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.”

Landscaper Salvador Tapia. (Photo by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)
Landscaper Salvador Tapia. (Photo by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)

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.

Construction company owner Leonardo Macedonio.
Construction company owner Leonardo Macedonio.

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.

He returned to Mexico to marry Susanna, and it took “three tries” before he was able to bring her to Sonoma three years later. They smile knowingly at each other now, feeling no need to share the details. Now Susanna is a citizen.

“Everything was new to me and there were not a lot of Spanish-speaking people here back then,” Susanna said. “It was hard. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t know how to drive,” although she quickly learned. For a while she cleaned houses, before becoming a full-time mother. They raised four children in Sonoma, who all attended Prestwood Elementary, Adele Harrison Middle School and graduated from Sonoma Valley High School. All four are now college graduates.

Their oldest, Stephanie, 28, is a registered nurse at Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa and, on her own, just bought a house in the Springs. “I have my Dad’s work ethic and my Mom’s charm.” She said the four siblings are very close and they all usually return to their parent’s home for Sunday night dinner.

Macedonio left construction for a while and for six years worked at a wine label print shop, picking up construction and landscaping work on the weekends. He left the print shop to work for a construction company in Marin for two years, and all the while he was getting more and more construction side work in Sonoma.

I have my Dad’s work ethic and my Mom’s charm.” ǀǀǀ Stephanie Macedonio

“People would ask me, ‘Can you install a light?’ and ‘Will you paint a room?’ Painting, electrical, plumbing, whatever I was asked to do I never said no.”

Tapia worked for wineries for 20 years, “And then I started to feel a little tired of it and I started looking for something else.” In 2005, he took a full-time job with the landscaping general contracting firm Hanford ARC. “I work there five days a week, for the wineries I worked six.” That gives him more time to take on additional landscaping work on the weekends. “I like to be busy all the time,” he said. “I never take a day off.”

Well, except to visit his mother and his sister’s family who now live in Washington. His sister went there to pick apples and has a similar story to her brother’s. Their mother was alone in Mexico and they were able to move her to Washington with a green card in 2002 and, last year, when she was 87 years old, she passed the test to become a citizen.

I like to be busy all the time. I never take a day off.“ǀǀǀ Salvador Tapia

“I have always saved money, always,” Tapia said, explaining that now besides their home in Sonoma they own two avocado farms in Mexico. One farm has a small house on it and he and Maria spend February there every year. It is a special place for them.

“Someday when we are in our 60s we hope to be able to spend six months there and six months here,” he said.

Macedonio’s side construction jobs eventually were abundant enough to start his own company, Leo’s Construction, which specializes in home remodels. “We remodel bathrooms every day,” he said. He manages 14 employees and Susanna does all the office work including invoicing.

They try to work only five days a week now, although he often meets with clients on Saturdays. “Now my wife and I work together and we try not to work on Sundays.” Macedonia is a fitness aficionado, going to a gym and coaching soccer and cross-country when his kids were in school. Now on Sundays he and Susanna often go hiking before returning home for family dinner. “I am so happy,” Susanna said.

“I believe in hard work and consistency. And you have to believe in yourself,” he said. “And my kids always inspired me to do my best,” he said. Now that that kids are grown and all have good jobs, things are easier. “Paying for college, that was the most difficult,” he said.

“I am grateful to all the families that hired me and helped me establish this life for my family.”

The Macedonios have frequently returned to Mexico to visit family, but now Leonardo and his wife are looking at exploring other countries, too.

“I want to travel, as many countries as we can,” he said, mentioning Europe, Asia, South American and Iceland. “That’s my dream now.”

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