Today, most students know Mirian Mejia as the friendly, smiling EVK Restaurant and Grill cashier, but 30 years ago she found herself making the life-changing decision to leave everything she knew in El Salvador to escape a civil war.
“It’s so hard, but sometimes you have to decide: What do you want?” Mejia said. “Your life, your family or to stay [in El Salvador] and die?”
Mejia and her 11-year-old son left their family behind to find safety from what started as a coup d’état in 1979 but resulted in a power struggle that quickly escalated into a civil war. Lasting 12 years, the civil war killed more than 70,000 people and more than 30,000 disappeared, according to a report released by the United Nations in 1992.
Mejia and her son found a new home in Los Angeles, 3,000 miles away. Mejia was able to keep only limited contact with her family, who did not have a telephone of its own, and instead relied on using phones in the offices of the local phone company and following a strict time schedule.
“I had to make appointments with telephone companies,” Mejia said. “[My family] had to go there at a specific time, and I had to call at that time. That’s how you did it.”
It was 10 years before Mejia became a U.S. citizen and was able to return to El Salvador to see her family in person, and she now goes back to visit for about a month every summer.
Mejia had already taken some English classes in El Salvador, but she said her teachers were all British, so American English was a completely new dialect she had to learn. She would spend her days working in places like hotels and flower shops and her evenings in school to improve her English.
About 11 years ago, Mejia began working for USC Hospitality and is now a beloved cashier at EVK, always welcoming students with a smile, a quick conversation or a word of advice.
“You can see in their faces, ‘What happened with you? You look different today,’” Mejia said of her regular customers. “They say, ‘I have a cold,’ and I say, ‘Go take a hot tea,’ or something like that.”
Last spring, when USC Hospitality considered cutting hours at Trojan Grounds, the only 24-hour food option on campus, students turned to Mejia as a source of inspiration to argue against the proposition, creating the Facebook page “WWMD (What Would Mirian Do).”
The page describes Mejia as “the lovable, no-nonsense employee who swipes your card with a slight smile,” and asks, “Would Mirian stand for our rights as hungry late-night study-ers being violated?”
Now that the proposition has been abandoned, the page is a place for students to express their appreciation. One post from December reads, “I didn’t make it to EVK once this semester. … That breaks my heart.”
Mejia said she enjoys interacting with students.
“They see us as a family,” Mejia said. “Even if we don’t talk too much with them, they look at us like this is home.”
It is also home to Mejia. After about 30 years in Los Angeles, she can never see herself returning to live permanently in El Salvador. Only her son and his family live in Los Angeles, while her brother, sister and the rest of her extended family live in El Salvador.
Mejia said she loves the city and enjoys her job too much to leave.
“I love the kids,” Mejia said. “We are here for them. Everything they need, we have to be available. And I love it.”