By Reynaldo Mena
Her voice would have sounded firm, convincing, like that of a girl filled with dreams and convictions at her graduation.
“My name is Argelia Atilano, and when I grow up, I want to be a lawyer,” Argelia Atilano said.
We didn’t register the reactions of the other students, nor of the parents or teachers. But those words marked the beginning of the struggle for this girl who had just finished elementary school. For years, life had already presented her with many challenges that had nothing to do with a childhood full of comfort and happiness.
Despite not becoming a lawyer, Argelia Atilano’s journey led her to achieve remarkable success as a journalist, commentator, philanthropist, and social activist advocate. She dedicated herself to making a positive impact on the world, using her platform to contribute whatever she could towards creating a fairer and more compassionate environment for all. Through her work, she sought to provide essential tools and resources, making a significant difference in the lives of others and striving to create a better, more equitable world. Every step of her journey was hard-earned, as she navigated through numerous obstacles placed in her path.
Argelia Atilano was born in Chicago, but her family emigrated to San Pedro, California, when she was two months old, where she lived until the age of twelve before moving to Mexico, where she had other experiences that helped shape her adolescence.
“Yes, I wanted to be a lawyer; I saw so much injustice around me, and I was convinced that with that profession, I could help solve them. I remember that in elementary school, I would rush home, do my homework, and turn on the television. I didn’t watch cartoons; I liked to watch a program called ‘The People’s Court.’ I was fascinated by how people’s problems were exposed, and the judge intervened to resolve them,” recalls the co-host of the popular Los Angeles morning show radio program ‘Omar y Argelia.’
Born in the United States but of Mexican blood, Argelia Atilano carries bitter memories of her childhood, which she describes as unhappy but filled with lessons for her life.
“My parents didn’t get along; they married very young, and the house was filled with shouts, domestic violence, and absences. My dad drank a lot and would frequently disappear. We were left adrift, my mother unable to speak English and unprepared to work, and my sisters and I unclear about what was happening,” she recalls. “I was very scared; my dad would come home with a transformed voice that frightened me. I grew up thinking I would never marry or meet a man.”
Surrounded by poverty during her upbringing, Argelia couldn’t help but notice the stark contrast between her circumstances and the lives of her more privileged cousins and classmates. This stark disparity made her shy and withdrawn. When others danced or celebrated to music, she would hide away, avoiding any attention. She found it difficult to interact with others. Despite her challenges, deep within her heart, Argelia’s mind was brimming with dreams of self-improvement and a brighter future.
“I blamed my father; it was a rupture that took many years to heal. In my childhood, that feeling started to manifest and grew every day. So I walked back and forth to school and around the house, wondering why I couldn’t have my own clothes, shoes for me, better things. Clothes and shoes were passed down from one sister to another. Being the middle child, I had to wear whatever the oldest sister left. I didn’t get to have new things. For example, I always dreamed of having new sneakers. At that time, Vans and Reebok sneakers were in fashion, but I never had them, although I longed for them. Sometimes, to study, I had to hide in the closet because the apartment was very small and too noisy. We lived in a lot of poverty; it wasn’t a miserable life, we could always get by, but barely,” she says.
Moreover, Argelia Atilano was very sensitive, not only to injustice but to the world in general. As a child, she cried over everything. If she saw a movie or heard the neighbor being beaten and in many other situations. Her mother would lovingly embrace her and call her “my tender-hearted little one.”
Argelia Atilano only wanted peace in her life, to seek and find inner tranquility.
Argelia’s mother endured her own challenging ordeal, burdened with the responsibility of supporting the household. The weight of this responsibility made her distant and somewhat cold, consumed by thoughts of how she would manage to provide for her family. The struggle to meet their basic needs had a profound impact on her, making it difficult for her to fully express her emotions and warmth as she grappled with the daily hardships.
“We lived off government assistance and social welfare programs. We did the best we could,” she says. “I was very angry with my dad; when things went wrong, when I needed something, or wanted something and couldn’t have it, I blamed him and pointed out his absence.”
To young Argelia, her father symbolized a void, a sense of yearning, and a painful separation. There were moments of trying to understand this enigmatic figure who had abandoned them to their fate, opting for a life consumed by alcohol and “who knows what else.”
“There were moments of peace. He liked music, and sometimes he would sit down to play the organ, a kind of small piano. I would sit next to him, marveling at his moving fingers; he also played the guitar. There was harmony,” she recalls.
Her parents separated twice. The first time, Argelia Atilano was eight years old, and the second time, she was twelve. It seemed that the first separation was a trial, but the second time, there was no turning back. Her mother had to manage as best she could to support her daughters.
“The wounds were already there. We simply used band-aids to get by,” she says.
Her mother is originally from San Juan de los Lagos, a town located in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, where reverence is paid to the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos. This helped create a balance in her life and prevented her from giving up or falling.
“My mother was always behind us, taking care of us. I was an excellent student; I took things seriously. Even from a young age, I knew that if I wanted to change my life and the lives of my sisters and my mother, I had to study, improve myself, become a lawyer, and give my mother a house as a gift,” she adds.
But it was inevitable for her not to confront the hardships.
One of the things she remembers most, now with laughter, was the embarrassment she felt when going with her mother to the laundromat to wash clothes. That’s when she realized they were a poor family.
“My mother never left us alone for anything in the world. So when it was time to do the laundry, she would take a kind of metal cart, put the clothes on top, and we would drag it along. There we were, walking the streets, up and down, among cars and people. I felt so embarrassed. We didn’t have a washing machine or dryer; we had to do that,” she laughs now.
And then came the journey to San Juan de los Lagos when Argelia Atilano was twelve.
“My father took us; it was a three-day drive all over Mexico. He was very quiet. We arrived in San Juan and settled in my mother’s relatives’ house. It was summer, our school vacation. A few days later, my dad returned to California, leaving us there, saying he would come back for us before the school year began… He never came,” Argelia recounts.
Her mother became very nervous; there were only a few days left before school started. Her father gave no signs of life, so she had to enroll them in a secondary school in San Juan; she had no other choice.
In San Juan, as she began secondary school, she experienced a transformation. The shyness and fear that once enveloped her in San Pedro started to fade away, and she began to blossom. Her life took on a new and positive direction.
“I felt very important,” she says, laughing. “I was a very popular girl; they called me ‘The Northern Girl.’ Of course! I spoke English, and no one else did. That put me in a different league.”
She was also impressed by the devotion to the Virgin of San Juan.
The Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos or Cihualpilli is a small image of the Virgin Mary in her advocacy of the Immaculate Conception, venerated in the sanctuary located in the head of the municipality of San Juan de los Lagos, in the state of Jalisco. It is a tradition of over 390 years old. The image is visited by millions of pilgrims every year, from all corners of Mexico, as well as immigrants from the United States, Latin America, and places in Europe. It is the second most visited in Mexico after the Virgin of Guadalupe on Cerro del Tepeyac. Currently, between 8 and 9 million people visit the sanctuary each year, while an estimated 2 million pilgrims visit San Juan de los Lagos during the celebration of “La Candelaria” on February 2 of each year.
“I would stand in the street watching the visitors attend the ceremonies, asking my mother and relatives questions. It fascinated me,” she adds.
Her friends in San Juan laughed at Argelia’s conviction. “I’m going back to study at a university in the United States and become a lawyer,” she would tell them.
“No one believed me, but I don’t know why; I always knew I would go back, especially to study, progress, and buy a house for my mother,” Argelia Atilano adds.
That time came later; it was time to return to the United States.