'More than anything, it's an eye-opening experience.' Sociology grad works to bring young Latinos to Washington

Eleazar Gutierrez and Dolores Huerta

Eleazar Gutierrez, right, with one of his mentors, UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, in Washington, D.C.

BY CHRISTINE BEDELL
Alumni Engagement Specialist
cbedell1@csub.edu

Eleazar Gutierrez believes every young person should get to experience Washington, D.C.

It’s just a beautiful city, he says. The first time he saw the U.S. Capitol, it took his breath away.

The first time he met his congressman, and communicated his political views to him, he began to develop his voice as a constituent.

“Most importantly,” Gutierrez said, “I saw professionals working in D.C. that looked like me.”

And so Gutierrez, a 26-year-old CSUB sociology graduate, works to bring young Latinos from around the country to Washington for a week as associate manager of high school leadership programs for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.

CHCI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that extends a variety of educational services to young emerging Latino leaders. It was created in 1978 by original members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

One day Gutierrez would like to create a nonprofit that specifically brings kids from Kern County, especially his beloved hometown of Arvin, to the nation’s capital.

“What keeps me going is seeing the transformative change that I’m having on the future leaders of this country. Participants in the program start off shy and kind of timid and leave the program as young, professional high school students that are ready to take on the world,” he said.

HIS OWN STORY

In a story so common among CSUB students and alumni, Gutierrez’s parents were immigrants from Mexico who grew up poor and sacrificed their own educational goals for their children.

“They always aspired to receive an education but due to financial constraints and family responsibilities they had in Mexico they were never able to complete one,” he said.

So when they immigrated to the United States and started a family, Gutierrez’s parents emphasized the importance of education to their three children. Gutierrez is the oldest.

“Education was always very fundamental to our lives,” he said. “It was the epicenter of our conversations and everything that happened.”

Eleazar Gutierrez and parents

Gutierrez, right, with his parents, Maria and Honorio Gutierrez.

Pivotal to his early development was the seasonal Head Start center in Arvin, which he started attending at age 4 or 5. It’s where he learned his ABCs, 123s and read for the first time. His parents attended classes there that emphasized the importance of parent engagement and being active in their kids’ schooling.

Head Start would later give Gutierrez his first exposure to Washington as well. But more on that later.

At Arvin High, Gutierrez took AP and honors classes and competed on the Bears’ We the People constitutional competition team. He also ran cross-country, which took him from campus to Bear Mountain Boulevard and back and through Arvin’s grape fields.

Gutierrez still runs, only now past some of this country’s most famous landmarks. His We the People experience has stuck with him, too.

“You learn so much about public speaking, about our nation’s history and the importance of it and how that plays into today’s issues,” Gutierrez said.

A school aide Gutierrez had grown attached to at tiny Di Giorgio Elementary had encouraged him to study sociology because of his passion for helping others. So that’s what he majored in at CSUB, starting in 2009.

He immediately took to the school.

“I met what ended up being my familia at school comprised of fraternity brothers and members of M.E.Ch.A (a coalition of Chicanos on campus) and the Student Union,” Gutierrez remembered. “They came from small rural towns like I did and some of their parents were farmworkers with little to no formal education.

“Faculty and staff were also very supportive.”

Eleazar Gutierrez and Horace Mitchell

Gutierrez, left, with CSUB President Horace Mitchell.

While going to school he worked as a college peer advisor at Arvin High, helping first-generation, low-income students apply to college and for state and federal education aid.

One is a now-CSUB master’s degree student who first came to Gutierrez asking when Bakersfield College’s application period opened. Not for a while, Gutierrez responded.

But it was UC and CSU season, so Gutierrez looked at the student’s transcripts. They showed a 3.8 GPA.

Gutierrez asked him why he wasn’t applying to CSUB or one of the UCs. The student asked to speak to Gutierrez more privately.

“I’m actually a Dreamer,” he said. “I’m not applying to CSUs or UCs because I’m undocumented and would never be able to afford them.”

Gutierrez’s response: Being a Dreamer should not be a deterrent, it actually boosted his chances of getting assistance. Gutierrez helped the student apply to several schools and he decided on CSUB. He joined a fraternity, did extremely well and is now pursuing a master’s degree.

He recently asked Gutierrez for job-hunting advice.

WORKING IN WASHINGTON

Gutierrez made his first trip to Washington, D.C., in 2013 for a National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start internship, where he was exposed to national Latino leaders who came from small farmworker towns like his.

In between intern duties he’d grab coffee with as many working professionals as possible, regardless of whether he was interested in their line of work. He wanted to know how they got where they were, and later kept in touch with them.

“You never know what opportunities or what support those individuals could provide in the future,” Gutierrez said.

He returned to Washington after graduation and interned at First Focus, a children and families advocacy group, as an immigration associate and later became an education officer at the Consortium of Universities for Global Health, which helps its members share education and research related to the world’s health challenges.

He went to work for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in January 2017.

Eleazar Gutierrez and students

Gutierrez, top middle, with some of the students he's worked with through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Gutierrez manages a program designed to help young Latinos “realize that their voice is important and can be heard on Capitol Hill and in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

During the week-long, all-expenses-paid program, the students are challenged to see themselves as leaders, explore the issues facing their and their colleagues’ communities, and address those concerns with members of Congress.

Gutierrez keeps in touch with the students after they return home and helps them with such things as financial aid applications and letters of recommendation.  

Sixty young people participated last year; 100 are participating this year.

He recently helped a young girl from Puerto Rico transition to Catholic University and a couple of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students apply for scholarships.

“My biggest fulfillment comes from seeing these students continue their education no matter what their circumstances are, no matter what their upbringing might have been or what rhetoric is being spoken about Dreamers or Latinos at the national level,” he said.

One day he’d love to connect Kern County students to D.C., for them to meet Latino leaders and their members of Congress, through a nonprofit funded by community members. He knows it would be a heavy lift, though.

“More than anything, it’s an eye-opening experience,” he said of young people visiting Washington. “Even if they don’t end up in D.C., I think every young student should be exposed to our nation’s capital and how it works, and more of what’s out there beyond their local community.”