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Remember Why You're Here Episode 3

Episode 3 Transcript

Know Your Name with Xiomara Flores-Holguin

Listen to the episode here: 

[MUSIC PLAYING] That's what I wanted to always give back, is safety and protection.


Crystal Cardenas:
Today, Ms. Xiomara Flores-Holguin is a recently retired 36-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, the largest public child welfare agency in the United States of America. She served as a Children's Services Administrator with the director's office and was the department's centralized law enforcement liaison. She currently teaches part-time at the California State University Northridge in the Department of Social Work.


Crystal Cardenas:
Thank you so much, Xiomara, for joining us today. I feel super honored. And I'm very excited to just have a genuine conversation with you as my friend, as my colleague, as someone that I admire and look up to. So I just want to really thank you for coming on.

Xiomara Flores-Holguin:
Well, first of all, Crystal, I'd like to thank you for this opportunity. I'm extremely excited about also being with a friend and someone who I've passed the baton on because as I always say, you are the future. So it's exciting for me to be in this space. And thank you, this is my first podcast so I'm actually dedicating it to my children, to Andres and Lucia, who are all about podcasts. So thank you very much.

Crystal Cardenas:
So my first question to you is, tell us about your parents and what it was like to meet your family in Nicaragua?

Xiomara Flores-Holguin:
So my story. Where does my story begin? My mother and father came to the United States to Los Angeles in 1956 from Nicaragua, Central America. And my twin and I were born here. We're first generation. And it was an interesting experience because all of our relatives just kind of landed in the same place and space.

We had a village, an extended village from Nicaragua. Our first language is Spanish. Our identity was strong Nicaraguenses. You're from Central America. So we were kind of bridging that story because we were the first borns in this community of Nicaraguenses. Back in the late '50s, early '60s, there weren't a lot of central Americans who were in Los Angeles. And so it was almost like a representation of the community, of the region.

And at a very early age, we were giving geography lessons. People would assume we were from Mexico and would assume we ate delicious Mexican food, which we would go out to eat, but we would tell people, no, Nicaragua is by the Panama Canal. Again, we never saw the Panama Canal. We only saw it in textbooks, but yet that was a point of reference. And that was really how my identity evolved.

My mother only had a third grade education, but she strongly believed that we had to speak Spanish fluently and well and also learn English. So at home we spoke Spanish, only spoke Spanish to her and out of respect because you do sometimes want to speak in another language so your parents don't know what you're talking about. But we learned early on that we had to communicate respectfully to our parents and to those that didn't speak the English language that we were learning.

And then we were becoming translators. At five years old, we were translating, not only for our parents and relatives, but for friends. People would call my mother and ask, can the twins help me out here, either read a document or speak to someone? So this responsibility was serious. And at the same time, it probably started my journey into becoming a helper, into being the social worker that I like to say I had a calling for a very young age. I think I was six years old when I wanted to become a social worker or a helper. We didn't call it social work then but I knew I wanted to help people.

Crystal Cardenas:
Oh, I love that. So we kind of talked about it a little bit earlier, but can you tell us about your name and the generational strength that it's carried for you?

Xiomara Flores-Holguin:
The story of my name. And I'll tell you a story following the story of my name Xiomara. So I am a twin. Her name is Jacqueline Gioconda, and my name is Maria Xiomara. But ironically enough, I was never called Maria. My parents never called me Maria. My relatives never called me Maria. But in school, because it's my first legal name, I was Maria. I allowed people to call me Marie or Maria.

And then I grew up and I said I have to honor my parents and take on the name that I love, and it's who I am. And so I introduced myself as Xiomara. I am Xiomara. And people now pronounce my name beautifully and they know me as a Xiomara. So there was an activity that the KC foundation shared with us, and it was the story of your name. So I find myself in this group with some co-workers. And there is a young man by the name of Diego. I know Diego's origin. He's from Mexico.

And I look at him and I say, oh, Diego. I know why you're named Diego. Your parents named you after Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist. And he looks at me straight-faced and says, actually Xiomara, I was named after Diego Armando Maradona, the great Argentine soccer player. And I paused. I apologize to him. And from that moment on, Crystal, I said, I will start to ask people's names and their origins, and what do they want to be called by, because we make assumptions.

I can tell you stories about the caseload I had at DCFS. And we'll talk about that later, but there were children whose names were Maria or Juan and suddenly they're Mary and they're John. And I think about them. And did they change their names or did a foster parent change their names? Or did-- who changed their names? Who were these children? So think about the importance of your name, your identity, your language because it's been taken away from us.

