By Abra Bennett
WWCC Writer in Residence
Walla Walla, WA – At Walla Walla Community College’s 1st Annual Celebración de Graduación a small group of Latino and Latina students met to celebrate their upcoming graduation. It was a warm June evening in Washington Park and dinner, dancing, and inspirational speeches were on the program. Brightly colored serapes covered the tables, banners were strung between trees, and spirits were high.
The keynote speaker was Pedro Gomez, a 2002 graduate of Walla Walla Community College (WWCC), and a 2004 graduate of Eastern Washington University. His own rise to success was anything but guaranteed, and he shared his story with the soon-to-be graduates as an example of what he, and ultimately they, could accomplish through education.
He was born in Valle de Santiago in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico to parents who were migrant farm workers, picking fruit up and down the West Coast.
“As a kid I was working after school, on weekends, and in the summers in the fields with my parents and my brothers and sisters. We were always moving around, following the crops, and we grew up picking apples, asparagus, onions, strawberries, cherries, peaches, everything,” he remembers.
Eventually the family settled at the Walla Walla Labor Camp when Gomez was about to enter middle school. The family felt comfortable in the Labor Camp, which is its own community outside of the city, where everyone spoke Spanish and worked in the fields. But that separation from the broader community also caused some problems for Gomez.
“Later, when I graduated from Wa-Hi, I had no intention of going to college, because the option was never really presented to me,” he says. “I was just barely making it, my English wasn’t the best, and I was struggling in classes. I wasn’t in any way a model student and I had zero idea what it meant to go to college.”
“But all the time I wanted to do something else,” he recalls. “I wanted to learn something new, be a teacher, maybe a professor, or work in politics. I’d always had bigger dreams of things that I wanted to do to be able to give back to my community, but nobody ever told me I could actually do it until I went to WWCC.”
Gomez remembers feeling that he wasn’t meant to be a farm worker all his life. And at WWCC he heard people telling him, “Hey, this is real, this is an option. You can do something else. You know those dreams you’ve had in your head all this time? They can be real.” He credits three WWCC faculty members in particular with his success: The individuals who made a huge difference to him were Kristi Wellington-Baker, now the Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives, as well as Dr. Victor Chacon and Andrew Dankel-Ibanez who are no longer with the college.
Today Gomez works in the Seattle Mayor’s Office of Economic Development as a Small Business Advocate, working to help small businesses survive in the face of Seattle’s constant construction, growth, and gentrification. He is also working on developing a sister city relationship with Mexico, either with Mexico City or with Guadalajara, which he describes as the tech hub of Latin America.
“Pedro Gomez showed us that people from WWCC can really get out there and make a name for themselves,” says Brayan Rodriguez, another Celebración attendee. Born in Zitácuaro, Michoacán, Rodriguez also lived in the Walla Walla Labor Camp as a young child. He’s a 2017 graduate in Criminal Justice, and will be transferring to Central Washington University in September. He plans to go into police work, and sees himself as a community builder. Inspired by Gomez’s keynote speech, he says, “I hope to improve the image of Latinos by becoming a police officer. I would advise other students to take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way.”
Citlaly Gutiérrez Fuentes is another one of the 2017 graduates who attended the Celebración, and drew inspiration form Gomez’s example. She received her A.S. in Biology and hopes to double-major in pre-med and biology with a minor in Psychology when she attends Eastern Washington University in September. Her long-term goal is to be a Physician’s Assistant.
“The Celebración was really encouraging,” she says. “It really boosted our confidence, being surrounded by our community and having them cheering us on. In the Latino community lots of people don’t view education as something reachable, because there are so many barriers. My Dad dropped out of middle school, my Mom only went to fourth grade, because they had to work to help support their families. I’m the first one in my family to get an education. I was one of only five students to graduate with a degree in biology, and my family was so proud of me.”
“Maybe in the future I’ll try to become a doctor,” she adds, “but it would be like diving head-first into dark waters, because no one in my family has been there. It’s scary, but if I succeed it would be the best feeling ever.”
Gomez continues the theme of giving back. “I’ve always said, to my Latin brothers and sisters, for those of us who have ‘made it,’ who have managed to get out of poverty and build careers, that we have a responsibility to reach back and help our community. I found my little pot of gold, and now I want to show people how they can do it too. How to go to college, get a job, network, build their own careers. My goal is to come back here to Walla Walla, and to be able to do something for folks growing up in poverty and difficult situations in my community.”
Fuentes sees things the same way. “We all want to be that role model that shows the younger people that they can do it too. We don’t want to see young people going into gangs, we don’t want to be looked at as ‘the bad people,’ we want to get out of that stereotype and really be successful in life. I see myself as an inspirational tool. And I want people to know that ¡si se puede!” Yes we can!