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Author: Samhita Collur

Xiucoatl Mejia: Connecting Communities…From A Distance

Art is entrenched in Xiucoatl Mejia’s being. His creative talents can be seen in the beautiful depictions and designs that he has produced as a tattooist and a muralist. Xiucoatl, a twenty-year old native of Pomona, California, is still defining his identity as an artist, but he has articulated this powerful vision—to use his creative energy to (a) uplift the stories of his own indigenous community and (b) engage and connect members from different backgrounds. 

What does this vision look like in practice? One of Xiucoatl’s most cherished projects is a mural he proposed and designed as a high school student in Claremont, California. The ‘Legacy of Creation’ mural features sixteen thought leaders and activists from around the world. His vision was to create a mural that engaged the school community in both substance and process.

“The paint on the mural came from a lot of different hands — teachers, students, and school faculty. This is something that should be emphasized with any sort of community art.”

Like many artists, Xiucoatl has been forced to modify the tools that he once relied on to achieve this vision in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way communities engage with each other. These changing social dynamics have left us with the difficult and unfortunate task of labeling work as ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’—a distinction that has resulted in the loss of work for so many hard working artists and creatives. But in spite of these circumstances, artists like Xiucoatl continue to navigate this difficult moment in creative ways.

Xiucoatl’s creative endeavors are inspired by his family, culture, and community.

Xiucoatl’s family is originally from Mexico, and his parents were born and raised in East Los Angeles. His father, also a tattooist and muralist, was always involved in an art project in his house or in the community, and this upbringing inspired the artistic pursuits of himself and his two sisters. Xiucoatl distinctly remembers accompanying his father to paint murals around their neighborhood in Pomona. His father worked at Good Time Charlie’s, an iconic tattoo parlor founded in the 1970’s in East Los Angeles focused on bringing the fine line style of tattooing to the professional world of tattooing. The fine line style has rich cultural roots. It’s a style born from the resourcefulness of incarcerated Chicanx community members who relied on the tools available to them —like needles and pens—to create tattoos that honored their narratives.

Xiucoatl’s work as a tattooist is inspired by the fine line chicanx style as well as his identity as a member of the Tonatierra indigenous community based in Phoenix. His parents always made great efforts to engage with the traditional rituals, ceremonies, and traditions of their community, and Xiucoatl was deeply inspired by their commitment to engaging with their heritage and the beauty of the traditions themselves.

“My father sun danced. Growing up, I remember attending sun dance and tipi ceremonies, and this really shaped my connection to and understanding of my community. My parents always actively inserted themselves in their community, and this is something I try to do as well.”

Xiucoatl’s family emphasized the importance of knowing the history behind a given art form and instilled in him a curiosity about the cultures and communities around him. He has incorporated his parents’ teachings in his approach as a tattoo artist. He acknowledges that tattooing is an ancient art form, and indigenous communities across the world have engaged in some version of this art form. As a result, he invested his time in studying the practices of these communities, including traditions from Japan and Polynesia. Xiucoatl notes the important symbolic value of tattoos, especially for indigenous communities like his who have experienced horrific atrocities at the hands of colonial powers:

“I’m coming from a people who have experienced one of the most brutal genocides in history. I want to give our communities designs that they can use to identify with their other camaradas and give them something that ties them to the land below us. Tattoos are something that make us feel sacred and connect us to the sentiments that our ancestors felt—many of the sentiments that we still feel today.”

The pandemic has forced Xiucoatl to develop new skills to support himself and his family.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way communities engage with each other, and Xiucoatl’s artistic pursuits were not immune to these changes. Xiucoatl was working at a tattoo parlor just as COVID-19 cases were rapidly increasing in the United States. Under California’s stay at home order issued earlier this year, tattoo parlors throughout the state were ordered to close. Artists and creatives from a wide range of industries suddenly found themselves unemployed, and the expenses and bills continued to pile up. Though the federal government expanded unemployment assistance to self-employed workers under the CARES Act, which allowed a number of artists and gig workers to receive benefits, the assistance is simply not sufficient to manage the losses that the pandemic has produced.

In an effort to pay his rent, bills, and other essential expenses, Xiucoatl turned to creating and selling drawings. He was able to purchase supplies for his drawings with the support of MAF’s LA Young Creatives Grant. The LA Creatives grant is an effort to provide immediate cash assistance to the nation’s most vulnerable communities, including artists and creatives. Thanks to the generous support of the Snap Foundation, MAF quickly mobilized to offer $500 grants to 2,500 creatives in the Los Angeles area as part of the scholarship initiative.

In addition to selling his drawings, Xiucoatl has invested his time in learning a number of new skills to support his family. He recently picked up plumbing, tile work, and throwing concrete to help his family complete renovations to their family home. When asked about the insights he has collected from navigating these unprecedented times, he says:

“Our people, our communities have always found ways to thrive and to hustle. They were thriving and hustling much before the pandemic. Now, there are hundreds of people struggling together. Many folks are starting to understand the struggle of communities around the world whose only choice was to live with these fears and to survive like this.”

In terms of his own profession, he’s hopeful that the pandemic will actually bring about positive changes. He believes that tattoo parlors will become more diligent about complying with safety and hygiene standards. He also remains hopeful about his own future and the future of creatives and artists across the nation. Though this has been a painful time for many communities, he believes that there will be a lot of beautiful work that reflects the inequities and resilience highlighted by the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It will be interesting to reflect back on this time. There will be a renaissance of artists producing great pieces and a lot of great artwork.”

Xiucoatl’s story illustrates the incontestable reality that art—in all of its forms—is essential to enabling people to connect with each other through empathy, shared space, or shared experience. Legislative designations aside, art is essential.

To see more of Xiucoatl’s drawings, please visit his instagram account @xiucoatlmejia. All work for sale is posted to his instagram. If you’d like to inquire about prices or commissions, please send a direct message or email to

MAF Staff Spotlight: Doris Vasquez

Meet Doris Vasquez, MAF’s Client Success Manager. Though she’d never admit it herself, Doris embodies what it means to be a community leader. As MAF’s Client Success Manager, Doris is engaging with the community every day — enrolling clients in MAF’s programs, facilitating the monthly Lending Circles formations, supporting participants throughout their journey, and connecting participants with the best resources for their circumstances and needs. Throughout her nine years at MAF, she has always placed the community at the center of her work. In honor of her incredible tenure, we asked her to share a few reflections on her experience:

How did you first learn about MAF?

