Elizabeth Muñoz Herrera
Please tell us about your family background. Are your parents natives of California? Are you?
My father was from the state of Durango in Mexico and my mother was from a small town in Texas. She was born in Vinton, Texas and grew up in and around Anthony, New Mexico. And my parents actually met - this is the story I was told, how true it is we don't know - they both worked for a wealthy family. She was a housekeeper and he worked the grounds, and they met there. My father chased my mother for five years before she would go out with him. So they dated for five years, and then my father talked her into coming out to California and that was 1959. And then lo and behold I was born in 1960. They came out to California in what ended up being the DiGorgio camp and that's where they set up their home. My father worked for DiGorgio for 20-something years. And then after my third grade year, we moved to Lamont, California. My brother was born in 1964. My sister was born in Texas and she came out with my mother, with my father, and that's pretty much our family background. I also had an older brother, who came out to California. He did one year of schooling here, didn't really like it, talked my mother into letting him go into the Army, and so he never really lived here for very long. That's pretty much our family background here. The move from Texas and then starting life here in California.
My father was part of the governmental Bracero Program that was enacted through the United States, when there was a shortage of workers because of both the Second World War and the Korean War. So they needed workers to come into the states to do work in the fields. So my father came in legally to the United States with the Bracero Program. And I remember distinctly because every year, from around my seventh year I would go with him to the post office. And he had to register his card and have it stamped at the post office. He had a registration alien card and so he was here legally, but it was important for him to register that every year. And so we were fortunate that he was here legally and we never had to worry about him as far as being caught, as far as immigration issues. And my mom being born in Texas, we never had issues with immigration that other families had to worry about.
How much education did your parents have? Do you know if they wanted more than they had?
My father had no formal education. He went to the equivalent of probably kindergarten in Mexico. And after a day of schooling, since he was the oldest in the family, okay it's time for you to work. You're a man now and he had to accompany his father to work, and so my father had no training in school. The only thing he knew how to do was to sign his name on the back of his paycheck. So he was completely illiterate. He couldn't read or write in either his language of Spanish, or much less in English. My mother, because of her health problems, was only formally educated to third grade. And then after that quit going to school because she had severe asthma and would have these horrific coughing attacks. And it was too troublesome for her to go to school. But that didn't mean that she didn't self educate herself. She was a voracious reader and somehow educated herself both in English and in Spanish. So we get our love of education because of her. She was the one that pushed us and propelled us to educate ourselves. She just didn't think that because you didn't go to school that didn't mean you couldn't educate yourself in other ways.
For some reason, my mother loved politics. I don't know what it was about politics that she loved. But we had a little television in the house and I can remember the old wrinkly commentators on television. And every four years, when the elections came, she would watch them, just voraciously. I know that we were the only family in the camp that would watch the political conventions. And so I can remember watching things like, 'The great state of Ohio with its 64 electoral votes, nominates, you know, whoever.' And we just loved it. Now when you watch that, it's so anti-climactic because you know before who's already nominated, and how many votes. And so everybody knows who's won before things get to the state of California. But in those days, we would stay up 'til midnight and find out who's been nominated, who's going to win, and she just loved it. So now we all are political junkies, my sister, my brother, myself. And I teach government so I try to give that information or pass on that passion to my students.
Where and when did one or both of your parents work as migrant laborers?
My father worked for DiGorgio Farms for 20-plus years. And we were more fortunate than many migrant families in that his work was steady. He didn't have to migrate from place to place. So that kept him steady, which kept us from having to go from place to place. That was one of the advantages - we didn't have to pick up and move like a lot of families have to. He took the brunt of the pain of that. I know my father never took a vacation. You know he was given two weeks of vacation but during those two weeks he just worked somewhere else. And he worked six days a week, and he only had Sundays off. He just pretty much worked himself to death, is what he did. He pretty much did everything and whatever they asked him to do. He picked grapes, he did irrigation for them.
