By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
José Tello is trim, serene and unpretentious.
He wears wire-rimmed glasses that seem to magnify eyes that gaze on all with earnest gratitude and boundless compassion.
His smile comes at intervals, like a sun shower. It warms but does not blaze into a grin, because some of the 32-year-old pain of his arrival in Dallas shapes his demeanor, even now.
The story mesmerizes listeners when he speaks of how, he accompanied his father, José, Sr., on an arduous, week-long journey from Mexico to find opportunity with relatives in West Dallas.
The story always will remain relevant, because Tello’s ministry is a daily re-living of the experience that began when he was a lonely 9-year-old undocumented immigrant learning all about life in the shadows.
Now he shepherds others through those shadows, serving as a workers’ rights attorney for those with nowhere to turn for justice.
Tello, 41, says he always will cherish the spiritual guidance, thorough education and overall nurturing he received at St. Mary of Carmel Catholic School and Jesuit College Preparatory School. After his 1991 graduation from Jesuit, he earned degrees from Harvard University and Loyola Law School.
He says the communities at St. Mary of Carmel and Jesuit supported his dreams and blessed him with gifts that he gives back in working for Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County. The organization serves as a public policy advocate to fight poverty and expand access to justice and services in the region’s diverse neighborhoods.
Tello, recipient of Jesuit’s 2013 Distinguished Alumnus Award, says that NLSLA’s workers’ rights clinics helped 1,700 last year.
His clients call him an “angel.”
His high school’s president calls him a “superhero.”
His family and friends call him an inspiration.
He credits his Catholic education in Dallas.
But first, he credits God.
“Trust God,” he told the Jesuit students when he accepted his award at the school on Oct. 18. “God will guide you.”
A LEAP OF FAITH
As a fun-loving fourth-grader, Tello didn’t want to leave Mexico and his mother and five siblings.
But as the oldest son, Tello says that he was the logical choice to cross the border with his father.
He profoundly missed his mother, Estela, and still flinches at the memory of crying himself to sleep each night.
Though his aunts and uncles cared for him, no rapport matched his bond with his mother.
“I literally felt as though I had been ripped from the womb,” says Tello, a native of Matehuala in San Luis Potosí, Mexico. “I’d been separated from the source of my life. I was close to my mother. I felt alone many, many nights.”
Tello’s sister Carolina says that she remembers how hard it was on their mother to have her little boy in another country.
“I believe my mother was crying most of the time,” says Carolina, who lives in North Carolina. “After José left, my mother would talk with our uncles on the phone and say, ‘Please send my son back home.’ That broke my heart.”
But then the late Sister Lucy Collins, principal of St. Mary of Carmel Catholic School, welcomed Tello to a setting and support system that fueled his future.
“She encouraged me to do my best,” says Tello, who now is a U.S. citizen. “Sister Lucy was strict but she had a big heart. She was a blessing in my life, and the reason I went to Jesuit. St. Mary’s is a community that is sort of a shelter in the chaos of West Dallas. That haven, for me, was the key. I took refuge in books and learning.
“You stepped inside those gates and entered a world where dreams were possible.”
He says that he spent fifth and sixth grades at St. Mary of Carmel Catholic School, where he returned for eighth grade after spending a year back in Mexico with his family.
Several of Tello’s young relatives attend St. Mary of Carmel Catholic School, where his achievements serve as a shining example, says Rita DeLeon, the school’s business manager.
“At the mere mention of his name, Sister Lucy’s face would light up,” DeLeon says. “She was very proud of his accomplishments. He lived up to every expectation she had for him.”
Tello always took an ardent interest in his younger relatives’ academic progress, says Tello’s cousin Raul Ornelas, Jr., a 2001 graduate of Jesuit, where he is a counselor and teacher.
“He was always a big influence,” Ornelas says. “He was always working. I remember that he helped out in my uncle’s store. And José was always interested in his cousins, nieces and nephews and their educations. You feel more influenced by someone closer in age to you than your parents.”
Tello says he would not change his early life, even the painful parts when he felt homesick and alone.
“It haunts me to think of those years,” he says. “But had my father not brought me to the United States, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities.”
MAKING AN IMPRESSION
Tello’s Jesuit administrators, counselors and teachers say that he made a lasting impression as an embodiment of the school’s motto, “Men for Others.”
“José is very soft-spoken and quiet, and he had a big impact,” Jesuit president Michael A. Earsing says. “Jose is a real superhero.”
Jesuit senior counselor David Oglesby never will forget Tello’s work ethic.
“He moved from Jesuit to Harvard because he never feared hard work and he had a huge desire to understand the world around him,” Oglesby said. “José embraced service to others at a very young age. He became committed to social justice as he understood the path out of poverty was to offer all a just society.
“José, by senior year, had set a record for service in teaching disadvantaged youth. He was nominated for a National Youth Award and he won that award and was offered a trip to Washington, D.C.”
Oglesby said that Tello truly embraced the spirit of the U.S. Capitol on his visit to the landmark.
“He saw that many men and women had paved the way for him by opening doors of opportunity to all,” Oglesby said. “He became determined to also help open doors of justice.”
In accepting his Distinguished Alumnus Award, Tello told the gathering that Jesuit prepared him for life in the most important ways.
“I am eternally in debt to Jesuit for shaping my mind, my heart and my soul,” he said. “I have sought to live by the example and teachings of Jesus.”
Jesuit English teacher Rob McGhee, who was a member of Tello’s graduating class at Jesuit, said that he lives his life “beautifully.” McGhee helped introduce Tello at the Distinguished Alumnus prayer service and ceremony.
McGhee said that schoolboy antics and high school horseplay tended to mystify Tello, who had seen a world of pain in his young life.
“In José, I saw a model and an example of something bigger, truer, deeper, and more fully real,” McGhee told the assembly of Jesuit students, staff and alumni that joined more than 50 members of Tello’s family for the ceremony. “I saw authenticity. I glimpsed humility. Not fake humility. Not weakness or deference or a hiding away of one’s talents, or any such thing masquerading as humility—but honest, real humility, born of strength and an abiding recognition that our talents and opportunities come from God and that we had sure better get about doing the hard work of developing them and seizing them and, once we’ve gotten them in our hands, of giving them away.”
“José’s life was given to him by God, and he is giving it back to God by giving it to others.”
During the award ceremony, a video about Tello’s life featured some of his clients, including a woman who told viewers that Tello had recovered $30,000 in wages that were owed to her. “This man was an angel in my life,” she said.
Later, in speaking of the client, Tello’s voice grows soft as he recounts that the woman had worked 17- and 24-hour shifts during long work weeks at a facility where she cared with kindness for mentally challenged patients.
Loyola Law School’s Public Interest Law Foundation recognized Tello’s work on behalf of low-income people by honoring him with the foundation’s annual Public Interest Award in April.
“He works very hard,” says Tello’s wife, Aurora. “His clientele faces challenges. It’s very important to him to be able to provide low-cost services to his clients.”
Tello prays for progress toward comprehensive immigration reform in a nation where 11.5 million undocumented immigrants can’t fully participate in society.
“It is an important issue for me because I’m close to individuals who would benefit from comprehensive immigration reform,” he says. “People who are undocumented don’t assert their rights because they fear deportation. I would urge all the politicians working on this to consider the economic benefits of legalizing the undocumented population. It’s the right thing to do. That’s what Jesus would do.”
Earsing says that Tello’s journey rewards all who hear his story.
“He came across the border with his dad, and now he’s gone to Harvard and become an attorney who helps people who are in the same situation he once was in,” Earsing says. “It’s a full circle.”