Connie Perez

Connie Perez

What's your earliest memory of the Woodville Labor Camp, where you grew up?

My earliest memory in being here actually brings back a lot of memories. Of being a child here, and running around the parks here, the streets here, you know my old friends here. Just a lot of great memories. But it also brings back the memory of, the realization of, how sheltered I was living here. Because this is all I saw every day. It was this, and during the school year, it was going from here to my elementary school. My school and that was it. This was my world. I didn't realize what I was missing.

So sheltered in a good way or in bad way?

I guess in a good way because it was a very good upbringing, a very innocent upbringing. All the kids that were here looked like me. They were just like me. So, I didn't realize the different cultures that are out there in the world that I have come to meet at this point in my life. So, it was sheltered in that I appreciated my family, the closeness of my family here. Appreciated the fact that you could trust everyone here. Everyone took care of everyone's kids and it was a big family. So in that sense it was a good thing, I guess, that I was sheltered. But unfortunately once I moved out of here I had a lot of catching up to do. A lot to learn because of the fact that I was so sheltered here.

So this is the elementary school that you went to when you were here? Were most of the people in your class kids from here?

They were and I actually started school here at the camp. At the very entrance there's a pre- school, and I was part of the head start program. So I started attending school there before kindergarten. [I was a] very young child there. And from there, all the kids here from the camp took a bus to Woodville Elementary School. That's about 15 miles west of here. And most of the kids came from the camp, and some from Woodville and just the surrounding homes around that school.

So you said that you know most of the kids here looked like you. Was that also the case when you got to the school? Or when was the first time you noticed that you were different?

The first time I noticed the difference was when I went to high school. Because at Woodville it was the same, mostly Hispanic kids, Mexican kids, and we all had similar stories. So you never realized how different you are really. Then when you get to high school, because once I went to Monache High School, it was different. You saw kids that looked different than you did. And even living here we wouldn't go into Porterville often. We would go on the weekends, or to buy groceries. Or we'd go to the church, and even our church was a Spanish speaking church, so same thing. Vacations consisted of going to Mexico, so I was always just around people with similar backgrounds as myself. So attending Monache High School was definitely an eye opening experience. It's when you start to feel different, maybe a little bit insecure because again, you know I come from very humble beginnings and I wasn't wearing the type of clothes that most of the other kids were wearing. Didn't have access to some of the stuff they did. When they spoke of vacations it was going to the beach, or, you know, exotic places - back then [what] I thought were exotic places. And my summer vacations consisted of going to Mexico to visit my grandparents.

And which part of Mexico?

It is just across the border from Arizona, the border between Arizona and California. Actually it's an "ejido," and it's a very poor community, dirt roads. My family still lives there. We still go back every November to visit family. So it's not a resort destination like Cabo or something like that at all. It's a very, very humble little town out in the middle of nowhere in Mexico, in Baja California.

So your parents came from there?

They did. They came here. They're immigrants. They got married in Mexico in 1975. And, I was conceived in Mexico and they came to the U.S. because they wanted me to be a U.S. citizen. So they moved here a few months before my birth. And I was born in Tulare, California, just a few miles from here. And as a child, because my parents worked in the fields and they needed to make money, they sent me to Mexico to live with my grandma for about a year. And then I was there as a baby - obviously I don't have memories of this. But, then they brought me back. And during those first few years of my life we lived in Porterville in a home which is very typical of what you hear now of migrant farmworkers - that there's multiple families living in one household. That was us. We lived there and then my dad applied for housing here at the labor camp. And that's how we ended up living here for most of my childhood. I lived here from probably 3 to 4 years old until I was 17 and a junior in high school.

And then did you go, when you finished high school go right away to college? Or?