I remember one time just wanting to know what he did so I just kept picking and poking at him and so he took me to work with him. He was in charge of irrigating the fields. I remember my father just walking and walking and walking. He had an irrigation key and he just turned on the water and it irrigated the fields. He walked what constituted probably several miles. It had to have been either winter or spring that I went with him. I remember my mom packed lunch for us. But by ten o'clock I was sleeping in the car, so I was more of a pain in the butt than a help to him. But, I just needed to know what it is that he did. As do most kids who want to know what their parents do in their work.
But my father was a very proud man, and was very good at what he did. I remember, he could feel the soil and he could tell you what would grow there. My sister, when she moved into her first house, she wanted to plant strawberries. And my father touched the land, the soil, and he said, 'No, that's not going grow there. You'd be better to plant something else.' She insisted, and nothing. They just didn't take. So, I'm just amazed that he could tell. He could smell the soil, touch it, feel it, you know, if it was green, if it was rocky, if it was, you know, what nutrients that soil had. He could tell you what would grow there. He was a chemist in his own way. He may not have had the formal education, but he had his own way of telling what can grow just from the feel of the soil.
My mother, because of her health, she always had very poor health, she worked in packing sheds. I know she worked in the carrots and things like that. But her health really determined how much work she could do outside of the family home, and she did work in the packing sheds when she could. My mom had severe asthma so that limited a lot of the work that she could do. But she segued from the packing sheds to working in the schools. My mother, because she was bilingual, was one of the first people that actually worked as a bilingual interpreter in the schools, helping the schools communicate with parents. This was before there was a thing called bilingual education. So at that time, I would say all the administrators could not speak Spanish, could not communicate with the parents. They didn't have things like bilingual aides, and so when my mother was first employed with the schools out in Lamont, California, she was the bilingual aide. She was the one that was communicating with the administrators. She was the liaison between the administrators and the parents.
Have you ever worked as a migrant laborer? If so, where and for how long?
That was in my sophomore year in high school. By then my father had semi-retired. My father developed a heart condition and I remember there were a few times that we were running around and he would sort of start clutching at his chest. And he was on Digitalis at that time, the pill you have to put under the tongue. But he still worked part time, and he worked with me. He said, 'If you wanna do this, I will, you know I will go with you.' So I worked in the summers, and we worked in the grapes. That's the season when you actually had to cut the grape, and the picking and the packing of the grapes. I worked with him and I was amazed because my father was 20 years older than my mother. But he was still a very virile man, a strong man. I saw my father like Superman. And I'll never forget that summer. There was a young man that was trying to show off for me, and my father said, "No, this one's going to college." And he sort of challenged my father and my father just kicked his butt as far as the picking and the packing of the grapes. And after that, the young man didn't look my direction. He taught me how to pick and pack the grapes the right way. Because he said, 'If you're gonna do something, do it the right way, or don't do it at all.'
I worked my sophomore and junior year in the grapes. And that money was my money. I noticed in the fields when the foreman started handing out the checks, that he was handing them to the fathers in the families. Usually sons and daughters worked with their fathers as a family. And my father said, 'No, the check belongs to her.' And the other families sort of made fun of my father. And he said, 'I should be laughing at you. You're having your sons and daughters work, but you're taking the money. What pride is there in that? It's their work but you're taking the money. She worked, she earned it. It belongs to her.' Even though he was from Mexico, and you know the whole macho thing, my father in his own way was a modern man. And I miss him. He's been gone a long time.
What was it like living in the labor camp?
The labor camp was segregated. The inner part of the labor camp was where the families lived and the outer part of the labor camp was where 'los hombres solteros' lived. The single men. And so we were told to always be careful. The single men were young men and so you had to be careful because we heard stories. There were already stories that one girl had been raped, and so you never went out alone. You never went out at night. It was an ugly place. My house had four rooms. We did not have an indoor toilet, and so if you had to go to the bathroom at night, I always didn't go. Outside it was a communal bathroom. There were frogs out there. There were rodents out there. And so I just didn't go. It was not a happy place. Maybe other people have positive experiences. I didn't. And plus I was more of a solitary person. So I didn't have a lot of friends in the camp either. My mom said, 'Why are you so sullen?' She didn't use that word, that's a college word, but that's what I was. I was kind of a solitary child. And so the camp was a sullen place. I always used to just wait for my father to come home. He was what made me happy. I loved it when my father would come home because he was more like a playmate to me than my mom who was sick a lot. Now that we know these things, my mom was depressed. She was not a happy camper. So I just waited for Dad to come home.
