S: From the UCLA Labor, we bring you Re:Work. I’m Saba Waheed

V: And I’m Veena Hampapur 

V: When we think about college, there’s –  a certain whimsical image, a time of self-discovery and carefree fun before you step out into the “real” world. 

S: But now, with the rising costs of education and living expenses, most students work, and work a lot and the college base is diverse — consisting of older students, parents, DACA recipients, formerly incarcerated people, foster youth, returning students…

V: The educational path is complex and often filled with challenges in a system that isn’t made for them.

V: In this episode of Re:Work, Adolfo Gonzalez shares his decades-long journey to provide for his family while pursuing his education. 


S: Adolfo grew up in an indigenous community in Oaxaca, Mexico called San Andrés Yaá in the 1960s. 

A: Yo nací en el estado de Oaxaca en una comunidad indígena que se llama San Andrés Yaá. En este pueblo se habla una lengua indígena… In this town, an indigenous language, Zapotec, was the primary language spoken. People survived doing farm work. Most of the people were very poor, including my family. We lived in a small house that became a bedroom, a dining room, a living room, it was all in one place and that was how the houses were built in those years. 

S: His village only provided a few years of education. And for Adolfo’s parents, education was a priority. 

A: They did not study, in fact, my mother does not know how to read or write. She doesn’t even speak Spanish. She still retains her Zapotec. Once I finished the second year of elementary school, my mother recommended me to continue my studies, which was my parents’ dream. They took me to a town called Natividad Ixtlán. It’s about 3 hours from the city of Oaxaca and more developed. Only Spanish was spoken.

V: Adolfo had to make adjustments — he wasn’t just entering a new town, but one with a different culture and language. 

A: No hablaba español. Ya cuando llegué en este pueblo de Natividad, sí tuve muchos problemas para aprender el español… I didn’t speak Spanish when I arrived and I struggled a lot. Many schoolmates helped me with the homework and that was where I studied the third and fourth year of elementary school.

V: Adolfo was able to study while working for a family. 

A: They didn’t pay me, but they gave me food, a place to live and they sent me to school in the morning. And in the afternoon they had a store and I helped them with keeping the store clean, sweeping, washing the glasses. 

V: When it was time to enter his fifth year of school, Adolfo’s parents had second thoughts about him living so far away.

A: Me dijeron que estaba muy chico para yo trabajar, vivir solo, lejos de la familia y afortunadamente They told me that I was too young to work, live alone, away from the family and fortunately in those years, around 1968, 1969, we had the elementary school completed in my town and I returned to finish elementary school in San Andrés. I had the desire to continue with middle school, but my parents did not have the financial capacity. 

V: Adolfo assumed that was the end of his schooling. He went to go work with his parents and stayed working with them until he was 16. 

A: Aquí, aquí es donde, donde mi, mi, mi vida, el destino, me cambia totalmente la vida porque se me ofrece This is where destiny changed my life completely because I was offered an opportunity to study in the capital of Oaxaca at a boarding school that was exclusively for indigenous people. The school sent calls to all the towns of the Sierra, of the Mixteca, of the Istmo, to all the seven regions of the state of Oaxaca and in my town that call came. 

S: The program would provide three years of education and it was structured such that students would take what they learned back to their community.

A: In this boarding school, besides the general classes, students took classes in agriculture, cattle raising, carpentry, masonry, a little of everything. The reason was that they prepared students to be able to return to their communities, help their indigenous people.

S: Now, Adolfo just had to get in.

A: Solo que había que pasar el examen y entonces fue que I had to pass the exam and so my parents raised a certain amount of money so that I could go take the exam in the capital. People from all over the state participated and there was room for only one hundred freshmen and fortunately, I passed the exam. It helped me a lot to have already been in an environment where Spanish was spoken. I think that was a determining factor for passing the exam.

V: In 1976, Adolfo started boarding school. The days were long. 

 A: It was from five in the morning to five in the afternoon. In the morning, we cut the alfalfa and sorghum to feed the cows. Because the school was self-sufficient, it raised its own animals, and we, the students, were in charge of feeding them. 

