Maria Alfaro was born in Leon, Mexico, an industrial leather-making city with few paths out of the tanneries — and poverty. She and her sisters grew up rarely seeing their father, who had gone to work at better-paying jobs in the U.S. and could only afford to visit every five years or so. He worked two shifts, one as a cook in an Italian restaurant and another as a janitor, hoping to bring his children north to join him because he believed they’d have better opportunities there. At home, with her mother working too, Maria was in charge of taking care of her younger sisters.
In 1989, when she was 18, her father sent for Maria to come live in San Francisco. “It was awesome,” she recalls, though at first it was difficult to find a job. “Even though I’d had some college education, I discovered I needed a lot more English to be successful.”
She went to school part-time and got a job as a cashier at a taqueria in the city’s Mission District. “It gave me a lot of practice speaking English,” she says. Later she married, and when she had a son, she wanted steadier work to support her child, so she found a job at Columbus Craft Meats, where she started out working on the line. “In my mind, it was temporary — a year tops, and I’d be gone.”
The thing I appreciate about Columbus is that they gave me opportunities, and I took them.Maria Alfaro, Columbus Craft Meats
But, she says, a supervisor saw something in her, and promoted her, first doing inventories, then working her way up to higher levels of responsibility. Now, she’s a supervisor herself.
“It’s been 22 years,” Maria says. “The thing I appreciate about Columbus is that they gave me opportunities, and I took them.”
She had several struggles along the way. A divorce meant that she had to juggle being a single mom with her ever-increasing duties at work. Then, six years ago, she went for her first mammogram and the physician found two tumors in her left breast. She had to endure the process of cancer treatment, from a biopsy to surgery and chemotherapy. “When you lose a part of your body, it affects your self-confidence,” she says.
Instead of taking time off, she threw herself into her work. “It gave me focus — I didn’t have time to get depressed or think about anything negative,” she says. “At the time, I needed Columbus more than they needed me.”
Becoming a Role Model
Mike Camarena, who has been her supervisor for 11 years, says the way Maria coped with her illness was inspiring. “She’s so dedicated and strong-willed that she didn’t let her personal issues affect her at work,” he says. “I’d tell her to go home and relax, and she’d say, ‘No, I need to be here.’” Mike says that Maria has been a great role model for other employees. “She’s a very intelligent and driven person,” he says. “With her strong work ethic and commitment, she was able to accomplish personal growth in the company. She’s proved that if you have goals you want to meet, and you go after them, you can accomplish whatever you set out to do.”
Maria now has three grown children, whom she’s raised on her own. “Like my parents, I’ve had to struggle to make my family successful,” she says. Along the way, she’s learned how to take care of herself, too. Now, she’s celebrating four years cancer-free. “What I’ve learned is that you need to love yourself more than anything and teach your children that if you can do it, they can do it, too.”