What was school like for you and were your parents involved in your education?
I think my elementary level was pretty normal. My sister was the one that took me to kindergarten. I'm not sure why that was. But she was the one that took me to my first day of school, and it was out at DiGorgio School. And I would say my first year was odd. My mother was bilingual, but because my father never learned to speak English, we spoke primarily Spanish. So my first five months at school were hard because DiGorgio was, I would say, a mixed school. We had the farmworkers kids, mixed with the farmers kids, so there we were. The teacher was speaking to us, and it was like the Charlie Brown cartoons, it's like 'wa-wa-wah-wah-wah-wah.' That's what the teacher sounded like to us, because we had no idea what she was saying. What we did is we looked around at the white kids, and saw what they were doing. And it's like okay, that's what she wants us to do, and we would follow them. This was way before bilingual education. It was total immersion. You sink or swim. By first grade, well, we were experts. We would learn or you didn't learn. But by first grade I remember my best friend was a little girl named Cathy Blower - wherever you are Cathy I don't know. But her, if I can remember correctly, her father was a doctor in Arvin. It was a very small, tiny, little school. But I remember it being fun. We kinda all learned together, did things together, and because it was such a tiny little school, everybody did the same thing. And I was out there at that school until the middle of third grade and then we moved to Lamont.
Then my experiences at Lamont School were, I think, pretty much the same. I consider myself more of an introvert but you wouldn't remember that from third grade because I was always getting in trouble for talking all the time. And, I guess that probably would be, that I felt comfortable in the environment. Either that or I was nervous or something. But my elementary experience was good. Oh, I had a lot of trouble with math. I had a heck of a time learning multiplication. That's what sort of separated students back then. You were either classified as smart or dumb and math was the great divide. Then in sixth grade, I had a great teacher, Mr. Burnell. He did not allow people to quit. And I remember we had a play day and he said, 'You're gonna be a winner.' Teachers can make a great difference and I remember winning a blue ribbon for running, and he made a great impact on my life.
When we went on to junior high, we didn't have the problems in junior high that kids have now - bullying and things like that. But junior high is where I discovered music, and that was my thing that saved me. Because I wasn't one of the popular girls, but music I got, I got to hide behind my trumpet. I was a pretty good trumpet player. So that was the thing that saved me. In high school, the same thing. Music was what kept me sane. Because I didn't date, didn't have boyfriends. Didn't do that, but I got a wonderful education in music. Got to do some things that nowadays you couldn't do. Got to hear some wonderful jazz music, and got to see some musicians in person because I had some wonderful band teachers, Mr. Mark Shires, who's already passed away. If it hadn't been for music, I don't think I could have gone on to college.
But then there was the negative part of that. I had a terrible counselor who decided that I wasn't college material. And I had to fight my way into those college prep classes because I told her, 'I want to be there.' So I think that maybe things are different now. I'm not a college counselor, but it shouldn't be somebody else's choice to decide who's college material and who isn't. And I don't think those things just show up in a transcript. There's a lot of other stuff going on underneath the school work of a student that can show if a student is college material. And so, um, you have to be able to look underneath that. And I know it's tough because I'm a teacher now. But it shouldn't just be up to one person to decide if a person is college material. I know when I was accepted into the University of Texas at Austin for my Ph.D. program, I went back to that college counselor and I told her, 'I now you don't remember me, but I remember you, because you told me I wasn't college material. And look I'm in a Ph.D. program now at UT Austin.' I said, 'It wasn't your right to tell me that I wasn't college material,' and she looked at me like, and I said, "Right." It shouldn't be your choice to tell students what they can do and what they can't do. And she since retired, but I remember her, I called her "an old bruja" - an old witch because she shouldn't have that much power to decide who gets to and who doesn't get to go into college prep. Because that decides who gets to go to college, and you know, who has to go the long way, through community college and all that. ...why can't I go with those kids? I said, 'I know my father was just a farmworker, but hey I wanna go with them.' And I did. But I had to do it, you know, crawling like. I did it the long way, but, you know, I still did it.
