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As I was driving through one day on the way to buy chicharrón carnudo at the Sahuayo Market on Pomona Street in Santa Ana, California, I saw a street sign for a community crop exchange. I stopped to buy some calabazas and began talking with one of the volunteers, Tessie Rios. I asked her if she lived in the area and she told me that she was on the board of the neighborhood association. 

I felt like I had found a needle in the Mexican haystack to uncover a Puerto Rican homeowner in Floral Park. One of the nicest areas of Santa Ana, called Floral Park, is mostly white. Still, the former mayor of Santa Ana, Miguel Pulido, lives there, and so does Congressman Lou Correa. 

Around 76% of the Santa Ana population is Latino, according to the U.S. Census. Many of them hail from Sahuayo, Michoacán, México, and the two cities have a sister city agreement.

We sat in a nearby park and Rios told me her life story. Homeownership wasn’t an ambition to generate wealth, rather it was a story of survival and a search for stability caused by the diaspora. Rios lived an intense and traumatic childhood being shuffled in and out of Puerto Rico from birth until the age of 40. That’s when she made the purchase of her forever home and finally pivoted from insecurity to security.

Sergio: Please describe your childhood home?

I was born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico in 1949. From the moment I was born until approximately 12 years old, I did not have a real home. The earliest memory I had was of a tornado taking my mother’s house up to the sky. When it came down, it shattered. We were sent to a shelter. At around the age of four, my brother and I got shipped to Abuela Fidela’s house, then Manhattan, then Brooklyn, then New Orleans, then Chicago, then back to Puerto Rico. My mother never told me who my father was. In 1974, I settled in the Bronx. It was a rough time and my boyfriend was murdered and found dead in the East River. In 1977, I chased the abduction of one of my children to Santa Ana, California.

Sergio: When did you begin to fantasize about prosperity and did you tie your vision to an image of a home?

I did not have a vision until I moved to California in 1977. I thought, “Someday I would have a home where nobody could throw me out.” I was very much in search of survival first and stability second. I became a county secretary and a social worker. I made $600 per month and I lived in an apartment on Sunflower.

Sergio: What inspired your (home) fantasy?

I remember that I used to drive my children to school and we would pass this area known as Floral Park in Santa Ana and I would tell my children so often that we would one day live here. My children started saying it too. “Mama, says we are going to live here…” We were intent on buying a home in this area of Santa Ana. I was in search of love, hugs, nurturing … I wanted to give that to my daughters but to tell the truth, I was a very strict parent. I didn’t trust anybody so I kept my daughters very close to me.

Sergio: What does your home look like present-day?

I bought the home of my dreams in a cul de sac in Floral Park, technically in a division of Floral Park called Fischer Park. This was not my first home, my first home was nearby that I bought with a boyfriend but I did a quit claim deed and walked away from the home. To provide for my girls, I gave myself an education in real estate and insurance services. I got my realtor license and my license to sell life insurance. In 1989, I bought my dream home for $425,000. It’s a beautiful home, three bedrooms, two and a half baths, large lot. When my family from Puerto Rico comes to visit, they can’t believe how I live. I don’t see it that way. Nobody really knows how much I struggled and hustled to get to this moment in my life. I cleaned homes, I worked for the county, I sold homes. I did everything to try to make sure that my girls didn’t have to live the way I did as a young person.

Sergio: Are you trying to pay off the mortgage?

I still have a mortgage 33 years later because I refinanced several times but I imagine that I will die before I pay off the mortgage. Nobody lives forever. 

Sergio: Who taught you about mortgages, refinances and quit claim deeds?

I taught myself. Especially during the time that I spent selling real estate.

Sergio: Is there a connection between your former fantasy and your current reality?

Every morning, when I wake up and walk out of my house, I give thanks for my blessings. I say: Thank you Father for letting me not get wet because my mother used to make me sleep in the street. Even though I am retired now, I haven’t really slowed down. I am on the board of the association for this neighborhood. I volunteer for the Army. I go to Bible Study and prayer meetings. I do yoga, go to the gym. I am a caregiver for a neighbor. I have 9 grandchildren and 1 great grandchild. My oldest grandchild is 28 and my youngest was born two weeks ago. I have 3 dogs that I have rescued from the animal shelter. I think I am going to slow down soon but I am not going to go back to Puerto Rico, I am going to stay in my home in Santa Ana.

Sergio: Do you promote home ownership or give advice to young people?

I try to stay quiet unless I am asked directly. When people are talking, I tend to listen. I don’t like to talk much. But yes, I believe in home ownership. I want everybody to have the stability that I have been striving for all my life. 

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Sergio C. Muñoz is a Mexican banker living in Floral Park, CA. He is the owner of Intelatin, LLC. His work has been published on PBS and in ReVista, the Harvard Review of Latin America, Studio 360 and...