It’s The Climb: From Refugee To Snowboard Champ … Now Champion Of Children

The Family YMCA

Andrea Mena, 9, could hardly be expected to grasp that the idea of freedom would result in the complete loss of it for her aunt and uncle, and her own father, but there it was.

Her 21-year-old aunt, three months pregnant, and her uncle, a union leader, along with two other relatives were taken from a street corner in Santiago, Chile on April 29, 1976, by agents of General Pinochet’s army. Pinochet had overthrown the democratic government three years earlier. Close to 3,000 people disappeared and 200,000 fled the country during his regime. The government agents left the couple’s 3-year-old child behind on the street, whom was soon reconciled with grandparents.

Six months earlier, Andrea’s own father Ismael had been arrested. Government agents came to their house in Santiago, sequestered Andrea along with her little brother and sister in a bedroom, separating them from their mother Andree, and waited for Andrea’s father to come home. Ismael had owned his own auto body business for three years but had previously been a university labor union leader. The agents took her father away, and beat and tortured him for 33 days to get information about people he might have known while active in the union.

Since Andrea’s mother was French, she turned to the French Embassy for help. Her mother’s parents had moved to Chile after World War II fleeing the devastation. The French Embassy wanted to remove the family immediately, but Andree refused to leave without her husband. Numerous inquiries and help from the Embassy finally secured Ismael’s release. The other family members who were taken were not heard from again.

Upon Ismael’s release, Amnesty International offered to help the family leave the country, but they had to find a willing host community and prove Ismael wasn’t taking a job from anyone. Amnesty found such a place in Ogden, Iowa, a corn farming community with a population of a couple of thousand that happened to need an auto body expert. In August of 1976, the local Lutheran Church set them up with an apartment downtown and $350 dollars. Ismael started work the next day at the Chevrolet dealership, where the owner took her dad under his wing.

The rest of Ismael’s family members fled to Brazil, Bolivia and Sweden, except his mother. She spent most of her life in Chile trying to find out what became of her daughter, to no avail, and recently also relocated to Sweden.

Through the Lutheran Church, the Mena family soon formed a strong friendship with Gary and Luann Seawright and their children.

Andrea’s parents did a good job of not making the move a big deal, but such a change is a big deal to a 9 year old.

Once a smart, popular, confident child surrounded by friends and family, Andrea found herself in a tiny community with no friends and no understanding of the language. Her mother spoke French, Spanish, English and German and did her best to help her children. And the children could talk to the Lutheran pastor and his wife, who both spoke Spanish, but Andrea was painfully aware of being different.

She did well in math, art and sports. “I didn’t have to speak English for any of that,” she said. “I got by and taught myself. I watched Sesame Street. It was my friend.”

A lifeline came to Andrea through Luann Seawright, who was an avid swimmer. She drove then taught Andree to drive eight miles to the community of Boone so the kids could take swimming lessons at the YMCA. “I’m pretty sure it was at a discount,” said Andrea. “The instructor was also a swim coach and this turned into competitive swimming for me and my brother.”

“When I started getting into swimming, I felt comfortable. I lived for the Y. I became a part of something there. I was a good swimmer, and made more friends there than at school. My parents became really close to the coach. Swimming became a part of our everyday life. After school, I swam, then went home,” she said.

“For me, that ‘Y’ symbol has always been huge. I think it saved my life. I didn’t feel good about myself in the new place. I was nothing. I was weird. All my clothes were homemade, kids made fun of me, I was bullied. The smartness didn’t change,” said Andrea, “but the confidence did. This is what I see with kids. And people can take it away … an instant to destroy and years to figure out.”

Swimming gave her confidence again. Today she still has the childhood jacket dotted with swimming patches exchanged with other swimmers.

Andrea’s childhood jacket dotted with swimming patches exchanged with other swimmers. Courtesy photo

After a few years in Iowa, the extreme heat and cold got the best of Ismael. He landed a job at a dealership in Newport Beach, Calif., packed his family into a van and headed across the country. On the way, the family planned to visit their friends the Seawrights who had moved to Los Alamos for Gary to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory. 

“We get into Taos,” Andrea said, “and we start seeing signs in Spanish. Dad just loved it here.” After the visit, the Mena family continued on to California but, “Dad hates it there, decides he doesn’t want to work for someone else, and in a few days drives back to Los Alamos. He had heard they had excellent schools and wanted that for his children.” Ismael got a job the next day at Knecht’s automotive shop, and eventually opened his own business.

Andrea started 9th grade at Cumbres Junior High in Los Alamos. She continued to be good in math and art, and was catching on to English, but studies weren’t what caught fire in her. The swim program was a club team that her parents couldn’t afford, so Andrea got into volleyball and basketball, which she had never played before, and made the teams. She joined track that year, and started cross-country in 10th grade. Her team took the state title three years in a row, and Andrea became the girl’s top runner for Los Alamos. Fellow student Rob Hipwood was doing well for the boy’s team, too. Andrea also took up soccer because her dad told her girls couldn’t play it.

In 1983, at 17 years of age, Andrea got into the burgeoning sport of snowboarding. She and the few other aficionados weren’t allowed to snowboard at Pajarito Ski Hill so they would hike into the mountains to pursue this pastime. It was while doing this that she met the young man, two years older than she, that she would marry 13 years later–Edward, Eddie Lynch. Eddie was studying carpentry at Northern College’s El Rito campus. Today he works for a custom cabinetry company in Santa Fe doing fine woodworking.  

