Tell us about your growing up years and family.
Both my parents were immigrants from northwestern Mexico; my mom was born in a municipality named Culiacan the largest city in Sinaloa, my father came from a municipality named La Piedad, in the state of Michoacan. Both cities are agricultural hubs; Sinaloa is known as the breadbasket of Mexico – chances are if you’ve eaten a tomato, you’ve tasted Sinaloa’s finest! Other agriculture products coming from Sinaloa include beans, corn, wheat, sorghum, potatoes, soybeans, sugarcane, and squash. Because of the rich fertile soil, La Piedad was a huge produce center as well, and was once the center of the pork industry. So, I am not surprised my parents immigrated to Santa Maria – the agricultural industry mirrored that of their homeland. They believed they could find work that would eventually provide for their eleven children! I was number seven. I have many happy memories as a child, living simply with my brothers, sisters, cousins, and uncles. My parents welcomed all family members who migrated to this country from Mexico seeking a better life. I am proud that my parents had no formal education yet struggled to make sure that we all received a good education. They had strong work ethics and worked hard; my father toiled in the fields and mom earned a wage as a housekeeper…I don’ recall wanting for much nor feeling less than others.
Please share a favorite story about your early community service.
All my life I have been surrounded by strong and inspiring leadership models, first and foremost my parents who demonstrated leadership at their place of employment. (I’ll expand on this later) As a teenager one of our sisters came to teach at St. Mary’s School in Santa Maria and became a significant role model for me. Sr. Marian Tostado was the first Latina Sister I had ever met, and she greatly influenced me. She started a Sodality Club in our Parish, of which I was a member. She modeled Catholic action encouraging all of us to teach catechism on Saturday mornings followed by ministry to elders in rest homes in the afternoon. She also took us to an old army barracks that was converted into shelter for migrant farmworker families. We would visit them, take them food, and did what we could for them. Lastly, we adopted a Cuban refugee family. We gathered soda bottles, sold them, for pennies and used the funds to rent a house for them and underwrite their grocery bills! I am convinced that my vocation came from the strong service-orientated leadership model of my parents and our sisters who taught me in grammar school and encouraged me to respond to the needs of others throughout my high school years.
I entered our community in 1964 and loved teaching middle and high school. Early in my teaching career, I was living a life of service and sharing that life with nine other Sisters. We shared an energy and drive, most of us were young. Before long, eight of them left the order and with them, my greatest mentor, Sr. Marian left as well. At this time in my life, I was witnessing a significant dimension of internal change among the religious, people I knew and worked closely with, and family members, were walking away from their religious communities. Shortly thereafter, I was sent to the Northwest where most of the sisters were more established and seasoned; I sensed this assignment was meant to be a “grounding” experience for me after a very troubling time. While working as a teacher in Seattle, I was asked to expand my studies and I earned a master’s in counseling psychology. I was assigned to teach girls at a boarding school, St. Mary’s Academy in Toledo, Washington and later at Alverno High School in Sierra Madre, a suburb east of Los Angeles.
The next assignment was indeed a defining moment: I was given an opportunity to study theology in Mexico City! It was here, my parents’ homeland, where I learned about and encountered the historical Jesus of Nazareth from the viewpoint of the poor. That was a re-awakening of my calling to religious life as I left teaching at our schools and moved into parish pastoral ministry with our Mexican immigrant people where I could also use my native language, Spanish.
Through studies in Franciscan spirituality and theology I learned and was able to share with local communities of ministry then and to this present day, our Franciscan tradition that centers on the abundance of God’s love, and the Grace that always exists in our world and in everyone. The veils of Goodness, Grace and Love abound in us, and we just need to say YES and wrap ourselves in them.