At nine o’clock we had to be in classrooms. We learned how alfalfa is planted, how sorghum is planted, how to vaccinate chickens so they don’t get sick, how to vaccinate cattle, pigs, all kinds of animals that can be useful in our communities. We were given the tools for us to be able to return to our communities and teach our people and that school helped our indigenous community a lot.

V: Afterward, students had the choice to go for further schooling or to go back and work in their communities. Adolfo got a job in a neighboring Zapotec community. 

 A: Unfortunately, I worked only one year because my dad drank a lot, and he no longer worked as he should have. So, I had to see how to take care of the family. I decided to look for a job in the city.

S: Adolfo had a few different jobs before he landed a position in a bank. 

A: You had to work with this employment placement agency for a year to be able to work directly with the bank. The studies I obtained at the boarding school helped me to work in the bank’s archives department. That was one of the best jobs I did in Oaxaca. After a year of working in the archives department, the bank bought another larger location.

They told me to organize everything in the new place. It took me about six months and once I finished, the manager arrived accompanied by a boy, and asked me if I could teach the whole process of the archives to this young man. I said yes. 

Afterward, they told me that the young man I had trained was going to be in charge of the archives. I asked the young man how he had done it. And he tells me, “I know the accounting manager, he is my dad’s friend and that is the reason that they gave me the job”…corruption in Mexico. So, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as one says. If I don’t know anyone and I don’t have enough education, what do I have left, go to the United States.

S: In 1982, a family tragedy gave Adolfo the final push to go to the United States. 

A: Perdí a mi papá. Como les comentaba, víctima del alcoholismo I lost my dad. He died from alcoholism. And since the salary I earned in Oaxaca was not enough to support the family, I decided to come here. I needed to save money to pay the person who was going to take me to the United States, the coyote. I worked picking tomatoes in the San Quintín Valley for a year.

V: Adolfo made it to San Diego in 1986, but it was hard to get word to his family right away and people assumed the worst.

A: Le comentaron a mi mamá que intenté cruzar, pero que me había pasado algo They told my mother that I tried to cross to the U.S, but that something had happened to me and I had died. It took about two months until she finally found out that I was fine. The first thing I told my family was that everything was going to change because there was going to be more money and more food for them.

V: Adolfo got his first job picking strawberries. 

A: The first thing I expected was to find a job at a restaurant, hotel, something other than fieldwork and I found it very difficult to work in the field. The other problem I also faced was not having documentation. Another problem was the language. Not understanding a single word of English was also very difficult for me. 

V: After a season of picking strawberries, a friend suggested they try their luck up north.

A: We were earning $300 per week. In Salinas, they were earning $500, $600. But, what he didn’t tell me is that there you also have to pay for rent, car rides, food. I have always been fortunate to find people willing to help me. This man offered us rent in his house. He told us when you start to work, you pay me the rent that is accumulating. So we lived in his house for three months, but as soon as we started working, we leveled off the rent with him. I still remember a store called La Montemar that would throw away boxes of tomatoes and plantains. Just because they were ripe, they couldn’t sell them anymore, and we would go pick up the tomatoes, peppers, plantains from the garbage container. 

S: Once settled in Salinas, Adolfo kept in touch with his family through letters. They wrote back with the help of another villager. 

A: Estudió hasta tercer año de primaria, este señor, pero era el que He studied until the third year of elementary school, but he was the most educated in town. All the families brought him letters sent by relatives. He read them and told them, “this is what they are communicating.” And then the families said, “now answer the letter like this.” So, this man knew the whole history of the people in the town.

S: Adolfo had a plan. He would work for a few years, send money back home, and then he would move back to Mexico. But then one night, a friend of his suggested they go to a party. 

A: A friend tells me that we had an invitation to go to a party and he introduced me to this girl. Well, we understood each other very well. We got married. I told my wife that I was just staying for two, three years, nothing more. I confessed to her before we got married that I had no documentation and she told me, “well, I am not interested in whether or not you have documents, what interests me,” she said, “is to form a home with you,” and we did. And then my in-laws recommended that I apply for residency and I refused. I told them no, that it was not my intention to obtain papers through a marriage and I also did not want to stay long. 

En el ‘92 fue que nace mi hija, la mayor, que se llama Marie González… In ‘92, my eldest daughter was born whose name is Marie González, and my father-in-law said, “for her, for your wife, if you stay in this country they will have better job opportunities, education.”