I did. But I didn't go away to college. I went to the junior college here because one of the things that I found - and I see it now too - I didn't have access to information about how to get to college. I knew I wanted to go away to college. But I didn't know how to apply for financial aid, didn't know what the SATs were and didn't know too much about what my options were and how much help is actually out there for kids of my background. So, right from Monache High School I went to PC, Porterville College, for two years. Worked two jobs and decided to take a year off because I thought I was doing pretty good financially. And so I, I took a year off, and of course you know my family was disappointed. Friends were disappointed. I did that for about a year, and one day just realized that life wasn't what I wanted for my future. I have a younger sister and I had a younger brother too. And I knew they were looking up to me as an example of what they should be doing. And I also didn't think that was setting a good example for them. I always think of my parents coming to this country leaving everything behind - you know, their parents, and seeing them maybe once a year if that. And they sacrificed all of that for us to have a better life so I also thought I was letting them down. So I decided to go back to school and went to CSUB. And in '97 I moved to Bakersfield, and I attended Cal State Bakersfield and graduated from there with a degree in Business Administration and a concentration in Accounting in 2000.

Was your family supportive of you going to college when you finished? Or had there not been an expectation to go to college?

No, as a child, I always remember them talking about college. But they didn't go to college. My dad actually only went up to the sixthh grade in Mexico because he had to work to support his family. He knew that education was very important so they always talked about it, but they didn't know how we were going to get to that next level. They just said, "Yes, sister, you're gonna go to college." And when the time came to go to college I said, "Okay I need money for tuition." And even at Porterville College it's not expensive compared to other places. But still for them it was a lot to help me. But they did. They did. They sacrificed other stuff that they wanted to do just so that I could go ahead and have that opportunity to go to school. So they were always very encouraging when it came to that.

How did you decide on your course of study?

That was up to me. My parents - again, they're not professional people so they don't really know and they didn't push your traditional careers such as doctor, lawyer, etc. They just wanted you to get a college degree. They would have been happy with anything I chose to do.

With accounting - I took a class my senior year in high school at Monache with Mr. Bustotti. I still remember him. He was a great teacher. And he just had a way of making accounting seem fun to me. And I loved his class. I looked forward to his class. It was an elective. And I really enjoyed it and did well in the class. And so I thought, "You know maybe this is what I want to be." And so I went to PC, I took accounting courses, and I still liked it. So I decided that was what I wanted to major in. But even back then I didn't realize what different career paths you could take in accounting. I didn't know what a CPA was. I had no idea what you could do. I just thought, I worked as a bookkeeper in Porterville where I was going to PC, so I thought, "Ok, this is accounting. This is what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life. Sounds fun." And so that's how I decided. And I never changed my career once while I was at school so I was lucky enough to know going into Cal State that's what I wanted to do.

How has your college degree changed your life?

Sometimes when I think, especially of my life over the last couple of years, it's a life that I never would have imagined living when I was a child here. Ever. And, it did all start with my education, and working at Brown, Armstrong and meeting different people from different parts of California, there and traveling because of work. We have clients throughout the state so, prior to working at Brown, Armstrong, I had never really traveled anywhere. The first time I went to the beach I was 19 years old, which is, when you think about that now, it's pretty tragic. My vacations, as I mentioned, were going to Mexico to visit my family. And so the 12 years that I've been at Brown, Armstrong definitely shaped who I am today. And because of Brown, Armstrong I've also met people outside of the firm and have great friends throughout the state. And so it all started with me getting my college degree and being exposed to different people, different places. And you know I'm happy with where my life is today.

You said you couldn't have imagined when you were a girl what this would be like? What did you think your life might be like?

I thought that by this point, I would be married with a few kids and probably living somewhere here in central California, maybe a stay at home wife, I don't know. But I'm far from that. I'm the other extreme from that right now. I think in our culture, and in small places like this, that's what, as a little girl, you're told - you're number one is to find a good man that's going to take care of you. And you're going to live happily ever after and that's it. But I always knew, even as a young child, not that that's not a great thing to want, but I knew that wasn't for me. That's not what my only goal in life was going to be.

So you don't feel like you missed out?