DV: One day, I was attending a school council meeting at Sanchez Elementary School and as the principal was speaking, I found myself going back and forth between nodding in agreement and shaking my head in disagreement to whatever he was saying. Suddenly, someone tapped me on my shoulder and said ‘you should speak up and say something if you disagree.’ She could tell that something was on the tip of my tongue, but I was hesitant to speak up. Little did I know that this person was going to be the someone who led me to a lot of really incredible opportunities in life. After this incident, I started getting more involved with school groups (PTA, SSC, ELAC). I didn’t quite have a vision for the work just yet, but I knew that I wanted to make a difference in my kids lives. Soon enough, the woman who had encouraged me to speak up during the school council meeting —  Lorena — was training me to be an organizer and a leader. Little by little, I started volunteering more of my time with San Francisco Organizing Project (SFOP), a non profit based in San Francisco, and Lorena was also working with them. As I attended more trainings and rallies, I slowly began to understand the system behind organizing. Eventually, Lorena started working at MAF, and when a position opened up, she told me about it and I decided to apply.

What inspires you to do this work?

DV: My family inspires me. As an immigrant, I know the struggle of coming to a new country and not knowing what opportunities this new country offers. When my dad moved from El Salvador to the U.S, I didn’t hear from my dad for weeks. I knew that he had gone to another country, but I didn’t realize there was an immigration status attached to that. My dad eventually sent for us to come to the U.S, and at first, I didn’t want to be here {U.S.}. In El Salvador, I felt more freedom to be a child and I had the support of my family. I was always very close to my abuelitos. When I moved to the U.S., I had to learn a new language and navigate a new school system. Additionally, my family was going through their own set of financial struggles. My dad was the only one working, and sometimes, we didn’t have food for dinner. I recall my mother and I going to the local store to buy ‘TV dinners’ or standing in line at food banks. Though my parents were always able to financially support our family, we were definitely struggling financially. Even so, my parents never really talked to me about managing finances or what it meant to be in debt. As an independent adult, and especially after I became a mother, I experienced my own set of financial struggles. When I first started working at MAF, my former colleague Alex was MAF’s financial coach at the time. He started guiding me on how to manage my debt and pay it down. I would take part in the financial classes and workshops he would facilitate, and as I started to learn more about managing finances, this topic became really interesting to me. Managing finances is such a huge part of our day-to-day life. Slowly, I was also able to get out of debt.

Oftentimes, when I listen to the stories that our clients share about being in total debt, struggling to support their family back home, those stories start to become part of me and I think back to my own experiences. I feel a strong need to give back by assisting our community be part of the financial system.

Given that MAF’s work is rooted in ‘trust,’ how did you build trust with the community?

DV: I think I built trust by taking the time to listen to each person who walked through the door and providing them with that space and time to open up. At the beginning, I was afraid to get too involved because I’m naturally a very empathetic and emotional person. There have been times that a client has been on my mind for days, weeks, months, and sometimes, even years. But even if I’m bombarded with work, if a client walks in and I see that they want to talk about something, my time is given to them. Sometimes, we just need someone to listen to us. Most of the time, that’s what I end up doing. There are some clients that I’ve worked with since 2009, and I feel like they’ve made me part of their family. I feel like I’m very lucky to have clients that are so thoughtful — clients who think about me even when they shouldn’t. Over the years, I’ve been able to build a strong relationship with every person that walks through MAF’s door.

How has the way you’ve approached your work evolved over the past nine years?

DV: All my life, I’ve known that I love working and meeting people. When I first started working at MAF, I had very little formal experience working with the community. Most of my prior experience involved the organizing work I did within the school districts. When I started working at MAF, I didn’t know what this work would require. In the beginning, I didn’t feel like I was giving my 100% because I felt as if I didn’t have all of the answers to the questions clients were asking. It took a lot of independent research to really understand the issues affecting the community and how I can refer them to the right resources. I had no idea that there was such a strong ecosystem of nonprofit organizations in San Francisco. Over the years, I’ve made it a point to get to know these organizations and build my knowledge and relationships with my companeros en la lucha of where to refer clients for different resources.

Even if I can’t help someone in the moment, I feel it’s important to treat everyone with respect, make the effort to direct them to another resource, and offer whatever support I can.

Given that you started working with youth and organizing in the K-12 education space, what your advice to youth?

For me, personally, Lorena, one of my mentors, saw a potential in me that I didn’t see in myself. It’s why I make it a point to always see the incredible potential in everyone who walks through MAF’s doors. I want everyone to know that they are on this earth for a reason. Maybe the reason is not clear right now, but at some point you will realize why you’re here and what you need to make of it. That’s why you can never give up.

2019 MAF Summit: And the award goes to…

At Mission Asset Fund (MAF), we never pass up an opportunity to celebrate our inspiring and all-around incredible community members.

At this year’s MAF Summit, we rolled out a red carpet of our own and took some time to acknowledge a few community leaders that embody the theme of the event: Transcend, Evolve, Take Flight.

Learn more about the awards & awardees!

The Rabble Award

Frank Curiel (LIFT LA), Rob Lajoie (Peninsula Family Service), Wandy Peguero (Family Independence Initiative), Mariana Silva (Brown Boi Project), David Soto (Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio), Natalie Zayas (Center for Changing Lives)

Partner Advisory Council (PAC) Members

To witness a group of butterflies — known as a rabble — migrating southward is a beautiful sight. Each butterfly may fly with its own purpose, but together, they move towards the same destination. MAF’s Partner Advisory Council (PAC) members are an incredible rabble of their own. We thank them for sharing their unique perspective and ensuring that MAF and the Lending Circle network are moving in the same direction as we all work towards a more just and inclusive society.

