Maritza Maldonado was raised in East San Jose by parents who immigrated from Mexico. They worked in the fields before her father found employment as a custodian and her mother as a cannery worker. She grew up with parents who wanted a better life for their daughter and she didn’t let them down.
“Our immigrant families come here with the American dream,” she said. “My parents immigrated with that dream in mind for their children.”
She attended San Jose State University where she majored in psychology. After graduating, Maldonado co-chaired a community agency where she led a campaign for the Children’s Health Initiative. She was an educator in the Alum Rock Union School District and later a division director for Catholic Charities.
Each stage of her life shaped the executive director and founder of Amigos de Guadalupe Center for Justice and Empowerment into who she is today. And she is far from done. At 62, Maldonado wants to see transformational change in the East San Jose Mayfair neighborhood during her lifetime, she said.
Maldonado is driven by social justice and faith, and inspired by labor leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. She is proud of Amigos de Guadalupe for purchasing Chavez’s home for future generations.
Maldonado founded Amigos de Guadalupe in 2012 at the request of her church pastor to help those in need. With a staff of 60, plus volunteers, the nonprofit offers a multitude of services from emergency shelter and financial assistance to citizenship classes and immigration legal services.
“Our work is really visionary,” Maldonado told San José Spotlight. “I stand on the shoulders of strong advocates like Blanca Alvarado and civil rights leaders who paved the way.”
In November 2020, Maldonado spoke out at a rally at Mexican Heritage Plaza in East San Jose demanding COVID-19 relief funding and immigration reform. She said 43% of Mayfair’s population are immigrants and 29% are undocumented, and without immigration reform, even young people with college degrees can’t get good paying jobs.
East San Jose’s essential workers hold several jobs to get by, live in multi-generational homes and make an annual salary of $53,657 a year, she said, adding that no community has been more marginalized than Mayfair.
“We keep beating that drum and telling people it’s not OK we have the highest mortality rates (during the pandemic),” Maldonado said. “What it highlighted were the inequities that exist.”
Veronica Goei, executive director of Grail Family Services, said Maldonado is invested in raising the voices of the voiceless and is relentless in finding housing for the homeless. Grail Family Services partners with families, schools and communities to promote children’s success and well-being.
“She is ready to roll up her sleeves and do whatever it takes,” Goei told San José Spotlight. “Some people talk about things… Maritza gets things done.”
When Maldonado was moved by a woman struggling with a new baby, she approached the county about creating a tiny home community, Casitas de Esperanza, which translates to Little Houses of Hope, for families experiencing displacement. About 67% of the residents were permanently housed in the last six months, she said.
She said housing requires intensive case management and support. Airianna Delaney, a resident of Casitas de Esperanza, said case managers helped her attain child care, therapy and permanent housing. Delaney’s interaction with Maldonado was so life changing that she ended up getting a job with the nonprofit.
“I am so grateful for her ability to see that working with Amigos could really work for me,” Delaney said. “My children and I are doing so much better.”
Figuring it out
When Maldonado started the nonprofit, she knew one agency couldn’t do the work alone. She approached other executive directors in the Mayfair area suggesting they team up. They formed the Si Se Puede Collective, which includes Grail Family Services, the School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza, SOMOS Mayfair and Veggielution Community Farm.
The collective provides residents with wraparound services and works toward economic justice, leadership development and affordable housing. It created a job development program in child care and food entrepreneurship. Maldonado said having child care and preschool is essential, especially for homeless and working single moms living in shelters.
“We’re on the cusp of true transformational change because we believe deeply it’s possible,” she said. “I wouldn’t be doing this work if I thought it was being done in vain.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]
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