04/12/2012 07:56 am ET Updated Jun 12, 2012

From Mexico to El Otro Lado

I must have been three years old the first time I heard about the United States--or as people in my hometown called it: el otro lado ("the other side"). According to my 6-year-old sister, Gabina, el otro lado was a place where Mexicans were "imprisoned and their heads are cut off by the gringos!"

At 3 years of age, I could not understand why our father left us to go to such a horrible place. Thinking about it terrified me. I remember clearly the day he came back; my sisters and I were buying candy when our cousin came running to give us the news. "¡Su papa regreso del 'otro lado'!" ("Your father returned from the U.S.!"), she yelled. We were so excited that we ran home leaving our candy on the counter. By then, our father had been in the U.S. for so long I barely remembered what he looked like. It didn't matter, I was thrilled he was home, but most importantly, with his head still attached to his shoulders!

Back then, I never imagined I was going to spend most of my life in the place I had so deeply feared. Nevertheless, in 1985--two years after my father died of lung cancer--my mother brought me to the U.S. to reunite with her and my two sisters, from whom I was separated after my father's death. Growing up an "illegal alien" in el otro lado was very hard. Carrying such a derogatory label was a heavy load on my shoulders. Nevertheless, attending school in the U.S. gave me hope that one day things would change for me and my family. This hope took shape during a junior high field trip to UCLA. That was my first visit to a university. There was something about that place that filled me with pride and hope. That day, I knew I would one day go to college.

Unfortunately, I had poor communication skills, my SAT scores were low and worst of all, I remained undocumented. Nevertheless, I put myself through El Camino Community College while literally risking my life as a pizza delivery guy in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. After community college, I went to Cal State Los Angeles (CSULA), where I juggled a full course load at school and full-time work to support my mother and youngest brother. I remained dedicated to achieving my goals and graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology.

Upon graduating, I entered the nonprofit sector to do what I loved most: community and campaign organizing about social causes. In 1997, I was hired to start one of the first programs in the nation to increase awareness about organ and tissue donation in the Latino community. My findings about the lack of organ donation in low income communities helped create other programs in the U.S., Mexico and Taiwan. In 2006, I persuaded the State of California to phase out perchloroethylene, a toxic chemical known to cause cancer, from dry cleaning applications and helped get funding to revolutionize the dry cleaning industry in Southern California. In 2010, my work to reduce toxic chemicals from consumer products led to pollution reductions from 1500 consumer products such as solvents, paint thinners and cleaning products distributed worldwide. This regulation benefits consumers and workers all over the world.

In May 2011, I was recognized by the Obama administration as a "Champion of Change" for my contributions to the reduction of air pollution from the transportation sector.

During my ten years working to protect the environment, I have witnessed the power of the law to bring about positive change in communities of color. This has encouraged me to pursue the kind of career I could only "DREAM" of as an undocumented teenager. I finally became a "legal" resident five years ago; at 40. And, I still dream of going back to school to obtain a law degree and defend the environmental health and justice rights of people who face the same obstacles I did here in el otro lado.