June is Immigrant Heritage Month—a time to celebrate our diversity and shared American heritage. Throughout the month, we’ll be celebrating by sharing the stories of young Immigrant Latinos who are an integral part of the American narrative.
These young Californians are making a positive impact in their communities across the state and we hope they inspire you to move to action. And with California’s primary right around the corner, one of the most important ways to take action is to register to vote and vote!
Today, we launch our Latino immigrant story series with Samantha’s story:
Samantha Contreras was born in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. She migrated with her family 24 years ago to California in search of better educational and economic opportunities.
When they first arrived to Los Angeles her father worked as a day laborer. Mostly working in construction that exposed to many work safety risks, he eventually suffered an injury that prevented him from doing heavy lifting. The workplace injury meant that he and Samantha’s mother had to look for other work to make ends meet. They began working in the fast-food industry where they remained for more than a decade. Now, at the age of 56, Samantha’s father continues to work two jobs as a cook in a skilled nursing facility by day and a chef in restaurants at the Staple Center and Dodger Stadium by night. Her mother is a deli chef at a major supermarket chain.
As if exposure to worker injustices and struggling financially was not enough, Samantha and her family also faced injustices as undocumented immigrants. She was only 6-years-old when their visas expired – her family was forced to live in the shadows in order to survive amongst the anti-immigrant sentiment and policies moving through the state legislature and the ballot box. In 1994, California voters took away Samantha’s family’s rights to a public education, health services, and freedom by enacting Proposition 187. They took refuge from discrimination, hostility, and oppression in their humble home— a garage converted into a bedroom.
For 14 years, their immigration adjustment application was backlogged in the Immigration and Nationality Service (INS) office. The slow-moving bureaucracy made it impossible to obtain legal residency before her high school graduation – greatly stifling her prospects of a college education.
These experiences inspired her to social activism with the hope of making an impact in her
family’s lives. As a high school student, she joined the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, where she was a member and organizer for six years. She organized high school youth and increased the youth program from one high school chapter to ten chapters with a membership of over 200 students. She trained and mobilized students to participate in national, state, and local issue campaigns around comprehensive immigration reform, the CA Dream Act, and the Federal Dream Act.
Although she no longer directly organizes around immigration issues, she remains a part of the broader movement for social justice because she understands that her community, her family, and herself are impacted by more than just immigration policy. They are all impacted by broader issues like education, environment, health care, housing, labor, tax policies and more.
Today Samantha works as a Legislative Advocate for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2015. In her position she ensures that the needs of over 325,000 in-home supportive services (IHSS) workers and nursing home workers from across California are represented in Sacramento.
Samantha cares deeply about the labor movement because it’s not only fighting for a high minimum wage, it’s fighting for equal pay regardless of gender, for paid family leave, for paid sick day, for retirement security and much more.
For her being part of the labor movement means having the opportunity to change lives.
Samantha’s story is only one of millions of immigrant experiences that make American great. We’ll be sharing more stories like her throughout the month, but we also want to hear from you—share your or your family’s immigration story on Facebook and Twitter and contribute to the dialogue around Immigrant Heritage Month!