I was co-located back in 1992 at the Sheriff's substation. I was one of the co-located social workers. And I remember that the deputies didn't know how to pronounce my name Xiomara. And so they changed it to Sue. And so I was being introduced around the facility and has everybody met Sue. And I looked around. Who's Sue? And I said, who is Sue? You are. We can't pronounce her name. I said, well, first of all, I will teach you. But Deputy James, how would you like it if I changed your name to Juan?

So it really was a bonding experience because I said, you know what, there's another story here that I can share about names and this whole identity. And it really did bond us. I spent time years at the Sheriff's substation and I was a part of the team. And they taught me so much, aside from the first introduction of changing my name from Sue to Xiomara, but it was a term of endearment.

Crystal Cardenas:
Oh, I love that. I know in our introduction we mentioned that your mother serves as a reason for you becoming a social worker. How do her lessons still carry into your work today?

Xiomara Flores-Holguin:
My beloved mother passed away in December of 2019. And I thanked my mother before she passed for being that role model to us. She was the first feminist, the first social worker that I met. My mother was the kind of woman that would help women who were coming from Central America into our home. We shared a bedroom with my parents because my mother allowed people to come into our-- and it was rentals.

My parents never owned a home, but yet they were so kind and generous. And it was my mother who would say to my father, I heard about a woman who needs a place to stay, and she's coming. She'll be staying with us temporarily. And they did. Women that were fleeing a domestic violence relationship, my mother brought them into our home. We didn't know about domestic violence. It wasn't called that, but yet these women felt that they were safe in our home because of my mother.

So my mother really did model for my sister and I. So safety was extremely important because she brought these women into our safe space. And that's what I wanted to always give back, is safety and protection. My mother was an orphan at 12 years old. And so that was her story and she would remind us. And I took it for granted for many years because I assumed that she was a strong woman.

And I didn't always appreciate it, just so you know. We don't always appreciate it because, again, it's not popular. You wanted a mother to be at home, to be there for you, to greet you at the end of the day. And then later on, I wasn't that mother that was waiting for my children at the end of the day. So again, we play it forward.

Crystal Cardenas:
Let's talk a little bit about how you integrate this into your work. So there's a lot of racial and cultural tension between law enforcement and Brown and Black people, especially considering the traumas of immigration, police brutality, and so forth. How do you integrate your cultural pride into systems like LA County DCFS and especially in your role as serving as the liaison between law enforcement and social services?

Xiomara Flores-Holguin:
Well, full disclosure, I retired in March of 2022 after 36 years of working at my beloved Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. And truth be told, how I came into this role, and it's ironic because I'm married to a civil rights attorney who sued law enforcement in the past, it was that assignment at DCFS that I had when my children were infants. I worked at the emergency response command post at DCFS, which is the after hours operation. You work after hours, weekends, and holidays.

And so I began this relationship with law enforcement because I had to respond with them to certain investigations, whether it was a sexual abuse call, a physical abuse call, a domestic violence call. And it was countywide. I mean, many nights I was the only Spanish speaking worker in the county. And so I approach that relationship as a training relationship, as a partnership relationship because you can't do this work alone.

And so I recognized early on that the lack of understanding that existed between us was that they didn't know what we did. They didn't know what social workers did. We didn't know what law enforcement did. We assumed that they were trained on child abuse, on domestic violence, on everything, and we didn't take that moment to ask, do you know what it is that I do? Have you ever worked with a social worker in child welfare? We all had beliefs, assumptions, stereotypes of who we were.

And so I decided that I was going to get to know every deputy Sheriff, every LAPD officer, and every officer that worked at an independent because their roles mattered and, more importantly, the type of work that we were going to do together was going to impact a child and a family's life. And that's how I started this journey of partnership. And I have to tell you, it made me who I was because I wanted to show the best in both of our professions.

Social workers are great people. We have good hearts. And law enforcement, there's good people. And believe you me, when I met somebody that didn't want to do the job, they didn't want to work with me, I called them on it. I would ask for another officer, another deputy because it just was so important to me that the child and the families that we were going to meet were going to be meeting with the social worker and a police officer, a deputy Sheriff that wanted to help them.

People know, children and families know when they meet a police officer or a social worker that we're going to help them, that we're there to assist. And I wasn't afraid to call them on it, nor was I afraid to call some of my own colleagues out because I would go to a-- I'd make a phone call or I'd go to the front desk and I'd ask for a Spanish speaking officer or a deputy and they'd wrinkle their faces and say, well, don't you speak Spanish? Aren't you bilingual?

