From the day she was born in El Salvador, Reyna Masko has had a lot to live up to.
Her parents gave her a Spanish name that means "Queen" or "counsel," portending a life of leadership and justice for their young daughter, who grew up while their small Central American nation descended into civil war.
A refugee who witnessed atrocities of war at a tender age, Masko, now 48, has become one of West Michigan’s staunchest advocates for Hispanic people and Latin cultures.
Masko, who moved to Grand Haven with her husband in 1998, has received many accolades for her community work. In 2023, she was a finalist for the ATHENA on the Lakeshore Award, which is given to women who demonstrate excellence in their business or profession. The Hispanic Latino Commission, a statewide organization, named Masko to its Top 50 Latinas in Michigan list in 2018. She became a member of the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation in 2023.
At a young age, she saw the body of a young woman who was her sister’s friend shot dead in a ditch in San Miguel. Her brother dropped out of college to avoid leaders of military factions that came to campus to recruit soldiers — and would not accept “no” for an answer. Paramilitary death squads stalked the countryside, displacing whole villages and gunning down many.
As conditions deteriorated, young Reyna’s father, Martin, began working as a “coyote,” smuggling his countrymen out of El Salvador to the United States.
When chaos reigned, he began bringing out members of his own family by twos, beginning with Reyna’s mother, Aurora, and the third-oldest child. Ten months later, Reyna, the youngest child, escaped with her father and brother.
“What I remember most was walking for hours,” says Masko, who was 8 when she fled El Salvador. “By the time we got to Mexico, we were completely out of money. We had to wait there for two weeks while my mother raised money to send so we could complete the journey.”
As a young child Reyna Masko fled the violence of her native El Salvador with her family.
Before being reunited with Aurora in Houston, the three also spent two weeks in a Brownsville, Texas, refugee home that was named for Oscar Romero, a priest who was gunned down as he celebrated mass in El Salvador. Romero was critical of the government there.
Raising her children in Houston was not easy for Aurora, who worked multiple low-skilled jobs to afford rent in a large apartment complex that was home to many immigrant families, including others from El Salvador.
Masko learned English quickly and grew up translating, interpreting, and negotiating for her mother in legal, business, and social situations. This set her on a course of advocating for people of Hispanic heritage. That path continues to this day in her career as an Ottawa County Friend of the Court investigator, her role as a leader of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and volunteer efforts to celebrate the contributions of Hispanics across West Michigan.
The long road to citizenship
Masko revered her mother and was resolved to work as hard in school as her mother did to earn a living. Reyna achieved excellent grades that would have made her eligible for enrollment in a top university. She had a co-op job in a family law practice and was determined to become a lawyer.
Sadly, she learned during her senior year of high school that college was beyond her reach — at least for the foreseeable future — because she was undocumented.
“My dream was to have a typical American teenager experience in college,” Masko said. “It was terrible to find out that I wasn’t even eligible to apply.”
Aurora was among 600,000 Salvadoran refugees who entered the U.S. in the early 1980s through an amnesty program offered by the Reagan Administration — and by no president since.
Minor children of immigrants who have a path toward citizenship through amnesty typically share that path, but the names of Aurora’s children were not on her paperwork.
Being undocumented is a formidable barrier to opportunities in the U.S., Masko explained. Achieving citizenship can take a decade or more. She began the process while continuing to work at the legal firm and an import/export company.
In 1995, a friend of Aurora’s family who was visiting from Grand Haven asked Reyna for a ride from the airport. The woman was accompanied by her 24-year-old son, Paul Masko. Romance ensued.
Seven months later, Reyna, 20, married Paul. The only downside, she said, was that she had to start her citizenship process anew.
The couple moved to Grand Haven in 1998. Reyna went to work as a clerk for Ottawa County Friend of the Court, while Paul went to work in his father’s print shop. He later returned to college to complete a degree in special education. He now teaches in Ravenna.
Reyna Masko appears on WGVSU radio.
Reyna was pregnant with the couple’s second child, son Mikkel, now 21, when she finally achieved U.S. citizen status in 2002. Never forgetting her dream of a college education, Masko started working toward a degree in criminal justice through Ferris State University at the age of 27. Because of the demands of a full-time job and raising two young children, it took 10 years to complete a four-year degree — but she did it.
“Without a college degree, I would not have been able to advance in my career,” said Reyna, who spent most of her life undocumented. “You have to have the mindset that you won’t take no for an answer and act on the belief that everything is possible, if you want it bad enough.”
Making West Michigan feel like home
Moving to West Michigan was a “culture shock,” Masko said.
In Houston, she explained, she never felt isolated because there were many Hispanic people. Her best friend in high school was also a Salvadoran refugee.
But in West Michigan, she usually found herself in groups where she was the only Latina.
She said she never missed El Salvador per se, since the life she knew there as a young child was full of violence. (She says she never even realized that her homeland is breathtakingly beautiful until she returned in 2005 to be the matron of honor in her best friend’s wedding.) Nevertheless, she says she always missed the Latin culture.
