Espinoza was the kind of little sister who always wanted to be with her big brothers,
catching crawdads in the irrigation ditch. But that wasn't considered proper for
a nice girl from a strict Mexican family, so "Rosie" worked indoors
with her mother and sisters on a huge La Habra property where her family toiled,
returning at night to the red-painted clapboards of the immigrant camp they called
Still, she found ways to get what she wanted. "I was an out-of-the-box person.
I didn’t realize that was the kind of thinking that would carry me over
when I most need it," Espinoza recalled.
It was exactly that thinking that, years later, led her to talk to her neighbors
about what might be needed to make their tough La Habra neighborhood less dangerous.
She knew violence - she grew up hearing the fights between pachucos in
the migrant camp - but she had her son's safety to think about, and besides, she
and her husband were homeowners now and didn't want their investment to lose value.
"I thought, well, maybe I can do something here," she said. Everybody
agreed that kids needed a place to go to get off the streets: "They wanted
a place to spend time together and at the same time do something positive."
So Espinoza took a look at her own garage and thought, "They can come here."
That decision spawned a free, after-school tutoring program for Latino children
that would be credited with lowering crime rates and become nationally heralded
as an example of community activism that makes a difference.
Since Rosie's Garage opened its doors in 1991, Espinoza estimates the program
has served more than 1,000 children, although no official records have been kept.
Now located in a city government building a quarter mile away from the original
garage, the drill is still the same: Those who Espinoza often calls her pollitos
(little chicks) gather to get help with their homework and then disperse as they
The program has garnered Espinoza countless laurels for civic involvement and
led her into local politics, where she became the first Latina to sit on the La
Habra City Council and be mayor. In fact, Espinoza herself might know best just
what a powerful symbol her success represents for Latinos.
Although she holds an associate's degree in industrial drafting, Espinoza is the
first to point out the irony that her community involvement has delayed her finishing
a bachelor's degree for the past 15 years.
Now in her 50s, Espinoza has one eye on the life she wants after what she hopes
will be an early retirement. "It's an exciting half of my life," she
said. "I'm thinking the first half was one of necessity - paying a mortgage,
raising a son, raising a husband - and the second half is something else."
That something else, she says, is about taking the lessons from Rosie's garage
and building on them: "My ideal would be to have this implemented in the
most needed communities in the country, and beyond.
"Kids have so many opportunities now, yet they are still falling between
the cracks. This is a group that has been here for generation after generation,"
says Espinoza, whose family traces it's immigration to the United States after
the Mexican Revolution. "I have to ask, why is this going on? I am not a
person who can leave well enough alone."