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Fabiola Navarro, Local Hero & Human Rights Activist

2013 Hispanic Heritage Month Honoree, Fabiola Navarro.
Jim Spadoni
2013 Hispanic Heritage Month Honoree, Fabiola Navarro.

Hispanic Heritage Month 2013 Honoree

The world is filled with injustice. All you need do is pick up a newspaper or go online and you’ll find a litany of human rights violations—victims of torture and kidnappings, people being sent to prison camps by their own government, women suffering untold abuse at the hands of their husbands or fathers while authorities look the other way, and children being forced into labor and prostitution.

Here in San Diego, Chilean-born Fabiola Navarro sees fighting such human rights violations as a life-long cause. After all, activism is in her blood. Born Fabiola Andrea Sepulveda Ramos, just three years into the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, she grew up in a home where talk of politics was front and center.

“When I was 10 or 11, I started becoming more aware of what was happening because my entire family is very political, and always discussed politics at meals,” says Navarro, a 2013 Hispanic Heritage Month Local Hero.

Today, she attributes her penchant for taking a stand to her father, as well as her grandfather, who was a union leader, and in the 1960s helped organize then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s visit to Chile.

Pinochet’s control of the government continued until Navarro was about 13 years old. She recalls the political climate of the times, and how the human rights atrocities committed by Pinochet’s government hit close to home.

“During the first year of his regime, my godmother was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured,” explains Navarro. “She survived the torture, but she wasn’t the same again because of what she went through. My uncle was a student, studying to become a dentist, and the government arrested all the students who were thought to be rebels and revolutionaries. They sent him to an island off the coast of Chile, Isla Quiriquinas, and because he was studying to be a dentist they said to him, ‘Okay, you want to be a dentist?’ And then they took out some of his molars.”

But, as a youth, there wasn't much Navarro could do to oppose Pinochet's military government except bang on pots. At curfew, she and other Chilean youth and their families, would sometimes noisily bang on the pots, while soldiers in tanks patrolled the streets, ready to shoot anyone who broke curfew. The people persisted: they wanted an end to Pinochet’s reign.

After Pinochet, there came a new democratic government and student elections were allowed to resume at Navarro’s school, the Liceo 7 de Providencia Luisa Saavedra – one of the most influential public high schools in Santiago. Navarro became active, and was elected president of the student board. In this position, she worked on behalf of public education and education reform with the boards of other public schools. On occasion, she’d work with Ricardo Lagos, then-minister of education, who later would be elected president of Chile.

Navarro went on to become a licensed attorney in Chile, and moved to the United States with her husband Victor in early 2001. They first lived in Michigan, where Victor was attending school. She enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and signed up for college courses in American history and government, while working in restaurants to help make ends meet. What she saw while on the job troubled her.

Navarro recalls witnessing unequal treatment of immigrants and citizens. "It became clear to me that I had to become a licensed immigration attorney in the United States," she says, "so that I could help fight for their rights—for fairness and equality.”

But Michigan didn’t recognize the law degree she had earned in Chile. Eventually, Navarro and her husband made their way to San Diego, where she found herself quite taken with their new home.

“I loved San Diego right away,” she remembers. “It was similar to Valparaiso, the city back home where I attended law school, which is by the ocean. So beautiful.”

She was also delighted to learn that California, unlike Michigan, would accept her Chilean law degree, assuming she could pass the state bar exam.

Navarro started looking for places to volunteer in support of human rights issues. This led her to the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice (IPJ) as well as to an impressive list of other human rights organizations, including Amnesty International Group 137 in Hillcrest, and Activist San Diego.

Fabiola Navarro, speaking with a client in her office.
Jim Spadoni
Fabiola Navarro, speaking with a client in her office.

“Before my daughter, Mayra, was born, I was at IPJ almost every week,” notes Navarro, who was participating in events three or four times a month, including the annual Women Peacemakers Conference, and the Women PeaceMakers Program. “But since her birth, although I can no longer attend every meeting, I sometimes bring her along to events.”

In 2006, Navarro gave a presentation on Chile’s first woman president, Michelle Bachelet at the IPJ International Women Day Breakfast. Two years later she was a panelist at the “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” event organized by Voices of Women.

Around this time, Navarro became an international associate, working on a few immigration cases for the American International Practice Group (AIPG). Under its supervision, she provided free consultations on at La Maestra Community Center in City Heights. She also briefly volunteered for the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program, where she had the chance to work on a Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) case.

It took three tries, but Navarro finally passed the California bar exam. Today, she is the Immigration Attorney at the Employee Rights Center (ERC). According to its website, the ERC “remains the only non-profit organization focused on workplace and immigration rights for all workers.”

Navarro, who is a member of the board of directors for the International Museum of Human Rights at San Diego, explains why she is avid about human rights. “During the dictatorship of Pinochet,” she recalls, “My godmother, uncle and thousands of other people were tortured and disappeared. This happened in Chile and has happened in other countries, too. It is still happening in many places around the world. There is no way for me to ignore this when I know that millions of human beings at this moment are starving, are being tortured, and are suffering and struggling to survive.”

While Navarro is pleased to be recognized as a Local Hero, she firmly believes in the adage, “It takes a village.”

“I’m proud to be part of organizations that are as passionate as I am about working for the community,” Navarro affirms. “Nothing that I am doing right now to help others would be possible without the hard work of every single member of these organizations—Amnesty International, IPJ, the International Museum of Human Rights of San Diego (IMOHR), American Immigration Lawyer Association (AILA San Diego), and the ERC. This is why I really believe that the only way to make changes that will bring us social and economic justice is by working together.”

Hispanic Heritage Month Honoree 2013, Fabiola Navarro