By Pablo J. Sáinz
This year’s KPBS Local Heroes in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month have one thing in common: Both are women committed to helping immigrant communities in San Diego County.
The honorees are Fabiola Navarro, an immigration attorney with the Employee Rights Center (ERC), a non-profit organization that focuses on immigration and workplace rights for workers; and Andrea Skorepa, executive director of Casa Familiar, a social services agency serving the community of San Ysidro.
Every year, KPBS recognizes heroes in San Diego’s diverse communities. It’s part of the station’s ongoing commitment to diversity, and made possible through a long-standing partnership with Union Bank.
“Diversity is one of our most closely held values,” said Union Bank Senior Executive Vice President Pierre Habis, head of Community Banking “This is why we’re proud to honor local heroes in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.”
The two women honored this year have very different stories, but the common goal of helping needy immigrant families in San Diego.
Navarro migrated with her husband to the United States in 2001, after a successful career as an attorney in her native Chile. Once she arrived in Michigan, she began taking English as a Second Language classes, and tried to revalidate her law degree in that state. But Michigan wouldn’t recognize her Chilean degree.
So the family decided to move to San Diego, where California recognized her law degree, and, after three attempts and much effort, Navarro passed the bar exam.
“I’m an immigrant myself so I was determined to become an immigration attorney to help people to fight for their rights,” Navarro said.
As part of her work at the ERC, Navarro provides free consultations for workers who otherwise would face discrimination and human rights violations due to their undocumented status.
During her time in the United States, Navarro has become very involved in the plight of undocumented immigrants, helping them achieve equality. She remembers that she grew up during the Pinochet military dictatorship in Chile, a time when human rights violations were common practice in the country.
“We should be able to witness a world where our human rights are not violated, are respected,” she said. “The only way to have a real social change is to work together to improve our lives.”
As executive director of Casa Familiar, Andrea Skorepa helps provide a wide-range of services for San Ysidro families, from affordable housing to health care access, and from cultural activities to tax preparation.
Although, under Skorepa’s leadership, Casa Familiar has become a household name in the South Bay, she said she doesn’t see herself as a hero.
“No, I do not consider myself a hero in San Ysidro,” she said. However, I do consider my self a transformational leader as a way of living my life.”
She said that the KPBS and Union Bank recognition inspires her to continue working in favor of San Ysidro families, many of them immigrant, working families.
“I am at once humbled by the honor bestowed on me and very excited to be nominated and considered for this type of recognition,” Skorepa said. “While I have never done my life’s work for thanks or ego, this type of honor is really a nice boost to one’s ego as well ad a big community offered ‘Thanks.’ I am quietly overjoyed.”
When Skorepa came to Casa Familiar, she said that San Ysidro was a much smaller community, and the town had a bad reputation in San Diego at large. She remembers that residents were drifting part.
“We were losing the feeling of neighborhoods and commitment that community members should have if they hope to build safe healthy communities,” she said. “We had no political clout, had no control over our own destiny and had become the repository of everything other San Diegans didn’t want in their backyards.”
Today, though, thanks in part to Casa Familiar and Skorepa’s efforts, San Ysidro has been able to establish a good reputation with those that follow neighborhood development and civic engagement.
“We now provide many ways for residents to connect with each other and their community as a whole,” she said. “We are no longer ignored, and our residents know the difference between tolerated and listened to for information and action.”
To learn more about KPBS Hispanic Local Heroes, please visit www.kpbs.org.