The graduates of Roosevelt High School's Class of '79 shared some common bonds. They were barrio kids--Latinos, Asians and blacks who grew up on Los Angeles' East Side, where they grappled with cultural differences, poverty, language problems and the ever-present threat of feuding gangs.
But they also were an exceptional class that "really had its act together from the start," says Cynthia Augustine, a former Roosevelt teacher and a class sponsor who now is assistant principal at Markham Intermediate School in Watts. "No other class did what they did. . . . They all went out and did something very, very positive."
Indeed, as 275 Class of '79 alumni learned at their 10th reunion Saturday night at the Los Angeles Hilton, their bright, ambitious and determined peers, for the most part, continued or are continuing their education.
More than half of them went on to colleges, universities and trade schools, most on scholarships and grants.
Now, a decade out of Roosevelt, many of them are more than simply striving students, struggling with hardships.
They're doctors, like Beemeth Robles, who graduated from Stanford University's medical school and now is a general surgery resident at Stanford Medical Center.
They're lawyers, like South San Gabriel resident Fumio Robert Nakahiro, who graduated from UCLA and Loyola Law School and now works with the Arthur K. Snyder law firm in downtown Los Angeles.
They're political activists, like Daniel Alvarez, who received a public policy master's degree from the University of Michigan and now serves as a legislative analyst in Sacramento, overseeing and monitoring California's community colleges.
They're educators, like David Santamaria, a UC Santa Barbara graduate, Hacienda Heights resident and fifth-grade teacher in El Monte. Or Joanne Carrillo, the class president, UC Santa Barbara graduate and now a special education teacher at Hollenback Junior High in East Los Angeles.
They're nurses, like Whittier resident Esther Medina Vasquez, an R.N. who works at East Los Angeles Doctors Hospital and whose eight brothers and sisters also are Roosevelt graduates.
"Just because we grew up in the barrio doesn't mean we were disadvantaged individually," said Xochitl Cruz, a 1983 Cal State L.A. graduate who now is a calendar coordinator for a Los Angeles law firm. "The disadvantage is in the whole, not the individual."
Cruz, a member of the reunion organizing committee, added: "We were stereotyped as barrio kids. Well, we were. But that doesn't mean you couldn't be somebody. When you come out of the barrio, you're already at the bottom. The only way to go is up."
Cruz, who has moved to Glendale from the East Side, returns often to her former neighborhood to visit family and friends.
"My parents came here from Mexico in 1961, the year I was born," she said. "My father worked for $60 a week then. Now he has his own business as a wood turner. He recently made all the lamps for the Sheraton (hotel) in Hawaii."
Robles, who received scholarships and took out loans to finance his undergraduate and medical education, credits many of his teachers at Roosevelt for his post-graduate successes.
"I think we owe a lot to our teachers who believed in us and expected us to excel," he said. "A lot of times we don't have role models. And I think a lot of parents were responsible for this class, too. My mom was a very positive force. She said, 'I'll help you do what you want to do.' Of course, she couldn't help me financially. Back then, she was a clerk-typist who made $10,000 a year and had to support four kids. My dad left home when I was 8. I wish they had diplomas for moms. My mom should have one."
Robles and many of his 1979 classmates have kept in contact with Roosevelt and other junior and senior highs in the East Los Angeles barrio, believing that they can serve as role models for students there. "I wish we had a mechanism to instill this need for an education in others," Robles said. "Many come back and talk to the students. It's something that we can do for the community."
Lance Holliday, who grew up in the Aliso Village projects and now is a savings counselor, insisted that he and his classmates can help other Roosevelt students "develop a sense of pride in their school and community. . . . We were a different type of class. Our ambitions were higher. I thought gangs were silly. I saw a lot of my friends in them. And a lot aren't here now because of them.
"I went back and was an assistant football coach the two years we won back-to-back city championships in '84 and '85," he added. "Through football, there was pride within the school, a sense of belonging. You've got to develop that in these guys and get them out of the neighborhood."
He said he has fulfilled that hope for his own family: "My goal was to get my mom out of the barrio. She lives in Desert Hot Springs now."
Holliday, who is married and lives in West Covina, said he had put his education on hold for a while, but is back in school at Los Angeles City College, working toward a bachelor's degree.
He is not the only member of his class continuing his education. Maria Rivas Chavez, a USC graduate and an expectant mom who lives with her husband in Paramount, has taken a leave of absence from UCLA law school; Regina Zumaya, a Cal State L.A. graduate and Alhambra resident, is working toward her master's degree in physical therapy.
Such drive for advancement is important, said Alexander Retana, a 1978 Roosevelt graduate who married his high school sweetheart, Lourdes Lara, Class of '79. They now have two children and a Glendale condominium.
"A lot of people think they can't better themselves from the projects," said Retana, who works for Rockwell International and has a semester left at Pierce College before he earns a bachelor's degree. "I grew up in Pico Gardens (housing project) and it is possible to get out. You have to want to do it. It's easy to sit there and do nothing. It's harder to lift your eyes above."
His wife, who studied French at UCLA for a year before they married and started a family, is a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power office manager, who plans to return to school when her son and daughter are older.
Meantime, the couple plans to talk with their children about the importance of hard work and education, he said, adding: "If more parents did that, we wouldn't have so many problems. My father told me that--get an education. He showed me his big hands, rough from hard work. He said, 'I've had to work hard. You can do better.' "
Interrupting his reunion chat with old friends Alvarez and Nakahiro, Santamaria explained: "I was fortunate to have a good set of parents, and my friends, who were a good influence on me. I love them like brothers. I had no thoughts about going away to college and they kept after me. I put myself through school with many jobs, at a moving company, a drugstore.
"My cause now is to inspire the children coming up," he added. "To be a role model. I tell them about how important education is to them. That's what it's all about. I had a lot of friends and family members in gangs. Some I lost. And that's a tragedy, because there is so much potential in the barrio. "