out by La Prensa San Diego this year. Ofelia Escobedo, co-owner of Lola’s Market and Deli, has been recognized for her efforts in building a stronger barrio in the Carlsbad area. Bea Estrada, the 18-year president of San Diego’s LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) chapter, is being recognized for her fundraising efforts to provide scholarships for Latino students and food baskets for hungry families during Christmas. Also being recognized is 29-year-old Liliana Aguilar. As a financial assistant in downtown San Diego, Aguilar finds room in her daily life to work with underprivileged high school students in the youth organization Reality Changers.

“It’s kind of a connection with the community,” says Siefken. “And Tecate’s really proud to sponsor and recognize the community to make them feel that [Tecate] is with them.”

The timing of the awards serves the purpose of paralleling with Hispanic Heritage Month, which begins on September 15 and ends on October 15. Tecate, a company based in Mexico, is trying to connect Mejicanos from both sides of the border by creating this award program, especially during the month that recognizes the Mexican culture for its achievements.

This is another way we could identify with Hispanic community during Hispanic Heritage Month,” says Siefken “We want to connect with the community on a national and regional level to embrace Hispanic heroes and to focus on them because we know they work hard.”

According to Siefken, Tecate functions on three “dimensions” as the focal points for the success of their industry. The first is to work hard. The second is to be brave, and the third is to be authentic, hence, the term Héroes Auténticos. These three dimensions which Tecate focuses on for its accomplishments are the same three traits that it seeks out when choosing award winners.

“Tecate would like to see the community get inspired by this,” he says. “And hopefully, they will become involved for next year’s awards.”

Award winners Escobedo, Estrada, and Aguilar will be accepting their Va Por México awards today at an invitation only luncheon in Old Town San Diego’s Old Town Mexican Café at ll:30 a.m.

Liliana Aguilar, Changing Realities

As Liliana Aguilar flips through photos, she says it’s her “greatest joy” seeing her former students beginning to take on leadership rolls in the community of underprivileged teens. And reminiscing on her first days of community involvement in Sherman Heights, she points out distressed children she had tutored from ten years ago, flips a page from the photo album she carries with her, and compares them to current photos of those same faces now working to help out other students that are in that same predicament.

Liliana, a Christian community counselor, has been working to help troubled youth for the past decade of her life, and aside from the recognition she receives from youth in San Diego, she’s currently being awarded Tecate’s Va Por México hero’s award.

When she began her youth involvement, there was a three year period where Liliana and her family were experiencing financial problems. She recalls when they didn’t know where their next meal was going to come from on a day-to-day basis, and because of this, she was able to understand poverty issues that people endure daily. Nonetheless, because a strong, supportive family surrounded her, she was able to accept and understand the need for acceptance in troubled youth.

“When I first started to relate to them is when I first experienced what it was to be on that level,” says Liliana. “It was tough to be in that environment and for three years.”

She used this juxtaposition of learning with vigor and dedication to open a tutoring center in a local church, La Iglesia, for young children in Golden Hills. The program is called Kids At Heart, and it is still present today under the leadership of Executive Director Linda Guzzo.

The problems that children were going through in the barrios of San Diego started to become evident to the teenage Liliana. With students coming from broken homes, where only one parent is present, and students coming from poverty-stricken environments, Liliana would begin to focus on the anger building up inside the youth then, and today. Children were, as they are presently, suffering from low self-esteem, sadness, and anger. In turn, drugs, violence, and teen pregnancy became a prevalent subject that Liliana felt she needed to address.

“They need anger management,” explains Liliana. “They’re angry with life in general.”

The more she encountered the anger, the more she started having a growing desire to begin reaching the youth on a more personal level. Since the beginning of Kids At Heart, which started eleven years ago. She began talking to the students as their friend instead of their tutor, and changes started to occur. She highlights the fact that because of her affectionate demeanor, she first noticed that the children began to hug her back. More than ever, grades points began to rise, and the adolescents that once had no hope for a successful future began to talk about college.

About three years into the program, Liliana decided it was time to focus her efforts on her own education. With the ganas to struggle through eight years of classes and jobs, she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from University of San Diego in 2000. Since then, she’s obtained a position as a financial assistant, and has returned to her involvement in the life of young teenagers who are struggling to succeed.

In returning to the community, she recognizes that it’s about relationships and understanding people that help to arm her in her outreach. Underprivileged youth respond to listening and respect from their elders and leaders, and Liliana lends nothing more than friendship and an open ear.

Currently, she is a member of a program and part ministry from Iglesia Presbiteriana Hipana called Reality Changers. It is a program that helps prospective and bright young students get a head start on college. Not having started the program herself, she is an extremely active counselor. The program focuses on students in high schools such as La Jolla High School, San Diego High School, Mission Bay, and Madison. Students carrying a 3.0 grade point average are eligible, and take part in events with Liliana such as dinners, outings, and congress (a life sharing discussion circle).

On an average, Liliana spends up to thirty hours per week with teenagers, aside from her full time job, and is currently trying to raise funds for an all-girl retreat in Ramona, The Real Issues Retreat. She will be spending a weekend with female high school juniors and seniors to discuss profound issues.