V: Adolfo stayed and in 1996 became a resident which meant he could go back and visit his family. It had been 10 years. 

A: Bastante cambiado todo porque ya no ya no padecían ellos de dinero… A lot had changed because they no longer suffered for money. They had opportunities to feed themselves better because I sent money every month. It was something emotionally incredible. A few years later I took my daughter and showed her how a humble family lives in Oaxaca, sleeping on the floor on a palm leaf mat. And from that moment on, she knew how to value the life I gave her here.

V: That same year, Adolfo received another gift. 

A: En el ‘96 nace mi segunda hija, nada más tenemos 2, que se llama Blanca González In ‘96 my second daughter was born whose name is Blanca González. That year I made the decision to learn English because one, I have to find myself another type of work and two, to help my daughters with their homework. I enrolled in Salinas Adult School. I went in January and February when I stopped working. And sometimes in January and February I didn’t take the vacations because I continued to work and had no opportunity to attend adult school. 

V: Adolfo would travel for work sometimes leaving months at a time, and he chose not to take his wife or daughters.  

A: My priority has been my family, always. I always told them you don’t have to sacrifice yourself like me. I told my daughter you do not have to miss classes, be moving from one place to another. 

S: In between years of work, family responsibilities, and traveling, Adolfo continued to attend classes at night. Finally, in 2002, he earned his GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma. And he didn’t stop there. 

A: Mis profesores me recomendaron que me inscribiera al colegio, Hartnell College, para continuar mejorando My teacher recommended that I enroll in Hartnell College to continue improving my English. From Monday to Friday you have to attend. They gave new students an exam to see at what level of English, mathematics, of different classes they can accommodate you in. After taking the exam, they put me in the lowest level of the school. 

S: Meanwhile, Adolfo changed his work schedule to accommodate his school commitments. 

A: With the English I had learned, I got a job as a driver. We delivered vegetables for restaurants, Taco Bell, Burger King, Mexican restaurants… I knew how to communicate with them and it helped me a lot. And it also helped me to have the afternoon available to study at Hartnell College.

V: Adolfo studied for three semesters but it just wasn’t sustainable. He couldn’t support his family with the reduced work hours. 

A: I returned to work fully and sometimes I did extra work to support the family and that forced me to leave school in 2003.

V: Like his mother, who couldn’t go to school herself, but pushed so her son could; Adolfo did the same for his family. 

A: Entonces les dije a mi esposa y a mi hija, ustedes son mujeres, no me gustaría que dependieran ustedes de mí… I told my wife all the time, you have to go to school. And I said the same thing to my daughter, you have to go to school. You have to get a university degree so that you can take care of yourself and not always depend on a man.

S: After a few years, the itch to learn came back and Adolfo made an appointment with a college counselor.

A: I told them that I had already attended the school and that I had intentions to return. And one of the counselors told me, “look, your English is very bad, your age is already old. Do you think you can compete with young people? Better dedicate yourself to your family, get to work. I think school is not for you.” For three years it hit me hard. I said yes, she has a point. 

S: So Adolfo didn’t go back to school but he continued to support his family’s education. Pretty soon, his wife was settled into a career, his eldest daughter was getting close to her college graduation, and their youngest was in high school. The dream had come true through his family. 

A: They told me, now it’s your turn. I told them no, that it was too late for me.

V: Adolfo was still thinking about what the counselor had said when he had tried to enroll the last time.  

A: Me dice mi hija, no, no es posible, dice, que una, que una persona te desanime tanto. Regresa a la escuela my daughter told me, “no it’s not possible, that a person discourages you so much. Go back to school.” This time I met Doctor Aron, a counselor who helped me a lot. This man said “you have talent, you have the intelligence, you have everything, and I am going to help you.” I told him what had happened and he said, “fortunately this person no longer works with us.” 

I did not enroll in school to prove to someone. I did it because it was a desire that I had to get an education for years.

V: Adolfo enrolled in school. Now he had to figure out what to do about his income and work schedule. 

A: I quit my job as a driver and I looked for a job in a car wash where I could work Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It was one of the biggest sacrifices I made by working Saturdays and Sundays, days that are for the family.

