By Jennifer López
Maria Elena Ceja, recalls the days when she started volunteering to help the youth of Boyle Heights. She started attending PTA meetings at First Street Elementary and ended up teaching catechism classes at Our Lady of Talpa Church.
Living in Boyle Heights, Ceja saw a need to help guide the youth towards a better path. Her goal was to encourage them to work for a better lifestyle. To this day, Ceja says it fills her with joy when her prior students still recognize her years later.
Though helping the youth was a passion of hers, once COVID-19 hit she was no longer as involved, due to lockdown orders. The 67-year-old awaits the day when things can go back to normal to help the youth of Boyle Heights once more.
This interview was translated and edited for length and clarity.
Boyle Heights Beat: ¿What was your experience coming to the U.S. from Mexico?
María Elena Ceja: The expectation was that we stay together as a family and that I didn’t say by myself there and that my husband came here by himself. I told him, if you leave I’m leaving too, because the concept of family is that we are all together in one place, no matter the economics, to try to live together as a family. The reason was that I wanted my family to be together, not separated.
BHB: And why did you decide to move to Boyle Heights?
MEC: Because here… my husband, the first time he came by himself, he lived here and worked in this area. My father was here before we came, he lived in this area since ’68.
“If we, who are senior citizens, don’t start thinking about the youth, what kind of world will we have? How do we show the youth that they need to better themselves. It saddens me that they lose their lives to drugs. They demand things from their parents, material things, but they lose their lives to alcohol, drugs and gangs. Life is so easily lost, very easily.”
BHB: I was told you were a volunteer at the First Street School.
MEC: When my first three were going there, I never went to the school because my father-in-law took them and picked them up, but when he stopped doing that, I started to take them. And I began to become involved when my oldest daughter was already in the sixth grade. She is almost 50 now and when she was in the fifth, I think, I started to go with her because she signed me up. Whenever there were workshops for parents she would always sign me up, and even though I didn’t want to go I went just to please her. My daughter, the elder, she’s the one who got me involved in the school. I did it so she would be happy, I always went to the classes. Later I got involved in the parents’ committee, the PTA, and there I began to volunteer, but just in that area. Later, I would help with the lunches, I would help with recreation, I would always be helping. And then later on I would stay all day with the children, I would take the little ones to kinder and when they all got out, I would bring them home.
BHB: You were also a volunteer at Talpa church, right?
MEC: I’m still a volunteer. Yes, when all of them graduated from First Street, that they started going to other schools, I would take my children to catechism and a priest asked me, “why don’t you volunteer?” And I started as a helper, then volunteered as the catechism instructor, which I continue doing. Only that this last year, classes were being given on Zoom because of the pandemic and I don’t like technology a lot, so I decided to take a break. But I’ve always liked volunteering there. I give the catechism. I am there with a lot of children.
BHB: How are the classes? Can you tell me a little bit more?
MEC: Yes, the classes are for children… first I was a helper, then I went from being a helper to the instructor for children in the first grade. It’s not so much teaching them to recognize that there is a god. Even though the children don’t understand, at least you can teach them how to do the sign of the cross, to give thanks, to say the Our Father and the Hail Mary. After giving the first grade catechism, I moved on to those making the first communion. And I like going to mass and being a volunteer. First as a reader and later on as minister of the Eucharist. And I had to go to classes to do that, and I liked going to classes for one or two weeks. And then I got this idea that if children wanted to know more about god, the first ones that needed to know were the parents, so I asked the priest if I could give classes to the parents, and he said yes. I’ve only been doing it –was doing it, because I couldn’t do it last year or this year– but I had been teaching parents for two years. And I really liked sharing with them and to talk to them about spirituality, about Jesus, about god. That’s what I like to do.
“I could have given the classes through Zoom, like they’re doing now. It could have been, but because I like the physical contact, I told the leader to find younger people who are more comfortable with technology because I don’t feel competent. I later reacted and said no, I can have my daughter help me to do everything on line. But they told me no, they had assigned all classes to this other teacher.”
BHB: What motivated you to help the youth of Boyle Heights?