Not at all. Not at all. I am very happy. I'm very happy with my life. I have a great family. I don't have my own children at this point, but I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to help raise my nephew Fernando. My brother passed away 13 years ago. So I assisted in his upbringing and still do. He's a sophomore in high school. And (I also help) with my younger sister. So I know what it takes to raise a child the right way, to direct them down the right path to want to pursue a higher education, to expose them to different things. It requires a lot of time, energy, money and so that's one of the reasons I decided I wanted to wait. And it's funny though when you get out of places outside of Kern County it's actually normal not to be married when you're in your 30s. But again, everybody has a different path in life, and some women that's what they desire to do and I respect that 100 percent. I think being a mother, a parent, is a very, very hard job. Someone's life is in your hands and that's a huge responsibility. So, maybe at some point.

How have you motivated your nephew and your younger sister to go to college?

With my sister, she's the one that I worked with first because she's 13 years younger than I am. And so I was more of a mother figure to her, so she saw me going to college. That's another reason I wanted to go back to school was because I knew she was looking up to me, and how could I tell her to go to college when I didn't even go? And so I always expected good grades from her. We rewarded her for that. She was always a great student. She's just a great kid. And when she started going to high school I would get in touch with her teachers, counselors, and so they heard from me, probably weekly. Just making sure she was on track. And I went to Cal State Bakersfield. I didn't go away right out of high school and I wanted her to do that. I wanted her to have the college experience. I wanted her to move away to, not even in California, another part of the country, wherever she wanted to go. So I assisted her in making sure that she met all of the requirements to get to wherever she wanted to go. I just constantly checked in on her and got her tutors and just whatever she needed to assist her to get to college.

And with Fernando, we both now are working together along with his uncle to motivate him and help him achieve his goals. And you know he's only a sophomore in high school but he already talks about the different - and he has been for years - the different universities he'd like to attend. I take him to tour campuses, which is something that I never did. The first time I went to Cal State Bakersfield was right before I started attending there. So I didn't even know about what other schools were out there. And so with him, he's been, I think, to every major university in California and then universities throughout the country. Just so he could see what's out there. And you've got to picture yourself living in those communities, so he has that. So it's always, everyday, it's encouraging him, but not just them, my family, but other kids as well.

Do you encourage your sister and nephew and even other kids to pursue certain areas of study? Or, does it matter?

Well, it does matter. My thing is that you have to be happy with whatever you are doing in life: your job, your relationship, anything you do. If you're not happy then when you wake up in the morning you're not going to want to go to work. So, when I spoke at a career day earlier this year at my former elementary school, that's what I told the kids. I said, "You don't have to be a doctor, a lawyer, like I mentioned earlier. Think about what you like to do, what you have fun doing and I'm sure there's a career out there for you." And, you know, thinking outside the box you don't have to have these traditional jobs. My sister, for example, she got her degree in economics and minored in Latin American studies. And when she started school, I'm sure she had a certain idea of what she might want to do for a career, which included probably making a decent amount of money. But she changed so much as a person, moving out of Tulare County and going to UC San Diego, living in La Jolla. And not just that, but she also, another thing I encouraged her to do is to study abroad. To me, I thought you know that's important - you need to get out of the U.S. and see what's out there. So she studied a year in Milan, Italy, and she also studied in Rio, in Brazil. And so I think going there changed her as a person because when she came back, her career goals have changed. She's very passionate, as I am, about helping others, about giving back to the community. So she works for AmeriCorps right now. And I really admire that she chose to do that at such a young age. That's what makes her happy. She's constantly telling me how happy she is and that's all that matters to me.

Did anyone help you with your education growing up?