When did you know you would go to college?
My father had no formal education, didn't know anything about reading and writing, except how to sign his name on his paycheck. Since I was seven I accompanied him to the places where he had obligations. This was my father. Never had a checking account so anywhere that he had obligations he would go and pay them in cash. And because he didn't know how to read and write, I would go with him. Also, he couldn't speak English, so I was his interpreter. So I knew all about my family's obligations. I knew who we owed money to. I knew how much money we owed them. Not a good thing for a 7-year-old to know. He knew that he wanted something better for his children and he said, 'This one's very smart. This one's going to go on to college.' I don't know if my father really knew what college was, but that's what he wanted for his children. So from early on, I knew that I wanted something more than the little town that I grew up in. I found it very suffocating there. And my oldest brother, who would sort of come in and out of our lives, kind of like the wind, he introduced us to college. I have to give my brother the credit. He would come in and, when he was in town, he would put on football games. And that was when I first saw college, Ohio State, Michigan. And I thought, when I first saw those places, I saw happy people. A labor camp is not a happy place but those schools, there were happy people. And, that's my introduction to college. I told myself I want to go there. Those places are happy places. I want to go to those places. I wanted to go to college because it was happy. It was not the labor camp.
What did you hope to do and be when you grew up?
Hell, I still don't know what I want to be. You know I got into teaching through the back door. Teaching still isn't what I think I wanted to do. A lot of times I think, when I work with the kids one on one, and I become a counselor with them, that still feels more natural to me than when I'm in front of the classroom. When I get to bond with the kids, that still feels more natural to me than when I'm lecturing at them. So maybe I'm more of a counselor than a teacher. But I knew I wanted to go to college. Because when I'm learning, that is what feels natural to me. I'm one of those people that's a forever learner. It doesn't feel comfortable when I'm not learning something. I looked into a class this summer about "You and the Law." If I'm not learning something, if I haven't been in school for a certain amount of time, I feel itchy and antsy. I have to be constantly learning something otherwise I feel like I'm somewhat out of step. So, maybe I'm one of those people that's a perpetual student. And I'm not sure why that is. But, it just feels natural to me to be on campus. I didn't get to finish my Ph.D. Life sort of got in the way. But I told my husband, I said, 'You know, before I'm gone from this Earth I will have that Ph.D. Maybe I'm one of those 98 year olds that has to get helped up with assistance to get it, but I will have it.' And I said, 'it's not to prove anything to anyone, but to prove it to myself.' Because it's just something inside of me that there's a need there to have it.
How did you choose which college to attend?
I started at Bakersfield College because even though I was college prep, there was still some remediation that needed to take place and moneywise and some personal issues. The night of my high school graduation my father had a stroke, and so I was due to go away to school down south. But since my father had a stroke, I didn't feel I could go away and leave my family in that situation. So I went to Bakersfield College. I spent a year there. Then I had the option to go to a one- semester program at Northeastern University in Boston. It was sort of like a program that let me explore a college out of state. So I took the program just to see what it was like and I remember working all summer saving up money so I could buy the clothes to get ready to go to school on the East Coast. And I thought I had bought all these right clothes, and the first snow came and I froze my butt off. I had two roommates. [They said,] 'No, this is never gonna work.' So she loaned me her down coat and a proper pair of shoes, and I still slipped on the snow.
I spent three months in Boston and that was fun. Then they formally accepted me at Northeastern but it was a private school, and it was mostly in loans, and I thought that was a little bit over my head. So I came back to BC and spent another half a year there, and then was accepted at San Francisco State. So I classify myself as a vagabond student. I spent a semester at San Francisco State. Then I got married and my first husband promised me that I would be going to school, but he was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky for nine months and then we were transferred to Scoffield Barracks, Hawaii. And during the time that we were married, it financially wasn't feasible to go to school, so four and a half years in the Army, no school, it was very difficult.
