KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sofia Santiago’s immigration story doesn’t fit the stereotypes. She wasn’t fleeing poverty or persecution; she was already running a lucrative business in her native Mexico. She immigrated for love. But after three years in an abusive relationship, she had to reset her life in a new country while raising a young daughter.
Now she’s running her own business again — this time incorporating some of the difficult lessons she has learned. “Over the years, I have had the need to share with others everything I have learned,” Santiago told FOX4.
Santiago was born in Mexico City. Her father passed before she was born and her mother worked as many shifts as she could. “It was a little bit of a lonely childhood,” Santiago said. “That’s probably why I made books my best friend.”
She went on to study computer and cybernetics engineering, at a time when offices were just starting to adopt PCs. After graduation, she founded a PC training business, giving workshops and classes at other companies. “There was a time when PC’s started becoming ‘the thing’ and people were afraid of using them,” Santiago remembered.
Her business expanded to 45 different Mexican cities serving big clients like banks, Nestle, and the government-controlled Mexican Petroleum. She made enough money to send her mom around the world and finish her MBA degree in Paris.
She also had her only child: her daughter, Dani. Santiago calls Dani’s father a great man. But he died of Parkinson’s in the 1990s.
A few years later, Santiago decided to remarry. She participated in an online university study about couples compatibility. That’s how she met a Colonel in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso.
“I fell in love,” Santiago said. “I found a way to find a job close to the border, in a border town.” She was eventually able to immigrate and volunteered at Fort Bliss.
The next 3 years are what Santiago calls “a dark time” in her life. Her marriage started deteriorating. She says most of what she endured was emotional abuse, but there was physical abuse too.
“I was alone and I wanted the marriage to work. I think that’s one of the reasons why I tolerated many things that I shouldn’t have,” Santiago said. “Over those three years, the person that I was before ceased to exist. I became someone that completely lacked self confidence.”
She and Dani moved into a women’s shelter, where Santiago started searching for a job and tried to rebuild her self confidence. She says other women there — who she calls “angels” — helped a lot.
Santiago shared a story about a woman who noticed Santiago was feeding Dani, but skipping meals herself. The woman brought her some homemade rice and insisted she eat.
“When she hugged me, I started crying and let all the emotions out. I felt so bad to think that a stranger could treat me better than my husband,” Santiago said.
Then Santiago said she changed her approach to her life and chose to focus on the positives. She was surrounded by people willing to help her. Mundane shelter chores like cleaning the bathroom offered her a learning opportunity.
Santiago and Dani were in the shelter for a few months until Santiago took the first job offer she got. She would start a new career in her late 30s, becoming a sales trainer at a financial services firm.
She remembers being the only Hispanic person in a building of thousands of people. She started reading more about intercultural relations and eventually got a Master’s degree in the topic.
“It allowed me to better understand people that are different from me, and again it contributed to my personal growth.,” Santiago said. “And I had to share that with other people.”
Santiago eventually left that financial services firm and branched out on her own yet again. She started writing self-help books and developing workplace training classes focused on soft skills and communication. The breakdown of her first marriage gives her unique insight on several lessons like setting boundaries, lowering someone’s defenses, and preventing a conflict from escalating.
“I learned all these valuable lessons and thought ‘I want to share them,'” Santiago said. “I’m very excited every time I write a book cause it’s my opportunity to tell other people ‘hey, this has worked for me. And this is all the science that backs it up. So why not give it a shot?'”
Today, Santiago is happily married to the man she calls her soulmate. She met John Finley online. His four children have embraced her.
Finley says when he and Santiago were still dating and starting to get more serious, he wondered if the woman he was falling in love with was presenting her true character or just a persona. He wanted to know her better, so he asked to meet Dani.
“When I saw her and how she received me, how she acted around me, how polite she was and so forth — I realized that it wasn’t a show that was being put on. That it was real,” Finley said.
Finley says he is thoroughly impressed by Santiago’s transition to American culture. Santiago says she loves life in America, especially Midwestern people. She says America has offered her a chance to reinvent herself in ways she isn’t sure is possible in other countries.
Santiago says her positive spirit drives her. “Say ‘thank you’ for the little things that we take for granted,” Santiago said. “Because when you go and see people that don’t have them, then you realize all the blessings that you have.”
Santiago gives a quarter of her book royalties back to faith-based charities, including the shelter where she stayed.