Acting on a dream

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This is a Mother’s Day story, one about a young girl from Mexico whose dreams of an education slipped through her small, calloused fingers.

It begins in Juárez where Rodriga Cortez was pulled from her sixth-grade class so that she could clean houses across the border in El Paso. She put away her textbooks and said goodbye to her favorite teacher, who had believed in her and pleaded with her mother not to remove this promising student from school. “We had to work,” Rodriga recounts. “We had no choice.” Every day she would take the bus and walk long distances to do work not meant for children.

Years later she found herself in Arizona raising her own family, amazed at the opportunities afforded to children in her new country. To help her husband support their seven children, she did backbreaking work in the fields, picking grapes, onions and other crops. She also worked as a maid. Rodriga didn’t feel an urgent need to learn English; she knew enough to get by and that would have to do. Still, she always remembered the aspirations she had as a little girl and couldn’t forget being removed from her school, saying, “I still have dreams of being absent from the sixth grade.”

One day she took one of her sons to enroll at Glendale Community College and walked away signed up for an ESL class. She was hooked and soon found herself taking regular courses. This first stage of realizing her dream would not be easy. Rodriga relied on the work ethic and tenacity she had developed in the fields. Although often encouraged to quit she could not let her dream, now revived, die: she would become a teacher.

She kept at it – studying for long hours and even repeating classes while raising the youngest of her children. She would not be deterred, saying, “Voy hacer una última lucha.” Rodriga eventually graduated but realized that she needed more education so that she could have her own classroom. “I knew what I had to do, I had to go to ASU,” Rodriga would say.

But the journey became more difficult and was filled with even bigger frustrations, even with what Rodriga perceived to be discrimination based on her ethnicity and age. Not everyone wanted to help; some even told her to simply “go away.” Knowing that she might not get her education degree, she made a backup plan. One way or another, she would become a college graduate.

In May of 2002 she donned her maroon cap and gown with gold tassel to receive her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts alongside graduates young enough to be her grandchildren. She then went on to Ottawa University to get her education degree.

Since then she has been a busy substitute teacher in the Glendale Elementary School District. “I work every day,” she tells me, adding, “I am happy when I am there.”

Soon she hopes to be in her own classroom, and has now set her sights on a master’s degree in education. Even if her educational journey were to stop here, she would be fine with it. “I have done my best. I feel grateful I have done something that is difficult to do.

“Plus, I can still teach children,” she says with a smile. She sure can.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

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