The Los Angeles Times recently published an extraordinary story by Cindy Chang about how California English teacher and National Education Association member Leticia Arreola stepped in to help DREAMer student Itzel Ortega achieve her dream.
Itzel Ortega should have been bursting with the good news. Instead, her eyes filled with tears as she confided in her former English teacher.
She had just been accepted to the architecture program at Cal Poly Pomona. But she wasn’t eligible for financial aid. She was six months old when she crossed the border illegally, carried in her mother’s arms.
There seemed to be just one way to come up with the money: Her father would get a second job. This was why he came to America — to provide a better future for his children. As a busboy, he was on his feet all day, chopping vegetables, wiping tables and washing dishes. Now, he would work even harder.
As Ortega spoke, Leticia Arreola thought of her own father, also a Mexican immigrant, also a restaurant worker. She remembered his footsteps in the hallway late at night after a long day — quick in the early years, slower as he aged.
Arreola saw potential in all her students at El Monte’s Potrero Elementary, but Ortega, especially, seemed destined for greatness. She was creative and meticulous, outstanding at every subject. The two had kept in touch since Ortega was a star in Arreola’s eighth-grade class.
Ortega had gone to her former teacher’s classroom to unburden herself, not to ask for help. But in the days that followed, Arreola couldn’t stop thinking about Ortega’s father and those extra shifts. She kept hearing her own father’s footsteps.
Fidel Arreola had come from Mexico illegally at the age of 17, working as a cook at the Velvet Turtle before opening his own restaurant, Ely’s, in Monrovia. He eventually got his papers. Leticia and her brother were born here.
Her father worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week for 10 years without a vacation, saving for his children’s college education. During their years at UC Santa Barbara and UCLA, they never had to worry about money.
Arreola was single with no children and no mortgage. She lived with her parents. Her teacher’s salary was modest, but she had few expenses. Her Christian faith told her to give without expecting anything in return. If she was going to help, she would go all the way.
She picked up her phone and texted: “I’m not going to let you not go to college.”
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