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Central California Life Magazine

Minnie Santillan: A voice for others

Nov 19, 2014 03:40PM ● By Cen Cali Life Magazine

Minnie Santillan: A voice for others

by Anna Perez

Photos courtesy of Leslie Just & Minnie Santillan

It’s a cloudy day in East Sacramento, 300 miles from the dusty farming town where Herminia “Minnie” Santillan grew up. As she sits on her couch, with her dog Tupac on her lap vying for attention, she thinks back on her childhood and its influence on the woman she became.

“Because of the size of our family, we didn’t live in a traditional home with privacy,” Santillan, 41, says of growing up on a ranch in Five Points with her parents, seven brothers and four sisters. “I was paired with an older sibling who was in charge and I had to share a bed with my other sisters.”

The sense of community and structure she developed in such an environment has been a cornerstone of her professional life, which has been characterized by positions of increasing responsibility: social worker for Fresno County; campaign manager for several Congressional and state Senate and Assembly races; district manager for a Get Out the Vote campaign; and policy adviser to the California Latino Legislative Caucus.

Santillan is currently chief of staff to Assembly Member Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno). She also owns a political consulting and public relations firm in Sacramento.

"Politics is about strategic planning, building coalitions and building a team that can execute,” Perea says when asked about the woman who, standing just 5 feet tall, is playfully referred to as “Mini Minnie” around the Capitol. “Minnie embodies all of these qualities.”

Coming to America

Santillan was born in Jalisco, Mexico and entered the United States without papers at the age of 9 months in the 1970s. The dream of a better life prompted her family to sell all their possessions and move to California, where her parents already worked as field laborers.

Her father had come to the United States with the Bracero program, which brought in millions of contract workers from Mexico to fill the void in the farm labor sector brought on by World War II. He used the money he earned to buy fruit and meat stands in Mexico, and the family made a decent living selling cactus, various fruits and meat from pigs and chickens they raised on their property. When he invested in mining ventures that failed, in turn losing the stands and livelihood that came with them, the family felt they had no choice but to go north.

An aunt and uncle helped bring Santillan and her seven older siblings to the U.S. They entered the country in a van teeming with party supplies. The older kids were hidden under piñatas, balloons and other items in the back. Santillan was in front, seated on her aunt’s lap.

“My arrival started with a party,” Santillan says.

Dolores, the aunt who helped the family enter, recalls a day that was far more stressful.

“It was hot,” she says. “But my reason for me sweating was because I was nervous we were going to get caught.”

The family settled in Five Points, a place where the time of year is reflected in the harvest. Summers for Santillan were marked by early morning dew on tomatoes, and fall brought cold, wet dirt she slipped on while carrying a hoe to rid the cotton of weeds. In spring, the snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada filled the canals, signaling the planting of a new harvest.

“The cotton was taller than me,” Santillan recalls. “I was put in the back of a truck with white buckets and 15 other workers to get to the field.”

Santillan excelled academically in school. She also played on the tennis team and participated in student government. None of it protected her from discrimination.

Santillan looks away, furrows her brow and painfully recalls that most of the kids who discriminated against her were first- and second-generation Latino children who were U.S. citizens. They knew members of Santillan’s family were undocumented because of a ritual that took place whenever a new family, usually from Mexico, arrived at the ranch in Five Points: Everyone would donate pots, pans, blankets and clothing to help the newcomers get started.

For undocumented children, the effect was akin to having a bull’s-eye on your back.

“It was always there,” Santillan says of the prejudice. “I remember being on the bus and being called a ‘wetback’ by other kids my age.”

Such comments fueled Santillan’s will to leave a place where she believes people were compartmentalized based on their legal status, ethnicity and sex.

The event that had the greatest influence on the direction of Santillan’s life took place when she was a teenager. She often helped her mother prepare lunch for the family before they headed to the fields. The smell of tortillas cooking on the griddle, the sound of a spoon stirring beans and the scent of chile con carne (a beefsteak with red chili sauce) – all heralded the start of a new day.

One morning, Santillan came across her parents in the kitchen. Her mother was flipping tortillas while singing and Minnie’s father playfully tickled her as she stood at the stove.

It was the last time she would see her mother happy.

Santillan’s beloved older sister, Martha, was murdered by a man who had been stalking her.

“I followed Martha everywhere.” Santillan says. “She played sports, so I did, too. I even went with her when she chose her classes at Fresno State.”

Santillan uses a napkin to wipe away tears as she explains that her way of dealing with the tragedy was to engage in more school activities and try to get accepted to a college far away from the heartbreaking memories of Five Points.

