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Interview with a Realistic Dreamer

Julius Pañares
The following interview was part of a daylong Steinbeck Chapter of CATESOL event on Advocacy.

As teachers, we are often moved by the stories of our students--especially our immigrant students. Many of us have participated in CATESOL because the organization’s mission has been to improve learning opportunities for our multilingual students.  This interview of a pre-service teacher’s experience as a “Realistic Dreamer” explores the ways in which he navigated an educational system, which sometimes supported him but at other times created roadblocks. His story allows us to consider a student’s unique longitudinal perspective and to understand the challenges he faced at different junctures in life. For those of us who come from or have participated in immigrant communities, the story may be familiar. For those who serve students at any juncture within this journey, we hope that this story will provide a portrait of your students’ potential. As teachers, we have the power to expect the most in every student, and to see potential in students when they may not see it in themselves. 

CATESOL - Early Years

Dr. Gage: Before I introduce Mr. Garcia, I would like to share a little about myself and my involvement with this organization. I have been a member of CATESOL since 1991. My first CATESOL chapter event was a presentation by a high school ESL teacher, who used literature as a basis for creating thematic units which connected  to math, social and natural science. By thematically placing language at the center of the curriculum, she offered her students an accelerated language learning experience. At the same time, she admitted that without this type of rigor students can fall through the cracks in high school. She confessed that the school system had not served her own children well. She felt passionately that every student should be viewed as having great potential. She was one of many incredible TESOL mentor teachers in the 1990s, who were developing ESL language teaching materials and methods to allow immigrant students a fair chance at academic success.

Being a new teacher and member of the CATESOL community in 1991, I was inspired by her passion and desire to make a difference in the lives of her immigrant students. I went on to mostly work with immigrant adult students in my early years teaching, which provided me a startling lesson in global contemporary history. I encountered students from South East Asia, the Middle East, the former Soviet block countries and South America. The majority were fleeing economic deprivation due to or as a result of war.

Most of my immigrant students were middle aged and struggling to reinvent themselves in a new county with new language.  They had carried family members across rivers to refuge and some had been born in refugee camps, having never known an economically stable environment. They had survived civil wars in too many countries to name and lost everything. I observed the great dignity within which they bore the shame of not being able to communicate basic necessities. I witnessed the rudeness they faced in ice cream stores by American teenagers who impatiently ignored their purchase requests. As an American “in-group member”, I also heard the disparaging remarks made by American adults, ignorant of the lived experience of trying to learn a new language, who demanded, “Why can’t they just learn English?” For many immigrant adults, reinventing themselves in the US was overwhelming. They learned enough English to get by in their jobs, but they gave up on themselves. Although they gave up on themselves, they put all their energy and hope into their children so that their children might have opportunities they had not.

An Intolerable Situation

Fifteen years later, in 2006, I heard Dr. Patricia Gandara give a keynote presentation at the Annual CATESOL conference. As a researcher at the CIVIL RIGHTS project at UCLA, she presented the abysmal statistics about English learner students; they were the most likely students to dropout of school. This situation is intolerable. This is one of many reasons why I went on to become a professor of education so that I could work with pre-service elementary education teachers---like Mr. Garcia the “Realistic Dreamer” who I present to you today. Elementary educators have the power to instill hope and build positive academic identity in youth. Mr. Garcia will provide insights to the work we must all do to help our youth achieve this goal.

I Present Mr. Garcia

I met Federico as student in my Linguistics course for pre-service teachers. His distinction as a student is having an incredible “growth mindset”. For every problem he missed, he asked questions and studied indomindably. In fact, the week before the linguistics final, he showed up to a de-stress event where students were making holiday cards and drinking hot chocolate; but instead, Federico and I sat  in a corner reviewing his syntax analysis.

The following year, he enrolled in my junior year writing class, where he brought not only his “growth mindset” to the class but proved to be an incredibly supportive participant in our writer’s workshops in which students read and gave each other feedback on each other’s research projects. Federico also participated as a student researcher analyzing his own metacognitive development and presented his work with five other classmates and me at the annual Young Rhetoricians Conference in Monterey 2016. Federico went on to complete his capstone project Testimonies – La Voz de DACA and has received the Lynn Rezavy scholarship. He will attend graduation ceremonies the spring.

I suggested this interview/presentation today so that Federico could  discuss his academic journey, and his capstone project, Testimonies – La Voz de DACA.

Arriving at age 11

Let me begin by asking you…how old were you when you first enrolled in school in the U.S.? and can you tell us a little about your early experiences in school?