“New Year’s Day was always especially hard for me,” Masko said. “In Latin culture, New Year’s is a happy day when you visit friends and family all day long. Here, it seemed that people just stay in their houses and don’t have big gatherings of family and friends. It just seemed sad.”
She also personally experienced a subtle sort of prejudice that many immigrants she met through her work with the courts also described. Masko brands it “Michigan Nice.” She defines this as “people behaving open and welcoming to your face, but when your back is turned, it becomes obvious that they don’t believe you should be sharing their space.”
Masko has worked on two fronts to upset Michigan Nice on its ear.
First, her effort a decade ago to bring diversity education to fellow court employees snowballed into her chairing Ottawa County’s Cultural Intelligence Committee. Work of the committee culminated in the county establishing an Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in 2018.
Newly elected county commissioners supported by the far-right Ottawa Impact initiative disbanded the DEI office last year on the day they took office. Masko admits this was a huge disappointment for herself and other county employees who served on the committee for as many as eight years. They truly believed the DEI office signaled that Ottawa County is a place that anyone would want to call home.
“If voters believe Ottawa County needs a DEI office,” Masko said, “I believe it will come back again.”
Masko has worked on many government-based committees and task forces aimed at heightening diversity awareness, developing policies and practices that support inclusion, and running a countywide judicial campaign.
While all these efforts have achieved some measure of success, Masko says she believes reaching out to community members directly is the most effective way to break down lingering cultural barriers.
“It always bothered me that — if I wanted authentic Hispanic food, music, dance — I had to leave my community to get it,” Masko said. “Usually that’s a trip all the way to Grand Rapids, as events in Holland and Muskegon tend to be focused only on Mexico heritage.”
There are 21 Spanish-speaking nations in North, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Europe.
Masko also works part-time at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, a congregation that has a strong commitment to social justice. When, in 2019, the Rev. Jared Cramer proposed that St. John’s organize the Tri-Cities’ first “Fiesta,” Masko said the perfect time would be during Hispanic Heritage Month, (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15), an occasion that celebrates the cultures and contributions of Hispanic people.
About 1,200 people with Latin American roots reside in Grand Haven, Spring Lake, and Ferrysburg, Masko said.
“Food, beverages, music and dance are really best at bringing people of different cultures together,” Masko said. “Coming together to enjoy these things, we understand more, trust more, maybe love more. The Fiesta aims to build bridges and cultural understanding.”
Grand Haven’s Hispanic Heritage Fiesta has been evolving and growing for five years.
Building a more equitable future
Grand Haven’s Hispanic Heritage Fiesta has been evolving and growing for five years, despite having to be held virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. A Sept. 16 concert by Latin Grammy-winning Tejano musician Bobby Pulido packed the Lynne Sherwood Waterfront Stadium at this fall’s fiesta.
In 2021 the Fiesta became a non-profit organization under the Tri-Cities Puentes Initiative. Masko said she is proud that the festival board is 95 percent Hispanic, and most members are women. TCPI now provides leadership training programs such as LEADeres Lakeshore and is the parent organization of Lakeshore Latinas, a network of more than 275 Latinas along the Lakeshore from Holland to Muskegon.
Following each festival, the Fiesta board donates some of its profits to another West Michigan non-profit organization that’s making a positive difference for Hispanics.
In April 2024, the entire Masko family -- which includes Reyna, Paul, Mikkel and Kylie, 25, an elementary school teacher in White Cloud, will visit El Salvador together for the first time. The civil war, which was rooted in a class struggle, raged for 12 years before government leaders and leftist rebels, in 1992, signed a treaty agreeing to military and political reforms.
Reyna Masko has become one of West Michigan’s staunchest advocates for Hispanic people and Latin cultures.
With almost 25 years of community service in Ottawa County government and community life, Masko is often encouraged to run for political office.
She said she could not be less interested.
Masko said she prefers to continue along the trajectory she finds more effective – guiding Tri-Cities Puentes Initiative and collaborating with similar organizations throughout West Michigan that make a positive impact on the Latino community.
She also helps owners of companies that produce products of interest to Hispanic people to get shelf space in area supermarkets.
In March 2022 Masko herself introduced a cultural and savory beverage mix which can be added to beer to make a Michelada, which Americans typically dub the “Mexican Bloody Mary.”
She named her company Aurora International Foods in honor of her mother, who died of cancer in 2015, after teaching her daughter by example how to be strong, independent, hardworking and — most of all — how to lead.
Pat Sosa VerDuin, founder of MIJA Leadership Coaching, said the phrase “Es la mas chiquita, pero la mas grande de todas” — which means “You are the smallest one but the mightiest one of all” — exemplifies how Masko honors Aurora’s memory with the way she conducts her own life.
“Reyna finds joy in organizing, being with people, having dinners, dancing and happy hours,” VerDuin said. “The loss and honor that surrounds her love for her mom has given birth to the kind of leader that nothing is going to stop. Her mom would be proud. And those of us who know her are proud to call her Mija.”
Mija is a Hispanic endearment for one who is cherished.