So when we got out, we came back to Bakersfield, and then that's when I got to start school full time and I came back. I started school at Cal State Bakersfield. I took the classes that I needed, and that's when I decided to major in sociology. I tell people when they ask me, 'well what is that?' I say, 'it's sort of a license to be nosy. It's the study of society and how we fit into society.' I really enjoyed my major. I had the best professors. Cal State Bakersfield might not get a lot of TV time or it's not the most prestigious university that you're ever going to hear about, but I had the best, top notch professors, and my classes were fantastic. You hear about the Harvards, and the Yales, and the Stanfords, and the Berkeleys, but a lot of times at those universities you get teaching assistants that teach those classes, the lower level classes. All my professors were top notch, and regardless of what classes I took, they were taught by top professors. I had a great time, and I met some great students
Then when I graduated four of us got into Ph.D. programs. And you know, three of the four of us got to finish and I feel kind of bad because I'm the one that didn't finish. But don't feel bad, guys. I am going to finish one day. Like I said, even if I'm going to be 98, I won't let you down. And I feel bad. I just feel bad for my mentor, Dr. Steven Arvizu. You know he told me that, "You know we're like a chain link, and you know it's like we link arms," and he passed the link on to me. And he's the only one that I feel bad for, because I was his link. And he's the only one that I let down. Don't worry Dr. Arvizu, I will finish. And I won't let you down. It may be when I'm 98, but I'll finish. I promise you, I'll finish.
So you were unable to finish the Ph.D. program at University of Texas at Austin?
No. I finished my first year and the ol' marriage started to fall apart. So I came home to try to fix things. Things didn't work. So I took a leave of absence and then things went down the toilet. So I had to finish my masters here at Cal State. The year that I spent there, I competed with the students there, cuz I ... coming from little ol' Cal State Bakersfield ... the first day that I got there I had a student, a male student, say, "Oh, you're the fellowship student." (I got a fellowship to go there.) And I said, "Yes." And so they knew who I was, and I remember. We took Dr. Shoberg together, and I'm happy to say I kicked his [butt] in the class. I got the A. He got the B. It's like, don't bring things up unless you can back them up. He thought because I got a fellowship that I was somehow some kind of hardship student or something. Um, no. I earned that fellowship. And, you know, he went to the University of Miami or something. But right from the get go he tried to bring things up with me and we got into it in class all the time. And at the end, you know, I chewed him up and spit him out. And I thought, "Okay, there's your fellowship." So, graduate school was one of those places where you have to prove yourself, and I did. And I would have finished at Texas with my masters, just, you know, life like anything gets in the way.
So you returned to CSUB to finish your master's degree and then went for your teaching credential?
Yes. Like I said, teaching has always felt like it was sort of like a back door thing because what I wanted to be was a college professor. It's just, circumstances and life sort of got in the way. And that's how I ended up teaching high school. Not that it hasn't been satisfying - just in a different way then what I expected from life.
What challenges did you face in college and did anyone help you overcome your struggles?
My biggest challenges were, as far as academic challenges, I had to learn to be a better writer. I think that follows a lot of students. I had to start with basic writing even though I came from Arvin High and I took college prep classes. I had to overcome those challenges that a lot of bilingual students have to overcome. The challenges of just being a bilingual student and learning to write better, just the practice of becoming a better writer.
