Margarita Quinones Pena: From Border Crossing to Triumphs in Yoga, Engineering, and Authorship
In the tapestry of American stories, few can rival the incredible journey of Margarita Quinones Pena, a remarkable individual whose life embodies resilience, community service, and unwavering determination. Born in Durango, Mexico, and raised in the vibrant city of Chicago, Illinois, Margarita's life took a dramatic turn on a fateful Halloween night in 1993 when, at the tender age of three, she embarked on a perilous journey through the desert with her mother to cross the US/Mexico border. This daring escape would set the stage for an extraordinary life filled with purpose and passion.
Upon reaching the United States and reuniting with her father in La Villita, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, Margarita began adapting to her new life. Growing up in a modest household, where both parents held multiple jobs to make ends meet, she felt the burning desire to contribute to her family's welfare. Like many immigrants, Margarita obtained a fabricated work permit, known as a MICA, and took up temporary work as a line worker in various factories. However, it was during this time that her eyes were opened to the harsh realities faced by undocumented immigrants.
A few months into her job, Margarita experienced her first immigration raid, a redada, at a nearby factory. This traumatic event served as a wake-up call, making her realize not only her own stroke of luck in avoiding deportation but also the urgent need to understand and address the systemic issues that plagued her community. Determined to make a difference, Margarita joined the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), a local community group, and became an advocate for change.
Her journey towards making a lasting impact had just begun. Margarita took a leadership role in LVEJO's youth group, focusing on anti-recruitment efforts to guide high school students, especially undocumented ones, toward alternative paths to higher education outside of military service. She also began writing for the local newspaper, El Cilantro, using her voice to shed light on critical issues facing her community.
Margarita's commitment to change did not waver when she attended Whitney Young Magnet High School. She continued writing for the high school newspaper and played a significant role in the Immigration Walk Out efforts of 2005 with her group, Latinos Unidos.
In 2005, Margarita embarked on her academic journey at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she pursued an Engineering degree. It was during her senior year of college, as a means of self-care and without knowing the transformative impact it would have, that she discovered Yoga. After graduating, Margarita's undocumented status posed challenges in pursuing her engineering career. However, she persevered and dove into the world of Yoga, training to become an instructor with the intention of bringing this invaluable resource back to her community.
As fate would have it, shortly after she began her Yoga training, President Obama announced the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program via executive order. This development changed Margarita's life once again. While continuing her Yoga practice and teaching, she finally managed to enter the engineering field, making strides in the corporate world.
Margarita never lost sight of her roots and the importance of community service. She continued to provide free Yoga classes in her neighborhood of Little Village and even extended her services to the Cook County jail when permitted.
A decade after receiving her DACA/Dreamer status, Margarita stands as the driving force behind the Latina Sweat Project, a remarkable initiative dedicated to empowering Latina women on a path toward becoming certified Yoga instructors. Her unwavering dedication extends far beyond the yoga mat, as she tirelessly endeavors to bring health and wellness resources to underserved communities.
Through one of the project's transformative programs, Margarita found herself working directly with asylum seekers, generously offering them the solace of free yoga classes. This profound experience ignited a passionate flame within her heart, inspiring the creation of her children's book, "Homecoming: El Viaje a Mi Hogar." In an era overshadowed by divisive opinions on immigration, Margarita's story radiates as a beacon of hope and positivity. With her book, she seeks to ignite the inner strength and resilience within every reader, while shedding light on the untold tales of immigrant children.
Margarita Quinones Pena is not just a symbol of hope; she's a living testament to the incredible heights that can be achieved when passion meets purpose. Her unwavering dedication to providing vital resources and support to those on a similar path reflects a heart that knows no bounds.
With her book's proceeds, she doesn't just aim to illuminate the path home; she's building a highway paved with dreams, opportunity, and unwavering resilience. Margarita's story isn't just an inspiring tale; it's a call to action, a reminder that every one of us has the power to transform lives and empower communities through determination and compassion. In a world that sometimes seems divided, Margarita's shining example reminds us that our shared humanity and the pursuit of justice will always guide us back home.
As the vibrant leaves of autumn painted Chicago this year with their fiery hues, I found myself at the Chicago Latina Expo, immersed in a whirlwind of energy and inspiration. There, in the midst of it all, I had the incredible privilege of sharing the session room and engaging in a lively discussion on the topic of "Latinas Voices in Publishing" with none other than Margarita Quinones Pena.
The experience was nothing short of a pleasure, a delightful dance of words and ideas that left my spirit soaring. Meeting Margarita was like uncovering a treasure chest of wisdom and resilience, and it became abundantly clear that her remarkable journey deserved to be shared with the world. In our conversation, Margarita's words flowed like a river of inspiration, a testament to her indomitable spirit and unwavering determination. What she had to say during our interview was nothing short of a symphony of motivation and hope, and I couldn't wait to capture and share her extraordinary story.
OLM: Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and what inspired you to become an author, especially focusing on children's literature?
Margarita: My name is Margarita, I am an Engineer by trade and a Yoga instructor by passion. I was inspired to write by my mother, I was planning to surprise her with a written account of our story of migrating to the United States. To make sure I wasn’t forgetting details, I asked for her version. Once she finished telling me the reality of the situation, I realized how opposite our recollections were. As a child, I viewed it as a magical journey, when in reality we were at risk at every turn. This motivated me to tell my childhood version and to intentionally create something to protect that innocent perspective.
OLM: "Homecoming: El Viaje a Mi Hogar" is a beautiful title for a children's book. What motivated you to write this particular story, and what message do you hope young readers will take away from it?
Margarita: Although the inspiration to write this book came from my mother, the motivation to publish this particular story came from the asylum seekers currently in the US, specifically in Chicago. I had the privilege of supporting asylum centers throughout my city in different capacities, as I became familiar with the new residents, I felt the most protective of the children there. In hearing their stories and noticing the all too familiar pattern of telling their story of migration in a somber or secretive tone, I felt inspired to show them my story and how I navigated through a similar situation.
It was very important to me to instill pride in their journey here and show my solidarity through visuals I felt would be easier to digest. I hope young readers with a similar story see themselves in my journey and find hope in what lies ahead, and I hope young readers who do not relate find insight into the migrant perspective and one day advocate for us too.
OLM: Your book draws from your personal experience as a DACA recipient. Could you share how your own journey influenced the storyline and characters in the book?
Margarita: I think what is unique to my children’s book is that although my memory is flawed and my perspective was intensely protected by my Mom, it is still my authentic account of my own personal story of migration. So it was influenced directly, and I have fought hard to maintain my story as true to my memory as possible.
OLM: Immigration is a complex and often emotional topic. How did you approach crafting a children's book that addresses such a significant subject while making it accessible and engaging for young readers?
Margarita: Immigration has always been and will always be a complex and emotional topic for those conscious of the true risk and danger of taking that journey. What is beautiful about crafting a children’s book is the author gets to dive into a child’s mind to cater to it.
A big part of my book and mission with Homecoming is to really emphasize the innocence of a child’s mind. Although there are complex scenes such as a toddler’s running through a desert, in a child’s mind, and to my young readers, I hope to portray that for a child it truly is just that, a journey following their family home.
OLM: The illustrations in a children's book are crucial in conveying the story. Can you tell us about your collaboration with the illustrator for "Homecoming" and the creative process behind the visuals?
Margarita: Working with Ludvila and Eric, illustrator and graphic designer, was a blast. They both followed my vision from the very beginning, we began by going over the story and talking through what emotions I remember feeling throughout. From there we came up with themes and colors for the emotions conveyed, I shared photographs of familiar places in both my home in Durango and my home in Chicago. From there the illustrator took her interpretation and put pen to paper. It was something I will never forget, seeing the images of my story come to life in such an accurate and beautiful way, and sharing this experience with another Mexicana was an honor.
OLM: What challenges did you encounter while writing a bilingual children's book, and how do you believe it adds to the book's impact and accessibility?
Margarita: SOME SPANISH FRASES CAN’T BE TRANSLATED. And learning that was hard! I believe every culture has its version of slang, sayings, etc., and realizing that a lot of my Spanish, especially from childhood, is what I call ‘Rancho Spanish’, was a big challenge for me. Some phrases in my book, like ‘El que se quedo se quedo’ or ‘Como lo ‘jupo’ are very much a nod to my specific hometown in Durango and how my family speaks.
No one who edited my book is from my hometown and although through context it could be deciphered, I was torn about keeping the verbiage. Finally, I decided that keeping the phrases as I remember maintains my story’s authenticity, and I believe authenticity is the number one ingredient for impact.
OLM: As a DACA recipient, you have a unique perspective on immigration. How do you think your personal experiences enrich the storytelling in “Homecoming"?
Margarita: I have the privilege of giving a first-hand account of a very Mexican experience, from a very American perspective, and I believe that it not only enriches the storytelling but really widens the accessibility of my message. I experienced crossing the border almost 30 years ago now, and this retelling of my Mexican childhood memory by my American adult voice, adds depth to what is typically assumed to be a very black/white experience.
OLM: In your opinion, what role do children's books like "Homecoming" play in helping young readers develop empathy and understanding for the experiences of others, especially those from immigrant backgrounds?
Margarita: I believe it is pivotal. From my own experience, I can say that not seeing my story told in books growing up really added to the shame I was already experiencing. Migrant children need to see themselves portrayed as the beautiful and curious minds that they are and celebrated for it too. In reading this story as someone who has not experienced immigration, I hope that it not only provides perspective but really demonstrates the innocence and resilience of their peers and family members with similar stories.
OLM: Can you share any memorable experiences or feedback from young readers or their families who have read "Homecoming," and how it has resonated with them?
Margarita: Most memorable still is one child, at the time living at an asylum center where I did my book launch, pointing at an illustration and saying ‘Yo tambien!’.
At that moment I felt like the book had served its purpose and this child felt seen, something a lot of immigrant children grow without and my top priority when deciding to publish.
OLM: What advice would you give to aspiring authors, especially those who want to address important social issues in their children's books, based on your own journey as an author and DACA recipient?
Margarita: My advice is to do it, authentically, and don’t hold back. We all have a story to tell, some of us take longer to develop pride or comfort in sharing our stories and that is okay, what matters is that you do it. Storytelling has for too long been left to one demographic, the one with the most resources, yet those of us with low resources have just as many if not more stories to tell. As a DACA recipient, I am not yet able to vote, but I am able to write, publish, and support my community with my message. It is empowering to know the words I choose to publish will be around long after I or any policy formed to restrict me.