The Monarch Award

Miguel Castillo, Pam Ortiz Cerda, Rosa Namgoong, and Luis Quiroz

Participants of the ‘Meet the Monarchs: Dreamers Share Stories of Resilience’ MAF Summit session

Monarchs make the incredible 3,000-mile migration every year. Luis, Miguel, Pam, and Rosa have gone through an incredible journey to arrive where they are today. They are entrepreneurs, students, and activists. They are speaking out when it’s important and their words are taking flight. The strokes of their wings are not only leading to impressive personal achievements, but they’re also making waves for their whole community. We thank them for their willingness to share their whole selves.

The Chrysalis Award

Alicia Villanueva, Susana Aguilar, and Patricia Fuentes

Participants of the ‘Meet the Rainbow: Clients Share Stories of Evolution’ MAF Summit session

Caterpillars create a chrysalis and emerge as butterflies. These three women have undergone amazing metamorphosis throughout their lives. They are strong women who have built strong foundations for themselves and their community to grow. We applaud their leadership, and we are excited to continue to watch them spread their wings and fly.

The Caterpillar Award

Canal Alliance

Lending Circles Provider

Caterpillars are young, strong, and transformational. Canal Alliance is a new Lending Circles partner, and they have grown at impressive speeds to not only provide Lending Circles, but also Lending Circles for Citizenship. They have even inched through uncharted programming territory, creatively envisioning an expanded horizon. We thank them for listening to their community and constantly evolving to meet their needs.

The Internal Compass Award

East LA Community Corporation

Lending Circles Provider

Much like the Monarch butterfly’s internal compass that guides their migratory journey, ELACC knew what was right and worked with their community to fight for it. The path they followed is intrinsic and rooted in their DNA. They set their sights on legalizing street vending and over the past ten years, they’ve made the long journey to get there with their neighbors and policymakers. Kudos to their ability to prioritize the needs of their community and respond.

The Cocoon Award

Asian Services in Action

Lending Circles Provider

Just as a cocoon provides the support and nourishment for a caterpillar to evolve, ASIA gives participants the support to undergo their own evolution — building their lives, creating their home, and thriving in new surroundings. They weave a program that fits the needs of their community, going the extra mile to ensure that their clients understand systems that might be new to them. There is a lot of transformation going on in that cocoon and ASIA has emerged  with zero charge offs!

Catalyzing Change: Antonio’s Story

Catalyst Miami is a member of MAF’s national Lending Circles network based in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. Through its diverse programs and services, Catalyst Miami is dedicated to fighting poverty and improving health, education, and economic opportunity in Miami communities. Catalyst Miami became an official Lending Circles provider in 2014, adding credit-building to their suite of programs and social services.

To date, Catalyst Miami has provided over $350,000 in loans to participants. They have skillfully integrated Lending Circles into their other programs so that clients already engaged with the organization can easily access a tangible, proven opportunity to build their credit. They’ve recruited many of their participants by tabling at local community colleges and engaging students. They want to provide students with the resources to minimize their debt and to set them up for a future of financial health and prosperity.

In September of 2014, Antonio came to Catalyst Miami for an appointment with a financial coach. He was worried about a few things that had appeared on his credit history, and he wanted advice.

Though they hadn’t been at the top of his mind when Antonio arrived at Catalyst Miami, he ended up sharing a few other concerns during the intake process with the financial coach: he and his spouse had recently separated, and Antonio was worried about how the separation would affect his young child. He also shared that he was formerly incarcerated.

Antonio wanted help repairing his credit and mapping out a plan to become more financially stable.

Antonio has always had a strong work ethic. When he came to Catalyst Miami, he had already taken the step of enrolling in classes at Miami Dade College. He had also found a job servicing ships at the port of Miami. It was hard work, but Antonio liked it, and he took whatever shifts he could get. He found downtown Miami energizing. He spent so much time in the area that it usually wasn’t worth it to commute home for just a few hours of rest. Instead, Antonio would spend most of his time off the clock in the “Chasers’ Lodge,” a facility located right on the port where workers could rest in between working hours.

Antonio shared with his coach that the long commute had left him dreaming of owning his own condo or a house closer to the port. He also shared that he had a burgeoning interest in real estate sales. He was drawn to the idea of becoming a landlord and renting out properties to add another income source.

After that first conversation at Catalyst Miami, the financial coach encouraged Antonio to enroll in Catalyst’s free Financial Coaching program to work toward his goals. The coach suggested his first steps should be to review his budget and start repairing his credit score.

One of Catalyst Miami’s strengths as an organization is the range of services that it offers. And Antonio has taken advantage of many.

After joining the program, Antonio got started by tackling his budget. He worked with a coach to assess his income and expenses and set achievable goals.

Next, he worked with Catalyst Miami’s health team to enroll in a health insurance plan.

Finally, he turned to his credit score, which had suffered in recent years. Antonio signed up for credit coaching to identify ways to improve his score. One of the coach’s recommendations was to join Lending Circles, MAF’s zero-interest loan program proven to help people establish and increase their credit scores.

Since working with the staff at Catalyst Miami, Antonio has moved closer and closer to the financial stability he wanted for himself and his family. He has paid off the entire $3,000 he previously had in credit card debt. He has a monthly savings routine, and he has $500 in his growing savings account. And his credit score?

Antonio is proud to share his current credit score: an impressive 730.

Not only does Antonio now feel confident about how to maintain his strong credit score and continue building it, but his healthy credit profile helped him buy a car with a low interest rate, something he wouldn’t have qualified for before.

He was so satisfied with his experience in the program that he began to praise the outcomes to friends and colleagues.

As a result, four of his friends have since joined the financial coaching program at Catalyst Miami and enrolled in the Lending Circles program!

Antonio is proud of all that he has achieved. And he now knows that his personal and professional dreams are well within his reach.

About the author: Vaughan Johnson is a Community Wealth Manager at Catalyst Miami, which offers financial coaching, education, and health programs in Miami, FL. He holds a Master’s from Florida International University.

A Galaxy of Her Own: Connie’s Mixcoatl

When you’re strolling down 24th Street in San Francisco’s Mission District, you can’t help but stop in your tracks as you are greeted by a display of luchador masks outside Mixcoatl’s storefront.

