Emiliano Leonides, a catechist at Santiago de Compostela Church in Lake Forest, was one of several dozen pilgrims who traveled by foot to the annual Mass in Recognition of All Immigrants July 17 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
The celebration began with the arrival of the pilgrims, who had walked 20 to 50 miles from their home parishes to the cathedral, calling for a reform of existing immigration policies.
Leonides, who walked 50 miles, hopes that by walking and sharing his own story it will help give a voice to the voiceless — and help him “find the hope and strength to continue working for the dignity of all immigrants.”
Dubbed “Siempre Adelante” (“Always Forward”), the walk was dedicated to St. Junípero Serra — whose feast day was July 1— because it followed part of the same route he traveled with fellow California missionaries.
“I am not only an immigrant, but also a pilgrim,” explained Leonides, who has participated in the trek to the cathedral two years in a row. “I walk with the experience of the hardships that immigrants live with every day.”
Leonides indeed knows those hardships first-hand. Born and raised in Guerrero, Mexico, he felt compelled to make the journey to the U.S. after a debilitating stroke left his father disabled and unable to work to support his wife and children.
Following a treacherous trip across the border and through the desert, Leonides was grateful to arrive safely, albeit illegally. He said he felt doubly blessed to start working and sending part of his paltry (but helpful) earnings home to his family.
“I found a job, but I also found great loneliness” — a solitude Leonides still carries with him, because, 14 years later, he still can’t travel home to see his parents.
Other immigrants and refugees of diverse backgrounds also shared their personal testimonies at the Immigrants Mass, including Juanatano Cano, a native of Guatemala, who shared part of his story in his native Mayan Q’anjobal language.
“As a boy in the 1980s, I experienced first-hand the violent civil war in Guatemala,” he recalled. “During those dangerous times, an inner voice reminded me: ‘You are here for a reason. There is a better future as long as you believe.’”
By the time Cano left his little Guatemalan village bound for the U.S. at the age of 20, “I knew with each step that the American dream was within my reach,” he said.
After arriving in Los Angeles in 1988, he began working in the Garment District in Downtown L.A. and enrolled in night school to learn English. Three years later Cano was granted political asylum and received a temporary work permit (under the ABC Program for Guatemalans), though he was still unable to travel home.
But he forged ahead, earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, a teaching credential and a master’s in school administration. And eventually, more than a decade after leaving Guatemala, he was finally allowed to visit his hometown.
Today Cano is a U.S. citizen, teaches math in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and serves as a national consultant to the Subcommittee on Native American Affairs for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“I tell my students, ‘Never give up,’” said Cano. He also stresses: “Education is the key to a better future — [and] always remember where you came from.”
For Anna Nguyen Hahn, a Vietnamese refugee who arrived in America with her two sons in 1988, her flight was driven less by economic factors and more by a lack of freedom — specifically the freedom to practice her Catholic faith.
“It was a difficult journey, in a small wooden boat; we could have lost our lives, but, with the Lord’s blessing, we finally came to this free country, [where] we can study and work hard and have a good life,” she said. “But, most importantly, [where we can] practice our faith, worshipping the Lord without any threat or fear.
“We feel so blessed and think we should share those blessings with others,” said Hahn, who says she tries to pay forward her blessings by devoting herself wholeheartedly to her parish. “Forever I thank the Lord that gives us this life and I thank America. … I hope to do much more to serve and love the Lord and this country.”
The diverse Mass participants included Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, of DACA, students, parents eligible for DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of American citizens), families facing separation, recent and long-term refugees of various nationalities and interfaith partners representing several religions. Prayers were offered in French, Spanish, Polish, Vietnamese, Swedish and English.
The relics of St. Junípero Serra, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini and St. Toribio Romo — saints who are deemed particularly significant for Catholic immigrant communities — were on display during and after the Mass for veneration.
Archbishop José H. Gomez, who celebrated the Mass, recognized the “immigrant spirit” of the United States.
“We gather to pray for all of the immigrants and their families,” he said. “We pray for immigration reform in our country, for our elected officials and for people all over the world — that they open their hearts to the immigrants who come to their countries.”