They taught me how to treat cars with different chemicals, how to make a complete detail. I said, if I manage to do a car or two per week, apart from my work on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, I could use this money to continue helping my mother. 

V: For the next two years, Adolfo studied hard. He took math, history, Chicano studies, and all the general ed requirements. 

A: Conocí un muchacho, un estudiante también de ahí, Brayan Chaves, un muchacho muy, muy, muy inteligente que me ayudó y dijo, sabes qué, vamos a, vamos a volver a reorganizar el club de español I met a student, Brayan Chaves, a very intelligent man who said, “you know what? We are going to reorganize the Spanish club.” I had the opportunity to be president of the club and work as a Spanish tutor at Hartnell and I also had the opportunity to work in a middle school afterschool program. 

I started to notice that the education was starting to open a path to other types of jobs. It was no longer in a car wash, no longer in the fields, and this is what I tell people, that an education always, always gives large benefits.

V: He was well into his 50s but Adolfo still made friends with the younger college students. 

A: Afortunadamente me he sabido llevar muy bien con los jóvenes porque trato de combinar mi experiencia con, con la juventud de ellos… Fortunately I have managed to get along very well with young people because I try to combine my experience with their youth. I helped a lot of young people who were in school and studying Spanish, and in exchange I always had the help of these young people who are very skilled at technology. I got two or three comments from people, not from young people, but from slightly older people, about 35 or 40 years old. They told me that my age was not an age to study.

S: Despite those detractors, Adolfo graduated from community college with honors. Dr. Aron, who had previously encouraged him, suggested that he enroll at Cal State Monterey Bay. 

A: Le dije que era algo que yo lo veía muy, muy difícil y precisamente por el inglés, porque le comenté que batallé mucho… I told him that it was something that I saw as very difficult because I struggled a lot to pass English classes. And he told me if you got help in English at this college, the same thing exists at the university. He helped me do all the paperwork. And in January 2018 I started studying at the university. I was able to receive financial aid. They gave me extra money for my grades too and all that became a very big help for me. When you are there you start to interact with more people. Everyone helps each other and that is very good for the students.

V: Adolfo took a class that had community service hours attached to it. He had to find a placement. 

A: I was happy to see that within the institutions where I could give my social service was the adult school. I told my teacher, Dr. Fernández, that I wanted to return to that school.

V: It was the model he had learned back in boarding school — to take the skills you develop back to the community that made it possible. For Adolfo, this meant going back to the adult school, where his higher education journey had begun.

A: At the end of 30 hours I stayed to help because they were students who were having the same experience that I had, struggling to learn the first words of English. 

We had to prepare a report of what we did. Every semester they chose a work, the most outstanding, to give them recognition. My work was chosen.

V: That recognition opened up other opportunities.

A: Me invita la directora de Salinas Adult School a dar mi testimonio en la inauguración de un, de una… At the inauguration of a high school that opened on San Juan Street by Boronda, the director of Salinas Adult School invited me to give my testimony, to invite people to continue educating themselves, especially fieldworkers. Many reporters were present. And that’s how my story became known.

S: Adolfo now had a platform. And he wanted to use it to uplift the stories of immigrants and why they come to this country.  

A: And just as there are people who think that we have come to destroy the country, to cause harm, I always say we have to show them the opposite, that we only come to work because we want to support our families and no, I don’t know any immigrant who leaves his village, who leaves his family, his friends, his people and says I will go because I want to damage the country. 

One of the recognitions that really surprised me was that of the city assemblymember, Luis Alejo, who invited me to the city council to give me a public recognition. On the day of the ceremony, he said, “these days we are hearing, on the television, the radio, that in Salinas there is a lot of crime, that immigrants are criminals, that they are people who sell drugs,”   And he said, “but they don’t see that there are also success stories like yours.”

I tell people, I am like a mirror, a reflection of the people that come to work. And if I can motivate one person, I feel that I have done my service.

S: For his senior thesis, Adolfo pursued a topic that was important to him.

A: ¿Por qué se está perdiendo el español en nuestra, nuestra comunidad hispana, sobre todo en la tercera generación?… The subject of my thesis was why is Spanish being lost in our Hispanic community, especially in the third generation?

