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Thu07092020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Karen Borja is a warm, open person who seems genuinely glad to meet you. It’s a personality that explains Borja’s success as a community organizer—helping people learn how to help themselves by changing what isn’t working in their environment.

Borja, 30, and her husband, Blaz Gutierrez, are residents of Indio. She was born and raised in Coachella along with a younger brother. Like many of her contemporaries in that community, she is the child of farmworker immigrants, who learned from her parents that hard work leads to what she refers to as “generational wealth”—the ability to build on each generation’s skills and experiences.

“For me, it was realizing what policies helped my family move from the bracero program,” she says.

The bracero program was initiated in August 1942 between the U.S. and Mexico, and lasted, with amendments, until 1964. It was named based on the Spanish term bracero, meaning "manual laborer."

“As a result of my grandfather’s participation in the bracero program, they were able to get green cards and continue to live here,” Borja says. “My mom is from Mexico. Her father was a bracero. She is a very hard-working woman who ran a day-care facility for over 22 years, helping generations of kids. She was licensed by the county of Riverside, and took care of the children of farmworkers.

“My dad was from El Salvador. During his early teens, the revolution was going on there, so his parents sent him, along with a cousin, to Mexico. He later went to Mexicali, then crossed the border and became a farmworker. Unfortunately, he died when I was only 14.”

Borja attended a women’s Catholic college in Notre Dame, Ind., called St. Mary’s College.

“It was real culture shock,” she says. “There were less than 50 women of color out of over 1,600 students. It was the first time I had been in a ‘minority’ situation. It was a real challenge. I was so homesick, I would cry every day. I had previously traveled to Europe, to Mexico and all through California with my parents, but this was the first time I was by myself. I found it was easy to make friends and get involved, because I needed to make sure I had a group to support me.”

Borja got her first taste of community organizing when she was about 16.

“There were youth groups in the local churches, and there was a local park that had gangs and drugs, where parents wouldn’t let us go by ourselves,” she says. “We were asked if we wanted to come to a meeting about the park, and I think about 500 people showed up. I didn’t really understand everything the adults were talking about, but we were asked, ‘What do you want to do about it?’ So we started listing the things we were concerned about. I got really engaged and involved. We learned there was city money dedicated to parks. By my senior year of high school, when I was 17, we won the park victory. When I came back during my first year of college, they had really done things: It was cleaner and safer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow! The politicians actually followed through.’”

Borja also helped create a park in Oasis, the first in the area, at the site of an abandoned elementary school.

“It had gotten in terrible shape,” she says, “and had become a danger for kids. It took three years and getting both the school district to agree to sell the 15 acres and the park district to buy it. The park district built a soccer field, and it became a place people were able to run laps.”

During her sophomore year in college, Borja got the chance to travel to South Africa to attend school for a semester.

“I remember thinking, ’What am I doing in Africa? Who do I think I am? I’m just a little girl from Coachella,’” she says. “I had a friend who was a nurse, and a group of African women showed up asking her to vote for their candidate for president. I was so moved by their conviction. Their candidate won the town’s vote because of those African women getting people involved. That flipped a switch in my head. I suddenly realized the park project wasn’t because of the politicians. We won the park victory because mobilizing the grassroots community does actually work. The impact that left on me is why I do what I do.”

Her time in Africa led to another life lesson for Borja: She got pregnant and chose to have an abortion. Then during her senior year in college, Borja met an LGBTQ woman with whom she was able to identify based on the feeling of not being accepted—of feeling “less than.”

“As a Catholic Latina,” she says, “I found I believed that LGBTQ rights and abortion rights are part of our community and need to be respected. A couple years later, there was a group of nine of us—not just from our campus, but also from Holy Cross and Notre Dame—who showed the example of young Catholics being open and affirming and accepting, and creating safe spaces, to show that all students deserve to be seen and feel safe. In my senior year, we had the first transgender speaker on campus. It was standing room only!

“In the summer between my junior and senior years, after I had become president of a campus gay/straight alliance club, I actually went to a ‘gay’ camp for students and LGBTQ leaders. I was chosen to go by my school as one of the ‘straight’ students,” she says with a laugh. “I came to realize how brave they were to be out. They were empowered to be themselves and to help their campuses toward inclusion.”

