One of the greatest satisfactions of working with youth is having the chance to witness their growth and transformation — you get to see their lives change and where life takes them. I was given that privilege for nine years when I worked with young individuals in the juvenile court system.
Part of my work was to get youth in trouble to straighten up. Later, I realized that they, too, became a source of inspiration for me and taught me so much about life and hope. It was through this work I met Maria.
Maria Laura Mayorga, 32, was born in Chicago but has lived in Iowa since she was one. The oldest of five siblings, her parents came to the United States as young Mexican immigrants looking for the American Dream.
Her father was an entrepreneur. When he moved to Des Moines in 1989 he started his own business, La Tienda Mexicana, the very first Mexican store in Iowa, Maria said. Four years later, her father opened Los Laureles, a Mexican restaurant located on East Grand Avenue in Des Moines, now known as La Placita.
The Mayorga’s raised children with a strong work ethic.
“I remember that since a young age, we had to help in the restaurant chopping onions for the tacos, washing dishes, or helping in the store,” Maria said. “And obviously at that age we hated it, but we always worked.”
When Maria attended Hyatt Middle School, she started hanging out with the wrong crowd.
“The experiences we have in life are part of who we are in the present,” she said. “I am not perfect, nobody is perfect, and the mistakes we make in our lives help us grow as individuals, in our businesses, our relationships, and other aspects of life in general.”
Besides a solid work ethic, Maria’s father made sure his daughters knew they did not have to depend on a partner in the future and that a good education was essential. When he found out that Maria was getting in trouble that could potentially put her future at risk, he enrolled her in Dowling Catholic High School. Despite his efforts to support her education and help navigate her in the right direction, Maria kept ties with some old friends. At 15, she found out she was pregnant.
“I hid my pregnancy for a while until it was pretty obvious,” Maria recalled. “I had to break the news to my father. I remember that when I told him, he asked me, ‘what are you going to do?’ I told him that I was going to have my child, graduate from high school, graduate from college and go to law school.”
It was her dad’s dream for his oldest child to become a lawyer. Mr. Mayorga wished to have an engineer, a doctor, a real estate agent, and an entrepreneur in his family. He dreamt that together they could build a business empire.
Maria meant what she said to her dad when she became pregnant. She graduated from Dowling, attended DMACC for two years, then graduated with a degree in political science from Grand View University in 2011. She was admitted to Drake Law School and graduated in 2015.
In the last two years of law school, Maria worked for Roxanne Conlin and was unsure of what her career path would be.
“I wasn’t the typical law school student,” she said. “Every decision I made has been focused on my son, so I stayed in Des Moines.”
After graduating from law school, Maria worked in a law office for five years as an associate attorney primarily working on personal injury and family law cases.
One of the challenges Maria faced as she started her career was being a Latina in a mostly white field and state. She did not have others she could relate to for mentorship and support.
“The most challenging aspect of this profession as a Latina is not having someone like me that I could relate to,” she said. “What I mean is someone with my cultural background and experiences because every culture has its own expectations about achievement and the roles we are supposed to play. It was hard not to have guidance or a mentor in my profession that looked like me. Mentorship is a key, so having a mentor is especially important.”
In 2015 she joined the board of the Latina Leadership Initiative, an organization that supports young Latinas, in part, by providing them with mentors. Maria became the chair of the organization soon after.
As far as the balancing act of being a single mother and attending law school at the same time, Maria credits her parents’ full support as the force behind her educational and professional success.
“I honestly don’t know how I did it. I think I just rolled with the punches, I had no choice, and I am not a quitter,” she said.
That is what makes Maria Mayorga a great lawyer. She is accustomed to hard work since she was a young girl. She has been through tough times, she has fallen but has never quit, and that is what I admire the most about this strong and beautiful Latina.
Maria changed her life for the better. She is now in a happy relationship with the father of her beautiful two-year-old daughter. She attended law school while raising her son, who is now a teenager.
Sadly, Maria lost her father last year, but for those who know Maria there is no doubt he left a tremendous legacy in his remarkable daughter. In August, she fulfilled one of her father’s wishes: she opened her own law office.
Yes, I have been fortunate to see many young people turn their lives around in a positive direction and succeed in different aspects of life. Maria removed multiple barriers with her determination and her family’s love and support. Most importantly, she is a great role model for all young Latinas, and young people in general.
Maria’s story is inspirational, it tells us that regardless of past mistakes and circumstances you can always work hard and succeed. Yes, you can! Or as we say in Spanish “¡Si Se Puede!”
By Claudia Thrane
Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage