It’s the familiar sound she grew up with, the sound of the evening train rumbling on the tracks on the east side of El Centro, bringing with it the feelings of being home.
Juanita Salas left the Imperial Valley right after high school with an ambition that most teenagers can relate to. She thought she’d never come back, that her future would be tied with making a difference in a metropolitan city.
But now at 32, Juanita’s thriving career and advocacy has proven just the opposite. This is where she was always meant to return.
“I always said that I was never coming back, I was determined to find success elsewhere,” Salas says. “But I wouldn’t be passionate about anywhere else. I want to make this a better place to live for my 44 nieces and nephews. They deserve the best Imperial Valley we can have.”
Over the last decade, Salas established herself as a community advocate and has been involved in public policy during her time as the local representative for the 51st Congressional District office. What began as a chance to take some time off before she journeyed into a master’s degree has evolved into a burgeoning career for Salas that she never could have predicted.
To understand her evolution, one would have to understand her beginnings. Salas is the youngest of eight children and the first to go to college in her family. Her heritage echoes much of the Imperial Valley’s history as her father and mother both were field workers. Previous generations of Salaes were Imperial Valley pioneers since before the 1900s, and some of her siblings continue in agriculture as supervisors and foremen. Apart from the boisterous family she grew up in, her upbringing mirrored the bicultural quality of the Imperial Valley.
“We spent a lot of time going back and forth to Mexico to visit family, we were all involved in each other’s lives,” Salas notes. “I worked in the fields at 12 years old and thought that everyone did that during their summer vacation.”
As a child, she was shy and quiet, which can be a stretch to imagine given Salas’s continued visibility as an organizer in Imperial Valley community events. Separated by 10 years from her closest sibling, Salas grew up instead around nieces and nephews, as some of her brothers and sisters either were teenage mothers or married young. She has always been supportive of her family and felt she was destined to pave the way for a new family legacy.
“They were all working and I knew that education was going to be the key to help me in my life,” Salas says. “I had been independent since I was a little girl and felt a responsibility to make my mother proud.”
After her father, Jesse Salas, passed when she was 5 years old, Salas witnessed first hand her mother’s enduring spirit. Her mother didn’t speak English, so Salas stepped up to facilitate translating everything from doctor’s appointments to going with her mother everywhere, including paying bills and other family business matters.
“I always felt a duty to advocate for and with her. I saw her strength and resilience being a widow at such a young age. She had that spirit she’s carried with her, that signature trait of being a guerrera (warrior),” Salas says.
Growing up with a mix of her mother’s determination to fight and her father’s work ethic, Salas began to thrive after the family moved from Calexico to El Centro. In junior high she began to find her voice, and when her junior year of high school came around, she was starting to consider college when she attended the migrant summer institute at UCLA.
“It was a turning point for me. It was the first time I left the Valley on my own,” Salas remembers.
Read more about Salas in the February 2014 print edition of Valley Women Magazine. Find a rack location near you or to subscribe to our bi-monthly magazine call 760-337-3456.