When I think about that now, it's amazing to me that, when I came home to do my homework, I had no one to help me. I was the oldest of three kids and my parents don't speak English. My mom speaks very limited English. But she couldn't help me with my homework, so I had to figure it out on my own. It was a struggle sometimes, but I fortunately made it through. I don't recall, in going to Woodville for example, having a role model. That's not something I remember. I don't remember one person that I knew here, you know personally, that I could pick up the phone and call and ask for career advice or anything. It was just my friends and we were all in the same boat trying to figure it out. So, it was a struggle. When I got to Monache High School, I didn't take advantage of the counselors like I think students should. Because most of them are there to assist you. Tutoring sessions? No. And back when I was in high school we didn't have awesome programs such as AVID, which is a great program now for kids with my background. My sister was part of AVID. And it was an amazing four-year program. And so I encourage kids now from this labor camp to join AVID because that's where you get access to tutoring, tours of different universities, mentors, assistance with homework, everything. I didn't really have that back then.

Did you ever have any doubts about either your ability or what you could or should do growing up?

No. But I'll admit when I was younger I wasn't as driven as I became after my brother's death. Prior to that I was just content with the life I had and didn't really have big dreams for my life. I didn't have this goal that when I'm this age I want to be partner at my firm. I had no idea what I wanted to do. Now I think the sky's the limit. I think that anything that you could dream is possible. I try not to compare myself to other people because you're never going to measure up. There's always someone that's better than you at something. So I just try to be the best person that I am and, you know, I've made mistakes along the way but you learn from that and you keep moving on.

What does it mean to be a partner in the firm?

A partner means I am part owner of my firm, along with my other partners. So I get to make decisions about the direction of the firm, about staffing, etc., which is, to me, an amazing opportunity. And my partner group is made up of people I respect a lot. I'm very fortunate that I have been able to be a partner with our two founding partners, which are Pete Brown and Burt Armstrong. Just learning a lot about them, hearing their stories of when they first started our firm back in the 70s and what they've achieved over the years. Currently we're almost at a hundred employees and we have offices in five different locations throughout California and this all started with the two of them back in the 70s. It's exciting to be a part of that - sitting in on partner meetings with them, and hearing from them and all their years of experience, and learning about mistakes they've made. Now we're making certain decisions and they refer back to, "You know, this is how we dealt with this issue back then." So it's nice to have that, the history there with them.

What do you think was one of the main reasons for you to become partner at a young age?

Thank you for that comment. I am probably right now the youngest partner. We have some partners in training that are a little bit - one of them is younger than I am. And not only was I the youngest partner, but myself along with another one of my colleagues, Rosalba Flores, were the first Hispanic partners of this firm. To me, that was a huge accomplishment. What got me to where I am today with the firm definitely has to be hard work. You have to be voted in as a partner and they're not just going to make anyone a partner so I worked very hard. I worked with all the different partners but mostly I worked with our managing partner, Andy Paulden. I've learned so much from him, and I'm very grateful for his guidance. I think it was his guidance that got me to where I am today when it comes to my professional career. He does an amazing job of managing the firm and making it a great place to work, and keeps all of us partners and employees and all our different departments very happy because of the way he manages the firm. So it was definitely hard work. That's what gets you anywhere, you know. Stuff just isn't handed to you.

Going forward, where do you see yourself within the firm or within your career?

Good question. As I mentioned earlier, the last couple of years of my life have been somewhat of a roller coaster - in a good way. There's been a lot of great opportunities that have come my way. So when I get up every morning I don't know what to expect. I have been blessed. So to tell you five years from now where I'm going to be in my life in all aspects of it, it's hard for me to answer that question right now. But, with Brown, Armstrong I just moved to Pasadena a year ago, and I assist another partner there in running our Pasadena office so my goal over the next five years is growing that office down there and marketing the firm and what we're all about in Southern California. Right now we just have four employees there, so hopefully in five years it's grown to a bigger size. And hopefully we have a lot more clients down there. So when it comes to Brown, Armstrong, that's my goal is in five years: to make that office a success.

Outside of work you've been pretty successful in giving back. What drives you to do that?