MEC: It motivated me and I still feel that the youth have many needs. I’m motivated because sometimes the kids that are just arriving here don’t have the same opportunities as the kids whose parents were already here, who were born here. And sometimes they waste those opportunities, they don’t take advantage of the help being offered, and it saddens me that they’re only interested in the material. They don’t want to sacrifice themselves to go study, they just go for the material. They want everything, but they don’t think about the future. And if we, who are senior citizens, don’t start thinking about the youth, what kind of world will we have? How do we show the youth that they need to better themselves. It saddens me that they lose their lives to drugs. They demand things from their parents, material things, but they lose their lives to alcohol, drugs and gangs. Life is so easily lost, very easily. Like I say, life is like being on a line and if you jump that line just a little bit and don’t get any help, you can’t get back to the line. We need people who are willing to help the youth, to push them so that they can have a better life. Not because you love them or don’t love them. We are all necessary, those who sweep, who clean… but we wish for them to have another experience, to have a better job so they can have a better quality of life. That’s what matters to me, that youth get the idea that they have the potential to be what they want to be. And sometimes you have to fight for it, but I’ve known people who are undocumented, and just a word of encouragement is what they need, it helps. It helps them be courageous. I have a friend I’ve known for many years from a prayer group, and when her boy was growing up he would tell her: “I want to go to the university. I want to go to the university.” And she would say, “No, you can’t, because you’re undocumented, you can’t.” One day she told me that and I told her: “Yes he can. There’s help. Find him help.” He was lucky that UC Merced had just opened and a young recruiter was looking for low-income students to apply. He helped him get in and once he was in he helped the parents with funds and everything. And he went in at the time that DACA started, and he was lucky enough to get it and finished his education there at Merced. He graduated and he has a good job. He works at a bank, and I’m pleased, because just one word of encouragement you give a person, makes that person rethink the situation. Not that you feel that you did it, but seeing an accomplished person is a win, even if nobody knows how it happened. It’s beautiful to know people that you give them one good word: “carry on, everything can be accomplished. Even if you want to, sometimes you can’t make them understand, but if there were more people like that, instead of saying “You can’t do this. You can’t do that other thing,” they would say “Yes you can, if you really want it.”
BHB: I was also told there was a child at the First Street School that was unruly and that you told his mom that perhaps all he needed was a little more attention. Can you tell me that story?
MEC: Yes, it’s really beautiful. It was three children that were in my daughter’s class and they were so unruly. Really unruly. Uncontrollable. Sometimes they weren’t even the ones doing things, but the teacher would blame one of the kids. Or the other. They were always the ones to be blamed. And later I would take them to lunch, and they were always separated from the other kids. So I told them once: “You know what? Don’t even look at the other kids. We are always going to be together and you’re going to eat well, you’re not going to throw the food and when you’re done, we’ll go out to play.” So they started to trust me, they were always with me. One time we were talking and I asked one of the boys why he felt the way he did, and he said that it was because his mother left him with another family who did not treat him well, because he had a reputation for being unruly. That he would spend one week with some people, another week with other people, so when I saw his mom I told her “Can I speak with you?” She said “Yes.” I said, “you know why your child behaves the way he does. Because no one pays attention to him. One week he’s with someone, the next he’s with someone else, and nobody pays him any attention because he is quote/unquote mean, everybody is going to blame him.” I then told her, “Look, you work a lot of overtime. The money you make working those extra hours, when he goes to high school and gets a ticket or something, you’re going to be paying more than what you’re earning. Why don’t you give him the time?” He then graduated and I never saw her again. And then one day I ran into him and I was so happy because she stopped working overtime, she would pick him up and they spent a lot of time together, because it was just the two of them. Later she got involved in school and would go to the classes. And it’s beautiful when you see the mom and the child together, all the way through high school I saw them. My kids went to Hollenbeck from First Street, but he went to Stevenson. But you know from Stevenson they go to Roosevelt, so I always saw them together. And it’s beautiful that the child made it to high school, and made it well. What children need sometimes is attention.
BHB: What has been one of your biggest accomplishments from being a volunteer at First Street or Talpa?
MEC: Well, the accomplishment is not mine. You give what you have. I rejoice when I think of four kids I had. They were brothers and sisters. I had the four in the class and since their mom could not afford four books, she bought two. She’d put the two girls with one book and the two boys with the other. It was so beautiful seeing them, they stopped coming to class… but I would see them every week at Mass, and for me that was a satisfaction, an accomplishment. I met their mother and father, and just seeing the smile on their mother’s face made me happy. One day they came to 7 am Mass and went up to the choir to greet me. One of the girls and one of the boys, the oldest ones, are already at the university. The others are grown up. You see them as kids and later as adults they greet you. One time I ran into a young man on the street and he said “María Elena, do you remember me?” I said, “No,” and he said, “You were my catechism teacher.” And that is satisfying. It’s not that I need to be recognized, it’s simply doing something for someone, giving them a reason to smile; those four kids and their mother had such a beautiful smile. I tell them, “You got that smile from your mom, and you made my day.” Yes, just a smile, a pat on the back, a “How’s it going,” it’s satisfying. I like when I see someone come in that was in my catechism class, I see that they’re well.
“I like to see young women interested in knowing about their culture, about life in Boyle Heights, that not everything is bad. Because sometimes a lot of people only see the bad but don’t see the good. I like to see the positive. I hear people [in the news] talking about Boyle Heights, and I say, if they only interviewed the people who get ahead.”
BHB: And how has the pandemic affected your work?
MEC: It hurt me because… I don’t know, it may be that I like to talk about my experiences and everything. I had a bit connection with the parents, when we came out of mass. Another issue with me is the language, I do understand a lot of English, but I cannot articulate full sentences to teach the catechism. So It affected me because I could have given the classes through Zoom, like they’re doing now. It could have been, but because I like the physical contact, I told the leader to find younger people who are more comfortable with technology because I don’t feel competent. I later reacted and said no, I can have my daughter help me to do everything on line. But they told me no, they had assigned all classes to this other teacher. I said no, and that saddened me, to be all alone, because I had never felt alone before. My kids are always calling me and I am calmed and have lots of faith and confidence; I’m here with my husband and the good thing is we have a big yard, I go out for a while, but that’s what affected me the most. It’s like a teacher who studies and studies, if she can’t share what she studied with her students, she feels like she’s full but she doesn’t have anyone to share it with, right? And that’s how I feel. I’m always reading, but I don’t have anyone to share it with, because I like to. Before, when I was young, I never spoke, never said anything. Nothing. The day they gave me the job and the microphone I told them, not giving it back. So yes, that’s what made me feel, during the pandemic, that I had something to give to someone, but couldn’t. Sometimes I would run into parents and we chatted, or someone would call me and we would speak a little. That’s what affected me the most during the pandemic. Being in church and talking.
BHB: And what is it you like about Boyle Heights?
MEC: Well, I like everything, I can’t see myself anywhere else, because from the day I arrived in this country, I’ve been on the same street for 40… almost 50 years. I haven’t moved from here. It’s a blessing, because I go to where my daughter lives and the other and the other, but when I’m here I feel that all of Boyle Heights is part of my life. When we got here my first home was on Camulos. And then I moved here, to the corner of Camulos and Fifth. All my life I’ve lived here and I walk all around here. Before, my husband used to drive and we went everywhere, but now I’ve taught him to take the bus and it’s a good area [for public transportation]. For me this is a good area because we have everything around us. All buses pass on Fourth and take you downtown or to Montebello or Whittier. Wherever I want to go, I go out to Fourth and catch the bus. And I like everything here. All the people that I have known because they’ve gone through the church, because it’s so close to me that we walk there, sometimes when there are events at night we come back walking. At night, in the morning, at all times I feel well.
BHB: And don’t you wish to return to Mexico, to visit?
MEC: Oh, we visit a lot. My daughters, all of them speak Spanish. All my children do, not my grandkids, but my daughters do because my husband made them speak to us in Spanish in the home. They all speak Spanish and the first year after we regularized our status, thank god, that we got our papers, right away he took us to Mexico. Every time vacation time came they knew. If they were out the first of June, or the second, we would go to Mexico and stay there until they had to go back to school in September. My husband would go with us, leave us, he’d come back to work and we would stay all July, August, and in September he would go back and get us in time for them to go to school. They liked it a lot. They liked that their father took us there.
BHB: Anything else that you think is important that you’d like to share?