Mr. Garcia: I was age 11 and had no English. During 5th and 6th grade, I didn’t understand anything. I was pulled out for ESL for only half an hour, per week day. There were no aids and the teachers in my elementary school only spoke English. I spent two whole years in ESL limbo! I could only participate in math, art, and recess. I used to volunteer as a helper in the cafeteria since there was nothing else for me to do in class. All I would do for most of the day was stare at the clock waiting for recess, math, lunch, and the time to go home. Many of my classmates were bilingual but they were too busy doing their own work so they could not help me. Those were the two most depressing years of school.

Dr. Gage: You told me once that you had always been a “school boy”. Can you explain what that means to you and how you nearly “fell through the cracks”?

Mr. Garcia: In Mexico, I always had good grades. But when I got here as I said I felt lost for two whole years. When I began 7th grade, again I had all English classes.  I wasn’t learning anything so I cut school for almost a whole week to hang out at a comic store playing video games with my cousin. But we got caught. The manager of the apartment complex I lived also worked as a custodian at school and he found our backpacks hidden behind the bushes. He told the school and the school contacted our parents. The consequences were two months of detention. I was then finally moved to ESL where the teacher was fluent in Spanish. He would teach us all the subjects in Spanish but at the same time he would give us a vocabulary of what we were learning in English. I also got help from the science teacher who did not speak Spanish but gave me cassettes of lessons in Spanish about the science class. I was learning English at the same time that I was learning Math, Science, and History. My ESL teacher was one of the best teachers I have ever had. He worked hard doing everything in English and Spanish. He also had a huge heart, which showed in the empathy he had for each one of us in class. This is when I learned English and received A’s every semester from then on.

I was so much into school that even though they would give us homework passes as rewards for getting good grades, I never used them. To this day I still have them saved in a big binder, where I have all my certificates and awards from all my schooling.

Dr. Gage: How was high school?

Mr. Garcia: I had ESL the first year. It was a lot of work but I moved out of ESL classes and had A’s in all my classes again. But I was not in the college prep classes. No one had told me that I needed the A to G prep classes to go to a university. I did apply to attend CSUMB but I was not allowed to attend because I did not have the appropriate classes. It makes me think that the counselor did not even consider me that I would become a college student. So when I graduated, I went to Hartnell College, which is a great college but my dream was to go to CSUMB and become a teacher 4 years after high school but it was not like that.

Dr. Gage: Then as I recall, you went on to Hartnell College and explored a lot of different classes?

Mr. Garcia:  I drove from King City to Hartnell, which was a two hour commute round trip for 7 years, working and going to school, but didn’t have a lot of focus. I did graduate with an Associates Degree in Liberal Studies in 2008. But I was not able to even work in a public school because of my legal status back than. So I explored other course work as well. My first job was as a foreman at a lettuce cooler working 60 to 80 hours a day for 3 years, and then a yard foreman at a lumberyard for 2 years, 5 years as a Movie theater manager (which is why I took business classes).

Dr. Gage: What influenced you to make the decision to go into education?

Mr. Garcia: DACA was approved in 2012. This gave me hope to accomplish my dream.  When I was a Manager at a movie theater,  we would have VIP screening for special education students. This is when I wanted to become a special education teacher. I fell in love with our special needs community.  So when I received my work permit through DACA, I applied to work as Special Education Teacher’s Assistant. I got a job at Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (MPUSD). I work as a Behavior Technician in a Mild/Moderate special education class. Although I did not qualify for financial aid...

Dr. Gage: Wow! DACA students attend school without FINANCIAL AID. How did you do it? How do others do it? Just for comparison, when I went to San Francisco State in the 1980s, the registration fees were $105 per semester. While minimum wage was around $3.00 per hour, working 20 hours per week, I made around $240 per month. If I picked up extra shifts and worked full time on holidays and in the summer, I could cover my registration and books while going to school. But today a minimum wage job working the same number of hours $880 (nearly 4 times in 30 years) while the cost of state registration has increased 30 times (roughly $6,000 per year).

Mr. Garcia: I promised myself to hold sacred my parents’ sacrifice of bringing us to the USA. They left everything behind so we could have a better education. I did not want their efforts to go in vain.  I graduated with BA in Liberal studies in fall 2017. I will go on this, summer 2018, to start the credential program to become a Mild/Mod specialist teacher!

Dr. Gage: That is fantastic! Can you tell us a little about your work with the children? What motivated you about the children with special needs?