“Their not the typical ‘my boyfriend dumped me’ problems that we discuss,” says Liliana with a struggling voice. “It’s more like ‘I was abused when I was eight,’ or, ‘I was abused when I was ten.’ Or it’s issues like, ‘I’m doing this because of that, and I can’t stop.’”

It is in these group discussions that the youth really have to face their pasts and begin talking about them in order to for their healing process to develop. Since, her early activism with underprivileged youth, Liliana has come in counter with teenagers that have, at times, gone through some foreign difficulties compared to what she’s endured. She says that in the past three years, she’s really learned to let go of situations. The hard part of her involvement in teenager’s lives is that she can’t be a savior to everyone, and that sooner or later people have to begin to learn how to help themselves. Nonetheless, she’s provided young students with a positive role model who’s not embarrassed to cry with them, or hug them, or even simply sit and watch movies with them until the early morning. She’s simply a good friend.

Throughout the past eleven years of her life, Liliana’s greatest accomplishments have been the love she’s received in her lifetime, and the ability to watch her former students grow into the leaders of today as she watches the cycle of counseling youth continue to progress. And while she flips through pages of her photo album of past students and present leaders, she seems to have left space for future photographs.

Beatrice Estrada, Héroe Auténtico

“If I get an idea in my head, it’s very hard to discourage me,” says community veteran and LULAC president Beatrice Estrada. “And if I want something, or need something… I’ll do anything to get it.”

A woman that speaks with the utmost confidence, dedication, and success assured tone, Beatrice Estrada, or Bea as she is commonly known, has been a focal point and key source to various charity fundraising programs for struggling families and underprivileged students in South Bay for years. From the birth of the San Diego chapter of LULAC (League of United Latino American Citizens) in the early 1980s, all the way back to the middle of the 1970s when she was a Navy wife stationed in Pennsylvania, to the recent Holiday Food Basket Program for hungry families and Head Start scholarship program for Latino students, Bea has dedicated her time to being involved in the Latino community, something that she admits isn’t an accomplishment, but a “passion.”

Her earliest recollection of being involved with supporting those in need is set in the year 1974. She was a Navy wife, among a neighborhood of other wives and mothers, left at home while military husbands were out at sea. Being the mother of two children who Bea addresses as her “greatest accomplishments,” she understood the necessity for a day care program that would allow mothers to grocery shop, keep doctors appointments, and stabilize their home environment for their children. Bea, known for her astounding ideas, began uniting the mothers in order to organize a taco sale. Mothers would come together and at times would make up to 500 tacos in one day. They were sold to community residents and workers, and eventually the women raised enough funds to develop a child daycare center. Bea began to expand on the taco idea, and soon enough began a lottery for her neighbors where the winner would be treated first class at her dinner table for a home cooked meal. The program transcended, gained a director, and mothers made it their business to provide day care around the clock for Navy wives.

The desire to become actively involved in her community, then, came out of necessity, where much of Bea’s present work is validated by her efforts in San Diego today.

Having been a leading recruit in the nascent LULAC 2842 San Diego Chapter in the 1980s, Bea has struggled in her endeavors for the betterment of life within the Latino community. She began as a regular member, and is one reason why the chapter actually exists today. Through serious dedication she became a woman at arms, and has currently held the position as president for the past fifteen years.

“[I] had always known about LULAC. My father was a member in Texas,” Bea reminisces about her years growing up. “I joined because it spoke out about Hispanics not getting promoted in the work place, and we started getting involved with politics… [LULAC is] about supporting the kids, the community, and it’s about civil rights and [battling] job discrimination.”

Currently, LULAC’s Christmas Food Basket Program is an event during the holiday seasons where, with the contributions from a variety of companies, an average of 250 needy families in the South Bay are provided with a turkey dinner with all the stuffings. Funding an event of this magnitude constitutes gathering monetary resources, which can add up to at least $5,500, and that means taking activism out of the meetings, homes, and halls and onto the pavement of the community. And this is where Bea comes in and makes things happen.

“[P]articipation will help us reach our goal of providing 260 food baskets,” says Bea in a letter to contributors. “Many of our families are victims of the weak economy, either losing jobs or struggling to provide food for their families. We would like to help as many families as possible … to bring happiness, joy and a full tummy to those who have fallen on hard times.”

Aside from her steadfast efforts in San Diego, Bea is the proud mother and grandmother of two children and a grandson, and she says aside from all of her community work, they are her true accomplishments and the center of her life. The fact that she intensely cares for her grandson may be the reason she finds importance in education for the youth. Because of the person-to-person outreach Bea has done in order to gain contributions, in June 2004, LULAC will be awarding scholarships to students of all ages. Since 1995, the scholarship program contributions have added up to $99,735. The 19th annual scholarship funds for June 2004 will award $14,350 total. The organization provides an annual luncheon to honor the recipients, which stands as an important moment for students of all ages who may never have been acknowledged otherwise.

