PoliticsImmigration48 Hours on the Border


48 Hours on the Border: Jim Avila's family immigration journey

This recounts the personal family immigration journey of Jim Avila, a reporter with Scripps News San Diego.
Posted at 8:04 PM, Mar 14, 2024

Amid the nightmare immigration crisis at the southern border, it is easy to forget the American dream that lives among these desperate people.

It's a dream of a better life in the United States, just like the Irish in the late 1800s, the Italian wave in the 1900s, and the Jews in the 1930s, all escaping war, dictatorship and poverty in their native countries.

For Mexico, the great journey north began in the 1920s, during and after a civil war made famous by Pancho Villa. My great uncles, General Fidel and Paz Avila, rode with Villa.

The war cost them the family ranch in Chihuahua State and led my grandmother Juanita to move to El Paso three months after she married Antonio Gallardo. They were "Mama" and "Papa" to all of us grandkids, creating a legacy that has prospered in just two generations here in the U.S.

"They wanted to be an American success story, and they were," said Denise Gallardo Avila, my cousin.

In 1925, Antonio and Juanita piled into Papa’s Model T Ford and crossed the border. There were no strict immigration laws or Border Patrol to avoid; they just headed to California’s Imperial Valley, applied for work permits and later green cards and went to work in the fields, picking whatever was growing.

"My dad's first job was picking strawberries, and then they went to different crops. They would pick potatoes, carrots, cabbage and lettuce," said my uncle John, who was the seventh of eight children.

Their life of hard work continued in Los Angeles right up until Papa Antonio died in 1984. He left a hard-earned example for his children, working two to three jobs all his life.

The Gallardo-Avila family settled on a farm in what is now an industrial area of East Los Angeles; they were sharecroppers leasing the land they worked on, never owning it.

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Political signs are shown.

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My mother, Eve, says all the kids worked in the fields. She hated picking zucchini because it caused a rash. Papa was paid in cash, and Juanita, my grandmother, saved it, not in a bank but under the floorboards of their farmhouse.

Uncle John remembers being ordered to search the nooks and crannies for funds to buy a house, and sure enough ... "She hid it in the floorboards — we had enough to buy the three houses for $6,000 in 1945 that my mother had stashed away," he says.

To me, this was the family house on Downey Road in East LA, in the infamous Mexican-American barrio.

My mother went to Garfield High, featured in the movie "Stand By Me."

It was a small house for 10 people; my grandparents and my aunts slept in the bedrooms on the main floor, and my four uncles piled into the basement every night. The basement floor was made of dirt that my grandmother swept every day.

Money was tight, but there were no handouts. Everyone went to school and worked when they were done. The family had been in the country for just 20 years when my oldest uncle, Tony, was drafted for World War II.

It was a scary, but proud, time for this immigrant family.

My mother remembers her mom going outside at sunset every night and staring at the night sky to pray for her son. Still, the family was proud, even if they were afraid for him. 

"I can remember coming over to Mama's house, and that picture of him in his uniform was on the mantelpiece," says Denise. "I mean, they were proud of that. This is their country."

The second son, Rudy, was the epitome of immigrant success: class president and star athlete at his high school. But when he asked the principal for the science classes he needed for college, he told his daughter Denise that the initial answer was a no, coupled with an insult.

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Border Patrol agents guide migrants onto a bus at a U.S.-Mexico border crossing near San Diego, California.

What does comprehensive immigration reform look like?

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"The school's thing was, 'What do they need this for? They're going to be working in the fields,'" says Denise.

The principal confidently challenged Rudy to find 20 classmates who actually wanted the course — an insult that quickly backfired, says my cousin. 

"My dad had 20 other kids by the next day, and they had those classes in an instant," says Denise.

It paid off. Rudy not only went to college, but he also went to medical school as his brothers and sisters worked to pay tuition.

My mother says the family, including the kids, contributed. 

"We all brought a check home, gave it to my mom — we were allowed to keep $5 — and mother put all that money toward his expenses — his college tuition, everything," she says.

Rudy has since passed, but cousin Denise remembers his gratitude to his siblings.

"Getting him through [medical school] was a family project, which I'm sure he was grateful for," she says.

Cousin Guy Mendivil went into medicine as well, a second-generation success story now running a successful orthodontic office and living in San Clemente.

"We need immigrants from all these countries. The people are so successful, and they're successful because they are willing to work," Guy says.

The Avila-Gallardo immigrant family came here with nothing, never took government money, and never committed a crime.

And they are not alone.

A 2023 Stanford University study found that immigrants are incarcerated 30% less often than native-born Americans. They are hardworking new Americans whose stories are too often lost in the politics of the border.

"That's why my parents came — came here for a better life, and they got it," says uncle John.

The bottom line? The Avila-Gallardo immigrant story is more typical than rare.

This story was originally published by Jim Avila at Scripps News San Diego.