What drives me to do that is, I think, my upbringing. My parents were always very involved in our church, in always giving back, helping others that perhaps needed a little bit more, that needed something from us. You know, we didn't have a lot, but we were always willing to help anyone. I always saw that growing up, so I always knew that that's what I wanted to do. And, after I help someone I just felt better about myself and I think it is my obligation to do that. I've been very blessed and I think it would be a shame if I forgot of those that are in need - especially here in this community where I came from. I never forget. I will never forget where I came from. And so my goal is to hopefully keep coming back here and inspiring these kids to want to achieve their dreams although they might not know what those dreams are. But just so that they know that I came from here. I grew up in this labor camp. I played on these streets and the world is an amazing place. There's amazing people out there once you get out of here, and like I said earlier the sky's the limit.

Tell us about your recent appointment by the California governor.

Sure. I was recently appointed by the governor to be a lottery commissioner. The way that happened was I also sit on the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce board. I am the treasurer for both the chamber and the foundation. And through that organization I've met a lot of amazing people. One of our board members was in a meeting in Sacramento with the lottery director and they started discussing this request - that they identify someone to fill the last vacant spot with the commission. It's a brand new commission. It's made up of five members and he was very specific as to the type of individual he wanted. He wanted someone from central California. What is happening in Sacramento is that this area of the state isn't represented on the different commissions and boards. So he wanted to address that concern. He also wanted a female of you a certain background. And one of the commissioners has to be a CPA. I met all of the requirements. And so this board member, Mr. Roy Perez, he called and started asking me all these random questions without telling me why he was asking me this. And I thought, "What do you want me to do?" After I answered the correct way, he said, "Would you be interested in submitting your name to be nominated to be a lottery commissioner?" And I thought about it and thought, "Well you know let me look into it. You know how much time is required because I do sit on other boards. I have a full time job. I just want to make sure that it's something that I could do." And I looked into it, and it was definitely something that I felt that I could do, and fit into my schedule, and so I submitted my application. I made it to the final three names on the list and I was called for an interview with the governor's office. I interviewed with them and a few months later they called and they said the governor had selected me to be the commissioner. The appointment has to be confirmed by the Senate rules committee so I'm still waiting for that process. It will not be official until that happens. But I've been to a few of the meetings.

One of the reasons I accepted and actually submitted my name was because of what they're all about. It's about giving money back to schools. And education for me is very important and helping kids, especially during our tough economic times, any additional funding they could get is definitely appreciated. So that's the number one reason I decided this was. It's a good fit for me. It's been exciting to go out and talk to educators about my appointment and get their feedback about the lottery. And there's a lot of people who don't know about the lottery. So it's been nice to get out there and educate them about all the different changes we're doing, initiatives that we're putting together to help send more supplemental funding to schools throughout the state.

Did you get to meet the governor while doing this thing?

I have not met him yet but I hope that I will at some point. I met with his appointments' secretary and that's who I interviewed with. But I also was able to meet a lot of the leaders up in Sacramento as part of this process to get letters of endorsement. I was endorsed by Connie Conway and her office, by the women's caucus and Ruth Evans. I was also endorsed by the Latino caucus. I met some of their members and also Michael Rubio (State Senator from Shafter) wrote me a letter of recommendation. So I'm very grateful for that.

Tell us about some of the other organizations you're involved with that relate to education.

I am a board member in Bakersfield for Latina Leaders of Kern County. As part of that organization we have a leadership program that we offer to high school girls throughout the county of Kern. The girls submit an application. We select a number from each of the different schools. Because of the lack of funding in prior years we had to limit that number to only maybe one or two from each of the high schools that participate. But we're fortunate this last year that we got a grant to fund the entire program from Rabobank. It was a very significant grant, so we were able to include more girls from Kern County. They come out on Saturdays during the school year to sessions that we hold in a predetermined location in Bakersfield. It's for juniors and seniors, and so we talk to them about what they might be doing at high school. We talk about college. We talk about financial aid. We talk about fitness. Just different things that they might be interested in learning about. We bring in guest speakers to talk to the girls. It's a pretty great program and I've very proud to be a part of that. So that's what I do in Kern County.

