She toiled in the fields, picking cotton with her parents, in the Arizona heat.
She believed it when she was told that here, in this country, you could rise above your circumstances and disadvantages if you worked hard enough, if you persisted.
Her name is Marie Lopez Rogers, and she is the mayor of Avondale, Ariz., and, now, the new president of the National League of Cities.
"I am deeply honored to be chosen to help lead NLC for the coming year," the Mexican-American said in a written statement. "There has never been a more important time for our nation's cities and towns. Our communities are constantly evolving and we as leaders must be increasingly more innovative, flexible and resourceful."
Lopez was named the new president after a vote at the NLC’s annual gathering in Boston.
The National League of Cities’ announcement about her selection says: “Marie Lopez Rogers spent much of her childhood growing up in labor camps and picking cotton alongside her migrant farm worker parents in the Arizona desert. As a social worker, she discovered her passion for public service."
In the yearlong post of president, Lopez’s duties will include shaping the organization's agenda and overseeing advocacy and other NLC activities, according to the group’s press release.
Lopez, described on Avondale’s public website as a wife, mother of three sons and grandmother of six children, found herself in the spotlight last year when President Obama brought her up as example of the American Dream while addressing the National Council of La Raza’s annual conference in Washington D.C.
The mayor had met the president when she attended an invitation-only Cinco de Mayo ceremony at the White House last year. She shared her story with the president, never dreaming he would remember it and hold her up as an example.
"When I had a chance to talk to him, I told him about my story," she told reporters last year, "and I told him that's the American dream and how lucky I am and how my parents instilled that [American Dream] in us."
Standing before the NCLR conference attendees, the president repeated what the Avondale mayor had told him about her humble beginnings, and how she had learned to dream big.
"It was in those cotton fields that Marie's father would tell her, 'If you don't want to be working in this heat, you better stay in school.' So that's what Marie did," the president said.
"And because of that, because of the tireless, back-breaking work of her parents, because of their willingness to struggle and sacrifice so that one day their children wouldn't have to, Marie became the first in her family to go to college," Obama said. "And, interestingly, she now works at the very site where she used to pick cotton, except now City Hall sits there and Marie is the town's mayor."
The 2010 Census showed that Avondale, with more than 76,000 residents, was about half Latino, a change from the 2000 Census, which showed that non-Hispanic whites were the majority.
About 9 percent of the city is African-American, and 3.5 percent is Asian-American.
Avondale is in Maricopa County, whose sheriff, Joe Arpaio, is controversial among Latinos and immigration advocates nationwide for his department's aggressive approach toward immigrants.
A federal investigation into complaints of discrimination by the sheriff and his officers found that they targeted Hispanic neighborhoods for immigration raids and that Latino drivers in greater Phoenix were stopped nine times more frequently than other motorists. Arpaio denied any discrimination and said that he was the victim of a witch-hunt by the Obama administration.
Meanwhile, Lopez Rogers also was recently elected to lead the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), the regional planning agency for the Maricopa region.
According to its website, the association "provides a regional forum for discussion, analysis, and resolution of regional issues, including transportation, air quality and human services."
“One important priority will be for us to identify the corridor’s key economic drivers and find ways to grow those opportunities,” said Lopez after she was named its new head. “One key area of focus for us will be working to improve our trade relations with Mexico and Canada and enhance the flow of commerce into Arizona.”
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Elizabeth Llorente on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente