CEDAR RAPIDS — Over the years, Monica Vallejo has made it her goal to open as many doors as she could — not just for herself, but to keep the path open for those behind her.
The 60-year-old Cedar Rapids woman has been a longtime advocate for immigrants and Latinos in the community. She works as a parent educator at Young Parents Network, started programs to engage some of the youngest members of the community and helped found the Cedar Rapids chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
And as of this month, Vallejo became the first Latina appointed to the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission.
“I’m very excited, and it’s an honor for me to be part of this special group,” Vallejo said. “I’m a little bit afraid, a lot of responsibility, and I hope I can do a good job for the Latino community as well as the rest of the community.”
Vallejo immigrated from Ecuador to Cedar Rapids more than 30 years ago with her husband and two children. Vallejo, who was 29 at the time, said she struggled in those early years because she didn’t know how to adjust to the new culture. Now she’s made it a goal to help others adjust to a new life in the U.S.
“For the 20 years I was working with the community, it was not easy,” Vallejo said. “It was very hard for me to open doors because I didn’t know anything about (the community).
“My goal was not to be a big leader, my goal was only to help people,” she said.
Q: How did you get involved with advocacy for the local Latino community?
A: “My work in the community did not start with LULAC. I have more than 20 years working in the community. When I worked in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, I was Hispanic administrator for Cedar Rapids. Once I was asked by the archbishop about my job, and I told him ‘I don’t do anything inside the office. There’s a lot of work to do outside the office, translating, taking people to the doctor or visiting with people in jail.’
“I saw that no one knows anything about helping the Latino community. Because I didn’t have any information about helping the community, I attended programs in Des Moines. It was the only way I could learn.”
Q: How did LULAC come to be in Cedar Rapids?
A: “I opened (the Cedar Rapids chapter of LULAC) with another group of Latinos two and a half years ago. We decided to do it to support other members of the community because they don’t have representation in any way. It’s a problem not just in Cedar Rapids, but the whole state and the whole country. I think it’s better to have another organization for Latinos because we don’t have any representation.”
Q: You decided to take on this effort because of your own experience?
A: “When I came to the United States ... it was hard to find a job, especially because I didn’t know the language. It was hard to find a place to leave my kids so I could go to work. So my husband was the only one working, and he worked three jobs at one time. It was very hard for him.
“I was pushed into that position and I was not undocumented, I came legally. Some families are undocumented, and I don’t want them to feel different. I had the same experience, faced the same lack of information, the same barriers to being part of this community because of the lack of a job, the lack of an education.”
Q: What is your goal for your time on the city’s Civil Rights Commission?
A: “My goal is that my community be included, to be part of different programs. I always ask why Latinos are not in better positions, why they’re not in city council and civil rights commission and other director positions. We can change that. I want to see more (Latinos) working in higher positions in the city. I don’t want to run for city council, I want to see young people looking to be in city council, to be on school boards, to be involved.
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“I don’t want to be the last one. I want to be among a lot of people. I open too many doors in this city, but I open the doors because I think they need to be opened.”
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