More than 50 years later, you can still feel the uncertainty of those times in my father’s voice as he recalls it. He came to Los Angeles speaking only Spanish, by way of the peach orchards of northern California. The city was an immense puzzle to a 22-year-old Mexican immigrant. The richest country in the world, he found, could accept the labor of immigrants with a greedy hand and a stingy heart.
That is, until he made his way to an adult community school. There, in the East L.A. neighborhood where he settled and where he soon met the woman who would become my mother, the face this nation showed my dad began to change. And that is why the current threat to eliminate—not to cut, but to eliminate—adult community education in Los Angeles hits so close to home. It is a betrayal of our history, and our long-term investment. It is wrong. And together we must turn it back.
In 1959, my father found his way into a nighttime and weekend program for English learners in a public high school. The teachers showed him patience. They showed him respect. And they showed him the primers used to educate the first and second graders of that era, when Dick and Jane and Spot were vehicles for the rules and cadence of a new and complex language.
My dad made the most of the program. He stayed in for as long as he could before a new job carried him too far from school to return. It was a few years before he accomplished a major rite of passage for immigrant men of his era: buying his first American car. He courted and married my mother, a fellow immigrant from Mexico. He rented his first home in unincorporated East L.A., to which, years later, they brought me home from the hospital.
But the learning that occurred in that school, in the few hours away from toil that my father knew in those years, started a ripple through his life and my own. It was there that my father attained a basic familiarity with English that helped him land jobs in tool and die machine shops, taking orders in English and completing complicated metal millwork. It’s also where he absorbed a lesson he passed on to me: That going back to school is a point of pride, and that people are poised to help us gain the training we need if only we ask and seek them out.
On that second lesson, no one—not our school district, not our state, not our country—should ever undermine that faith in the availability of basic education. We cannot reward today’s seekers of training with padlocked doors unless we are prepared to pay the higher toll for dreams denied: social dependency, shelters, law enforcement, and incarceration. Adult community education is simply part of the social contract we cannot afford to renege on.
And I challenge my peers, who reaped the benefits of our immigrant parents, who are the keepers of our families’ stories: Will we stand for closing off another pathway of opportunity that made our lives possible? Or will we stand up for reopening that path so that the adult students of today and tomorrow can pursue it?
I know where I stand. That’s why I join in protests Tuesday demanding restoration of LAUSD funds for adult community education in Los Angeles. And it’s why I will not give up until we renew our city’s and our state’s commitment to funding and delivering quality public education for all.