Andrea Skorepa, Executive Director of the non-profit organization Casa Familiar, has been advocating for local San Ysidrans for the last thirty-five years. She manages a team of thirty-four employees who use holistic approaches to serve the predominantly hispanic community.
They’ve worked on constructing family housing for first time sale and they’ve developed low income housing for the elderly. They’ve focused on programs to get San Ysidrans civically engaged and they’ve developed ways for parents to increase their participation in school governance and their children’s education. In 2008, Casa Familiar even expanded into the arts by creating The Front.
Andrea explained, “I’ve come to realize that the first things they take away in marginalized communities are your access to art, to music, to rhetoric, to all of those kinds of things. I didn’t want the people who are still in Sn Ysidro to continue to have those lacks. If you go anywhere in Mexico, the public has access to public art…. it’s there whether you’re poor or whether you’re rich. It doesn’t matter. It’s in your environment. I wanted art to be a part of our environment and our children’s environment.”
A San Ysidro Local
Andrea was born on Father’s Day, June 20, 1948 at Paradise Valley Hospital in National City. Her parents lived at 142 San Ysidro Blvd. That was before the I-5 and the I-805 existed. Instead, the railroad passed near her house.
Andrea’s father was an airplane mechanic at North Island Naval Air Station. He also held a second job at Sears as a mechanic. He was born in 1910 in Los Angeles. Andrea’s mother was born in 1919 in Mexico and she was brought to the U.S. when she was 2 years old. Her mother’s family wanted to work for the railways in Chicago, but when they got as far as Kansas, the winter hit. They came from a temperate climate and the cold didn’t suit them. In addition, Andrea’s aunt Ruth (there were four children in her mother’s family) became sick and lost hearing in one ear. They left Kansas and settled in Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara is where her mother and father married before moving to San Ysidro. Andrea’s father had an aunt in Santa Barbara, so the two met at a christening and then went to a dance. Her grandparents on her mother’s side, however, were very traditional. They would let their daughters go to the dances only if their sons were chaperones. Andrea’s grandparents also would put a thread on her mother’s belt and insisted she could only dance as close as the length of the thread. Then, Andrea’s grandfather caught her father giving her mother a peck on the cheek. That was it. They took Andrea’s mother out of school and made her marry immediately.
Andrea had two brothers: one older by 10 years and one younger. She went to San Ysidro Elementary School, now called Sunset, then Southwest Junior High and then Castle Park High School in Chula Vista.
Andrea’s mother ran the malt shop in San Ysidro for a time. She insisted that she had to quit when she was pregnant with Andrea because she could no longer stand the smell of food. She then worked as a receptionist in an optometrist’s office. She also worked as a sales clerk for Sears.
“That’s what we still find is, a lot of our mother’s still work. They work as hotel maids or as housekeepers or in the service industries at the entry level. And the men do too,” Andrea said.
She has kept her best friend from Kindergarten and married her high school sweetheart. She recalls that her mother was as strict as her grandparents. “It didn’t come naturally to her to allow those freedoms to her daughter. The boys could do anything they wanted, as usual, because of that double standard and the fact that, especially in the Latino culture, the boys: they can do anything, be anything.”
VISTA: Volunteers In Service To America
At eighteen Andrea began studying at Southwestern junior college. She always had an interest in urbanism and urban planning. At the time, it was $50 per semester. To put herself through school, she worked for a year at the Mexican Auto Insurance kiosk. She made $1.25 an hour.
It was the sixties. The government had just invented the Peace Corps as well as the domestic counterpart, known as VISTA: Volunteers In Service To America. “I didn’t feel we could morally and ethically go into another country if we hadn’t fixed the problems in our own country.”
She joined VISTA as a volunteer and left San Ysidro for the first time. It was the summer of 1967. It was also the first time she had left the state of California and the first time she had ever gotten on an airplane. When she landed in Oklahoma City, she remembered seeing a man in overalls herding pigs across the airport runway. She had taken off from Lindbergh Field, which wasn’t that much better back then.
She was trained at the University of Oklahoma by VISTA personnel and one of the men asked, “Your name is Andrea Palacios. Are you Spanish?” She answered, “No. I’m Mexican.”
She was the first person he had ever met who admitted they were Mexican. In those days people would say they were Spanish. The Mexican race was mestizo: half Spanish and half Amerindian. Nobody wanted to admit to being that.
“That always stuck in my mind. Growing up here must have influenced me to just accept that I was Mexican,” Andrea said.