The store’s name — Mixcoatl — means ‘milky way’ in the Nahuatl language. It’s an apt name for a store that truly does bring together a wide range of regional and cultural crafts from Mexico and all over Central and South America.

Walk into the store, and you’ll stand in awe of the colorful array of handcrafted goods — hand woven purses from Guatemala, calaca earrings and vibrant guayaberas from Mexico.

Each piece is thoughtfully chosen by the store’s owners — Connie and Ricardo Rivera — in an effort to uplift artists throughout Latin America and to continue to share rich cultural histories with local residents.

For Connie Rivera, Mixcoatl’s owner, entrepreneurship runs in her blood.

Connie grew up in Toluca, Mexico, the capital of the central state of Mexico, living with her siblings, parents, and grandparents. Early on, her grandparents served as a strong source of inspiration for Connie. She drew from their admirable work ethic and the skillful way in which they navigated multiple jobs — as campesinos, artisans, and business owners — to provide for their family. They owned a business selling a variety of foodstuffs, from produce to candies, and as was the norm in Mexico, the whole family helped out.

Connie was not able to attend school, but she found a powerful education in helping her grandparents operate their small business:

‘We used to go to a market and my grandma would send me to the market to make a trade, like trading tomatoes for corn. These experiences were my schooling, and my grandparents were my first teachers, my first inspiration.”

When she moved to the U.S. with her husband in the late 1980’s, she knew that she wanted to channel her love for entrepreneurship into her own business venture.  

Being far away from home, she felt a certain nostalgia for the colors, scents, and symbols of her home country, and she knew that other community members felt the same. And for those who might not have a direct connection to her country and culture, she wanted to find a way to share her traditions with them as well. This was the origin of Mixcoatl.

“Number one, when I came here and left home, I knew I wanted to promote my culture and keep it alive. And not just the culture from one town or one state, but from all over Central and South America. I also wanted to create something that would allow the many talented artisans to continue creating.”

She started her business on a smaller scale selling goods to friends and neighbors. When her brother would visit her from Mexico, she would ask him to bring a few handcrafted jewelry items with him to add to her inventory. She was able to sell these items quickly, so she started to think about expanding her business. But there were a couple things holding her back from taking the next step.

First, she was concerned about the financial investment she would need to make — an investment that would not just impact her, but also her family. At the time, she, her husband, and her two kids were living with a limited savings fund, and they knew they would need to take on debt in order to build their business. Her second concern was around finding the right resources to support her throughout the process. She knew she could not do this alone, and it wasn’t just financial support that she needed. How was she going to operate this business? Obtain the right licenses to operate?

Connie knew that she still had a lot to learn about being a business owner, but she was determined to find the right information.

As luck would have it, one day, as Connie was walking around her neighborhood, she happened to pass by a nonprofit organization that offered comprehensive support services for female business owners.  

“I’m very curious when I want to know something, so I decided to knock on their door, and they opened it for me”

Soon, Connie enrolled in their 8-week program where she learned how to create a business plan, how to obtain the right licensing, and most importantly, she walked away with the confidence to pursue her business expansion.

Her next step was to secure a brick and mortar location. Just as a stroll in the neighborhood led her to find the right resources earlier, it was another neighborhood stroll that led her to secure her brick and mortar venue on 24th St & South Van Ness St. When she saw the empty storefront, her instinct confirmed that this was the right location for Mixcoatl. And of course, what better location than the Mission District — a neighborhood that has become a stronghold for the Latinx community.

Mixcoatl is located in what has now been designated the ‘Latino Cultural District.’

To address the effects of gentrification in this area, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in 2014 designating a portion of the Mission District as the Latino Cultural District. This designation serves as a commitment from both local government and community organizations:

“To preserve, enhance and advocate for Latino cultural continuity, vitality, and community in San Francisco’s touchstone Latino Cultural District and the greater Mission community.”

– Calle 24 (Ventiquatro)

The maintenance and preservation of the Latino Cultural District is overseen by community group Calle 24 (Ventiquatro), and Mixcoatl is exactly the type of business that aligns with the mission of this cultural district. Mixcoatl aims to promote, preserve, and share Latin American culture by bringing authentic, unique, handmade pieces from Mexico and all over Central and South America to San Francisco’s Mission District.

Though Mixcoatl opened much before the resolution passed, the designation has been an important step in mitigating the displacing effects of gentrification and ensuring that new business owners maintain a commitment to the existing community — from who they serve, how they hire, and how they engage with the community.

Connie is proud of what she and her husband have been able to build. But her business has continued to experience financial ups and downs.

It was during a period of financial struggle that she approached Mission Asset Fund (MAF). She heard about MAF from a friend, so she decided take another walk. This time, she walked to the MAF office.

After talking to MAF’s Client Success Manager, Doris Vasquez, she was drawn to the fact that MAF offered a zero-interest loan and found the application process easy and accessible. Connie decided to join MAF’s Lending Circles for Business program, and she used her first round of funds to buy cameras to improve store security. She loved the program so much that she decided to join another Lending Circle.

From Mission Asset Fund to a number of other local nonprofit organizations, Connie credits the strong ecosystem of community support in the Mission District as a blessing throughout her journey.

But that being said, getting connected with the right resources was no easy task.

“Maybe the resources are there, but we don’t know where to go. It’s hard for small business owners because you’re often working by yourself with no employees, so it’s tough to find the time to ask for help. When you do take time out of your day, you feel like you’re losing revenue.”

What’s Connie’s next goal as a business owner? She has just opened up another store, Colibri, also located in the Latino Cultural District in the Mission District, so she’d like to continue to grow her new location. Colibri also sells handcrafted goods from Mexico and all over Latin America. She also wants to get to a point where she can afford to hire another staff member. She would like to have more time to spend with her kids, and she’d also like to use her business as a platform to serve as a mentor and to create employment opportunities for youth.

“I want my story to inspire and motivate young people to believe in themselves. I want them to know that there’s always a door open for them. Also, as my dad always said, if you’re going to do something, give it 100% and do it with love.”

Operating a business has not been an easy journey for Connie, but her intuition and inherent drive to ask for the right resources have proven to be an invaluable resource.

