By Pablo J. Sáinz
Mateo Camarillo moved to San Diego from his native Tijuana as a little boy. Since then, he has become one of San Diego’s most active Chicano activists and entrepreneurs.
His life is a perfect balance of social activism and business entrepreneurship, something he said he has been able to accomplish thanks to his ability to work well with others.
“Success in business, social work, social engagement, and civic action is dependent on working with others,” Camarillo said. “No one succeeds by themselves. Team work is the key to success.”
As an activist, Camarillo has served as executive director of the Chicano Federation and also worked hard to create a new diverse district in the City of San Diego, which eventually became District 9.
As a business-owner, he opened his first McDonald’s franchise in Linda Vista in 1976, he owned six Spanish-language radio stations, and most recently he owns All Amigos Ignition Interlock.
He has been able to accomplish all of this as an immigrant who is very proud of his humble origins.
“I consider myself an immigrant from Mexico where I was born,” he said. “Our family immigrated to the U.S. in search for a better life. Growing up in Tijuana and living day to day, we learned that success and survival was enhanced by reaching out to our neighbors.
We were similarly situated but together we shared our limited resources.”
Camarillo recently published An Immigrant’s Journey in Search of The American Dream, a book where he shares his life experiences, which cover the last 50 years of San Diego’s Chicano community’s history.
In the book, Camarillo details his early life in Tijuana and San Diego, his college years at San Diego State University, his time at the Chicano Federation, and his civic participation and business career.
“Several significant individuals in my life, such as my wife Reina, encouraged me to write a book when they were helping me organize my files,” said Camarillo, who recently donated the Mateo Camarillo Papers to San Diego State University’s Chicana and Chicano Archive Project. “Having been an educator, I know how important it is to have documented examples of significant achievements to motivate students, our next generation of community leaders.
Success that they can relate to motivates them to reach for the stars. We all need heroes and positive role models.”
Truly, Camarillo’s book is a testament of what a single immigrant can contribute to U.S. society.
“America is still a nation of immigrants,” he writes in his book. “Immigrants have played a huge role in the development of our democratic, multicultural, and economic vitality of our country.”
His goal with the book is to inspire others, especially Latino youth.
“My message to our youth is that heroes and community leaders exist in Latino communities so that they can connect with positive role models,” Camarillo said. “I hope a lot of people read my memoirs and are motivated to take action to improve their lives and communities by joining with others similarly situated.”
After a lifelong commitment to human rights in San Diego, Camarillo said he is proud of his accomplishments. But his greatest accomplishment, he said, is being able to extend a helping hand to the community.
“I have found the American Dream,” he said. “It is not in owning restaurants, radio stations, living in exclusive neighborhoods or teaching at two universities. It comes from the warm feeling all over when you help others.”