“I had always wanted to design clothes,” Andrea said. “I loved sewing. Probably my biggest mistake was that I did not pursue that because I was too afraid to go to New York or Texas or California.” She had been sewing since she was 5 years old. “In Chile, you learn to sew, knit and crochet. It is necessary, you make your sweater for the winter,” she said, and she had always loved it. She made her own snowboarding clothes, too.

 “I knew regular college was not for me,” Andrea said, “I started out at UNM-LA and did well, but when I transferred to UNM, I hated it. I couldn’t get into an art class… and writing was not my strength. College was all about writing.”

Snowboarding soon became Andrea and Eddie’s passion, but her love of sewing would serve her well in this world. The couple followed the circuit of snowboarding throughout the southwest to ski hills that allowed it. Andrea worked at the Santa Fe Ski Basin, just purchased by the Abruzzo family, because it allowed snowboarding. Half-way through the season, they banned it, but this job gave her a pass to Wolf Creek, owned by Davy Pitcher and his family, which did allow snowboarding. Andrea became good friends with the Pitchers.   

That season, a man invited Andrea and Eddie to participate in the “First World Snowboarding Contest” at Soda Springs in California. Several companies came together and invited riders from across the country to participate in snowboarding contests.

Andrea won first place in the slalom, earning the title Women’s Snowboarding Slalom Champion when she was 19. She minimizes this accomplishment where she was a pioneer. “There were not a lot of women in snowboarding. It really was about people getting together and having fun. It was a fast-evolving sport.” The next year, Swatch sponsored the second world contest in Breckenridge. Andrea earned a 2nd place in the half-pipe, and 7th in the slalom. Two weeks after this event, she blew her ACL playing soccer in a co-ed league. She judged snowboarding contests after that, traveling all over Colorado with Eddie and her sister Solange.

Andrea chose jobs that allowed her to work at night and snowboard during the day. She worked nights in the Santa Fe pottery studio of Luisa Baldinger and Frank Willett for eight years.  

Jackets sewn by Andrea. Courtesy photo

Andrea then began sewing for Bradley Mountain Wear that turned into Ace Mountain Wear, on Early Street in Santa Fe. Andrea was in heaven being able to put her love of design, sewing and experience together to create clothes. Few were making snowboarding wear at the time.

Patagonia was making fleece clothing, but the use of waterproof materials such as Gortex was just starting to be developed and the clothing was expensive.

Pants sewn by Andrea. Courtesy photo

“There was a demand for snowboarding wear as it was a quickly growing sport, so you had to keep up with it,” she said. Each piece of clothing she created was hand cut, sewn and unique.    

She and Eddie Lynch married 13 years after her high school graduation. Throughout her life, Andrea has kept sewing and designing clothes. She has sewn fleece hats, chalk bags, jackets, and pants with knee and butt pads for children, which she has sold at craft fairs. 

Andrea and Eddie built a home facing the Pecos River and opened a Skate Board shop in Las Vegas, N.M., which they operated for three years. They had a couch at the shop, and let the kids hang out and play video games.  

“It was fun,” Andrea said. “I think that is when I started to understand kids; and to think about how a community should treat their kids—give them respect and they will give it back. We were the only shop that didn’t get tagged.”  

Then Andrea’s mom suffered a stroke, which necessitated Andrea moving closer to her in Santa Fe.  Andrea and Eddie began having children, and Andrea eventually became a classroom volunteer. By the time their oldest child, Paris, turned 5, the couple decided they wanted her to attend very good schools. Eddie’s parents lived in White Rock and allowed them to move in for this. Andrea split her time between White Rock and taking care of her mom in Santa Fe. She started volunteering at Chamisa Elementary School and was eventually hired as an instructional assistant.

Andrea and her students participate in a service project. Courtesy photo

In 2007, she reconnected with the Y when she applied to be an afterschool site director. Her afterschool program continually achieves high marks from students and parents who commend her on enriching, engaging programming.  

In 2014, New Mexico Teacher of the Year Carolyn Torres, and Chamisa co-worker, asked Andrea what she would like to do, if she could do anything. “I’d be an art teacher,” Andrea replied.

Torres nominated Andrea for a scholarship to the University of Phoenix, and Andrea was granted a full-ride. She started the studies last year and finds the adult curriculum to be a great match for her. Andrea said she has no problem bringing children to climb, belaying for them, and she is not afraid to jump off a 40-foot cliff into water, “but writing a paper, I sweat it all the time.”

She is one-third of the way through the program. And from every class she has taken, she has incorporated lessons into her Y Afterschool program. “You’ve got to be on top of what the kids are interested in, you have to keep up with their times. It is about them, but it has got to be a little bit about you, too.”

Andrea teaches art to students. Courtesy photo

Andrea has led the kids through studies of the masters, including Wassily Kandinsky, Georgia O’Keeffe, Piet Mondrain, Henri Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet. She also has orchestrated artwork among all the Y’s afterschool sites to create pieces that were made in the style of these artists that were sold at the silent auction at the Y’s annual Red and Black Ball.

What will she do when she gets her degree? “I would love to teach a working fashion design program at the teen center, where kids can come in to learn and to design clothes, to learn production, construction, to create patterns, sew them, turn around and sell them. I think it would be an amazing program. Fashion design was my dream. It kind of still is.”