In Tulare County, just this year, I did something that I've been thinking about for a very long time. And that was coming back here, to not only the labor camp, but to my old elementary school, Woodville. Because over the years, I always think back at my time at that school, and the lack of role models, the lack of information. And I think had I had this information early on, who knows what my path would have been. I think I would have gone away to college right out of high school but I just didn't know how to go about doing that. So I decided that I wanted to come back and talk to those kids, and I think it's important to get to these kids before they even go into high school. Because they need to be prepared when they go into high school to know what clubs, for example AVID, to be a part of, or what classes, what track they need to be on to make sure that they're eligible to go away to whatever type of university they want. Some of these kids don't know any of that. They need to know that there's counselors that are there to help them. And so I wanted to come and do that. I finally did that this year and it was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, just chatting with these kids.

I went twice. I went the first time just to stop by. I was on my way driving through from Visalia back to Bakersfield, and I contacted the superintendent and asked if I could come in and speak to his eighth grade classes. And he said, "Yeah, of course." So I talked to both of them for about an hour each. And, I was just disappointed. I was sad at the lack of desire from some of these kids to want to pursue a higher education. They didn't even really know what type of questions to ask. It was an eye opening experience for me, but then I remembered that that was me. And so I spoke to the superintendent afterwards and so we decided that we wanted to plan a career day at some point. And I didn't want to wait a year to do it. So I told him, "Let's do it this year." We did. I was able to recruit about 13 different speakers to come in. Most of them were former students of Woodville and some of them lived here at this labor camp, too. I wanted people that these kids could connect to and we had a one-day career day made up of the fifth, seventh, and eighth grade classes. It was a few hundred kids and it was an amazing day. All the speakers, afterwards just could not stop talking about what an amazing experience it was for these kids just seeing their smiles. Before doing this, I communicated to the administration there that I needed to talk to these kids and explain to them exactly what a career day is, and to have questions. If each of the kids could have three questions each, because I want them to be thinking about what it is that we're doing and so they did. There was a lot more participation that day. We brought candy so I think that helped and we brought prizes too. So I think that helped a little bit. And we got some great questions from these kids and so the feedback afterwards has been great.

Actually, I was at Target in Porterville a few months after this career day and I saw one of the kids there. And he was with his parents and so I went up to him and I asked him, "Do you remember me?" and he said, "Yes you came to my school and you talked to our school." So I was talking to his parents about it. It was nice and his mom said, "Yah, he came home that day and he was talking about all these great people that came to the school just for them and these people came from all over the state." We had a young man, he's just finished his freshman year at Harvard University, he was there, too, via Skype. And we had someone who's from San Jose State, that some of these kids actually knew because they grew up in the labor camp. And so they saw them, they said, "Oh, I know Marcos. He lived down the street from me."

I was able to relate to them because I grew up here in this labor camp. So I told them about me going away to college. I talked about traveling. I talked about how I've been all over the world. And then I said, "You can do this too." I never imagined in a million years sitting where you are right now that this would be my life right now. And when we left, the last thing I asked them was that, you know, hopefully we inspired at least one of them to go off and pursue higher education, but to never forget where they came from. And I said, "I plan on doing this career day every year for the rest of my life. And hopefully, down the road, one of you will be one of the speakers here talking about how it all started. Hopefully with this one career day, you decided to go away to college and now here you are. You're back. You have to come back and help those behind you, because if you don't, you know, there's a lot of talent out there but they just need a little bit of direction." Unfortunately, sometimes their parents don't know what they need to do. A lot of these are immigrants that came to this country to give their children a better life, but once they're here they don't know what's available to them. So I think that's our duty as someone that has made it through up to this point to go back and educate not only the kids but the parents as well.