Opening the Door
by Howard W. Hewitt
February 26, 2007
Wabash helped three first-generation Americansto see beyond the Salinas Valley. Now they’re raising hopes and expectations in the city they call home.
Hugo Mariscal ’98 remembershow his back would hurt. He was just 14 and picking strawberries in the expansive Salinas Valley fields of Central California.
Ernie Vela ’95 never really worked the fields. But he built bicycles and was a theater usher, wearing his "little black clip-on tie" at a local movie theater to earn his lunch money and pay for school clothes.
Anthony Avitia ’96 didn’t work the fields as a child but intentionally suffered through a summer of the heat and backbreaking labor after his senior year at Alisal High School. He wanted to remember why he was going off to college.
"I never wanted to do it again," Mariscal recalls of his days in the fields. "My parents did it and they told us, ‘We want you to get an education so you don’t have to be coming home dirty and breaking your back.’ They taught us what it is to earn a buck. It’s hard labor. I didn’t want to be earning my bucks that way, for sure."
Today, Mariscal and his two fellow Wabash men earn their money as educators. They could have made a lot more money elsewhere. Mariscal had a job offer in telecommunications in Colorado. Vela could have gone into education in Cincinnati. Avitia had career opportunities he passed up in San Francisco and Phoenix. But all three returned to Alisal High School on the poor east side of Salinas where each grew up and graduated.
These first-generation Americans and first-generation college graduates are part of a unique niche in Salinas. They are three of eight Wabash College graduates to come from Alisal. And the pipeline hasn’t run dry just yet; Julio Enriquez '08 will bring the alumni group to nine. The story starts with Rueben Magana Jr. ’90 who opened the door from the nation’s salad bowl to Wabash College. Then it was Vela who helped encourage others to travel so far from home and bet their futures on this little Midwestern college that changed his and others’ lives.
All three say Wabash helped them see the world beyond the Salinas Valley. And once they saw the world, its challenges and opportunities, it led them back to the Valley they call home.
"I felt a sense of responsibility to come back to the community and contribute," Vela says. "When I was a senior at Wabash, something provoked me to start thinking, What is the purpose of us being here on Earth? What’s our legacy? I left California and went to Indiana, and that geographical move made me realize that my world is not just Salinas; my world is the whole world.
He also realized that the place to begin changing that world was in Salinas.
"I can have more of an impact going to my hometown and working with children than I can picketing in Washington, DC," Vela says.
He started as an elementary school teacher and is now principal of Cesar Chavez Elementary School on the far southeastside of Salinas. "You’re not only touching the lives of 30 kids, but now I’m potentially touching the lives of 750 kids."
All three men also felt the strong sense of family responsibility that permeates Hispanic culture.
"My parents passed up the opportunity to purchase a house in 1991 when I graduated from Alisal," Vela recalls. "They wanted to make sure I didn’t have to worry about finances. They wanted me to focus on school, so they took a back seat for themselves. All the time at Wabash I was thinking, How am I going to pay them back?"
So he bought them a house. Just after getting married at age 21, he bought the home he now shares with his parents, wife, and four children.
Mariscal felt the strong pull of family, but resisted it during his college years. "I wanted to get out of Salinas," he says emphatically. "It’s not the best city to grow up in. Our city, especially the east side, is plagued by violence, drugs, and teenage pregnancy."
The tall, laid-back English teacher entered Wabash with thoughts of pursuing medicine. But it was tough, and he changed plans after a talk with English Professor Warren Rosenberg. He graduated with an English major and biology minor. He attended job fairs and had several offers that could have led to lucrative careers.
"I wanted to take this job [in Colorado] real bad," he recalls. "But I had a little brother I didn’t know and a little sister I’d never really met. That’s when I decided to come back. We’ve always been a close-knit family. My mom and dad had done a heck of a job supporting us. I don’t know how they managed to put five kids through college."
Raised by his mother and having one sister, Avitia felt a similar family pull. But he also had a sense that social work would be his calling.
"Going to Wabash from here was an eye-opener," he says. "I wasn’t aware of my cultural past. I grew up with it and took it for granted. During my time at Wabash I realized there was a part of me that wanted to do more; more for my people, more for the Latinos in this area."
After Wabash, Avitia explored social work. He was a teacher in a migrant workers program. He worked for the Muscular Dystrophy Association as a community liaison. He spent three years working in Project READ in San Francisco. That’s when he realized education could be the way to satisfy his yearning to serve his community. So he focused on his education at San Jose State, which he is finishing up now, to earn a master’s degree in counseling.
He spent the 2005-2006 school year at Alisal leading a classroom in contract learning. Avitia took low-level, low-skills students and tried to help them catch up so they might be able to graduate.
"My biggest issue is motivation, and how to get these kids to believe in their future and hopes," he explains. "Some of these students are so far behind that regardless of how much we do here they’re still not going to graduate. More than anything, I try to put a little bit of hope in these students and help them be more vocal for themselves."
All three men say being from the area gives them a strong bond with students.
"This is my community and this is where I grew up," Avitia says. "There was a gang problem when I was here because it’s a low-income housing area, and there’s still a gang problem. I can relate to these kids on that level and say, ‘You can’t tell me anything that I don’t know.’"
More than 2,000 students attend Alisal High School with 300 to 340 graduating each year, yet only 10 to 15 percent go off to college. In contrast, a Sacramento State research project showed 52 percent of California high-school students going directly to a four-year college.