It was during this timeframe that there was a civil uprising in El Salvador, people were being slaughtered and more than 20 vowed religious were killed. I volunteered to be one of 30 international vowed religious (priests and nuns) who were sent to Mesa Grande, Honduras to minister to those families escaping the war in El Salvador and seeking refuge in Honduras. The government set up ‘tarpas’ (tents) and created large encampments for these families, however, we were unaware that the Honduras government, was posturing as their resource was really colluding with El Salvador to plan their genocide! These people who faced death every day, left their homes and all their belongings behind, found great strength and courage as they gathered every night to reflect on the gospel as they played their guitars, sang, and told stories. This was a surreal time, as we at times linked arms and stood in front of the refugees like human shields to save them from the government assassins. They did not fear, instead they found strength in one another. I felt that they had more faith in the Resurrection than I did because they lived in the Hope of new life after this! When I left Honduras, I returned to the United States reclaiming my birth name, Maria Elena, because my name had been changed to “Mary Helen” when I started grammar school. After this experience, I felt strongly rooted in my identity and knew what my calling was as a Franciscan who walks with her people.
Why did you decide to become a sister?
I am most proud and indebted to my parents who lived a life of service. They were my inspiration. As a young girl, my father labored in the fields and was soon recognized as a leader; he was promoted to supervisor. He oversaw the farmworkers for many years, and he genuinely cared for them and their wellbeing. During the rainy season when there was no work to be had, families were hurting, they were hungry, and they lived modestly, however, lack of wages hampered them from meeting their financial responsibilities. My dad, with limited language skills and no formal education felt compelled to help; he called Governor Pat Brown to tell him how many of these workers who brought food to California tables were starving and their children were mal-nourished. What followed were monthly shipments of surplus food, staples for our families – thus he created a community foodbank. My mom worked at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Hospital in Santa Maria as a housekeeper. She was a dedicated worker, a supervisor saw her in the nursery and identified her skill, compassion, and dedication. She was asked to work solely in the department – she worked there for many years and was dearly loved by all, especially our sisters.
After suffering an injury and unable to work in the fields, my dad worked with civic leaders like Cesar Chavez to create a local branch of the Community Service Organization, CSO. My dad had to collect welfare benefits, yet all his energy was directed to helping the ‘braseros’ (workers) find food and shelter. My dad worked through the CSO to provide diverse social services to immigrants and their families including immigration, interpretation, preparing legal documents, human rights, etc. My mom provided faith formation and sacramental preparation for the families, was a Eucharistic minister for the home bound, coordinated, and led seasonal Popular Religious Celebrations, etc. My parents were leaders in the community and were recognized for their leadership, they were entrepreneurial and deep down, even though they didn’t don a badge, they were social workers devoted to providing for the material and spiritual needs of our community. Like Francis, they recognized the dignity of every person. Together, they led me down a path to wanting and ultimately choosing to live a life of service.
How do you share your Franciscan values and spirituality now?
Today, I belong to two communities: St. Clare community in Sacramento and Casa Franciscana in Palenque. My ministry of leadership ranges from serving the needs of the province to facilitation for religious communities (worldwide) including facilitation for major superiors through LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious). I also continue to minister to immigrant Latino communities in the Bay Area through teaching faith formation classes centered on a theology of Love: Love is God’s very essence. Everything else is a manifestation of this essence to us, a relationship between this essence and us, including our relationships with one another. In Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, when possible, I accompany our sisters in their diverse ministries with the local communities of Mayan native peoples. Through a ministry of PRESENCE, demonstrating compassion and living a life of simplicity, I find that this strengthens and renews my Franciscan values.
What would you like us to know about being a Franciscan?
St. Francis of Assisi stressed the importance of community – we are all one, interrelated. It is as true today as it was in the 13 th century; given the wars, and civil disagreements, the polarity in the church, politics and even in our classrooms, his message was prophetic, and we are committed to living it out in our daily lives. We are one community, one heart, one spirit, one human family living in unity with all of creation.
Please share a favorite quote or verse.
St Clare’s words are a daily reminder to me . . . “What you hold, may you always hold. What you do, may you do and never abandon.” She (Clare) insisted on living a Gospel form of life in her time following in the footsteps of the poor Christ. She was a mother and sister to her sisters, she was a leader ahead of her times, embracing the privilege of poverty, contemplating the “Love that has loved us.” Mother Magdalen’s spirit of determination, trusting in a good and provident God is equally inspiring. Their message to me and my prayer is to be steadfast and to hold on to my Franciscan values.