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Out of a trunk and into a new life

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.

Then they made their way on foot for about three hours, finally hiding in some bushes until smugglers came to take them to a safe house to prepare for the border crossing.

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 Lazado. Sandwiched in against him were his father, Jose; his 17-year-old brother, Javier; and a woman also from El Salvador who joined them along the way.

Pressed up against the back of the compartment, Lazado’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 across the border without incident.

That was 37 years ago.

They came to the U.S. fleeing the violence of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1981, just days after a Dec. 11 massacre during which the Salvadoran Army wiped out the village of El Mozote, killing 800 civilians.

Today, Laz (Lazado) Ayala is a successful Rogue Valley entrepreneur. He owns several companies, has numerous rental properties, and is involved in multi-million-dollar real estate development projects in the area.

The Ashland 51-year-old was back in El Salvador in December with a crew of eight filming “Illegal,” a documentary he hopes to release this year. Ayala is producer of the self-financed film that has a budget of $75,000. The director is Medford filmmaker Nickolas Alexander.

“I want to document my own story — where I lived, why I left, where I made my new home” he said. “I also want to capture the stories of others, in El Salvador and in the United States.”

Ayala spent his formative years in El Salvador, but made a new life in San Bernardino, California, where a sister had moved three years earlier. There he was welcomed into the Seventh Day Adventist Church in nearby Colton, California, and found a new home with adoptive parents.

Immigration is a hot topic these days, but Ayala feels the discussion has morphed into one of race—criminalizing and dehumanizing people in the process.

“We need to focus on the reasons why people immigrate — economics and to escape violence,” he said. “We need to create a public awareness and talk about solutions, not demonize people. I believe film is a good way to do this.”

He wants to give immigrants a voice through the film, and help build a better understanding between peoples.

Ayala believes a solution worth exploring is an expanded guest worker program, along with enforcement of existing laws.

“A system is in place to ‘e-verify’ Social Security and other documents,” he said. “But the way it is now, employers can accept copies of those documents, which easily can be forged and bought for a few dollars.”

Employers are hesitant to ask for originals, he said, because they fear lawsuits and accusations of discrimination.

“The laws as they are written enable a system of exploitation,” he said. “Laws are enforced against the workers, but not against the employers. More than 11 million undocumented immigrants pay taxes, have no voice, no representation, and no rights.”

He compared it to a form of slavery.

“But those are my own views and not part of the film. I don’t want to politicize the film. I want to open a dialogue.”

After final editing is completed, he plans to shop the film to PBS, Netflix, and independent film distributors.

Working with him on the filming trip last were director Alexander, assistant director Tanner Northrop, business partner Mark Knox, professional photographer Ezra Marcos (who documented the trip), Ayala’s sister Irma Bernal of San Bernardino, Alina Williams, and Alexander’s wife, Eveling, a native of Nicaragua.

They filmed in Ayala’s home town of San Ildefonso, El Mozote (where the 1981 massacre occurred), Perquin (a village about 5 miles north of El Mozote), San Salvador, Guatemala, Tijuana and San Bernardino. He also plans to include interviews with illegals in Southern Oregon.

Ayala talked to many Salvadorans who want to come to the United States to work. All of them told him they eventually would like to return to their own country. It confirmed his theory that many immigrants, given the option, would go back to their native cultures.

“Imagine what it would be like if millions could go home and invest in their own societies. What would their economies be like? What would be the social impact of reconnecting broken families? And how would that impact immigration itself?” he said.

Ayala visits his home country annually. He still has many relatives living there. Three years ago, he, along with Knox and fellow developer Fred Cox, donated 100 cooking stoves to residents of his native village.

When Ayala landed in San Bernardino 37 years ago, he quickly learned English and started high school. After graduating, he enrolled in San Bernardino Community College to study respiratory therapy. But after three terms he was asked to leave because he was undocumented.

He entered the work force, finding employment with a door factory and a commercial glass company. His first exposure to the real estate business was when he met a broker helping his sister purchase a home. That turned out to be a life-changer.

In 1988, he and his first wife, Diana, decided to move from the Los Angeles area to a smaller town. With $5,000 they’d saved, they headed to Oregon, not sure where they would end up. He had become a legal resident when they married.

After driving 12 hours, they stopped in Medford and liked what they saw. They settled in and he got a job with Century 21 Real Estate, soon becoming one of their top agents.

“I worked my butt off, did cold calling, and put in 14- and 16-hour days. I was making $40,000 to $50,000 a year, which was pretty good for those days,” he said.

He became a citizen in 1993, and by then had decided investing in real estate interested him more than selling it.

“I took classes in finance, investing, land use and development. I learned about building codes and bank relationships. And I started picking up a few rentals,” he said. They also made money by flipping their own residences.

Today, in addition to owning rental properties, he is a partner in KDA Homes, a residential development and building company focused primarily in the Ashland, Talent and Medford markets. His partners are Dave DeCarlow, a third-generation Rogue Valley builder, and Mark Knox, who has experience in planning and developing.

Their Ashland projects include Verde Village, a 51-unit complex off West Nevada Street; Ridgeview Place, a 12-unit townhouse development on Mountain Avenue; and Phillips Corner, a 32-unit project under construction at East Main Street and Mountain Ave.

Slated for groundbreaking in about two years is Kestrel Park, a mixed-use development near Bear Creek in Ashland, adjacent to Meadowbrook Park II where KDA has built dozens of residences. Kestrel Park will include 15 single-family homes, about 20 cottages, and a number of townhouses.

In 2019 they plan to start building about a dozen garden cottages on Laurel Street in Ashland, each approximately 800 square feet in size.

Ayala had toyed with the idea of entering politics, but that was put on hold when he began writing “Immigrant,” a book about his life. He plans to publish the book after the film is finished.

Ayala said the film will be about 90 minutes long. There is potential for it to be monetized, he said, but that isn’t the primary goal.

There still is much work to be done on the film, including editing, recording a narration, making a trailer, and marketing the finished product.

“My ambition is to make a difference,” he said. “If it can be done as a private person, that will do. I’m open to politics, but don’t see it in the near future.”

Jim Flint is a retired newspaper editor and publisher living in Ashland. You can reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Logo of the documentary film, "Illegal," to be released in 2019.
Laz Ayala sits on the front step in this photo taken three years ago in his home town of San Ildefonso, El Salvador. It is the last house of its kind in his old neighborhood where most houses have been rebuilt out of brick and mortar. Courtesy photo