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‘You Can Make It’ : Latina Achievers Encourage High School Girls to Pursue Education, No Matter What

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ruth Gonzalez’s father didn’t finish the third grade because “if he wanted to eat, he had to work.”

But his daughter found higher education to be the escape route from poverty. “Having a Ph.D. gave me more control over the kind of work I do--more control over my destiny,” Gonzalez told a group of high school girls Saturday.

Gonzalez, a geophysical mathematician for Exxon in Houston, was the first U.S.-born Latina to earn a doctorate in mathematics, she said.

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She was the guest of honor at a career day sponsored by Hermanitas, a program that matches Mexican-American women with high school girls to encourage the students to continue their educations. Hermanitas is a project of the Mexican-American Women’s National Assn. of Orange County, a volunteer group promoting the advancement of Latinas.

Gonzalez and a panel of eight Latina career women urged the students to keep learning and never give up on their goals. The other speakers included a psychologist, a TV station art director, a police office, an aerospace engineer and an executive secretary. About 35 people attended.

“I was poor, I couldn’t afford clothes, I could hardly afford to eat, but I kept on going,” Gonzalez said. “My parents didn’t necessarily understand why I needed quite so much education, but they’re proud of my achievements, and so am I.”

Parents and families were also invited to the three-hour event.

“Many times the parents are shortsighted,” said Eva Lombardo, chairwoman of Hermanitas. “They want their daughters just to graduate from high school or even to drop out so they can start working right away and help the family.”

But not the parents attending Saturday. Pedro Hernandez, who attended with his two daughters, said he wants them to get as much education as they can.

“If everybody got an education, there wouldn’t be so many racial problems and wars,” he said.

Fanny Marino, 45, also brought two daughters to the program. “I want them to be ready when they finish (high school) to go to college,” she said. Her older daughter, Nayibe, 17, is trying to choose between UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton.

Nayibe, who was awarded a scholarship by Hermanitas at Saturday’s program, said she wants to major in Spanish and edit a magazine aimed at Latinos. Her sister, Syndia, 14, said she has wanted to be a doctor since she was little but now is thinking about becoming a criminal lawyer.

Rosa Mendoza, 50, a machine operator who came with her two nieces, said she wants her younger relatives to “become somebody.” Her children are teachers, a bank teller, a nurse and a mechanic. “Clearly, they have a better life than (I do) . . . working with machines for long hours for low pay,” she said.

In an interview before her talk, Gonzalez said she came from a working-class family.

“I could have been one of those kids who dropped out of school,” she said. “I went to school in a white, blue-collar district (in Texas) where nobody went to college. But my parents felt it was very important for us to finish high school and get a college education, and I just kept on going.

“There weren’t any role models at all for us. . . . I was always interested in math, but more than that, in making a better life for myself, because I saw how hard my parents worked.”

Gonzalez put herself through college, working 20 to 40 hours a week while taking classes. “Working my way through school, working all those miserable jobs, made me determined, because I knew that if I quit that was all I had to look forward to,” she told the girls.

Mona Ruiz, 31, a Santa Ana police officer, told the girls: “Even if you come from the wrong side of the tracks, you can make it.”

As a teen-ager, Ruiz said, she was involved in gangs, dropped out of high school and married an addict-alcoholic who abused her.

However, she turned her life around and graduated from the police academy as one of the top five students in her class--and the only woman. She recently finished her probation period and works as a patrol officer. She credited “other officers, faith in God and my family” for her success.

Like Ruiz, many of the speakers had married young, had two or three children and then divorced, before beginning their careers in earnest.

But Gina Avila, an aerospace engineer, said it does not have to be that way. She advised the girls to wait to get married until after they finish college.

“You can never stop learning,” said Avila, who is studying for her master’s degree.


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