After her training, she was sent to El Paso, Texas and she was stationed in the Rio Grand Valley for a year. There, she organized farm workers and helped to get them civically engaged the same way Cesar Chavez did, and the same way Andrea believes Casa Familiar does today. She would tell the farm workers to stop picking and they would say, “We can’t do that. The vegetables will rot.” Andrea would nod and a light bulb would go off. She would explain that’s why they can demand bathrooms and other rights.
Andrea recalled that in San Ysidro there was one family who would get into the migrant stream every year. They would go picking from ranch to ranch. They would start with the plumbs, then they would go to the lemons. Andrea would beg her mother to go. When she was young, that sounded fun. They worked and then they had dances and they would meet boys. Andrea begged her mother, asking if she could go with the Leon family. Her mother refused, saying, “I did not work and break my back picking lemons and walnuts so that you would do the same thing.”
This was the mentality of parents of that generation. They wanted their children to grow up and become good Mexicans. In Texas, Andrea became an organizer. When she return to San Ysidro a year later: she was also a Chicana.
What does Chicana mean?
“To me it means that you’re not from Mexico and you are from America, but America has not accepted you. So what we did is we took a pejorative term, which was ‘Chicano’ at the time and adopted it and named ourselves Chicano. Yeah, you’re right. We’re Chicanos and you’re not going to push us around anymore. We’re here. It’s an activist role that also encompasses your ethnicity. Because when I would go to Mexico they would say, “You are not a Mexican. You don’t even speak Spanish.” I would come to America and they would say, “You’re not an American. You don’t look like one. You don’t act like one. You speak a different language.”
Andrea was not accepted in either place, so she had to create her own place. That’s part of what was going on in the sixties. When Andrea returned in 1968 she enrolled at San Diego State University to finish her education. By then she had realized you can be of some help as an organizer, but if you have a degree, you can be of more help.
She double majored with a B.S. in Urban Geography and a B.A. in English because she loved to read. Then, she also incorporated a certification as a teacher. “Because I thought that’s the way we are going to change the social contract and social fabric of our society. However, it’s soooo slooooow.”
From Kindergarten Teacher To Union Organizer
Andrea’s first job was as a teacher at Beyer School. Then she was a kindergarten teacher for five years at Sunset Elementary, her alma mater. When they opened the new school, La Mirada, she was a kindergarten teacher there. This was from 1971 to 1980. She started working on a steering committee and then helped to create a union for AFT-San Ysidro Federation of Teachers 3211.
The school district tried to fire her because of her union activity. Instead, she became the President of the Union and fought her dismissal through the courts. She eventually won.
Soon thereafter, an opportunity came up to apply for the Executive Director position at Casa Familiar. Because she was from the community and had grass roots experience organizing people, it seemed like a good fit. Casa Familiar knew providing services was one thing, but getting people civically engaged was even better. Andrea got the job.
She asked for a leave of absence from the school district for one year to try it out, but they said no. She decided to quit. She has been Executive Director of Casa Familiar ever since. The year was 1980.
Civic Engagement and Casa Familiar
Casa Familiar originally started in 1968 as Trabajadores de la Raza. They were a statewide organization of Latino socialists. It was only incorporated in 1972. The service had been running as an alternative mental health facility for monolingual Spanish speakers. This was around the time when free clinics started, but monolingual Spanish speakers were too afraid to go to medical clinics.
“When you are poor, you have to juggle a lot of balls,” Andrea said. When she started working at Casa Familiar, they provided a space for people to could come in and talk to counselors without the stigma of mental illness. Andrea felt it wasn’t enough to just talk to someone.
“They were just ordinary people who had ordinary problems.”
But they often lacked resources, which were their true stressors. Andrea decided to add a component of social services to hook up people with available resources. She also started hiring people from the community. Eventually there were only three counselors left, but they did community counseling rather than psychological counseling.
Today, Casa Familiar offers twenty or more programs. The reason is clear: they have created a holistic approach to helping the community. At risk kids aren’t not going to benefit from talking to a counselor if they have to return back into a dysfunctional environment where domestic violence, alcoholism or neglect might be happening. Casa Familiar answers these needs through school programs, from their unique dropout prevention program for K-3, to affordable housing and increasing park spaces.
Today, you’ll find Andrea and her staff at the Civic Center holding Sin Limites meetings, working on playground designs, hosting events for school children and enjoying their annual Dia De La Mujer (Day of the Woman) art event at The Front.
First published at www.southbaycompass.com in January 26, 2015.