When Teresa Alvarado was growing up as one of 13 siblings in a small town called Jalostotitlan in Jalisco, Mexico, tragedy struck suddenly and upended their lives forever. Her father’s lifetime of work literally went up in smoke when the family’s small shoe shop — and their only source of income — was completely destroyed in a fire.

The years that followed were a never-ending struggle to try to make ends meet. Finally, at the age of 57, Teresa’s father Miguel González and her older brothers immigrated to Los Angeles seeking work to help support the family of 15 — a heart-wrenching choice that forced them to leave the rest of their family behind, including Teresa, her mother and her other brothers and sisters.

In 1975, after more than a decade of factory work in the states, Miguel and his sons were finally able to bring the rest of the family to the U.S., recently recalled Teresa, a parishioner at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in La Habra.

Five year later, after a tremendous amount of “work, sacrifice and savings,” Teresa’s family opened Northgate, a small neighborhood market in Anaheim — and subsequently the “gates of the North” opened up to the González clan. The successful business has since grown to surpass her father’s original dream of someday having one store for each of his 13 children. Today, the family has more 40 supermarkets across Southern California and in neighboring Arizona.

“We have struggled to make a home in this country of hope and opportunities,” explained Teresa. “Over time, one by one, we became U.S. citizens — because being a citizen is essential in order to get ahead in this country.”

Teresa was among hundreds at the 2016 Immigration Summit on Feb. 27 at Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove. Titled “Hosting the Immigrant: A Call to Action,” the summit served as the official launch of a multi-diocese, parish-based initiative to help legal permanent residents obtain their U.S. citizenship. According to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security, there are currently an estimated 2.4 million men and woman eligible for naturalization in California.

More than 400 parish and community leaders from across the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the dioceses of San Bernardino, Orange, Fresno, San Jose and Monterey were on hand for the summit, which was held concurrently with the 2016 Religious Education Congress at the nearby Anaheim Convention Center.

During the recent summit, Teresa joined fellow immigrants and refugees who shared touching personal testimonials, and religious leaders — including Archbishop José H. Gomez, Los Angeles auxiliary bishops, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Dominic Luong of the Diocese of Orange and Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Rutilio del Riego of the Diocese of San Bernardino — discussed the importance of the new initiative.

“If we work this year to encourage naturalization and citizenship, this will make a real difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” said Archbishop Gomez.

“Our struggle has never been about politics; it’s always been about people — people who are hurting and exploited, people who are dying,” he added. “This is a moral failure and a human tragedy.”

During his presentation, the archbishop stood next to “La Cruz de los Encuentros” (“The Encuentro Cross”), which he personally presented to Pope Francis in Philadelphia last September. As the pope celebrated Mass in Ciudad Juárez last month, that same cross was standing in El Paso as a tangible sign “of the ‘encounter’ of Jesus Christ and his Gospel with the peoples of the Americas.”

“We have to keep concentrating on the ‘human face’ of immigration reform — the names, the stories, the families; mothers and fathers, sons and daughters” the archbishop said. “We need to show that these faces today are no different from the generations of immigrants that came before.”

Before the end of the summit, participants were encouraged to chat with one another for a period of time to share ideas, exchange contact information and discuss plans to help facilitate upcoming caucus/training sessions for parish teams, which will conduct information workshops for legal residents seeking citizenship. Benefits of citizenship include the ability to vote, eligibility for public services, citizenship for minor children, no risk of deportation and eligibility for federal jobs.

The summit closed with a “Migrant Stations of the Cross,” with attendees exiting the conference area, processing behind the Encuentro Cross and entering a separate cathedral building to view a display of crosses representing the suffering and lost lives of countless migrants crossing the border. Among the “stations” were select personal belongings that have been found along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The newly-launched initiative is part of the Church’s ongoing support of comprehensive immigration reform; is a response to the pope’s call to action during the Year of Mercy; and brings together the California Catholic Conference of Bishops, Catholic Charities and participating dioceses for a coordinated effort.

For information about scheduled parish caucus/training sessions in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, or to learn more about the initiative and how to get involved, contact the Office of Life, Justice and Peace at (213) 637-7560.