Bea says the program and luncheon isn’t just about awarding “A” students, but also students with average grade points as well. Students who suffer from low self-esteem and those who don’t see themselves worthy of a higher education benefit the most. The members of LULAC have pulled funds together, in extreme situations, in order to award the average student who has potential but lacks resources. Head Start is a program that encourages students to excel, and Bea wants children to know that they’re worth it.

Ofelia Escobedo, Héroe del Barrio

During the mid 1980s, a Mexican town in North County called Barrio Carlsbad was suffering from what many barrios in San Diego County are suffering from today, the metastasizing of shopping malls and the destruction of Mexican culture completely. Gentrification was on the rise for this small, forgotten barrio. Ofelia Erlinda Escobedo, a second generation U.S. citizen, who had returned to Carlsbad in 1985 after a thirty year separation from the barrio, was dumbfounded by the dilapidation of the surrounding area that enclosed her now historic childhood home on Roosevelt and Walnut.

“I was appalled when I came back to see our once vibrant, family-oriented community seriously deteriorated,” says Escobedo. “It was full of graffiti, debris, drugs. While the rest of the community was prospering, our neighborhood was just getting worse.”

Returning as somewhat of a “prodigal son,” or daughter, Ofelia and her sister Connie Trujo took over Lola’s Market, named after her mother, a market that her parents began when they migrated to the U.S. during the years of La Revolución. Establishing the market-turned-deli, that attracts Carlsbad resident and workers from all over during lunch hours, Ofelia had reprise and growth on her mind for the barrio that was quickly falling apart.

In order to create change, Ofelia says she recognized that social, educational, and economic change would have to be made, and to achieve it, programs would have to be implemented and organizations would have to be created. Ofelia gathered information and began doing surveys in the community to see what her neighbor’s concerns were. After extensive research, there were enough loyal barrio residents to create the Barrio Carlsbad Association. The soul purpose of Ofelia’s desire for community unification was to raise issues such as undesirable business development and barrio revitalization.

As a barrio historically noted for attracting the majority of migrant workers from Mexico, the 83,469 person populated Carlsbad area has been home of the Centro de Información, a program held in a local Carlsbad library of which Ofelia battled to establish and eventually achieved through federal grants. This Centro, dedicated to battling illiteracy, has welcomed incoming migrant workers to Barrio Carlsbad with books, videos, and classes of information.

Recognizing that Barrio Carlsbad needed to promote pride within its community in order to ascend from its dilapidated state, she helped to form the Fiesta Del Barrio Carlsbad organization. Her vision, and the group’s mission statement, is to “celebrate and preserve the history and culture of the area … to strengthen the sense of community, togetherness, and friendship that [residents] all value, and to create a neighborhood that all residents of the City of Carlsbad can be proud of.” This year, Fiesta Del Barrio Carlsbad has focused on building educational programs geared toward promoting heritage in the barrio and to create a scholarship fund to help out students that lack resources.

“We organized our first Barrio Fiesta in 1991,” says Ofelia. “This fiesta attracted over eight thousand people and was the catalyst for changing attitudes.”

The Barrio Carlsbad Fiesta is somewhat of a block party, non-alcoholic in its family-oriented foundation, in recognition of Mexican culture. It takes place in the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month. Being the backbone of activities such as the fiesta, Ofelia has been noted in the barrio as “the glue that has bound the Carlsbad barrio community together so tightly.”

Also, having in the family the oldest standing structure in Barrio Carlsbad, Ofelia gathered materials to begin transforming a one room building into the town’s legendary Barrio Carlsbad Museum. The structure stands across the street from Lola’s Market. With antique journal articles of Mexican accomplishments, crafts and woven blankets, time enduring photos of previous immigrants, and family letters, the museum stands as a history lesson for the current and future generations of Barrio Carlsbad residents. Her dream was to continue planting seeds of pride and dignity in those community members that might not know how special this town was previously and is today. The museum also pays homage to the previous generation of Mexicans who migrated and worked agriculturally to provide food and all the necessities their families needed to endure.

Ofelia has also played a significant role in shaping the academic paths of many female students in Barrio Carlsbad. She helped to organize the North County Latina Women (NCLW), a program dedicated to assisting young Latinas between the ages of thirteen to eighteen. With the help of the NCLW, young Latina students now have access to scholarship information, college enrollment procedures, and every year they are visited by Latina doctors, lawyers, nurses, and various other women in professional roles.

Ofelia Erlinda Escobedo has pulled a struggling barrio out of the shackles of gentrification over the years and has rejuvenated the sense and pride of a historic people in her efforts to hold on to her childhood community.

Today, Tecate’s Va Por México, Héroes Auténticos award program is honoring her for her valiant accomplishments for her heroism, authenticity, and perseverance rarely seen in a common community population. Nominated by co-Rotary Club member and Barrio Carlsbad resident Delta Collins, Ofelia’s name surfaced for her hands-on work gathering neighbors to help take care of handicapped resident’s front yards, and for her Barrio Carlsbad history lessons for neighborhood youth held in the Barrio Carlsbad Museum.

“I joined many organizations, the ones that I felt would benefit our community and that would help our efforts … I could go on forever,” says Ofelia. “My neighborhood is my passion, and I do not want to see the culture or history forgotten.”

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