And then, the challenges of just believing in yourself. There wasn't a lot of people telling me, 'Oh, you're gonna be great at this.' There weren't a lot of positive reinforcements in my family. I lost my biggest cheerleader in my father when I was 17. He had a stroke and even though I had him for seven additional years he wasn't the same man. He lost his ability to speak and he was trapped in his own world. So I pretty much lost him that night of my high school graduation. My mom was a very bright woman, but challenged in her own way. Her illness made her angry. She became angry at the world, and I can attest to that myself. When I was young I didn't understand. But when I got sick myself, when I had my challenges with epilepsy, I understand that now. Because, when things happen to you, and you don't understand why they're happening to you, you sort of want to lash out at the world and say, 'Why is this happening to me?' She was always sickly. She just became very depressed. So there was just not a whole lot of places to turn to in my family for those positive reinforcements. So I had to look within myself for those positive reinforcements. It's hard when you're 17, and 18, and it's like, 'Oh. I have to prop my own self up.' For me college became my way out. And, if I'm going to do this, I need to do it right.
For me, those positive role models came from teachers and professors I was fortunate enough to meet along the way. I met a high school teacher, Mrs. Chandler, a grandmotherly English teacher who said, 'Honey, we're gonna work on this and it'll be okay.' And then in college I met an English teacher in my upper division writing class, a Dr. Charles Toomes, who my sister and I both had at the same time. And my sister is a beautiful technical writer. She just can write. I, on the other hand, am a very emotional writer, not the best technical writer, but a very emotional writer. And I remember him telling me, 'Do not try to compete with your sister. You bring passion to your writing that she cannot meet. She can write circles around you, but she doesn't have your passion, so don't compete with that.' He made me feel good because he saw something different in my writing.
And then, when I went to graduate school, I met a scary professor, who everybody was afraid of. But by the end of my second semester he knew my name. And the other students said, 'He knows your name. That means you can ask him to sit on your committee. If he knows your name that must mean he's interested in you as a student.' His name was Dr. Gideon Shoberg. He said, 'Oh you're Elizabeth Muñoz Herrera.' And I go, 'Yes.' They said, 'Ask him to sit on your committee. Ask him, ask him, ask him.' He was one of the few professors that did work on qualitative work. Most professors there were interested in quantitative work and my dissertation was going to be more on the qualitative side. And so the fact that he knew my name means that he knew who I was, and had already sort of looked into who I was.
So it's those people that made an impact on my educational career. Those are the people that hang out in my mind, that if they noticed me then that validated me as a student. And that made an impact on me because I must have made an impact on them. It made a difference in my life. That's what made it all worth it. All those [times] staying up 'til 3 a.m. in graduate school. That's what made it all worth it.
What is your profession or career? How satisfied are you with your career?
I ended up teaching high school when a lovely gentleman named Arly Smith hired me to teach continuation at Central Valley High School. And my first year teaching continuation high school was fabulous, wonderful, challenging, exciting - all at the same time. Central Valley is a very small school in Shafter. It's connected to Shafter High School where it's only divided by a chain link fence. Working for Arly was like working for your dad. I love him. But he taught me so much. He taught me about working with high school kids, working with continuation school kids, just working at a high school in general. And we had so much fun. It was three staff members and him. It's the most fun I've ever had working with a school. It was wonderful. It was like working with your family. And he taught me so much about being a professional and being a teacher and just being happy in what you're doing.
That year, my son got really sick - scary sick. I got a call from my husband in my classroom and I just freaked out. And my students saw that. I started crying at my desk. And with continuation school kids, you know, you hear all these stories about, 'Oh these kids are mean, are bad, or are awful.' And one of these kids that had a KC on his neck (which signifies a gang), he came up to me and he said, "What's the matter?" I said, "My son is sick." He goes, "Ohh." He ran to the office and got Mr. Smith and Arly was right there within like two minutes, saying, "Go. Go. I'll take over your class." My son [ended up being] fine. When I came back, I thanked [the kids] for their empathy, and this one kid in particular. He really was a marshmallow, is what he was. And I just hugged him and I said, "Thank you so much for making sure that Mr. Smith got here as quick as he did." It was such a positive experience.
