Emir Estrada opened an envelope she had just picked up from her campus mailbox. The return address said the University of Connecticut.
“Let’s read this together,” said Estrada, who today earns her Ph.D. in sociology from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Dear Miss Estrada,
We’re pleased to offer you a tenured position as assistant professor in the Department of Sociology with a joint appointment in the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies beginning on August 23, 2012.
“Oh great!” said Estrada, who already had been notified by phone. “This will give me time to attend my niece’s quinceañera.”
Estrada was just slightly older than her niece when she left Zacatecas, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States. At 17, she came to Los Angeles with nothing but a few clothes, her high school yearbook and a heart-shaped ring her father, Salvador, had given her shortly before his death.
A respected maestra — or teacher — in Mexico, Estrada’s mother, Leonor, became a house cleaner in L.A. to pay the rent. At that point, the only English Estrada knew were the words to Bon Jovi songs. She decided to join her mother cleaning houses.
After taking English classes, Estrada got involved in Extended Opportunity Programs and Services — a financial aid program of the state of California and community college districts — attended Long Beach Community College and transferred to UCLA.
In a sociology class, she read Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence (New edition, University of California Press, 2007) by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo.
“This is my mom. This is me. These are people I know,” Estrada thought as she read the book. “The book made me feel that I had a place in sociology. It made me, for the first time, truly feel that I had a space in academia.”
When Estrada learned Hondagneu-Sotelo was a professor of sociology at USC Dornsife, she attended one of her talks and stayed after to meet the professor.
“I felt like a total groupie,” Estrada recalled. “I was so nervous.”
She told Hondagneu-Sotelo about her interest in studying children of immigrants who work with their parents. The sociology professor encouraged Estrada to apply to USC Dornsife.
While working with Hondagneu-Sotelo at USC, Estrada wrote a paper on Latino adolescent street vendors in Los Angeles, which has been published in several academic journals.
“I’m happy I completed the doctoral program in five years, despite the bumps,” Estrada said. By bumps, she referred to a difficult divorce and raising her 6-year-old daughter, Xitlali, as a single mother.
She knew how far she had come when, after giving a talk about her research on child street vendors, a student approached her.
“She told me that as a child, she used to be a street vendor,” Estrada said. “My study had inspired her to conduct her own research.”