"One of the big challenges we face are the parents," explains Natalie Mariscal, Alisal High School guidance counselor and Hugo’s wife. "Students come to my office and say, ‘I’m going to go to college,’ but they don’t know what it takes to do that. They don’t even realize they’re going to have to have above a C-average. And some parents are still in the mind-set that if their child leaves, they’re not going to come back.
"And, of course, poverty is a big chall-enge," the counselor says. "Many just really don’t think that they can go to college."
Hugo walks through the school courtyard at midday and talks about the challenges.
"There is not a whole lot they can do at home," he says of his students. "They definitely can’t ask a parent for help. They can’t afford to go to a tutor. We just have to accomplish what we can."
Mariscal calls out to one student then another, telling them they must put a sweatshirt or jacket over their plain white T-shirts—a sign of gang affiliation.
"How do I change these kids who want to lead a gang life? They want to think they’re hard and they’re tough guys out on the street. Really, they’re the sweetest kids, innocent boys, but they don’t know anything. How do we change that? We try to convert them but it’s tough because they’re surrounded by it every day."
The courtyard buzzes with activity, not unlike other high schools where students group together in cliques. Yet here the skin is brown and the booming music is to a Hispanic hip-hop beat. Salinas, which sits just eight miles inland from Monterey, is more than 60 percent Hispanic; Alisal is nearly 100 percent.
Mariscal asks a short, muscled young man what he’s up to and gets little response as the student quietly slips away.
"It doesn’t hurt that I’m 6’4"," the former Wabash quarterback says with a grin.
Seeing these successful Wabash men back at their high school has an impact on the students.
"I love these kids," Mariscal says. "The fact I went to school here and I’m Mexican like they are, I know they look up to me and that’s rewarding. A lot of these kids are the first in their whole family to graduate."
Mariscal has coached football and been involved with Alisal athletics, but his primary goal is to get students to think beyond the Valley.
"I get frustrated when they want to go to the community college here because, if they stay, they’re still going to be surrounded by all the negativity," Mariscal says. "They need to get out and learn to be their own person. A lot of these moms and dads won’t let them even go to school because they’re moving away so far."
Mariscal insists his thinking and life changed when he escaped the Valley during his four years in Crawfordsville.
"Wabash shapes you to think a certain way," he reflects. "Wabash doesn’t brainwash anybody. It makes you see the possibilities and makes you aware of everything that surrounds you. Wabash makes you see and appreciate the uniqueness of different things, different professions. It did so much for me."
The Salinas-to-Wabash pipeline opened up in 1986. Alisal had a special group of seniors who had achieved at an unusually high level. Teachers and administrators knew that it was a rare chance to push some of the class’s best students outside the Valley and Bay area to some of the nation’s premier colleges.
Patrick Egan was an Alisal coach and English teacher at the time. He was good friends with George Shirley, who knew about Wabash College. "The Class of 1986 just happened to be an incredibly talented group, so we worked very hard at getting them to colleges throughout the country," Egan explains.
But for Egan it has been far more than just offering encouragement. He’s taken students to Wabash recruiting nights in the Bay area. He’s even driven students to Wabash from his native Chicago home.
Egan says that Ruben Magana succeeded at Wabash because he was a "real go-getter." A few others tried and returned home, too far away from their familiar settings. Egan believes the ball really started rolling with Vela.
"He was afraid to go to Wabash because of the distance," Egan remembers. Vela couldn’t afford the plane ticket so Egan drove him to Wabash. He spent the first weekend at school with Ernie, much as a parent would during orientation. Egan and others have worked to eliminate students’ excuses. Now that eight Alisal students have graduated from Wabash, and two more are currently enrolled, Egan says the dream he had back in 1986 has been fulfilled.
The men who have grown up in the Valley, taken the path to Wabash College, and set a daily positive example for their students encourage Egan with their own big dreams. Avitia wants to have an impact on lives and return to Alisal or nearby as a counselor. Mariscal has turned down numerous job offers to go elsewhere and has thought of becoming an athletic director. Vela is even more specific in his dreams. He’d like to become superintendent of the Salinas School District.
"Everything I did at Wabash had the undertone that you’re being developed and prepared to be a leader, regardless of the field you go into," Vela says. "It amazes me that when I meet other alums, they’re not just doctors, they’re heads of their department. They’re not just businessmen, they’re CEOs."
As leaders in the culturally rich Salinas Valley, Vela, Mariscal, and Avitia are catalysts in a time of rapid change and charged political debate. Issues of immigration and language are front and center daily in Salinas.
"Do we salute the flag every day?" Vela asks as he prepares for the graduation ceremony at Cesar Chavez Elementary School. "Absolutely. Do our third-graders learn how to sing the National Anthem? Absolutely. There is still a sense of American pride that we want to pass on to the kids. But nearly everyone is bilingual. It’s calculated. We also honor Spanish, and we honor that culture because we need to bring their parents into the picture of education."
Vela, Mariscal, and Avitia have been able to achieve largely because of their parents’ encouragement and sacrifice. All three say, while much has changed, nothing has changed.
"If you ask parents today, ‘Why did you come to the United States?’ the first thing they’ll say is, ‘To give my kids a better opportunity,’" Vela says. "They are thinking of their kids, just as my parents were thinking of me. The educational opportunities available in this country are obvious, and a lot of these people want to take advantage of that. It behooves us to extend and open that door culturally, because we want them to be a part of the education process."
Top: Hugo Mariscal, Anthony Avita, and Ernie Vela
Middle: Ernie Vela is principal of Cesar Chavez Elementary School. The school is just a few blocks from where Ernie grew up. He stands here in front of his childhood home, talking about his roots in the community.
Bottom: Avitia counsels one of his students on his progress in a temporary classroom building at Alisal High.