Child migrant turned inspirational leader has always made an impression

2011-10-24T12:50:00Z 2011-10-24T13:42:16Z Child migrant turned inspirational leader has always made an impressionBy Brady McCombs Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
October 24, 2011 12:50 pm  • 

Leo Guardado — the young man I profiled in this Saturday story — has a way of making a profound impact on nearly everyone he meets.

After finishing second in his class at Cathedral High School in Los Angeles, Guardado received a full ride scholarship offer from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. The prestigious college flew him out to see the campus and offered him a monthly stipend.

Though flattered and honored by the offer, Guardado really wanted to go to Saint Mary's College of California, run by the same LaSallian Christian Brothers who were in charge of his high school. But, he didn't have a full scholarship offer from the school, and figured he would have to take the Swarthmore offer based on necessity.

A prominent brother at the College thought so highly of Guardado that he talked to the school president on his behalf. Soon, the offer was increased to a full ride — with a monthly stipend.

Guardado went to Saint Mary's.

Years later, Guardado was days away from leaving to study theology at a school in Belgium when another brother at Saint Mary's College asked him why he didn't want to go to Notre Dame. Guardado explained that he hadn't been accepted and was actually excited to go to Europe.

But the brother insisted on making a call to his contacts at Notre Dame to make sure they knew who they were turning down. Soon after, Guardado received an email from Notre Dame informing him he had been accepted. He called Belgium to explain the final hour change of plan, and went on to get a master's in theology from Notre Dame.

This ability to impress people has continued during his 1 1/2 years in Tucson as the social ministry director at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

"There's a tangible quality I can't put a name on," said Rev. Bill Remmel of Most Holy Trinity told me for the story. "Anyone I know that's met him seems to be able to immediately relate to him."

Here are more observations from leaders in the Tucson faith community about why Guardado is so highly regarded that didn't fit in the print story:

* From Rev. Alison Harrington of Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church:

Guardado is “an amazingly thoughtful, compassionate man” who has the unique perspective of understanding the journey of the migrant and the challenge of being a child living illegally in the United States, she said. He’s already a key leader in Tucson and that role will only increase if he stays, she said.

“He brings just a wealth of experience, but also a keen theological mind and a compassionate heart,” Harrington said.

* From Rev. John Fife, retired pastor at Southside Presbyterian Church and co-founder of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s:

Guardado’s willingness to speak publicly about his past as an undocumented immigrant is vitally important in a climate where people without papers are often referred to as “illegals” or “criminals,” Fife said.

“Stories like Leo’s need to told and need to be told publicly and with courage so that people see the enormous contribution that immigrants make in our churches and in our communities,” Fife said.

He has all the traits of an outstanding leader, Fife said.

“He’s just beginning and just learning, but you can tell this guy is a leader,” Fife said.

* Rev. Bill Remmel of the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church:

Remmel offered Guardado a job after seeing the way in which he organized and led students from Saint Mary’s College of California to Southern Arizona on border trips.

“I knew he had the skills that would be really valuable here,” Remmel said.

His future is bright no matter where he chooses to go, Remmel said.

“Leo could go anywhere he wanted and he would be valuable,” he said.

As I wrote about in the story, Guardado is seriously considering a life as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of New Clairvaux Trappist Monastery in Vina, Calif, where he spent 10 months in 2005-2006.

Harrington, Fife and Remmel would love Guardado to stay here in Tucson where he would have a bright future, but respect the draw he feels to the monastery.

“If that is where God is calling him,” Remmel said. “That is where he belongs.”

Said Fife: “God calls people to very interesting vocations and Leo is going to have to follow that calling.”

What does Guardado’s mother think?

She continues to believe her only son will change his mind about joining the monastery. She reminds him of other things he once wanted to do, but never did, such as when he was a 5th grade and said he wanted to live in the Amazon or when he declared as a high schooler he wanted to be a chemist.

“It’s a way of her deflecting a reality of her only son not being in her life in a way as she gets older,” Guardado said.

When I talked with Maria Guardado by phone from her home in Los Angeles, she said she doesn’t know where her son will be in five or ten years, but that she’ll always support him.

“If he is happy what he’s doing, I am not going to put barriers in the way,” she said in Spanish. “I’m very proud of him. He is everything to me and I am grateful to God.”

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com

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