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Women of the Year: Jennyfer Mesa helped build the community she needed, and helps others in the process

Jennyfer Mesa, a 2020 Women of the Year selection, is seen in Spokane on Sept. 15. Mesa, who originally emigrated to the United States from Colombia, is an immigration activist who co-founded the grassroots organization Latinos en Spokane in 2017.  (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-R)

When much of the town of Malden burned to the ground on Labor Day, it didn’t take long for Latinos en Spokane to spring into action.

The grassroots organization launched an online fundraiser for Alfredo Castillo, who was at work on a local egg farm when the fire sparked. He was able to escape Malden along with his wife and two children, but they lost their home and a pet to the blaze.

The fundraiser is exactly the sort of work Latinos en Spokane was founded in 2017 to accomplish, supporting Latinos in and around Spokane and establishing a sense of community.

Jennyfer Mesa, one of its three co-founders, felt the absence of that connection and organization when she arrived in Spokane nearly a decade ago. So she decided to do something about it.

“Spokane is unique in that there has never been a space for immigrants, for Latinos, for different cultures,” Mesa said.

Until now.

Back in 2018, thanks to Mesa and other volunteers, travelers at the Greyhound bus station in Spokane, where Border Patrol would routinely search until the company prohibited agents from its grounds earlier this year, were handed “Know Your Rights!” cards produced by the American Civil Liberties Union.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, Latinos received assurances, translated into Spanish, that they would not have to prove their immigration status or provide a Social Security card in order to safely be served by a food bank.

Others learned how to apply for citizenship, an exhausting and notoriously complex process that can cost thousands of dollars and take years to complete.

“We’ve created a trusted space and people ask us questions all the time,” Mesa said.

Tamber Price nominated Mesa as one of The Spokesman-Review’s Women of the Year because she’s offered a space “that’s really needed” in Spokane, she said. After meeting her at a local dance studio, Price got her first job babysitting one of Mesa’s two children.

“She is like one of my biggest role models, she’s like that for so many people,” Price said. “She puts everyone else before herself, to a point where it’s like she’s so passionate about advocating for everybody.”

It’s no surprise that Mesa would dedicate herself to helping others navigate the immigration system and life as a Latina in Spokane – she knows firsthand how “crazy-making” it can be.

Born in Colombia, Mesa migrated as a girl to the United States with her parents in 1986 or 1987 – she forgets the exact year. Like many other Colombians fleeing the drug-fueled violence and unrest of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, Mesa’s family landed in Miami.

Her family was unable to apply for asylum despite having come to the United States to escape chaos in Colombia that several of her family members did not survive.

After their arrival in the United States, Mesa’s father returned to Colombia and she was raised by a single mother. She eventually dropped out of high school to work and help support the family. Mesa and her older brother were translators for things like apartment leases and car purchases for her mother, who could mostly get by in Miami with only Spanish and did not learn English until Mesa was in her early 20s.

But while her family laid down roots during those formative years in Miami, Mesa’s status was never permanent.

Although they arrived in the United States on tourist visas, Mesa’s documents had been lost or stolen with some of the family’s luggage en route to the United States. That meant the rest of her family could apply for residency, but she could not prove she made legal entry into the country.

“That affected the rest of my life,” Mesa said.

Years later, her father, by then living in Mexico, told her to come attend college there.

“I was naive, I didn’t know the risk of what would happen if I left. I was 17 at the time and I thought I could go and come back,” Mesa said.

But she couldn’t.

So Mesa spent more than a decade in Mexico as her mother, now a U.S. citizen, worked to help her daughter gain access back into the United States. Mesa applied for visas over and over, if only for a temporary visit to see her mother, but was always denied.

“We were just constantly rejected, and it was heartbreaking,” Mesa said.

In Mexico, Mesa put her skills to work, leveraging her bilingual abilities to enter the banking industry. She parlayed that experience into a career as a commodity broker.

Eventually, Mesa and her son were finally able to obtain a visa at the U.S. consulate in Bogota, Colombia. After years of frustration and legal wrangling, Mesa said she was never asked for “one single thing” to prove her identification by the officer who handled their case. To that point, her family had invested $27,000 in the effort over the years.

“My case, even with its complexities, I am a lot more privileged than a lot of people,” Mesa said.

Mesa moved to Spokane in 2011 with her then-husband, who landed a job in the area.

Because her professional experience in Mexico counted for little in the United States, Mesa began working at a call center and got to work on her GED, which she received in 2012. From there, she went to Spokane Falls Community College and transferred to Eastern Washington University, where she studied urban planning.

Her research and career, focused on neighborhood and transportation planning, has taken a number of turns.

Most recently, she worked as a senior planner with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians until she was furloughed due to COVID-19.

Mesa’s culture bleeds into her professional work in development and planning, a field sparse with Latinos, she said. As emphasis on public transportation and denser housing grows, Mesa said Latinos have already been living that way for generations.

“We’re not used to living in sprawled environments,” Mesa said.

Many in the planning field view it as apolitical and neutral, but that’s not the case, she added.

“In reality, if we want to be advocate for communities,” Mesa said, “it also includes equity.”

As Mesa studied the history of Washington, she got angry. Immigrants have been brought into Washington communities for decades and allowed to work, she said, but “there’s no representation, at the city level, or county level.” Even, she added, as they drive economic growth.

“People are living in the shadows and working in the shadows, and are not bring considered,” Mesa said.

But if people are living and working in the shadows, Mesa’s life as an activist and work as a planner has been to shine a light on them.

At Latinos en Spokane’s annual workshop to help students apply for scholarships, Mesa asks how many have had a Latino teacher. Or doctor. Or political representative.

“Here in Washington, and especially in Spokane, those kids have never been represented. They don’t see themselves in leadership roles,” Mesa said.

Latinos en Spokane could help change that. It began as an online community through the texting app WhatsApp with about 70 friends and family members, and “it just blew up from that,” Mesa said.

As much effort as she and her fellow volunteers pour into Latinos en Spokane, Mesa said structural change will come only with real investment in organizations and efforts like those undertaken by Latinos en Spokane,

“We’re starting to get there, but we’re a group of volunteers,” Mesa said. “We all have day jobs.”

Latinos, especially after the election of President Donald Trump, are being asked to be “many things at once,” she added.

“It’s hard for people to do their careers and also have to respond to need,” Mesa said.

For now, Mesa will continue to balance life as an activist and professional in Spokane, where she now feels at home with 6-year-old daughter Bianca and 17-year-old son Sebastian.

“Here, I was able to get scholarships, become more stable, put my son in school and have this quiet environment,” Mesa said.

The alternative, Miami, would have presented a different challenge.

“I would have been stuck in traffic,” Mesa joked.