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Public Service Recognition Week, Part II: Texas Officer: How a Small Gesture Translated Into a New Career

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In this series of four blog posts celebrating Public Service Recognition Week, we honor the dedication of USCIS employees who fulfill the USCIS mission of securing America’s promise as a nation of immigrants.

By Ben Rubenstein

"Growing up, I never knew that life existed outside of the 48-mile radius of Eldorado, Texas," says Maribel (Mary) Gonzalez, an immigration services officer at the Texas Service Center in Dallas.

In fact, the city of Eldorado itself, the county seat of Schleicher County in southwest Texas, fills just a tiny part of that radius. Her 1982 graduating class had been the largest in her high school’s history – 48 students. Her mother worked at the Eldorado Woolen Mill, which was the oldest mill in the southwest U.S. before it shut down. Her grandmother canned her own vegetables and made her own jam and candy.

Gonzalez with her daughter Marina and son Isaiah. Gonzalez says they “are the reason I still continue to do my best.”

In a population of barely 2,000, Gonzalez knew everyone, and everyone knew her and her parents and six siblings. “I always found that environment appealing,” she says. “I got a lot of benefits growing up in a small town.” 

She still goes home – Eldorado is a five-hour drive from Dallas – for the annual World Championship Goat Cook Off in nearby Brady, Texas. "A lot of people, when they don’t know how to describe goat, will say it tastes like chicken. No, it doesn’t. It has its own distinct flavor."

Gonzalez (left) with friend Joe at the World Championship Goat Cook Off on Sept. 6, 2015. More than 200 teams seasoned and smoked the goat meat and competed for trophies, cash and bragging rights. The event also featured art vendors, a street dance, and the Goat Gallop, a fun run and walk – and a healthy sense of humor, according to Gonzalez.

She tried to make sure her two children, a 21-year-old daughter named Marina and a 23-year-old son named Isaiah, connected with small-town life. They appreciate southwest Texas, she says, but prefer Big D.

After high school, Gonzalez enrolled in a commercial college in nearby San Angelo, Texas. She recalls the admissions employee asking to see her Green Card. Gonzalez, born in Texas, had no idea what that was, so she responded, "I don't have an American Express card, I’m paying with a check."

Her friend displayed her Green Card, but Gonzalez still had no idea what it meant.

Gonzalez later joined the Army. That's when she saw that life existed outside of the 48-mile radius of Eldorado. For starters, she got to see Dallas for the first time (and still remembers how congested it looked by comparison.)

Gonzalez (right) with private first class Campbell while working with the Pershing missile system in Germany in 1987.

She scored well on the military aptitude test. The recruiter from San Angelo asked if she wanted to work on computers. "Yes," she said, figuring she’d learn skills that would be useful later in civilian life. The recruiter, she adds, didn't mention that the computers were part of the Pershing missile system.

Gonzalez served as an electronic material specialist in Germany for almost six years. When the Cold War ended, the military needed fewer missile operators, so she became an accounting specialist for the next four years in Fort Benning, Georgia.

After her military service, Gonzalez visited the Texas Workforce Commission to learn about employment opportunities. While in the waiting room, she overheard a woman who was also there looking for work and struggling to communicate in English. The woman looked to her for help. Gonzalez – better at speaking Spanish than translating it – did her best.

Gonzalez in a cotton field in Eldorado in October 2013, teasing her boyfriend that his home state of Missouri may have corn but hers has cotton and football.

A contractor whose company worked for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (an agency that existed before the Department of Homeland Security was created) overheard the woman asking Gonzalez to translate, and then asked if she would consider applying for his company. Gonzalez did and received an offer a few months later. A year after that, she became a federal employee.

Including her time in the military, Gonzalez recently reached 30 years of serving her country.

She’s held many positions at USCIS. Of course, she now knows what a Green Card is. She says she also understands why so many people want to come here and live the American dream. 

From left, sisters Geral, Christy, Gonzalez and Georgie in May 2015 on the one-year anniversary of their mother’s death, at the small cemetery where their family members are buried. Gonzalez says that’s where she wants her ashes spread. “Everything I knew and wanted was within 48 miles of  Eldorado, and even though I came from a family of humble means, I had everything.”

"I am living that dream," she says. "I fell into this career by chance and it has been a blessing. When I helped that lady that day I had no idea what that gesture would mean in my life and the opportunities it would lead to. I never saw that lady again. I’m hoping she got the job I helped her with."