They made it the hard way. Now a group of successful first- and second-generation Californians, many of whose parents fled poverty in Mexico, are giving back by helping poor but promising Latino students go to college.
Three years ago, these attorneys, educators, business owners and bankers met to create a scholarship fund and pledged to raise at least $1 million. The Hispanic Educational Endowment Fund, or HEEF, has already passed the $500,000 mark and has begun attracting the attention of major corporate donors.
The need has never been greater, organizers said, pointing to cuts in affirmative action programs at California universities and an apparent drop in tolerance for immigrants, particularly those from Mexico and Central America.
“There is so much negativity out there these days, it can be very discouraging for our young people,” said Frances Munoz, a Municipal Court judge in Newport Beach who sits on a 13-member advisory committee for HEEF. “I believe we have to find a way to offset that.”
Munoz knows from personal experience how difficult the quest for an education can be. The fourth oldest of 11 children, she grew up in a poor and transient household headed by a Mexican immigrant who came to California to pick lemons and oranges. “I was the first one in my family to graduate from high school,” Munoz said with pride.
But it took 12 years for her to finish college and law school while working and helping to support the large family, and she said she doesn’t want other students to have to make the same sacrifice.
“I could not live with myself if I didn’t do something to help,” said Munoz, who also tutors elementary school students in Santa Ana. “If we don’t do it, who is going to? We’re talking about the future of our community.”
Munoz is typical of HEEF’s inner circle, a Who’s Who of rising Latino leaders in Orange County. Experienced at working within the system, they view education, and eventual economic success, as the key to gaining political clout.
“This is a community that has never enjoyed economic or political power equal to its numbers,” said Manuel Gomez, an advisory committee member whose father was a migrant farm worker who had only a third-grade education. “We have to help each other to reach our potential.”
Like Munoz, Gomez was the first in his family to finish high school. He then attended college with a scholarship and went on to become vice chancellor for student services at UC Irvine.
Indeed, most of the fund’s organizers can think back to a scholarship or a mentor who helped them achieve success.
“In high school, I was just planning to go to a junior college,” said Ruben Smith, a Newport Beach attorney who was born near Guadalajara and moved frequently with his family across the western United States before settling in Huntington Beach. “I didn’t have much ambition. But a counselor took an interest in me. He told me, ‘You’re going to apply for these special programs and you’re going to a university.’ ”
Smith finished USC on a scholarship, and went on to Yale Law School. “Had the doors not been open to me, who knows where I would have ended up,” said Smith, who is co-chairman of the fund with Frank Quevedo, a senior vice president at Southern California Edison. “I think a lot of us feel that way.”
The idea for a fund developed from meetings between Smith, Munoz and about half a dozen other Latinos who were concerned about the high dropout rates and low college attendance rates for Latino students.
It wasn’t the first such fund in the county: Manuel Esqueda, a retired banker, started a scholarship program for Latinos in 1952 that he called the Gemini Club. Esqueda, who was among the first donors for HEEF, said he has helped nearly 1,000 young people attend college with his $500 grants.
But the new fund’s goal of $1 million is by far more ambitious than Esqueda’s Gemini Club, and is a measure of the success of a new generation of Latinos in Orange County.
“There’s a new energy and a new sense of urgency about our future in this community as well as our role in shaping the future of Southern California,” said Msgr. Jaime Soto, the Hispanic affairs vicar for the Diocese of Orange. “Those challenges are what brought many of us to the table.”
The half-dozen founders decided they needed to prove the commitment of local Latinos before asking for help. They started small, and raised $100,000 from individual donors in the Latino community.
Then, a few corporate donors, including the Spanish-language media conglomerate Univision and Southern California Edison, joined the fund. Within the past year, other major corporations such as Disneyland and McDonalds have contributed.
Full-scale grants won’t be handed out until the endowment is fully funded and generating about $100,000 a year in interest, said Smith. Details of how scholarships will be awarded have yet to be worked out, but Soto said the guidelines will be flexible and may be used for junior colleges and trade schools as well as universities.
There also are other funds for elementary school students, law students and business students that fall under the umbrella of HEEF, which is run under the auspices of the Orange County Community Foundation, a nonprofit group formed in 1989 to support social, educational, scientific and cultural programs in the county.
Currently, several $1,000 grants are awarded each year to law students through the Wally Davis Fund, and grants for private elementary school education are given through the Luevano Fund, both of which existed before the creation of HEEF. A scholarship fund for business students is being developed by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Although the main HEEF fund will be untouched until the $1-million goal is reached, it does annually award 12 college scholarships of $500 each out of donations earmarked for that purpose. They are given to high school juniors chosen from a countywide pool.