And I would of course say a little too much. Yeah, it's my first language. But whatever that child says to me, I want the officer to hear the same information. It wasn't that I was tired of being a translator because if there wasn't an officer or a deputy that was available, I would translate, but I wanted that child to be safe and to get to know who that other partner was with me because we really were a partnership, and we still are.

And I used to say that we couldn't do our job without law enforcement, but I meant it in a very strength-based manner. The work that brought you and I together was child abductions. I mean, if there isn't a more clear partnership, it's when you are looking for a child, when you're looking for a missing person, when you're helping a victim. So why wouldn't you want to develop a relationship with a partner? And that's what sustained me, and still does, because it was not only with law enforcement. It was with doctors and nurses, and teachers, and every mandated reporter or every neighbor or every relative can't do this work alone.

I was taught at an early age to respect people's culture and their identities, and the same with professions. That was just who I was. I wanted to model that and present that, that I wanted our families to be recognized for who they were. Everybody had a story to tell. Everyone had a different journey. Why did I come into this field? I came to this field because I wanted to help. I wanted to be a better social worker.

I wanted to assist the families that came from El Salvador, from Honduras, from Guatemala, from Mexico, from the different towns. I wanted to know about their towns. I wanted to know if they didn't speak Spanish, well, what dialect did they speak? Let's be respectful. And the same with the badge. I knew early on LAPD was LAPD, the Sheriff's Department was Sheriff's Department. Burbank, Glendale. You have to respect that identity in order to better help I think families.

But I have so many moments, and I'll share a couple. There was-- I received a referral. And it was during my command post years because I think I really did come into this experience during the 10 years I spent working the entire county because I came in to DCFS working in a regional office, staying in a community, but I didn't know the county layout. And so when I was offered that opportunity, it just made me a better social worker because of who I was inside.

So I remember going into a hospital, and it was an eight-year-old Latina victim of sexual abuse. And I introduced myself and she asked me, habla espanol? Do you speak Spanish? And I immediately became that child who I used to translate for. I was meeting a little girl who wanted to speak her first language and it brought me back to the identity that I had.

And from that moment on-- I mean, my interview obviously was much better because we spoke in Spanish and I used to think, what if that child, those families that don't encounter a Spanish speaking social worker, how do they communicate? Is there a lot of nodding going on? I'm sure there is. Is there a lot of miscommunication? And then the translator, who's the translator? Is the child the translator, the victim, or this person that is not familiar with the terminology, with the sensitivity, with the respect?

So I thanked her for asking me about my language. And from that moment on, I went back to the office and not only trained my coworkers, but I also trained law enforcement and would remind law enforcement, if you ever get that call first and you obviously need know that the family may not be bilingual, in any language, please be sensitive and call for somebody that may speak the family's language and wait because it's better to wait than to jump to conclusions.

Crystal Cardenas:
Right, absolutely. OK. So tell us a little bit about what you're doing now.

Xiomara Flores-Holguin:
So I'm so excited to share this post-retirement experience because I knew that because of this passion that I have for social work and for child welfare that I wanted to take it outside of the child welfare world. And so a former social work professor from USC, Jolene Swain, was at CSUN and my daughter Lucia who's also a social worker was graduating, and I saw her again after 20 plus years. And she asked how I was doing and I quickly, quickly caught her up.

And she said, would you ever be interested in coming to teach at CSUN in our Department of Social Work? And I didn't hesitate, I'll be honest. I said yes, again, always thinking of who and what I represented. And so for the past seven years, I've been teaching at CSUN as a part-time practicum education lecturer. And yes, I bring in my history, my stories. But more importantly, I bring in something else, and that's language, because now I get to talk to the future social workers and I stress the importance of their bilingual and bicultural identity as social workers.

When I went to USC back in the late '90s, there were few of us. There were-- in fact, there were only three schools of social work. But today, there's many. There's eight in LA County. And so I remind them of the responsibility that they have, not only as social workers, but as the Latina and Latino and Latinx social workers that they are. So I do engage in a lot of bilingual teaching. There's a glossary that I share with all of my students. There is opportunities in this work that we do today.

In fact, before the pandemic, CSUN had entered into a partnership with la UNAM, with la Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, and we were going to have an exchange program of social workers from Mexico and from Northridge. But unfortunately, the pandemic shut that down. But I had the opportunity to have two UNAM cohorts and I conducted my courses in Spanish.