Santillan ran for and won the office of student body president at Riverdale High School in 1990 and 1991, her junior and senior years. She graduated with honors and received thousands of dollars in scholarships. She used the money to pursue an education at Fresno State, where she decided to go after her father became terminally ill.

At Fresno State, Santillan majored in criminology and joined a sorority. Despite the change in location, she still encountered prejudice. Once, while sitting with a few of her sorority sisters, the topic of Proposition 187 was raised. The controversial ballot initiative, if passed, would bar undocumented immigrants from using health care, public education and other social services in California.

A young woman from San Diego, unaware of Santillan’s background, talked about how she saw “wetbacks” running across the border “all the time.” She insisted they were running here for the benefits, disregarding the fact that adults entering the country typically took jobs others did not want, for lower wages and sometimes with poor working conditions, and that they were the backbone of many sectors of U.S. agriculture.

“Wetback” was not the only contemptuous term the young woman used when referring to these individuals and families.

“I was in shock,” Santillan, who had become a legal resident in 1987, says. “I couldn’t believe she had used those words to describe a human being.”

Santillan asked the young woman if she knew where Santillan was born or what her parents did for a living. The young woman, perturbed, asked Santillan why she had to make such a big deal of the proposition.

“They are farm workers,” Santillan said of her parents. “And I was born in Mexico.”

Instead of apologizing, her sorority sister got angry and stormed out of the room.

Santillan became a U.S. citizen a few years after the incident, at the age of 24. Her experience with the young woman in her sorority was hardly forgotten. It steeled her resolve to find her passion and stand up for what she believed in, especially on behalf of others.

Building a career centered on service

After graduating from Fresno State, Santillan worked as a marketing specialist in Vision Care Center’s business department at the main office. She became familiar with the importance of demographics – something that would serve her well when, at 23, she left the position to head up the Fresno office of the California Voter Registration Project. She and her 30 employees registered 4,000 voters in Fresno County each month for four months, the most of any district office.

From there, Santillan’s involvement in public service only deepened. She helped Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, in his re-election bid in 1998 for the California State Senate and was consequently hired to be a district representative in his Fresno office. She has since worked on more than a dozen political campaigns.

Santillan took a brief pause from politics and got a job as a social worker for Fresno County. It didn’t last long. Working with children in long-term foster care and arranging in-home supportive services for the elderly, blind and other disabled individuals rekindled her affinity for people who struggled.

It also convinced her that the political arena was where she could make the biggest difference.

“I wanted to advocate for a social class that didn’t have a voice,” Santillan says. “I prefer to be in politics because this is where we cut the red tape.”

Concerned that some people still perceived Latinos negatively, Santillan started advocating for them through the politicians she worked for and with on campaigns. As policy adviser to the California Latino Legislative Caucus, she fought for free public health care for undocumented people living in rural areas of the state. A major victory was thwarting the passage of a trailer bill introduced in the state Senate in 2009 that would eliminate health services to children who are citizens but have parents who are undocumented.  

The trailer bill’s defeat was deeply personal for Santillan, who was determined to ensure that no child experience the physical and mental pain she went through because of a lack of medical care. She has memories of being rocked in her mother’s arms as they both cried because she had a rotting tooth they couldn’t fix. The family wasn’t offered dental insurance as field workers.

Santillan was in her early 20s when she went to the dentist for the first time.

“I know what a broken, decayed tooth tastes like,” she says. “I grew up most of my life feeling it.”

Santillan has lived in Sacramento since 2004. She moved here to work for California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, but not before being named one of Fresno’s Top 10 Professional Business Women of the Year in recognition of her work with the Downtown Association of Fresno, her volunteer work with children in her neighborhood and her role in the establishment of the Central California Latina Network. She was only 30 years old.

As Perea’s chief of staff, Santillan advises the assemblyman on a variety of issues and has a hand in crafting the language in policy bills. They met in 2000 in Fresno, while she was working on Democrat Cal Dooley’s reelection campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives and Perea was working as a staff member for the campaign.

She started her political consulting and public relations firm in 2010.

It’s an often demanding but ultimately fulfilling life, with roots buried deep in the Valley where she was raised.  

“I love what I do,” Santillan says. “I still get to protect my community – those people that are young and vulnerable, just like I was.”


Anna Perez wrote an early draft of this story for a beginning news writing class at Fresno City College last spring. She is currently a student at Sacramento State, where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in communication with an emphasis in public relations.