Josa Lamont | Features Editor
October 16, 2014
In high school Mary Figueroa volunteered in the campaign that helped to get Eric Haley, 24 at the time, elected as one of the youngest Riverside city council members.
“He came to North High School to our government class and he wanted us to volunteer,” Figueroa said. “He asked for two hours. So I volunteered and I showed up at the campaign headquarters and two hours turned into six and a half months. It was something that really fit with me wanting to help.”
She attributes where she is now as Riverside Community College District board member to that campaign and to Eric Haley.
“He made it so exciting,” Figueroa said. “When he was running for city council at 24, he made it so interesting … I was enthralled just watching the whole situation.”
Figueroa was born and raised in Riverside and went to school in Riverside districts from elementary school until her college years. She started elementary school at the first school in Riverside to be desegregated in 1965, and finished school obtaining her bachelor’s degree from UC Riverside.
Her proudest accomplishment is being the first person from her family to graduate from high school, and from college. Her mother knew that education should always take priority, and even though she only had an eighth grade education she instilled the importance of graduating to her children.
At UCR Figueroa completed a joint major in Chicano studies and political science.
From there, Figueroa became active in community outreach that addressed the gang issues and gang violence in the community she grew up in.
“Even if we saved one young individual from going down the wrong path, even if something with our outreach saved one of them, I’m going to attribute that as a success,” Figueroa said. “How do we know? We don’t. And we may have not only saved one we may have saved a lot of them: just by giving them avenues on other things that they could be involved in, other things that they’re capable of doing that a lot of people don’t ever end up encouraging them on.”
From civil volunteering, Figueroa branched into the police force and worked with the special victims unit and later in corrections.
“I like dealing with people,” Figueroa said. “I like talking with people. I like interacting with people. And most of my work, most of my career history, has been interaction with people.”
Figueroa recalls being in elementary school and other children making fun of her.
“I remember some of my school mates making a comment to me and saying that I was never going to amount to anything because I didn’t even know who my dad was,” Figueroa said.
She went home that day and told her mother, who told her she was not going to listen to them. Her mother assured her that the children didn’t know who she was, and that later on in her life she was going to show them.
Now, Figueroa can look back with confidence in the fact that she has shown them who she can be.
She attributes her successes to her mother’s reassurance and her family’s support, and knows if she didn’t get that encouragement she would still be in the same place that she grew up.
Figueroa never married, so her core support group is made up of her close friends, and her family. She invests love into her faith, her closest friends and into her nieces and nephews.
“Young people tend to be left out of the equation whenever politicians are talking,” Figueroa said. “Whenever people that are in business are talking, they tend to forget to reach out to that younger generation.”
As a young adult, Figueroa figured out that she and the voice of her generation should be in the city council, and where decisions are made around control of the money.
Since then, she has used her influence to encourage and try to maintain community involvement from youth.
“We have to remember that it is the younger generation that is going to be left with a lot of what we have created,” Figueroa said. “And they’re the ones that are going to have to end up correcting it or resolving it. And unless they’re at the table in order to talk, in order to input, in order to envision the concept of what the future is going to look like, how is that going to happen? So I have always championed the effort of seeking the younger input.”
Now Figueroa encourages youth to engage in their community and is on the advisory board to the Riverside County Mexican American Historical Society.