Crystal Cardenas:
Oh, that's awesome.

Xiomara Flores-Holguin:
It was. It was. Oh, gosh. And if I could just share with you that I've spoken to the chair and to Jolene, who's the director of practicum education, about establishing a group of Spanish speakers and other languages. I'm so open to other languages. But because I think that we have an opportunity now to form a group of Spanish speaking social workers, let's do it. Let's do it. If not now, then when? And this is the opportunity that we all have, I think. But yes, I will continue to encourage and support.

And it's never too late. I hear a lot from students who will say, my parents didn't teach me. I didn't learn it. And I will say to them, but it's no one's fault. It's not your fault. It's not their fault. Learn it now. Practice with me. And so I offer myself as that conversationalist person and I tell them, don't be afraid to make mistakes. It's better to just practice now because those words that you may be saying to that client really do matter. Effort matters.

Crystal Cardenas:
Right. I love it, and I feel like it really strengthens our community to be speaking in Spanish with all of our colleagues and to have that space. And so I can only imagine if you're serving someone, if you have a client or you're seeing a child, like how they can feel that little warm hug inside knowing that you also can relate, that they can code switch or do the Spanish and the English because it's not a black and white thing. We are constantly changing languages or thinking in different languages, even if you're not saying it.

Exactly. And again, to add the origins of where we come from, Crystal, as you said, there's different terminologies that folks use de Nicaragua, Panama, Venezuela. My husband, who I talked about earlier, Carlos Holguin, he's the main litigator on the Flores settlement, a federal lawsuit that he brought before the courts in 1985, unaccompanied minors. And how important has it been? He filed on behalf of a young girl from El Salvador, Jenny Flores.

But how important it was that he was bilingual and he was able to meet this young girl in a facility that was not for unaccompanied children. They didn't-- border patrol back then didn't know what to do with children. They housed them with adults. And so moving forward, fast-forward, again, now we have children from Ukraine, from Afghanistan, from different parts of the world.

And so yes, being bilingual matters and recognizing where you're coming from matters. There's wars. There's poverty. There's violence. So yes, we need to just think about that and start to identify when we do sit in these meetings and trainings to recognize and not forget where our people come from, victims come from.

Crystal Cardenas:
Right. And even just a little bit about that, but also we know what trauma does to the brain. And so now you're expecting someone with trauma or talking about their trauma to be able to answer everything in a language that may not be their first. Or we know that oftentimes what gets encoded in when you're going through a traumatic event is in a specific language, like in your home language. And so I think being cognizant, of what trauma does to kids and understanding that we need to give that space of what languages do you speak, making sure that you have someone there.

Because I know we've been talking about it a lot recently with the Mexico population. So there is a reliance of, well, they speak Spanish so we can do the interview in Spanish, but we need to be able to allow that space for all of the languages that they may speak so that they can tell their stories without feeling inhibited or worried about saying the wrong thing or worried about not being able to communicate appropriately.

Xiomara Flores-Holguin:
Yes. And two points just to probably highlight trauma. So true. We assume sometimes that the trauma that is written is what the child has endured or that young adult or that adult, but let's look at the full trauma: separation, abandonment, poverty, violence. Again, it's so true. We have to start looking at trauma just life span because how are we going to start to help if we're only looking at a piece of paper or not speaking further about their experience?

We have our own traumas. So can you imagine what a young child who's left their country, their community, their family has faced? Yes. So important. And the second one is, yes, it's just again asking for those other languages to be spoken and no more shame because we've been shamed. We've been shamed to not speak a certain language because we have to. We're living now in the United States and English is the spoken word. Well, lots happened.

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that there's no more affirmative action and my first thought was, well, let's start using our language because there's a lot of folks that have had a very privileged experience that may not be bilingual, but we are. So let's start speaking our first language and being proud of it.

Crystal Cardenas:
What's one advice that you'd give to a new social worker starting since you've had such a robust career?

Xiomara Flores-Holguin:
Make sure you know what you're getting yourself into because it's no secret of what we do. I didn't have an internship experience when I first started in 1985. I didn't have the technology. I didn't have the resources and the tools that social workers have today. So this is difficult work. It's emotional work.

And if you are going to commit to protecting and helping families, then be committed 110% because our children are depending on us to protect them. If a child tells you they're being abused, they're being abused. If a child tells you they want to stay with their family and get help, let's help them. Let's help them. We have to start listening more. But once again, this work is difficult. You have to have the heart and the compassion to be able to do it.