In addition to her degree in political science, Borja later received certification in nonprofit management from University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert campus. She recently received the sixth annual Community Justice Award given by Bloom in the Desert Ministries in recognition of her dedication and hard work.

Borja worked for seven years with Inland Congregations United for Change, focused on helping residents of the eastern Coachella Valley access education and transportation. She has now been with Planned Parenthood for the past two years, currently serving as the director of community affairs for Riverside County. “My current job is to make sure we have political and community support to keep the doors open,” she says. “I’m so proud of how much access our patients get to care and information. Last year we began providing hormonal therapy for transgender patients.

“My family taught me that leadership is important. This work has allowed me to be a Catholic Latina who believes in women’s rights, is pro-choice, supports LGBTQ rights, and is from Indio, California.”

Karen Borja’s warmth and open nature comes through clearly—and she makes a difference in her community. That is the fulfillment of her legacy of her definition of “generational wealth.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Dear Mexican: I had a conversation today with an 18-year-old female Mexican co-worker that completely blew me away.

She has a 3-month-old baby with her 19-year-old (also Mexican) unemployed boyfriend. They have just found out that she is pregnant again. After listening to her sob about it, I asked her if she was going to keep the baby. Horrified, she responded, “We are Catholic; we don’t believe in abortion.” She also revealed that her religion does not allow her to be on birth control.

There is obviously a serious problem in this country with teenage pregnancy, and a trip to the mall reveals an extremely high number of Mexican-American teen mothers. My question is: If these girls are so “Catholic,” why are they having premarital sex in the first place?

Protestant Pendejo

Dear Gabacho: While I would love to blame the Catholic Church for all Mexican ills—hell, for all the ills of the world, since that pedophile-protecting institution deserves a millstone around its neck—the facts simplemente don’t fully support the stereotype that Papism rules over Mexican sexual practices.

On one hand, in the July 2011 issue of Journal of Women’s Health, “Religiosity and Sexual Risk Behaviors Among Latina Adolescents: Trends from 1995 to 2008” showed that Mexican chicas in the United States were historically more likely to remain virgins than non-Mexi Latinas because of their religious beliefs—but that gap is now nonexistent, and fewer mexicanas remain virgins until 18 than ever before. The reason? The docs who authored the piece think it “may be a result of the general decline in holding to religious tenants on human sexuality in the U.S. culture.”

Meanwhile, Antonia M. Villarruel, John B. Jemmott, Loretta S. Jemmott and David L. Ronis, in their “Predicting Condom Use Among Sexually Experienced Latino Adolescents” for the August 2007 issue of the Western Journal of Nursing Research, found that “students who had higher levels of religiosity … had stronger intentions to use condoms and were more likely to have used condoms during their last sexual intercourse,” and that “the influence of cultural variables on condom use is speculative at best.”

In other words: Stop blaming the Church for Mexis not using condoms, and start blaming gabachos for telling our girls it’s perfectly fine to schtup without a condom while they’re teens. In fact, let’s blame gabachos for all of Mexico’s ills—we’ve been doing it since the Mexican-American War!

I work at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico (which I suppose would be in the state of Aztlán to you?). We’re a nuclear-weapons lab. I do research and testing on plutonium. Being from Illinois, I’m not very used to all the Spanish names and culture surrounding me. For instance, what does Los Alamos mean? How about Pajarito, the name of the mesa where the plutonium facility is? You may be amused to know that there is a program at the lab called “Bolus Grande,” which I’m told means “big balls” in Spanish. We blow up plutonium inside the Bolus Grandes. Somebody once said missiles were just phallic symbols, so maybe it’s that, huh?

Anyway, if you could enlighten me on any of the Spanish names at the Los Alamos Lab, I’d be much obliged, amigo!

Breaking Nerd

Dear Gabacho: I worry for a country that entrusts its nuclear weapons research to someone who doesn’t bother to learn Spanish, especially children’s Spanish, and especially the translations of the places where he works and lives.

Los Alamos is “The Cottonwoods” and refers to the trees around Los Alamos. “Pajarito” is “little bird” and is derived from an archaeological site on the Los Alamos Lab property. And I just hope that whoever told you “Bolus Grande” is “big huevos” in Spanish isn’t in charge of the next neutron bomb or whatever weapon Obama is prepping to use against the Chinese.

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or ask him a video question at youtube.com/askamexicano!

Published in Ask a Mexican