From Mexico to Sonoma: Two success stories
Leonardo Macedonio and Salvador Tapia are successful businessmen who each came here from Mexico more than 30 years ago to build a better life. They have never met, but they have much in common with each other and others like them who came here to chase the American dream.
They are both United States citizens, a status earned through President Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform Act of 1986. They were first given green cards, allowing them to stay and work in this country, and later they each passed the citizenship test. They both married in Mexico, and later were able to move their wives, Susanna Macedonio and Maria Tapia, to Sonoma to raise their families.
The Macedonios and the Tapias are both longtime homeowners. The Macedonios own Leo’s Construction, where they both work full time. Tapia works for a major landscape contracting firm, where he often puts in 10 hours a day. On weekends he works at his side business as a residential landscaper. Maria works full time at the Lodge at Sonoma.
Macedonio, 54, and Tapia, 58, each recently agreed to talk about their pathways to success, and reflect upon their experiences. Susanna Macedonio and their daughter Stephanie joined Macedonio in the conversation.
Macedonio and Tapia had the same original pathway to Sonoma – they came to pick grapes. Tapia’s first trip here from his native Michoacán in August 1983 is seared in his memory. He and his sister were raised by their single mother --- his father was killed by a lightening strike when Tapia was a young boy. His mother was against his coming to the U.S., because he already had a good job as a fabric maker, even though he had left school at 10th grade to start working.
“All my friends had already left. I was the last one. I was jealous and I wanted to know about the United States.” He rode a bus for 40 hours to get to Tijuana where he paid a coyote $250 to smuggle him along with a group of others across the border. “We walked the whole night and then hid in the bushes during the day. We could hear the boarder controllers on their walkie-talkies. The second night they hiked to Temecula, where they waited until they heard a whistle and were told to “run very fast and get in the van.” He said there were 32 people in the back of the van, all piled on top of each other on the ride to Los Angeles. “I couldn’t feel my legs. There was a guy sitting on top of them.”
He then took another bus ride to Sonoma where, within hours after arriving, he was in a vineyard, picking. “It was good money. You could make $3,000 in six or seven weeks,” he said. He lived in a bunkhouse at a winery, and then took a bus back to Santa Ana after the harvest. There he lived in a house with two cousins and two friends, working as a dishwasher at Bob’s Big Boy before returning to Sonoma the following harvest.
He stayed here, making a trip back to Mexico in 1985 to marry Maria. More trips to Mexico followed, while he worked here first for Sebastiani and later for Kenwood wineries. The couple’s three children were all born in Mexico -- Rafael in 1986, Celia in 1988 and Salvador in 1991. For years Tapia traveled back and forth, nine months here and three months in Mexico, before finally moving his family to Sonoma in 2000.
All of their children graduated from Sonoma Valley High School. It was the biggest challenge for Rafael, who was 14 when he arrived at the school not speaking a word of English. “That was so hard for him,” Tapia said, adding that picking up the language was easier for the younger children.
“They all have done so well. They all have very good jobs and now I have five grandkids,” he said.
What Macedonio recalled about his early days here after leaving San Andreas, Timilpan, his hometown in Mexico, was how overwhelming it was to be someplace so different from his early life. “I didn’t have any idea what life was like here,” he said, but he knew immediately the most important thing was to learn to speak English. He said he was here a year before he could understand anything.
He also came to work the harvest, then working on a construction cleanup crew before working back in the vineyards during pruning season. Next he was hired in the butcher department at Fiesta Market in the Springs and before long started working for construction companies. He had experience in concrete and stonework and learned to build rock walls in Mexico, which helped him get construction work in the early years here with several different companies.