Crystal Cardenas:
So I want to ask you, how have you been able to navigate this work? Because you still are very open, very compassionate, very empathetic where a lot of the times I've seen folks harden with time of having to see so much trauma and difficulty in the communities and the clients that they serve.

Xiomara Flores-Holguin:
I'll tell you, in 2003, we had an opportunity-- my former colleague who was like a brother to me, Emilio Mendoza, we had an opportunity to-- we went to a meeting and it was a community meeting. And there were concerns about my department's lack of response. Social workers just took too long to respond to a call. When law enforcement had a child in custody would take two, three, four hours for us to respond. And so that was frustrating.

And they were right. A child shouldn't be sitting in a police station waiting for a social worker. We should be present as much as possible. So we attended this meeting. We were approached by a Lieutenant with the Sheriff's department's gang unit. And he basically said after the meeting, would you be interested in accompanying us to these warrant operations? And Emilio and I looked at each other and we said, yes.

Didn't ask for permission at the moment. We just said yes because we were responding to those calls after the fact. When law enforcement would come into these homes and arrest maybe a child's father, parents, siblings, and we were called after the fact, if we were even called. And so we wanted to-- for me, I'll just answer the question. I wanted to be there because I wanted to reduce the trauma.

I could only imagine what it was like for a child, a young child, or anyone to have that knock on that door at two o'clock in the morning, 4 o'clock in the morning, to have your home searched and ransacked. Let's be honest, they're looking for guns. They're looking for drugs. And so I was, I guess, intentional about the reason why I wanted for the multi-agency response team to be established.

And then the other was breaking the cycle. Maybe if we could, again, stop children from being generational gang members. Because I'll tell you this, I had many children, girls and boys, who told me, I don't want to be a gang member. Their parents were dressing them in gang attire. And we didn't have the training. Our own dependency court had never seen what we used to call the evidence of the photographs of children gang signing, of children posing with guns.

Again, that was 2003, 2006 when the MART team became a very established, unique unit, but that was always my intent, always my goal to assist families during those times because it was a 24/7 operation. Andres and Lucia were teenagers at the time so I could leave at midnight, I could leave at two o'clock in the morning, but it was to be present for that child.

And I will be honest with you, families were shocked when they saw us walk in because they used to get threatened a lot. Oh, if you don't comply, we're going to call DCFS and your children are going to be removed. Come on, that's trauma for everybody. And don't be setting us up. Don't be using us as--

Crystal Cardenas:
A scare tactic. Yes.

Xiomara Flores-Holguin:
It was a scare tactic. Exactly. No, we were partners. And then everybody saw the value. When I think about the 36 years plus, because they're still counting, I think about every child, every parent who I've met, every partner who I've met, including you. That's why I'm here. But this work is difficult, but it's an honor and a privilege to do it.

Crystal Cardenas:
Oh, thank you so much, Xiomara. And thank you. Honestly, you are truly somebody that I have met and has changed my life and inspired me to push out of my comfort zones to bring up the uncomfortable conversations to make my community, the Latino community a priority. And you make so much change and you truly see the great in people and you truly want the best for the world and for our communities. And I just want to thank you so much for the work that you do.

Xiomara Flores-Holguin:
Thank you, Crystal. But it's been a lifelong journey. I was fortunate to have worked at the embassy of Nicaragua in the '80s. I lived in Nicaragua. I worked at the Ministry of Social Welfare. I worked at the Ministry of Foreign Relations. As I think about my life at 65 years old, it's all of those experiences who have made me today.

Crystal Cardenas:
So one last question. What would you like to leave our listeners with?

Xiomara Flores-Holguin:
Well, we started out the conversation about my mother. When my twin and I were young, my mother would teach us poetry and we would recite it. So I wanted to be a poet. And it's interesting because in Nicaragua they say that everyone is a poet and an artist and a musician. OK, I'm neither of those three, but I will say this, poetry is special to me because my mother taught it to us. And again, a woman with a third grade education. My mother was so well-read.

But I am a fan of the late great poet and author Maya Angelou. And I recite her because I start my classes with a quote because it's just sets a tone. So I kind of I want to leave the listeners and you and Amy with this feeling. Maya Angelou said, I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better. And that's how I'd like to sum up our conversation.


Aimee Hanna:
Thank you so much for listening to another episode of Remember Why You're Here. To access the transcript for this episode and to learn more about what we do at CIR, please visit our website at Until next time.