American education gave student self-confidence, independence
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
Yesenia Arreola is a graduate of Colorado Mountain College and earned a bachelor’s degree from Regis College in Denver, where she graduated with honors. She returned to the valley to take a job with Colorado Mountain College as a youth outreach coordinator. Arreola works with students and their parents who are the first in their families to consider college.
Arreola: I was 6 years old when I came to the United States for the first time. I came with my family from Mexico because my parents wanted a better life for their children. They came first with my older brother while my brother and my sister and I stayed with my grandparents.
After a year or so, my parents sent for us, and we came with my grandparents on tourist visas. We stayed, and our grandparents returned to Mexico.
Gallacher: What are your early memories of that time?
Arreola: I remember that we had to stay inside a lot. It wasn’t like Mexico where we could play freely outside. Back home in Mexico we lived on a “ranchito,” a little ranch where there were lots of places to play.
When I went to school I felt out of place and didn’t understand anybody. I tried to stay near someone who spoke Spanish but that didn’t always work, so it took awhile before I understood enough of the language to feel comfortable.
Gallacher: What was the circumstance in the U.S. that made you feel so restricted?
Arreola: I think it was my mom’s fear that we wouldn’t be safe outside. She worried about us playing near busy streets. So her solution was to keep us in unless we were with her. We lived in a trailer park and there wasn’t a lot of room to play. It took awhile for my mom to feel comfortable letting us be outside. She saw the house as our safe place.
Gallacher: How did you respond to your mom’s fear?
Arreola: I always liked learning so I spent a lot of time writing stories and reading. I think that was one of the things that made me feel more comfortable and start adjusting to things here. I was only 6, so I was able learn the language faster than my parents.
My grandmother really instilled a passion for learning in me from an early age. I remember her drilling me on the multiplication tables when I was 4 years old. We learned math concepts at a much earlier age in Mexico. My strongest memories of my grandma are of us writing stories and practicing math together.
Gallacher: What do your grandparents do?
Arreola: They own a little land where they farm and raise some cattle. My dad was a farmer before we came here, but we were only living day by day. So my parents had to leave their country and try to find a way to provide for their family in another country.
My dad has always said that his dream is to provide limitless opportunities for his children. He understood, firsthand, the limits on opportunities in Mexico, and he wanted more for his children. My parents are dedicated to working the really tough jobs so that their children can succeed.
Right now my youngest brother is 15 years old. I can see my parents returning to Mexico once they see him graduate from high school and go on to college to be an independent man. I may be wrong, but I think they are still drawn to Mexico.
Gallacher: It’s interesting that a lot of immigrant parents never really settle in the new country, it’s their children who take root.
Arreola: I think it is a dual struggle for them. They have aging parents in Mexico and growing children in the United States. They are getting older and not producing as much as they once did. They’re trying to figure out what retirement would look like and how they are going to sustain themselves. They also know that going back would mean leaving their kids, because none of us are planning to go with them.
Gallacher: Do they ever go back?
Arreola: Oh yes, they go to visit once or twice a year. I haven’t been back in a few years, but I am planning to try and get back to visit this year. I miss my relatives, but I would never want to move back there.
Gallacher: Why is that?
Arreola: I really love my Mexican culture and heritage but I also consider myself an American. I have been here since I was 6 years old. This is my home.
The last time I was home we went to a salon and the woman who waited on me knew immediately that I was from the United States. Even though we were speaking Spanish she was able to tell from my clothes and the way I presented myself that I was a foreigner.
Gallacher: What other clues were there?
Arreola: I think it was the sound of my Spanish and my self-confidence. She said that she didn’t have to hear me talk, she could tell by the way I walked.
I suppose I could go back and learn the ways and begin to fit in, but my community and my educational opportunities are here. Crime is up even out in the country where my grandparents live. My grandfather has to get up in the middle of the night and go make sure people aren’t stealing from him. I don’t want to live being fearful of being robbed or being killed.
And now I have a son. So my family keeps me here because I want the better life for him. I wouldn’t be willing to relocate and put his life in danger. My parents want what is best for me, and I want what is best for them. I want them to be happy.
Gallacher: Do you see them struggling with the emotions of being pulled in two directions?
Arreola: Yes, I hear them talk sometimes about going back to Mexico. My parents don’t show their emotions, but I can sense that it is a struggle for them. For me, Mexico would be a really hard adjustment, but for them it is still their home in many ways.
I can’t thank them enough for bringing us to a country that has offered us so much. I sometimes think about what it would have been like for me to grow up in Mexico. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have gone to college. I probably would have gotten married much earlier. I don’t think I would have the self-confidence that I have now. I think I would have grown up being dependent on my parents or somebody else.
I’m so thankful they made the decision to come because it has made me the person that I am today. I don’t think I would have learned how to advocate for myself and be independent. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity of being here and giving back to my community.
Gallacher: You had to advocate for what you wanted at an early age didn’t you?
Arreola: Yes, I think my parents always wanted us to have better opportunities, but sometimes they didn’t know how to react to those opportunities. Growing up in all American schools, I embraced the American culture, speaking English and being American at school and then coming home and speaking Spanish and being Mexican.
College wasn’t talked about much in my house. It was more about going to work. My parents came to the U.S. to work and earn a better living, and that is what they expected us to do. Working hard and getting a good job was their American dream, but that isn’t what I was hearing at school. At school I was encouraged to go to college and get an education.
My mom encouraged me to go to school, but it was harder for my dad. It’s understandable, they only went to elementary school, so it was difficult for them when I told them I wanted to go away to college and not go close to home. My dad told me that if I wasn’t taking my mom with me I wasn’t going.
I went to my school counselor and told her that it didn’t matter how many applications I filled out, I wasn’t going to be able to go to college. My counselor encouraged me to look at Colorado Mountain College as an option, and I eventually received the Alpine Bank Hispanic scholarship. My mom was very happy, but my dad stayed quiet. I realized then that I had to help my parents better understand the value of education.
Gallacher: Having sent two kids off to college, I understand how hard it is to let them go. I think it is especially hard for new immigrant parents to send their kids off.
Arreola: Yes I felt like I had to honor my parents’ wishes, so I stayed home and went to school and it worked out. I was never told that I had to work, but when you grow up in the Mexican culture it is instilled in you that you have to contribute to the family.
I got a job as a bank teller right out of high school and started college. With work I wasn’t able to experience college like some students do, but I am also thankful that I got a chance to show my parents that I could work and go to school at the same time.
Gallacher: How did you educate your dad about the importance of college?
Arreola: I never did it by saying things to him. I just worked hard and hoped that by seeing me be successful he would learn from that. He was proud that I had a job at the bank. He felt that was good enough, but I didn’t. I wanted something more. I wanted to be in a place where I loved working.
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