Mr. Garcia: My experience learning English helped me to empathize and understand the kids. I could see their frustration. We sometimes don’t think about the kids’ needs. We think that kids don’t want to work--they are being lazy. We also forget how being poor affects them. When you don’t have food, you can’t focus on school. All you can think about is being hungry.  To this day hunger is still an issue in our schools. Somehow some students do not qualify for free lunch and sometimes they do not bring anything from home and the cafeteria manager says she is not allowed to give out food. This breaks my heart because they our so innocent and the food is there. Some laws are unjustified and hurt the most innocent. I am so grateful that DACA granted me to opportunity to work with students with disabilities. I have learn so much from them. They love everyone. They are so honest, and humble.

Dr. Gage: In your senior capstone, you wrote about the DACA experience. What did you uncover in your research?

Mr. Garcia: My capstone provided information explaining what that the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA), including the hope which this program inspired and the impact of closing this program on the community. As I have explained, DACA was a great source of inspiration for me. It has allowed me to work legally in schools and motivated my completing a four-year college degree so that I could become a special education teacher. 

Dr. Gage: Wow! This is admirable!!! But everything changed, didn’t it, on September 5th, 2017. Can you explain what happened?

Mr. Garcia: Yes, Fall 2017 was a sad semester for me because of the announcement of end of the DACA program.

Dr. Gage: So let me understand this a little better, in addition to the stress of being a student and working full time, DACA students are also experiencing the threat of their family members being deported?

Mr. Garcia: Yes, we are fortunate in California because Governor Brown signed Senate Bill 54 which declared California a Sanctuary State. However, the threat of deportation is real. Even for those who are currently covered, the fear of the potential revoking of DACA has had a terrible impact. In my capstone paper, my research provides vignettes of five student case studies, which provide evidence of the psychological harm caused by the constant fear. First, DACA recipients are taxpaying citizens, yet they fear applying for services like going to the police or obtaining health assistance. This situation puts them in danger, where they can become victims of crime or have health issues go untreated. Moreover, their children are also impacted by the stress on the family. What is worse is that the process of deportation has lost transparency. When parents are detained, they are held indefinitely awaiting hearings. The facilities are also far away from the family, who may not know what has happened to their loved ones. Moreover, the sudden “disappearance” of a family member is reminiscent of the trauma, which families have experienced in their home countries due to cartel and government corruption. It is an intolerable situation.

Dr. Gage: Your story illustrates the accomplishments of one DACA recipient. In your capstone paper, you describe ways in which we can make a difference in DACA students’ lives. Can you share your vision of how we bring about change?
Mr. Garcia: We could come together as one community with one voice and write to congress to support bipartisan legislation that prioritizes family unity, in order to improve health outcomes, mitigate stress, and provide permanent status to qualifying recipients of DACA.
Dr. Gage: I thank you for your wisdom. Your presentation has given us much to consider as we see slices of students’ experiences in our classrooms…without the complete picture of students’ struggles and successes.

 Mr. Garcia: Thank you for the opportunity to let me share my experiences with you. I am super excited to graduate and to accomplish my dream of serving our children as a Mild/Moderate Special Education Educator.

Postscript: Today Federal Judges have overruled efforts to end DACA, finding DACA not to be “unconstitutional” as opponents have claimed. In fact, DACA recipients are only those who have successfully attended school, held jobs, and lived lawfully contributing to this country. DACA students illustrate that the words written on the Statue of Liberty are not in vain:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door. “

DACA recipients, in fact, may be your physician, teacher, nurse, and many others who contribute their expertise to our society.

Mr. Garcia has kindly shared the references from his capstone paper for those interested in more La Voz de DACA.

Crocker, R. (2015). Emotional Testimonies: An Ethnographic Study of Emotional Suffering Related to Migration from Mexico to Arizona. Frontiers in Public Health, 3, 177.

Garcia Rodriguez, M. C. (2014). Mediated narratives on citizenship, immigration, and national identity: The construction of DREAMer identities in public discourse surrounding president obama's 2012 deferred deportation announcement (Order No. 3641212). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global: The Humanities and Social Sciences Collection.
Ondine Gage is an Assistant Professor at California State University, Monterey Bay Federico Garcia is California State University, Monterey Bay graduate as of May 19, 2018. He is pictured below with his professor Dr. Gage and his fiancé, Alyssa Bonmarito. Both Federico and Alyssa are entering the Credential Program at CSUMB in fall 2018.