Mirtha Becerra was born at the dawn of the Pinochet regime in Chile. When she was 11 years old, in the mid 1980s, her father, an architect, found himself unable to provide a good life for his family under the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte and took a job in the United States. Becerra would not see him for three years and wouldn’t live with him again until she was 16, when she graduated high school early in order to join him abroad. “It was really tough,” she says, even though “it was a great opportunity for all of us.” They were among the estimated one million people who would flee Chile during Pinochet’s 17-year reign.
Some three decades later, Becerra was home in Missoula when she heard political chatter that concerned her: Increasingly, people were talking about limiting refugees’ and immigrants’ ability to enter the United States. “I felt compelled to do something,” she says. “But I felt hopeless at a national level. What could I do, as an immigrant, as a Latina?”
When a seat opened on the city council, Becerra, who had worked as an urban planner for the city, happened to be unemployed; she and her husband, an Alaska geologist whom she met in Washington, DC, had just returned from a two-year stint in Chile for his job. “That’s why I was able to make the time commitment,” says Becerra. “But what gave me the push was what was going on at the national level, that people who were trying to make a better life for themselves were not allowed to come here.”
I think if you’re not OK with something, you get up and do something. And I’m trying to do something, one pothole at a time.”
The council elected Becerra from a field of 12, and she was sworn into office in November 2017, her two young children by her side. Among her goals: To support refugee organizations and help educate citizens about the positive impact of immigration. It won’t change federal policy, she says. But it may make a difference. “I think if you’re not OK with something, you get up and do something,” she says. “And I’m trying to do something, one pothole at a time.”