WHAT DREAMER MAY COME: An immigrant toddler matures into an up-and-coming Vegas hospitality dynamo
“The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources — because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.”
— President Lyndon B. Johnson, speaking at the Statue of Liberty, Oct. 3, 1965
What is the All-American Story?
We are passionately, divisively — nay, acrimoniously — debating that in this country, writ large. Perhaps it would help to narrow the focus and examine it, writ small.
That brings us to Maria Miranda: The All-American Story.
It begins in Mexico.
“The little town I’m from is just little ranches. It’s poverty and a lot of problems with the cartel and stuff like that,” says 21-year-old Miranda — a U-S-A!/U-S-A! success tale and hospitality honcho of the future, hailing from the town of Santa Maria del Oro from the state of Durango, nation of Mexico.
Home now is the city of Las Vegas, from the state of Nevada, nation of America. It has been for 19 years. She hopes it will be for decades hence, making the hospitality industry — the economic and cultural engine that powers our town — even more hospitable.
“I traveled to the United States when I was 2 years old. We had family here in the United States and they convinced my mom to come over and hopefully get a better future for me. I’ve been here ever since.”
The face beams with understated enthusiasm — less a glaring spotlight demanding immediate attention, than a warm glow inviting easygoing engagement. It’s the face of a dreamer — and a “Dreamer,” as immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program are colloquially known.
Introduced in 2012 by President Barack Obama, DACA is a stopgap measure that shielded from deportation people who were brought into the United States as children. Expansion of it was suspended in 2017 by President Donald Trump, and DACA has been a high-stakes political football between Congress and the White House ever since. Its fate — and those of the Dreamers — might be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this year.
“When I was growing up, my parents always told me that college was really important but there was always the obstacle of my immigration status, not knowing if I was even able to attend college,” says the Valley High School graduate. “Or if for some reason my family was deported, or my mom, so you’re kind of living the American dream in the shadows. I’m on DACA status right now and I’m applying to be a resident of the United States.”
Slightly shy. Eager to please. A study in quiet grace — all the more refreshing in a generation coming of age in an era of bombastic chaos.
And living a life arc that has swung from relearning her Spanish A-Be-Ce’s as English ABCs, through a full-ride scholarship at UNLV — funded by the Las Vegas-based Epicurean Charitable Foundation (ECF) that aids aspiring hospitality/culinary students.
Then onto an internship with Vegas hospitality mover/shaker Kelley Jones.
“I don’t know if you could put a job description to her because she does everything,” says Jones. A veteran hospitality consultant, his self-titled Kelley Jones Hospitality is billed as a “restaurant, development, operations and consulting” company that spans eight states, 16 properties, and offices in New York, Dallas and Vegas — the latter office staffed by only a sole employee beyond the boss: Miranda. “She helps me in so many ways,” says Kelley.
“I just took over a vegan restaurant here in Las Vegas so she’s doing a lot of the admin stuff, putting together invoice coding and tracking, recipe costs, helping me with market research, putting together a list of the best Vegas chefs and what their disciplines are for a food hall I’m doing. She even cooks for me. She was just at my restaurant in Boulder, Colo. We lost our chef so I sent her up there to help fill the hole in the kitchen. And she does social media pages. She could take over everything someday!”
And yet … “It’s frightening to me,” Miranda says of our white-hot political climate, boiling over with incendiary invective tossed between political enemies and phrases such as “families ripped apart” and “children in cages” — even alluded to in Jennifer Lopez’s recent Super Bowl performance — inflaming news reports.
To be clear — she is not nor has she ever been caught, caged, deported or detained. But we are in an ideologically enraged new era, brimming with never-before-imagined headlines over immigration — and the fate of Dreamers.
“All the hard work that I’ve put in and all my goals and aspirations could just be ripped up from under me. I know I was born in Mexico and I’m from Mexico, but it’s not my home. I consider the United States my home.”
“Our attitude toward immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal. We have always believed it is possible for men and women who start at the bottom to rise as far as the talent and energy allow. Neither race nor place of birth should affect their chances.”
— The late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy
The Americanization of Maria begins with … cartoons and Muppets. “Every morning my mother and stepdad put cartoons on in English so I could adapt to the language. And I watched Sesame Street, which really helped me,” Miranda says of the iconic TV program recently celebrated with a Kennedy Center Honor for just such service to Americans, native and not. “That’s how I learned English, besides school.”
