Maria Milagros Claro Mitchell, mother figure and immigrant mentor to many, dies at 67

·3 min read

Maria Milagros "Mila" Claro Mitchell was a giving mother to her family and communities, which stretched from her relatives in tiny Trosky, Minn., and Macalpi-ay, Pastrana, Leyte, in the Philippines to her dozens of foster children and the many Filipinos she helped emigrate to Minnesota.

Called by her middle name, which means "miracles" in Tagalog, Mitchell spent her final days in the Philippines with her younger sister, Maria Cristina, while visiting her older sister, Maria Conchita, after Mitchell's niece and brother-in-law had died. Mitchell was vaccinated but tested positive for COVID-19 upon trying to return to Minnesota and died of pneumonia June 9. She was 67.

Remembering her as a "strong woman," Cristina carried her ashes back to Trosky, where Mitchell arrived in 1973 as an immigrant. She had come with her daughter, Shirly, who was 2 at the time, after meeting her future husband, Donald Mitchell, who had family in the small Pipestone County town. They had met while he was stationed in Subic Bay in the U.S. Navy and she was working as a nanny and selling cosmetics.

She had written letters to his mother, who wrote back to her about what life in Minnesota was like, and upon moving to the state, Mitchell became one of the first Filipino immigrants in the area.

"She talked about the hardship, but she also felt proud of being able to be who she was," Shirly Mitchell said.

In the decades that followed, Mitchell would pay forward what her mother-in-law did for her by helping translate for new immigrants, bridge cultural differences, give rides and babysit for other Filipinos who had immigrated to Minnesota.

"She'd helped prepare them on what to expect and then also contact resources for them, and just be here for them, because when she came, she left her whole family and everybody," Shirly Mitchell said.

The family also lived in Georgia and West Virginia when Mitchell worked for Bayliner Marine Corp. before returning to Trosky in 1987. While living there, they survived two house fires, first while living in an old bank building and later in a trailer house, and were saved both times when their cat woke them up as smoke accumulated.

Mitchell's house was always open for others, either to help them or cook and have a party. Once Shirly went to college, Donald and Mila began hosting foster children — more than 70 over time, all of whom Mitchell kept pictures of in photo albums. They would take the children to visit Valleyfair amusement park and to see Sioux Falls [S.D.] Skyforce basketball games, for which the family held regular-season tickets.

Even after battling kidney disease and receiving a kidney transplant with Shirly as donor, Mitchell helped everyone she could and always wondered if she did enough. Her help included rebuilding her family's church and home in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 and making hundreds of masks for others during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Having grown up Roman Catholic and completed her GED in 1994, she sought to pass her faith and educational values to her children, nieces and nephews, her family said.

"She was supportive of whatever we wanted for ourselves, and she would just guide us to be successful," nephew Donald Christopher Claro said. "She always said that we're ... her investments."

Mitchell's family hopes to create a scholarship for Filipino students in her name. Besides her daughter, Shirly, she is survived by her sister, Cristina, and many foster children. Services have been held.

Madison Karas is an intern for the Star Tribune.

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