In the story of both Connie and Mixcoatl, we see the beauty and power of businesses that are truly rooted in the community — not only do these businesses preserve and enhance a vibrant culture, but they have a built-in spirit of giving back to their community.

If you haven’t visited Mixcoatl, it’s a store you can’t miss:

3201 24th St

San Francisco, CA 94110

Learn more about Mixcoatl on Yelp and Facebook.

‘Échale ganas, mijo’/’Give it your all, son’: PART TWO

What does ‘Transcend. Evolve. Take Flight.” mean to you?

Read part one.

‘Ni de aqui, ni de alla’/’Not from here, nor from there’

I maintained my connection to my Mexican heritage and culture, but I also tried to understand and adapt to American culture. It always blew my mind when I noticed my friends and their families eating dinner in the living room rather than around a table (as I was used to). I always tried to allow my close friends into my culture, and they openly accepted me into theirs.

My assimilation into American culture came with its limits. I knew I was never going to be fully American, nor did I want to. I followed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” code, never telling my friends of my immigration status. They always assumed that I came here legally, and at times, they would jokingly tease me about whether I had my green card. I always did my best to deflect these conversations by offering up witty answers like, “Yeah, my name is not really David, but my fake papers are sure fooling you all!” I never truly felt comfortable with telling them the truth.

On the other hand, my fellow Latinos labeled me as an “Americanized Mexican” because my English accent became less heavy, and I even started to struggle with some Spanish words. In fact, with my lighter skin tone, many folks from the Latino community assumed that I was born in the U.S.

Nightmare within a dream

Eventually, I found myself attending community college on my own merits and with the assistance of a very small scholarship. I knew I wasn’t able to apply for Federal Aid, and I was working a few jobs to pay my tuition and to continue to support my parents. I finally felt that I was able to pursue my dreams and that I was building my life in this country. However, dreams can sometimes take a temporary turn for the worse. My parents purchased a home, but we eventually lost the house during the economic crisis in 2007.

We faced our biggest challenge yet when my father was detained by ICE early in the morning on a hot summer day. The day he was detained marked the last time I would see him in person. ICE’s reasoning dated back to the early days of my father’s immigration when he received fraudulent legal advice from a notario. As a family, we scrambled to find a way to cover the legal fees. We weren’t going to allow my father to be deported. Shortly after, ICE came once more — this time for my older brother, my mother, and myself. Because my youngest brother was a U.S. citizen and a minor at the time, my mother was immune from being detained. But my brother and I did not have this same immunity.

We were placed in custody, but we still remained separated from my father. My dreams and ambitions of living in the U.S. quickly died while in detainment. My father voluntarily elected to be deported after he heard the news of our detainment. He was devastated and felt responsible for our current situation. I also decided to finally bring my closest friends into the loop and admitted my situation to them. They were very surprised, as expected, but I was very fortunate for their understanding and support. A week after my father was deported, my brother and I were finally were able to post bail.

What followed were years of ongoing court hearings, fighting against what I believe is a broken immigration system, and being constantly monitored (even wearing an ankle bracelet). Before, I always understood my limitations and believed that immigration reform would be our saving grace. However, throughout the proceedings, I started to feel less inspired about my future, especially when my lawyer told me that our best strategy was for me to marry an American citizen or wait for immigration reform. But there was a silver lining to all of this. As we were fighting against removal proceedings, we were actually able to apply for temporary work authorization. We were able to do so because in some situations, immigration authorities will allow folks who are involved in deportation proceedings to apply for temporary work authorization.

Sacrifice before reawakening

After securing my work authorization, I was fortunate enough to land a great employment opportunity when I was hired at Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES), a nonprofit known to serve the Latino community. CLUES’ mission and values matched those values instilled in me by my father. Even from afar, my father continued to encourage me to keep working hard, reassuring me that hard work and sacrifice will always pay off. He encouraged me to utilize my platform as a service provider to serve those in need, including my fellow Latino community and the larger immigrant community.

After DACA was introduced in 2012, I was able to dream once more. I was no longer fighting by myself. I was now fighting alongside my fellow dreamers living a similar situation. My optimism for the future returned. I was convinced that If I was given a shot, my family and my community facing the same situation will soon follow suit. Compared to my younger, reserved self, I became a voice to those who couldn’t speak. I was never into politics, but I understood that in order to become an effective advocate for myself and for my community, I had to arm myself with knowledge in policy and politics. I took any opportunity that was given for me to educate those who have a vague understanding of who we really are and the contributions that we make to this country.

We always supported my father back home. He started to become ill, and he was later diagnosed with multiple myeloma. We continued to support him in any way possible while he was undergoing treatment. My father was a very proud man. It’s a trait that I also carry. He did not want us to worry about him, and he would always say that he was ‘feeling fine.’ But we could see right through this facade. He needed his family more than anything, and we needed him. We felt powerless. We couldn’t just simply jump on a plane and fly to Mexico to support him. Even if we could, he would’ve never allowed it.

My father’s cancer got progressively worse in 2016. His immunities were so low that chemo actually hurt him more than it helped him. He became terminally ill, leaving us to face our most difficult decision to date from thousands of miles away. Besides my younger brother, I was the only person who could’ve requested advance parole to fly down there. Unfortunately, my DACA application was delayed at that time, and leaving the country would have posed a high risk for me. Our lawyer confirmed that if I flew down, it would’ve been very difficult for me to return. If my DACA status were to be voided, my father’s sacrifice would’ve been made in vain. We had no choice but to have my brother fly down there to support him through his final days. My father passed just as soon as my brother landed.

Every day, I feel my father’s presence. I constantly play back the memories of the many lessons he taught me. “Échale ganas mijo!”, or “No te rindas por lo que estés luchando.” He was a martyr that sacrificed his life in order for us to have an opportunity to build the life that we chose to create in the land of opportunity. My father was an original dreamer. His memories live within me, as I am part of him. I will continue to dream. I will continue to evolve. I will continue to carry my father’s legacy.

A huge thank you to David Soto for writing this post and sharing his incredibly inspiring story with us. David Soto is the Financial Capability Program Supervisor at Communidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES). David also oversees the Lending Circles programs at CLUES.

