Poverty, alcoholism, bullying, and shame permeated Saira Soto’s childhood. Her father’s drinking was so severe that he couldn’t hold a steady job or pay for more than a one bedroom apartment for his family of nine, who came to Los Angeles from Mexico as undocumented immigrants.
Saira’s oldest sisters supported the family working in a sweat shop. As each child grew older, he or she worked at whatever job they could find to bring in money. Her mother worked hard and always made sure there was a meal on the table even if it was rice and beans, and she walked them to school every day.
Saira didn’t like conflict and felt overwhelmed when arguments at home got loud. Going to school brought no peace either. She suffered from a severe skin disease that produced open and visible sores. “It was physically painful, and the other kids taunted me, spit on me and hit me. I felt ashamed of what I looked like and embarrassed at what other people saw.”
She found one friend in a second grade teacher who connected with her and understood what she was going through. He also sparked her interest in science when the class did a project on the space shuttle. She began to do well in school and gained confidence. She studied hard, wanting to make up in academics for what she lacked in appearance.
A counselor who knew some of the details of her life and knew her potential for college nominated her for a Beat the Odds award in 1998. At the ceremony, she met Marian Wright Edelman. “She knew my story and gave me a hug that communicated such love and compassion. They were praising me for my hard work and the tough things I went through. In my speech, I was able to proudly say, ’Yes, I come from a poor community. Yes, my family suffered alcoholism. Yes, I have a skin disease. But I am smart, I am good hearted, and I will give back to the community.’”
In 2003, Saira earned a degree in environmental chemistry at the University of California at San Diego. She worked to educate migrant workers on health dangers of poor water and air quality, and exposure to pesticides. “I really wanted to do something in the social justice realm, and I got a job at a union that represented public sector workers.” She reconnected with CDF through the union’s involvement in advocating for health coverage and preventing cuts in the state budget.
She volunteered to be on the selection committee for Beat the Odds and two years ago, became program director for California’s Beat the Odds, Freedom Schools and young advocate leader trainings. “I feel very much a sense of pride to be part of an organization that I respect so much.” Saira bought a home near her father who has given up drinking. He’s helping her fix it up.