There were many schools, in fact, as the family relocated frequently within Las Vegas when she was a youngster, but spent the majority of her school time at C P Squires Elementary School in North Las Vegas, and Roy West Martin Middle School.
“When I was little my teachers always had high hopes for me,” Miranda remembers. “When they asked me what I wanted to be, I would say ‘I want to be a secretary’ and they were like, ‘Why? You want to just sit behind a desk and take orders from somebody?’ I was naïve.”
Yet simultaneously, she was growing more culturally aware of living in America but not feeling thoroughly American.
“It wasn’t until around that time that I really realized what it meant to be an immigrant, that I couldn’t just go to Mexico and come back,” Miranda says. “That was really hurtful because I have family in Mexico like my grandparents and it hurts not being able to see them as much as you want to.”
By the time she reached Valley High School, it was a new friend — and one of Kelley’s previous mentees — who became the wind beneath her outstretched wings. “I looked up to her, she was an overachiever,” Miranda recalls. “She was in every club, doing every sport. I said, ‘I want to be like that girl.’”
That girl was also a recipient of an ECF scholarship — another goal Miranda adopted for her senior year after studying in Valley High’s Academy of Hospitality and Tourism. “Nothing was going to stop me.”
That’s where Kelley and the ECF — of which Kelley is a charter member — entered her life. “It was a series of interviews. She came off as very shy and sweet,” says Kelley, who was chairman of the scholarship and mentorship committee of the ECF, which is comprised of more than 20 top hospitality executives devoted to fueling the aspirations and propelling the careers of hospitality students. “We got to know her and her grades and her resume spoke to us.”
Spoke loudly, too. Miranda was awarded an approximately $33,000 scholarship, and graduated from UNLV’s hospitality management program in 2019 — one year earlier than planned. She also completed an internship with Caesars Entertainment, executing both back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house functions at Paris Las Vegas, Bally’s Las Vegas and Planet Hollywood.
Initially drawn to the notion of being a human resources executive with a major property, she has since shifted her focus to food and beverage operations. “I did catering and I was the only female executive chef in my class,” Miranda says. “They told me that I was one of the best executive chefs they’d ever seen.”
As Kelley can attest, she’s cooked up one hell of a success story. “It evolves your worldview as you see through her eyes what she’s going through with immigration status. Never having to go through that (himself), that’s a life lesson,” Kelley says.
“But this is the American dream. Capitalism is society rewarding people who perform and society is rewarding Maria because she performs. It’s interesting that from a shy, timid 18-year-old high-school senior, to an evolved young woman, it’s been a gas to watch her become what she is right now — she’s on the cusp of what’s going to be an amazing life for her.”
Her embrace of the American ethos also produces pinch-me moments for the mother who brought her here, made her a Dreamer and taught her to dream – even if it sometimes seems that Mom herself can’t believe that dreams can be made real.
“When I first got my scholarship, I called my mom and said, ‘Mom, I won the scholarship!’ She said, ‘That’s really good for you,’ but she didn’t really grasp it,” Miranda says.
“In Mexico, you don’t finish school. You get to middle school and your parents take you out of school and you work on the ranch and you find a husband and things like that. So for me to go to college and get this scholarship, it’s like I’m taking her there with me. At first she doesn’t realize how big things are until I accomplish them, and then she’s like, ‘I’m so proud you.’”
You could condense that sentiment down to words written on her mortarboard the day she crossed the UNLV graduation stage to grasp a diploma: “My mom taught me that dreams have no borders.”
It is the All-American Story.
It began in the town of Santa Maria del Oro from the state of Durango, nation of Mexico.
It thrives in the city of Las Vegas, in the state of Nevada, nation of America.
To Maria Miranda, we say felicitaciones — i.e., congratulations — and Welcome to Team America.
“What has happened to us in this country? If we study our own history, we find that we have always been ready to receive the unfortunate from other countries, and though this may seem a generous gesture on our part, we have profited a thousand-fold by what they have brought us.”
— The late First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt
To offer feedback on this story or suggestions for future stories on Las Vegas Newswire, contact Managing Editor Steve Bornfeld at SBornfeld@lvcva.com