¿Por qué los jóvenes, los nietos, ya, ya no quieren hablar el español? ¿Cuál es la razón? Entonces para la tesis… Why do young people, grandchildren, no longer want to speak Spanish? What is the reason? What I found was that there is a lot of social pressure that forces kids to no longer want to speak Spanish. For example, discrimination when they hear you speak Spanish in a store, at school. Another thing that I found are policies that prohibit Spanish, for example, “English only” policies. 

En el momento que a nosotros nos prohíben hablar el español, es como si nos estuvieran quitando nuestra identidad. Es como si nos estuvieran, nos quisieran borrar del mapa, como que tú no existes, como que nada… the moment that we are forbidden to speak Spanish, it is as if they are taking away our identity. It’s as if they wanted to erase us from the map, like you don’t exist. 

Como que nada más es inglés, inglés, inglés, y no… like it is only English, English, English, and no. 

También debemos de preservar nuestra cultura, y el español es parte de nuestra cultura… We must also preserve our culture, and Spanish is part of our culture.

V: In fact, this issue was playing out at his school. 

A: The executives came out with the idea to remove the teaching of languages ​​in the universities. We in the university made a kind of union and we were inviting people to vote for the permanence of teaching languages in universitiesBilingual education should continue to be supported.

I had the opportunity to work with middle school kids, and young people arrive and enter the schools at the middle school age here and begin to learn mathematics, history in a language that is not theirs, in English. These people need a lot of support in their native language.

I had the idea that not speaking English was what caused me to stay behind. I didn’t want the same thing for my daughters, so I focused more on them learning English instead of my language, but now, I am going to teach them and we already started practicing Zapotec words.

V: In 2019, Adolfo received his diploma from Cal State Monterey Bay and he was already eyeing what was next. 

A: My ideal job would be a counselor because I imagine that most of the students arrive like me, you don’t know what steps to take. I would like to work with adults because I feel that at this stage of one’s life is where they need more help, because sometimes one says, “it is already too late for me and the opportunity has gone away. At this age one does not learn anything anymore.”

And I tell them on the contrary, this age is when one is more focused. If you are going to devote yourself to studying, the focus of an adult is always better than in young people. Since that is a journey that I already did, I know the way. 

S: Adolfo’s educational journey was not an easy one, it took him over four decades. But he is an inspiration to others like him — whether it is someone who is working in the fields, learning English, or deciding to go back to school later in life. 

A: Requiere mucho sacrificio, mucha disciplina, mucha persistencia para hacer, para hacer lo que tiene uno en mente… It does require a lot of sacrifice, a lot of discipline, a lot of persistence to realize what you have in mind. 

Y la edad no es un impedimento. El estatus social, el estatus legal, tengan o no tengan documentos, se puede… And age is not an impediment. Social status, legal status, whether you have documentation or not, you can do it. There is nothing that can stop us, don’t let anyone rob us of our dreams, like it happened to me a few years ago. I always say, if I could achieve it at my age, I am totally convinced that anyone can do it. But I repeat, it does take a lot, a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of discipline and persistence, and most of all, a lot of support by the family as well. 

And I recommend the same thing to parents. Please support them, if we don’t have money to leave our kids a good inheritance, the best inheritance that we can give them is a good education… Si nosotros no tenemos dinero para dejarle una buena herencia a los hijos, la mejor herencia que les puede uno dejar es una buena educación.

V: A very special thanks to Adolfo Gonzalez for sharing his story. Thank you to Magaly Lopez for conducting the interview in Spanish and Lesly Ayala for translating. Also, thank you to Jesus Ramirez and Ethel Meyer in Salinas, California for the sound recording at Radio Bilingue (bee. – leeng. – gweh)

S: You’re listening to Re:Work, a program of the UCLA Labor Center. This week’s show was produced by Veena Hampapur, Saba Waheed, Magaly Lopez, and Lesly Ayala. Audio editing by Veena Hampapur. Voiceover dub by Marcos Najera. 

V: To learn more about working students including how they’ve been impacted by COVID-19, visit our publications page at labor.ucla.edu

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‘Til next time, rethink rework.