‘Échale ganas, mijo’/’Give it your all, son’: PART ONE

What does ‘Transcend. Evolve. Take Flight.” mean to you?

Life’s about a dream

I’ve always considered myself a dreamer — long before the term was used to identify a community of hard-working immigrant youth fighting for a chance to succeed in the land of opportunity. I interpret the term on a much deeper level, and this has influenced the development of my own ideology. I often connect dreams to my past and present. My dreams also set the vision for my future.

For me, the term dreamer goes beyond my current status of being a DACA recipient. I enjoy a good night’s sleep. Especially when I’m induced into my own personal lucid “dreamland.” I’ve taken lessons from my dreams that have shaped me into the person that I am today. I often find myself daydreaming back into the treasure chest of my life’s past memories and experiences.

I daydream of my life in Mexico. I was born in the state of Veracruz — a coastal state whose natives are often known as “Jarochos.” I was brought up by my parents and my immediate family. I visualize my grandfather, Camilo, who taught us the meaning of respect for those around us and encouraged my parents to set strict, yet fair disciplinary standards. I see my grandmother, Guillermina, who always displayed her love for us with constant affection and delicious Mexican dishes.

I had never imagined the events that would drastically alter the course of my life. It all started with a man, my father, who was willing to take a risk for the well-being of his family and for the pursuit of a better life — the so-called American Dream. My father immigrated to southern California in 1990. Months later, my mother joined him across the border. I was six at the time, and my youthful mind felt resentment and confusion towards my parents departure. Why would they leave us? It simply didn’t make sense.

A year passed by living without my parents. My grandparents took care of us and tried to make the best of our existing situation. Having access to Skype or social media would have made communication with my parents a lot easier back then.

In 1992, my older brother and I were reunited with our parents in southern California. The journey was long. I remember jumping from one crowded bus to another. I was excited and nervous to see my parents, and we felt comfortable traveling with one of my favorite uncles. We arrived to a destination which I later learned was Tijuana. Our uncle introduced us to two unknown women and left us in their care. As he said his farewells, our uncle reassured us that these women would take us to our parents. I didn’t understand what was going on, and I resorted to holding my older brother close to me. My brother was also in the same state of panic, and I was glad that we had each other.

I was fortunate enough to sleep through our venture across the border on the back cabin of a semi-truck — dreaming of a reunited life with my parents. But I also felt that they owed us an explanation for their abandonment.

Welcome to northern Mexico

Though life in California took some getting used to, I managed to assimilate quickly. We lived in a neighborhood with a large Latino community. My teachers spoke Spanish, and my friends were all Mexican. I didn’t quite feel the sense of culture shock I had expected to feel. Though I missed my family back home, my parents made up for this by providing unconditional love that only a parent can give to their children. They also gave us a U.S. born little brother.

My parents continued to instill many life lessons in me and my brothers. I would see my father come home late each night with dirty clothes and a darker tone to his skin. He worked in the construction industry as a laborer. He would always dedicate time to make sure we were adhering to our values and morals by making sure that our homework was done and our assigned chores finished. Once completed, we were rewarded with leisure time. I began to understand my father’s lesson of the value of having a strong work ethic. He would constantly remind me that by working hard, whether it be school work or chores, I would reap great results in the future.

My mother instilled in me the values of patience and compassion. She would smother me with affection for my good behavior and positive grades at school. She did struggle with disciplinary actions, and she often delegated these tasks to my father. My mother always had an entrepreneurial mentality. Aside from working as a caretaker for an American family, she sold cosmetics and jewelry on the side. To purchase her inventory, she often participated in tandas to help save her money.

My father worked long days and my mother worked long nights, so I cherished the weekends because those were times when we could be together as a family.

How do you say this in Spanish?

It wasn’t until a few years after moving to the U.S. that I experienced a true sense of culture shock. My parents decided to move north to Minnesota. I was in sixth grade at the time, and I was angry and disappointed for having to leave my friends back in California. After initially sharing an apartment with an extended family member, we eventually settled in the town of Farmington.

Being surrounded by gringos was a very nerve-wracking experience. My English was still limited, and my accent was heavy. In California, I was mostly speaking Spanish, and I happened to live in a neighborhood with mostly Latinos. My classmates constantly reminded me of my accent, and being one of the few Mexican kids in a mostly Caucasian town, I stood out like a sore thumb. Though, I was able to spark their interest in learning Spanish, well…Spanish curse words.

Many classmates treated me with respect and were accepting of my presence, but others felt the need to try to undermine me. I never really felt like I belonged to their inner circle. I felt out of place, not confident, and not like my former self. I became very reserved and quiet.

It took some time, but I finally began to accept Minnesota as my new home. But of course, I constantly struggled to keep myself fixed on seeing life from a new lens. I lived my share of negative experiences, especially around racism. During these moments, I would invoke another one of my father’s life lessons: Never be an aggressor or pick a fight, but don’t allow others to decrease your worth — or the worth of those you care for — and always defend your personal values. I had no option but to stand my ground when challenged.

I was fortunate to form a few close friendships. Needless to say…. they’re all gringos. To this day, they’re still part of my life. They also happen to be as Minnesotan as one can expect. Though my accent was still thick, I learned to feel more confident with my oral skills and my accent. My friends still gave me a hard time, especially around the distinctions between B’s and V’s and J’s and Y’s, but I knew it was all in good fun.

Read part two.

A huge thank you to David Soto for writing this post and sharing his incredibly inspiring story with us. David Soto is the Financial Capability Program Supervisor at Communidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES). David also oversees the Lending Circles programs at CLUES.

Boni: A Story of Self-Sufficiency

Today, Boni speaks about his life in the U.S. with a humble confidence. In the five years that Boni has lived in the country, he has built financial security for himself. He has navigated unfamiliar surroundings and financial systems with strength and savviness.

Boni’s story is really a story of independence and self-sufficiency — a trademark of immigrant communities. As he shares his journey and insights with us, he says:

“It’s nice to have the space to think about these things. I don’t often have the time to reflect on my journey.”

Boni grew up just outside of Puebla, Mexico.