Not that it wasn't a tough year. But, I think people have this misconception about continuation schools and the kids that go there. I like to tell people that, in many situations, our kids are like square pegs trying to fit into a round hole. And I relate because I was a square peg. I didn't go to a continuation school, but that's what I felt like in high school. I wasn't a jock, I wasn't a cheerleader, I didn't have a million boyfriends. I just didn't fit in. If it wasn't for music, I wouldn't have fit in there and I wouldn't have wanted to go to school. A lot of kids these days don't fit into the traditional mold of a high school. And so a lot of times that's why kids don't want to go to school, because they're being picked on, you know? They don't fit into these particular groups. I think, "If you don't fit in, why would you want to go to school?" That's why we're here. Because a lot of times kids don't fit into these humongous schools that we now have. And they're being picked on because a lot of our kids don't have money. They don't wear the right clothes. They don't have the $300 shoes. Their parents may not be the type of parents that go and participate in all the right types of things. So they don't want to go to school because they aren't the "in" kind of kids.
We take up where these schools let these kids down. Yes, we do have some tough kids. But we also have regular kids that just don't fit into the traditional high school mold. I love our kids. Not all of them, but a lot of our kids are just regular kids that don't fit into a regular high school. I see myself in a lot of our kids. And a lot of our kids, they just need love. They just need the hug. They just need the pat on the back. They just need to be told they're OK, that things are going to work out. And they don't have a lot of that at home because their parents are going through their own thing. A lot of them are very young. They had them when they were very young and they're trying to grow up themselves. It's hard for a parent who had them when they were 15 to know what to do when they have a 15 year old now. You know, I had my son when I was 41 and when I tell my students, they're going, "Ugh, you're old." I said, "I know. I did it on purpose. There was a lot of things I wanted to do before I had my son. It's OK if you guys wait. The old body will hold out and let you have babies later. You know there's more choices than having a baby when you're 15. You can wait 'til you're 20 or 25 or even 30. It's OK."
I enjoy working with our students because I can give them wisdom that I've accumulated across my years that maybe they don't get at home. Sometimes I make them laugh and sometimes I make them mad, but that's OK. I tell them, "I'm not here to be your friend. I'm here to be your teacher. But, if you see me as a friend, that's OK. I can deal with that too." I'm happy to be here. Otherwise I wouldn't be here. What I don't like are teachers - and I have worked with them, I worked with them a lot when I taught elementary school - who hate their jobs. They're mean to the kids. We don't have any of those teachers here. They don't come here because they hate their jobs. Otherwise they wouldn't be here. I can honestly say that. Nobody that I work with hates their job. They're here because they want to be here. Because you know what? These kids, they pick up on that. They can pick up on people that don't want to be here. If someone here hates their job, the kids know that. The kids, teenagers - especially our kind of kids - are very perceptive of teachers that are just here for the paycheck. And none of our teachers are here just for that reason. These kids are, man, they have radar, and they know when somebody is here for the wrong reason. They will not hesitate to get in your face and tell you that. I work with that very core group of teachers that want to be here. And they're here for the right reason.
Do you find that any of your students come from similar backgrounds as you, whose parents are farmworkers? Or who come from Spanish speaking households or from immigrant families?
A certain percentage. I asked my students last year how many of them have that migratory background, and I would say less so now. Maybe 10 or 15 percent do. Most of them now are second and third generation, where they're not working in the fields anymore. I would say, maybe 10 percent now. I find that those are my hardest workers, because they have that work ethic. You know they work with their parents on the weekends. And as soon as the summer comes, they're working with their parents in the fields. They're my hardest workers because they still have that feeling that the family comes first. They owe their family so much. You know, by the second and third generation they've been - I'm going to use the word "Americanized" but I don't mean it in a negative way. What I mean to say is that they've come to the point where they feel that they are owed something. So the work ethic has lowered to the point where they get lazy and they're less productive than the kids that are first generation. I can always tell the kids that have migrant parents versus the kids that have been here already two or three generations because of their work ethic and the pride of work.
