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Immigrant Leader Takes Chicago Struggle to Mexico

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Immigrant Leader Takes Chicago Struggle to Mexico

Marcia Soto at her salon

Immigrants are flexing muscle in the fight to reform the laws that govern their status in this country: marches and lobbying efforts are ways of making the point.

But this week, the action is taking place in the Mexican state of Michoacan.

That’s where Chicago’s Mexican-American community is joining Spanish-speaking migrants from around the world at a unique summit.

Those at the meeting believe migrants must create new alliances that will help determine their own future.

Some of the main organizers are from Chicago.

Chicago Public Radio’s Catrin Einhorn is on her way there and will be following the Chicago contingent.

She starts our coverage with a profile of one woman who helped make it happen.

One of Marcia Soto’s jobs-the one she gets paid for-is to make people beautiful.

SOTO: Before she was black hair and now it’s all white.

85-year old Toska Ciolkosz bends her head forward while Soto trims the hair along her neck.

Soto is an attractive 58-year old Mexican woman and naturalized US citizen.

Her eyes look tired, but her smile is as enthusiastic as a child’s. She’s been cutting this client’s hair for decades.

CIOLKOSZ: She runs herself crazy taking care of everybody, she tries to help you every way she can. You know, she’ll even say, Just call me, just call me if you need me. She always tells us that, Just call me.

Soto’s hair salon with its bright pink awning is a fixture on a busy street in this mostly Mexican American neighborhood on the city’s South Side.

In the window, a neon Betty Boop winks at passers by, pulling up her dress to show her garter.

Inside, four white-haired women, aged 85 to 95, are taking turns in Soto’s chair.

These clients aren’t Mexican-they’re the children and grandchildren of the Italian and Polish immigrants who settled in the area before.

Almost every woman in here has a story to tell about Soto’s kindness.

Mary Morales walks in and tells hers.

MORALES: I was one time in a situation where I was having difficulties with my husband and things weren’t going right and I was ready to go ahead and proceed with the divorce and that. And I didn’t really want to go back to my mom’s house. And Marcia said, Well you could come and stay with me. You know, my home’s there and you could stay there. What beautician is going to do that for you?

But the women sitting in the chairs here today don’t know the half of it.

Being a hair stylist and business owner is just part of what Marcia Soto does.

She’s also a powerbroker in an increasingly influential group of immigrant leaders who wield power on both sides of the border.

Her latest project is a summit in Mexico that’s bringing together Spanish-speaking migrants from all over the world.

They’re coming together to connect and to learn from each other.

The goal: to have more control over their own political future.

SOTO IN TRANSLATION: I think it’s a unique event, because until now, we immigrants haven’t had an event where we were the principal actors. There are always events with academics, politicians, foundations, talking about migrants, and the migrants are usually not there. This time, the migrants organized the event, we’ve invited a lot of different people, but the principal actors and the organizers are the migrants.

At the summit, Soto herself will discuss the social cost of immigration on families who leave and on those who stay behind, and she’ll talk about transnational advocacy.

Transnational is the key word: immigrant groups are increasingly active in both their countries of origin and where they live now.

Like Soto, many Mexican immigrants in Chicago participate through hometown associations.

These are groups formed by people who come from the same area of Mexico and want to make improvements there.

Soto helped start the association for her home state, Durango.

She was the founding president. Hometown associations take on public works and social projects.

But as they become more organized, they’re accruing more political power. Soto says her real baptism as a leader came when the Mexican government wanted cars going into Mexico to pay a deposit of up to 800 dollars.

It would have cost immigrants going back to visit, and the hometown groups fought the program.

The Mexican government went ahead with it, but not for long.

SOTO, IN TRANSLATION: It lasted one day and a half. After a day and a half they had to end it. We even had two cars ready to burn in front of the consulate on Michigan Avenue.

Soto didn’t stop with organizing her own hometown association.

She became one of the pivotal people in uniting the various hometown groups into a single, more powerful alliance that now has clout in both Illinois and in Mexico.

The group is called CONFEMEX.

Soon she was elected president.

SOTO, IN TRANSLATION: I saw that it was going to be more responsibility. But also you see the responsibility we have to organize ourselves, especially Mexicans, because we’re such a big community and we’re not well organized. So a lot of times it’s not because you really want to do it, or you can do it, or you have the time-it’s because you see the need.

PESQUEIRA: What Marcia has done is really pave the way for women to be involved.

Maria Pesqueira runs Mujeres Latinas en Accion, a group that seeks to empower Latina women and their families.

PESQUEIRA: Whether it’s in being able to be a savvy businesswoman as well as being involved with issues that are affecting our communities. Many of us in the community have much to be thankful when we have a role model like Marcia.

Mexican public life is largely dominated by men.

But Soto says behind the scenes, women often play powerful roles.

She says she grew up in a matriarchal family from a small town in Durango, Mexico.

Women controlled the finances, and she says her grandmother even bought her grandfather a car.

Soto herself has three children, and is twice divorced.

Juggling her community work, her business, and her family can be exhausting.

After the summit, Soto says she hopes to ease up on her work load. But then she thinks about all that’s left to do and shakes her head.

SOTO IN TRANSLATION: I feel that we all have to justify the air that we breath, in some way. So I think we should always give something back from all that we receive.

This week, Soto will join other migrants from around the world at the First Latin American Community Migrant Summit in Michoacan, Mexico.

I’m Catrin Einhorn…Chicago Public Radio.

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