I am a son of Mexican immigrants. I share many of the experiences of many of the students I teach at Walla Walla High School. In my immigrant household, education was very much encouraged.
After immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico, our family settled in rural Idaho. The education of my parents went no further than the sixth grade in Mexico and because of that, the work they found was limited to manual labor. My father worked as a ranch hand while my mother accepted any job she could get. She worked in hotels cleaning rooms, restaurants, as a janitor, and selling tamales on weekends.
Even though we grew up poor, my parents were able to provide us with everything we needed to succeed in school.
My mother was the main advocate for education. She did not speak a word of English at first, but over the years she learned a few phrases and little by little became fluent, even though her heavy accent makes her English difficult to understand at times.
My parents knew very little about the U.S. education system. They never attended parent-teacher conferences or any other school activity where parents were involved.
In a way, they were afraid to go into the school. I imagine they felt out of place and perhaps thought they had no business being inside a building where English was spoken. They must have thought they wouldn’t be able to understand anything anyway so why bother going?
My parents acted more like cheerleaders when it came to the education of their kids. They never helped with homework, but would prepare a sandwich for us while we were studying. They were not able to show us how to apply for college or seek financial help but would encourage us to find someone who could.
The cheerleading continued when she would see my report card. A’s and B’s were the usual grades she would find and her face would glow with pride. She would call me “el inteligente” and would tell her friends how well I was doing in school and how high my GPA was.
At every opportunity, she would insist we must graduate high school, somehow go to college and become a professional.
She would motivate us by showing us how hard she worked. She would show us her hands, her swollen feet, and would take us to the places where she worked so we could see how hard life was for someone with no education.
I graduated from high school with a 3.7 GPA, but that didn’t matter to the universities. I was not accepted to any of them because of my legal status. Our entire family was undocumented, poor, with no Social Security numbers. We were illegal.
My dreams were crushed. But my mother did not give up so easily. She raised enough money to buy a plane ticket for me to fly to Los Angeles. She was sending me there to live with my aunt.
She instructed me to look for a job and enroll in a community college. I would have to pay my own way through college with the money I earned. I would take as many classes as I could pay for.
In Los Angeles, I did as my mother instructed me. I found a full-time job at a factory and attended night classes. I could only afford two or three classes per semester, but that was enough for me, I was going to college.
The Sunday calls from my mother were enough encouragement to keep me going. There were times I thought I was wasting my time because I was taking only a couple of classes per semester. I would never finish my degree that way. I wanted to quit college and focus on earning some money, but my mother would not let me. She insisted I keep going.
Two years into college, our family received our lucky break. Immigration came through and granted us our green cards. I was free to go to school full time because I now qualified for financial aid.
I decided to leave Los Angeles and enroll at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. This time, I would be attending college full time with no distractions and I knew I was going to earn my degree one way or another.
Alone in Arizona, I focused 100 percent of my time earning my degree. The Sunday phone calls continued. My mother wanted to know if I needed money and if I had enough to eat.
Every March 4, my birthday, I would receive a present and a check for $100 from my mother. It was a reminder of her continuous love and support.
I worked hard but I knew inside I was doing it more for my mother than for myself. The degree I was earning was for her. It was for her sacrifice and hard work all those years so we could have this opportunity.
College was every bit her dream as much as it was mine. I was not going to let her down. I made both our dreams come true in spring 2007 when I graduated from the university with my entire family there to watch me walk.
My mother cried and cried. The degree meant more to her than to me. Her dream had come true. I, the second oldest of her children became a college graduate. I would have security.
She was officially the mother of a college graduate. She would be able to live this three more times as my siblings graduated with a teacher’s degree, an architecture degree and a rangeland ecology degree.
For all of us, the driving force, the inspiration and the need to succeed in education was our mother. Her advice, her encouragement and unwillingness to give up when we were ready to quit is what pushed us.
I currently have many students at Walla Walla High School who, like me, are immigrants. Some are the children of immigrants and face similar situations that I did. Many have parents who don’t come to parent-teacher conferences or involve themselves in school activities because they don’t speak English and might feel just like my parents did.
These children have to go through the education system alone because their parents are unable to help them. I hope they may have at least the moral support of their parents like I did because for me that was enough of a push to get me to succeed.
Just like my parents encouraged me to find someone in school who could guide me and help me learn about college, I hope to be that person for my students.
Refugio Reyes has been a Spanish teacher at Walla Walla High School since fall 2007. He is a co-advisor of the Walla Walla High School Latino Club. He is a 2007 graduate of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. He along with his family immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when he was a child. In fall 2008, he became a naturalized citizen of the U.S.