I remember one young man from last year who graduated - a very bright young man. I asked him, "Mijo, what do you want to do?" He said, "Well, I'm gonna go work in the fields." And I told him, "Mijo, you're so smart. Why don't you consider going to [Bakersfield College], and then from there you can go on to Cal State? Because you can help your family after you get your degree so much more than if you work the fields." I said, "Look at it from an economic point of view, you know, working, making $8.50 an hour versus what you can make at $30 an hour. Can you see the difference?" I said, "Yes, I know you're gonna have four or five years to get there, versus the money coming in immediately. But can you see the difference?" He goes, "Yes, I know." I said, "Well talk to your parents, and if they want to talk to me, you know they can always get a hold of me." And then I said, "if you want to call me at home. I gave the office permission that you can call me. The office can give you my number if you want to call me over the summer." He was so quiet, but at the end of the year I gave them a group project to work on. He was working with a couple girls, and it's the most I ever heard him talk. I said, I said, "You were this shy young man, and now all of a sudden, you are, you're talking," I said. "He," they said, "he's only pretending. He's like this all the time" um, so, um. It, it's hard for them to, to see the long-term benefits of an education when they live for um, you know the immediate gratification. But you know, here was a very smart young man, who, who, could. He was bright enough to be able to see the economic, the economic benefit. It was just maybe difficult for him to present that to his parents. And, and he was very, very dedicated to his family. So you know it was not my right to interfere with his family. It was going to be up to him to sell it to his family to see what he was going to do. But he was perfectly bright enough to go to BC and then easily to transfer to Cal State, because he just, he had it. It was [just] if he was going to be able to sell it to his parents, because he was one of those that needed to help his family. That's what was first and foremost in his mind. So it's hard to be able to get that across to our students, when they have that feeling that they have to help their families. I understand that.
Did you feel influenced to help your family, too?
You know, that pressure was never put on us. Like I said, those pay checks belonged totally to me. We were never given that directive that you owe it to the family. That was something that was very different about our family than the rest of the migrant families, and the families that lived in the camp. I knew that that pressure was on a lot of those families and those kids. But I have to hand it to my parents. They never put that pressure on us. Our money was our money and ... You know, I used it to buy clothes and things to get ready for the next school year, where the other kids, it was pretty much demanded that it was family money. And I know my husband and I talked that when he worked in the summer, I don't think that his family was demand[ing], but I know for him he said that when he worked the summer, he bought his mom a washer. He said, "But I felt like I owed it to the family. I felt good buying my mom a washer..."
My husband ... he adored his mother. We lost mom five years ago. That woman was adored by her children. She meant the world to her children. So I think each family is different. For some it's an obligation. For some, like my husband, it was just, "I would give the world for my mother." And in our family it was just never something ... you're doing it for you, because I want you to. You know my father wouldn't even take... I remember one time my mom came home with welfare cheese that somebody had given her. And my father said, "Get that shit out of my house. The day that I can't provide for my family is the day that I am dead." And so that was the last time my mom ever brought anything like that into our house, because it just wasn't allowed. And I know people that said, "Oh yeah, bring it in." My father: No, no. It was a pride thing. You know, it's just every family is different. But for us, I guess, it was my father's pride. If I can't do it, then it must be the day that I die. And my father said, "If she's working, she wants to work. It's her money." And that's just the way we were raised. My father I feel like he was ahead of his time. No machismo in our house. I guess my mom said, "No." That's just the way it was.
What differences has obtaining a college degree made in your personal life? And in your professional life?
My college education gave me freedom and choice. It gave me options and it showed me that I could be anything I wanted to be. That I could go anywhere I wanted to go. I got to visit a million places in the books that I read. I got to read about people that I would never have imagined. It made the world humongous and interesting and wonderful and just endless - beautiful and passionate and just everything. So different from the labor camp, which was ugly and disgusting and dirty, and just everything opposite of what education gave me. And for those children that still live in labor camps - because there are - I want to tell them to strive forward because there's a big giant world out there, and to go for it, because it'll get them out. You can be anything you want to be, an athlete, a college professor, a doctor, a lawyer, a physicist, an astronomer, anything. It's like Cesar Chavez said, "'Si se puede niños, si se puede,'" Just tengan la pasion, have the passion. And you can get out. You can be anything you want to be.