Boni’s family belonged to an indigenous Aztec background, so he grew up speaking his native language Nahuatl, instead of Spanish. He lived in a household with his mother, father, and four brothers.

His family was not wealthy, and they believed in the idea that “what you have is what is yours.”

“In Mexico, if you’re not wealthy, you see loans as digging yourself into a hole.”

Credit was a foreign concept for Boni. According to Boni, in Mexico, credit was only used by wealthy communities or business owners with large scale operations. Also, many financial institutions in Mexico didn’t feel very reliable or trustworthy, so Boni’s family generally stayed away from these institutions. When Boni was living in Mexico, he had heard about an unfortunate incident between local community members and staff at a local bank. A few community members had opened up savings accounts with the bank and deposited their earnings in the account. A few weeks later, their money was no longer there, and the branch manager proved to be unhelpful in resolving the issue.

At age 27, Boni moved to the U.S. to find employment and build his financial security.

“You often hear that there are more opportunities in this country, so you start to think about how you can get here and improve your life.”

In the U.S., Boni quickly realized that credit, and being part of the financial mainstream, is necessary for everyone. When he first arrived in California, Boni was focused on the basics. How was he going to start earning his income? Where would he live? How would he secure his meals?

You come here, and you don’t have money, so you don’t worry about credit initially. On day one of arriving to the U.S, you worry about what you’re going to eat, live, and wear.”

After he found housing and employment, the need for a credit history began to creep into Boni’s life. With his skill set in remodeling, Boni easily found work in construction. He was an independent contractor, and as the scope of his projects increased in scale, he needed to rent more products from equipment leasing companies. But in order to rent the equipment, he had to show a positive credit history. He only found out about this requirement after he was turned away from an equipment leasing company.

Boni had the option of enlisting the help of friends to rent the equipment on his behalf, but he wanted ownership over the rental process. He didn’t want to burden others or accommodate to their schedules. It was time for him to invest in building his credit.

Boni wanted to build his credit so he could build his independence.

Having grown up with the mantra that “what you have is what is yours,” Boni instinctively knew that he did not want to build credit by accumulating debt.

In Boni’s neighborhood, purchasing household items on installment was a popular way to build credit. Representatives from a number of companies would go door-to-door in the community and sell household items. Community members could buy the items on installment, and each month’s payment would be reported to the credit bureaus.

He was skeptical of this method for a few reasons. First, the company’s installment payment plan came with high interest rates. Second, the company offered no real education around credit, so folks were still left in the dark about how credit worked. Third, given that Boni grew up with the mentality that ‘‘what you have is what is yours,’ his intuition led him away from building credit by taking on debt.

During a trip to the Consulate General of Mexico in San Jose for his identification documents, Boni attended a presentation on the Lending Circles program. He was interested in learning more about the program, so he stopped by MAF’s financial education office at the Consulate to speak with Diana Adame, MAF’s Financial Coach. At first, Boni was skeptical of the Lending Circles program, but as he asked more questions, Boni eventually warmed up to the idea. He became especially receptive to the program when he realized the similarities between Lending Circles and Tandas — the name for the social lending practice in Mexico. Suddenly, the idea of building credit didn’t feel so unfamiliar. With a zero-interest, credit-building, small dollar loan, Boni could build his credit and avoid debt.

MAF began offering financial empowerment services at the Mexican Consulate in San Jose and San Francisco in 2016. In San Jose, MAF’s Financial Coach, Diana Adame, leads the Ventanilla Financiera which literally translates to “financial empowerment window.” At the Ventanilla, Mexican nationals are able to get the support to start building their financial lives in the U.S. A typical day for Diana includes conducting mini presentations on a wide range of topics like credit, savings, and budgeting and offering personalized support to clients as they navigate their financial lives.

When Diana reflects on her work at the consulate, she thinks about her family.

“I wish my parents would have had the opportunity to go to a Ventanilla Financiera when they just arrived in the US. They would have saved a lot of money, time, and energy. There are so many resources that sometimes we are not aware in our day to day life. It is not until we go to places in our community where we learn about those resources and services. This work means I help someone set a goal and know that it is within their reach. It is no longer just a dream,says Diana.

After participating in two Lending Circles, Boni was able to build his credit history and rent equipment for his construction work.

Boni recently updated Diana about his credit score: an incredible 699! He also recently got approved for his first credit card. Boni wants to continue building his credit score so he can eventually take out a loan and start his own construction company. Being the fiercely independent person he is, he loves the idea of eventually being his own boss.

We asked Boni what advice he’d like to give to those who are just starting to build their lives in this country, and this is what he wanted to share:

“Start building your credit as early as possible. Oftentimes, it’s not until we need credit that we realize the importance of building credit, and this can make it more difficult.”

He cites the importance of services like the Ventanilla Financiera at the Mexican Consulate. The consulate primarily caters to folks who have just arrived in the country, so this can be a great opportunity to introduce recently arrived immigrants to safe and reliable credit-building products.

In the U.S., credit gives you the ability to build something that can help you build your future,” Boni says.

Originally, Boni moved to the United States with the intention of saving money and moving back home to Mexico to be with his family. However, as he continues to build his future in this country, Boni keeps pushing this date back. He enjoys working in this country, and he cherishes the independence he has built for himself in just a few short years.

Rosa’s Story: An Advocate’s Journey

“My name is Rosa, and I received a check from you within only days of my request. You understand that this issue is incredibly time sensitive, and you did not neglect nor treat me as just a number. As a DACA recipient, this is something I have grown accustomed to, being treated as a number. I am one of 800,000. But through your act of kindness and sense of purpose for something greater than yourself, you demonstrated to me that I am more than a number. I am a person, I am a student, I am a friend.”

We first met Rosa in September 2017. She was a recipient of MAF’s DACA fee assistance grant, and she sent us this message just a few weeks after our campaign began. Her words stayed with us, particularly this line — I am more than a number. I am a person, I am a student, I am a friend.

Rosa’s immigration story challenges one dimensional narratives about undocumented immigrant communities in the U.S.

Rosa’s family moved from South Korea to Canada at age three. Just as her family made their second move from Canada to the United States, they were granted Canadian citizenship. By then, they had settled in Temecula, California. As a high schooler in Southern California, Rosa began to understand the limitations that her immigration status placed on her.

“The first time I realized how this whole system affected me was in high school. All my friends were getting jobs, getting a license, and my mom told me that I couldn’t do that because I didn’t have a social security number.”

During her junior year of high school, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was announced. Her family heard about DACA from their church community, and she rushed to apply.

In early 2014, she received notice that her DACA application had been approved. Very soon after, she hit a number of teenage milestones, like getting her driver’s license and finding her first job. Eventually, she received her acceptance letter to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

At UCSD, Rosa grew into her voice as an advocate for the immigrant community.

While in school, Rosa connected with a larger community of DACA recipients and allies and realized that she was not alone in her experiences. As a Political Science major, she learned about a number of useful frameworks and tools — specifically, an understanding of the the political process — that shaped her identity as an advocate. One class in particular, an American politics class, taught Rosa about the long term effects of institutional aggressions like gerrymandering and redlining, and how these policies could have crippling long term effects on communities for generations.

During her third year at UCSD, the Trump administration announced its decision to rescind DACA. The rescission created a lot of chaos, anger, and frustration, but Rosa was also inspired and energized by the overwhelming number of organizations that supported her as she rushed to submit her DACA renewal application. In particular, the Undocumented Student Center at UCSD played a critical role in ensuring that she always knew what next steps to take. In fact, the Undocumented Student Center connected her to a number of other resources, including Mission Asset Fund’s DACA fee assistance grant.

“I’m so used to anything having to do with immigration taking forever – waiting, not knowing, etc. Throughout this process, everyone came together so quickly — the immigration lawyer, the director of the UC Immigration Center, Mission Asset Fund — because they understood the urgency of the situation. These organizations realized the urgency even before I did.”

After graduating from UCSD in 2018, the Council of Korean Americans sponsored a work opportunity for Rosa in the public service sector. She met with the first Korean American congressman in New York and asked him ‘what concrete steps are you taking to protect Dreamers?’ At first, he danced around the subject and failed to provide a firm answer. Ultimately, the congressman said this: politicians don’t want to invest in DACA recipients because they can’t vote, and the ultimate goal of politicians is to increase their constituencies.

“That’s the reality of it. I realized that Dreamers need to be speaking out about their stories in order for Citizens to care and vote.”

Rosa understands the frustrating realities of being an advocate without the ability to vote. This is exactly why Rosa has so admirably shared her own story with us.

“The most powerful way to convey my message is to show people who I am.”

Throughout the years, Rosa’s friends have played an important role in her life. Those who know her best know her as a neighbor, a childhood friend, and a fellow dancer. Lately, her friends have seen her navigate a lot of uncertainty, and she has used this opportunity to bring them into the conversation about how they can support her and others who are facing similar situations.

“I recently opened up to my friends about my feelings with the midterm elections and my fears for my future. I received a great deal of responsiveness and love from my friends, and they promised to vote in the midterm elections when they normally wouldn’t have.”

Rosa’s story offers many valuable insights. Her story allows us to reflect on what tools we can each use to advocate for policies that uplift immigrant communities. Her story warns us to remain cautious and critical of communicating one dimensional narratives about communities. Her story also highlights a well known fact — that immigrant communities thrive even within oppressive limits.

“It’s this double-edged sword because I am able to live this ‘normal’ life’. Yes, I have access to certain opportunities, but there’s a lot that I can’t do. I can’t leave the country. I can’t see my family for the holidays. I can’t guarantee that I’ll still be here in three years. I can’t plan my future. I can’t solidify my career. I can’t keep my options narrow. These are much broader limitations that people don’t necessarily realize.”

Rosa plans to continue building her voice as an advocate by pursuing an education in public interest law. Her own experiences have shed light on the importance of the law and the ways in which the law can be applied to either help or hurt people.

“I want to be able to use the law to help the disenfranchised, just as the law has at times done for me.”

During our conversation with Rosa, we asked her what messages she wanted to convey to both Citizens and the DACA community.

To Citizens:

“I want them to know that there’s probably one Dreamer out there that they know personally, but who may be too afraid to come out of the shadows because of the current political climate. This is where citizens can verbally speak out and show their support for Dreamers.”

To the DACA community:

“Regardless of how scary the situation may seem, we are still lucky. We have an EAD {employment authorization document} and a social security number, so we should be using that to the best of our potential. We should use these tools not just to fit in with the status quo, but to help others because we know what it’s like when the system is against us .”

Why We’re Excited for the 2018 MAF Summit

At this year’s Summit, we’re bringing together thought leaders from a variety of sectors – nonprofit, finance, tech, and social sector. We can’t wait for the conversations and ideas that are bound to evolve from this incredible mix of advocates, policy makers, and creative thinkers. Check out a few reasons why our Lending Circles Providers are excited to attend this year’s Summit:


“I’m inspired to be attending the 2018 MAF Summit and to connect with other organizations that rise to meet the needs of the communities they serve and see the value of community-based solutions. I look forward to sharing successes, discussing challenges, and exploring opportunities to grow, innovate, and deepen our collective impact.”

– Natalie Zayas, Center for Changing Lives, Partner Advisory Council Member



“I’m very excited to be part of this event – to share knowledge, tools and successes – but also to absorb other members’ knowledge and expertise. I’m happy to be part of the LC community! I’ve known of informal “Tandas” since I was child from my parents, and now I can adapt this unique lending practice into a mainstream credit building program!”

– David Soto, Communidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio, Partner Advisory Council Member



“I attended the 2016 MAF Summit and thoroughly enjoyed it. In addition to sharing ideas with colleagues and obtaining useful information from the breakout sessions, it was a lot of fun!! I know this year’s Summit will be more of the same. Looking forward to it!!”

– Rob Lajoie, Peninsula Family Service, Partner Advisory Council Member




“I’m excited to attend this year’s summit because I look forward to the diverse and exciting ideas that will come about from the summit that will help the various communities we serve.”

– Luis Gomez, Youth Policy Institute, Partner Advisory Council Member