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Lazaro “Laz” Ayala is a naturalized U.S. citizen from El Salvador, an entrepreneur, philanthropist, filmmaker, and author. This is his story…
They were stacked four deep in the trunk of a brown Cadillac as it approached the border checkpoint near Tijuana. It had been a grueling journey from El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico -- nearly 3,000 miles over a 20-day period by bus and by train.
The four of them had been in the trunk for nearly an hour when the smuggler pulled up to the checkpoint and began talking his way through.
First stuffed into the trunk had been 14-year-old Laz. Sandwiched in against him were his father Jose, his 17-year-old brother Javier, and a fellow Salvadoran woman who joined their harrowing journey.
Pressed up against the back of the compartment, Laz's skin was burning from the heat of the exhaust pipe. Although it was mid-December, it was hot and claustrophobic inside the cramped space. Oxygen was limited. He thought he might die of suffocation.
But the smuggler earned his money, transporting the four undocumented immigrants safely across the border without incident.
That was 37 years ago…
Laz came to the U.S. fleeing the violence of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1981, just days after the December 11th massacre during which the Salvadoran Army wiped out the village of El Mozote, killing 800 civilians.
Today, Laz Ayala is a successful entrepreneur in Ashland, Oregon. He owns several companies, has numerous rental properties, and is involved in multi-million-dollar real estate development projects in the area. These accomplishments have allowed Laz to give back to his communities in Southern Oregon and El Salvador. Over the years, he has built a soccer field for a local charter school and established a scholarship program for DACA students at Southern Oregon University. In his hometown of San Ildefonso, Laz has led projects to provide clean water and safe, affordable, fuel-efficient cookstoves to replace dangerous open cooking fires.
Immigration is a hot topic these days and Laz feels that the discussion has morphed into one of race — criminalizing and dehumanizing people in the process. He hopes to change the current narrative around undocumented immigration and influence legislation that is beneficial for immigrants, employers and the U.S.
As the producer of his first feature-length film and author of his autobiography, both titled Illegal, Laz hopes to bridge the gap between the current story the American media portrays of undocumented immigrants and the real stories of so many who make the long and dangerous journey in search of a better life.
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