MEC: No, all the questions were good, and I like to see young women interested in knowing about their culture, about life in Boyle Heights, that not everything is bad. Because sometimes a lot of people only see the bad but don’t see the good. I like to see the positive. I hear people [in the news] talking about Boyle Heights, and I say, if they only interviewed the people who get ahead. When my youngest daughter graduated, she’s a teacher at Roosevelt, when she went to UCLA, I’m not lying, seven kids in her class, including my daughter, went to UCLA, and they came from Boyle Heights. I know them all from kinder. They went to Roosevelt and from there to UCLA. They’re going to see the negative, never they see the positive. People who want to better themselves, all they need is a little motivation. They get ahead, when you show them confidence and give them an opportunity. When my daughters went to Santa Cruz they would hear people say, “oh, you’re from…”, and people would get scared because they said they were from Boyle Heights. People react to what they hear, if you hear so and so from somebody, you judge them, because of what you were told. But you don’t know them. It’s better to know than to judge. First get to know the person, then judge.
This Latino man in immigration, when I became a citizen he asked me: “Why do you have so many children. You must be lying when you say you never asked for government assistance.” And I told him, I never asked for assistance and all my children went to university. And he said: “I don’t believe you. Nothing good comes out Boyle Heights.” I told him, “Good things do come out of Boyle Heights, because my kids went to college.”
MEC: And that’s why I say it’s a beautiful neighborhood. When I became a citizen, the question asked of me, by a Latino… sometimes you as a Latino put down your own race. This Latino man in immigration, when I became a citizen he asked me: “Why do you have so many children. You must be lying when you say you never asked for government assistance.” And I told him, I never asked for assistance and all my children went to university. And he said: “I don’t believe you. Nothing good comes out Boyle Heights.” I told him, “Good things do come out of Boyle Heights, because my kids went to college.” Also, a lady at the IRS asked me, “I need proof that your children are in college.” They don’t believe your word, they don’t believe in the neighborhood. I had to get paperwork from all, to show here where they had gone. And that’s what sometimes makes you sad, because it’s like in all places, rich or poor, all have good things and bad things. But we should focus on the positive. Not just on the negative. We need to be more positive.
BHB: Well I’m so pleased that you have such intelligent children and that they got ahead and make Boyle Heights proud, because you need to see more of that. Because people do tend to focus on the negative, but like you say, there’s a lot of positive things in this community.
MEC: Yes, there’s a lot of positive, because I know. I have always thought that the positive side of Boyle Heights is never shows. I also know four or five people from Boyle Heights who went to Harvard University, from Roosevelt. I know them because they’re friends of my son. One of them is a lawyer. Every time I hear somebody talk I tell them, why not talk about the positive. They always focus on the negative. Always talk about the people who don’t work, who are making wrong choices. But just as there are people who make wrong choices, there are people who have succeeded. My neighbor went to study in New York, something about law, not sure if he’s a lawyer. He never wanted to leave Boyle Heights, lives across the street.
BHB: Well, I’m grateful for your time and for you taking the time to talk to me about your story, and I liked what you had to say. It’s true what you say. Let’s see if more positive things come out of the community.
MEC: Yes, because there were sad times and everything, but when you focus on being positive, even if you’re surrounded by evil and things, you have to get ahead with positivism. That’s what I have always taught my children, to give thanks to god, that we all want our children to get ahead. That if we left fleeing the poverty in a country, that we value what we have here. That they value what we sacrificed. My husband loves his town, his city. All the time he’s thinking about being there, but he sacrificed that so that his children could be here and get ahead. That’s why I tell all the parents and all to be positive and to teach their children to fight for a better future. And not that you don’t want them if they… if they sweep floors, clean, if they work as cooks or whatever, that you love them just the same, but that they should fight for their dream. Fight for something better, not for us but for themselves. That’s my thought, that people should always be positive and fight for a better future.
This is an abridged version of an interview recorded as part of “Voices/Voces,” a storytelling project that aims to connect youth reporters with Boyle Heights and East LA elders. Voices/Voces was a 2020 finalist in (and partially funded by) the LA2050 Grants Challenge. It is also partially funded by the Snap Foundation.
Read other ‘Voices/Voces’ stories:
- Music has been a lifelong passion for Joseph Torres
- How Rubén Guevara became a Chicano Culture Sculptor
- Eloísa Venable Is happy she chose Boyle Heights to retire
- Guillermo Morales: proud to serve the best elotes in Boyle Heights
- Boyle Heights is not what it used to be, according to Ernestina López Muñoz
- Art that celebrates ‘cultura’: what inspires Jim O’Balles
- From organizer to student athlete and TV host: a life of influence for Jaime Cruz
- Carlos Montes: A bridge crosser and an activist, not a leader