“The word was the ember and the forest was my life.”
— Jimmy Santiago Baca
We’re at the Flip ‘n Chicken sharing food, swapping stories about El Paso and philosophizing about what it means to be an educator in the Early Childhood program at Oregon Coast Community College.
His looks are a cross between Lee Trevino (golfer from El Paso) and my buddy the muralist from El Paso, Mario Colin.
“My hope is that I can influence high school students to become teachers . . . to be better teachers . . . go to grad school . . . get a master’s degree, get a doctoral. My biggest pleasure would be to see that student who obtained a certificate from Oregon Coast Community College come back to replace me,” says Oscar Juarez, faculty member in early childhood education at OCCC.
As the day unfolds, Oscar leads me from his faculty office to the Flip ‘n Chicken to meet Marco and Ana, the proprietors of the small eatery. For Marco and Oscar, this modest Mexican-styled restaurant serving chicken wings and all-day breakfasts is a hub of activity for the Latino community in Newport and beyond.
The journey here for his wife, Teresa, and five children, aged 11 to 22, is a cultural/intellectual/spiritual roadmap he has plotted for his entire life. Leaving a huge metropolitan area with more than 90 percent Hispanic population in El Paso and several million Mexicans right across the border in Juarez, to this almost alien quasi-barren place called the Central Oregon Coast has galvanized into him the word “significant.”
In November 2019, he marked his first year at OCCC.
The legacy of his Mexican roots planted in this country — historically in large part the sanctum of Mexico (or New Spain) for hundreds of years — is still tended carefully.
His parents met in Ciudad Juarez. Oscar’s father, Jesus Juarez, was from Guanajuato and his mother, Maria Guadalupe, from Zacatecas. His mother had a third-grade education, and his father went to college and obtained a business degree while living in Mexico City. Neither spoke English when they arrived to Juarez, Chihuahua.
Soon, a carpet tienda opened up — Alfombras Juarez, quickly followed by a sister store in El Paso. Oscar and four of his brothers were born in El Paso. The fifth brother was born in Juarez after their mother went into labor which necessitated giving birth in Mexico.
For Oscar, their humble beginnings set in motion his own ethos of caring for family and appreciating the little things in life — the gulls, the seals in Waldport where he lives, all the vegetation foreign to a Chihuahua native.
However, it doesn’t take much to precipitate pride in his own country’s history of struggle, and his own belief in the common good of all people, no matter the national borders set down.
We talk about gangs in El Paso, groups I am familiar with since I was both a college/university instructor who also taught in alternative programs tied to gang activity reduction. Oscar grew up with both parents in the household, and their home was part of two other residences — aunts and uncles with their own broods of five and six children each.
He attributes that cohesion as to why he, his siblings and cousins never got involved in gangs or drugs.
“Where I grew up, one block east was the Barrios San Juan gang. One block west, the Fatherless gang. Two blocks north, the Diablo Sherman gang.”
He’s quick to dispel the racist banter about Latinos and gangs. “You can’t judge a book by its cover. Here is one gang, Diablo Sherman, which came from a rundown housing project … they were never given a chance. With both parents working night and day. So, what other outlet do teenagers have? These gangs give them a sense of belonging.”
He admits there was pressure to join a gang, but he stifled that by becoming a diplomat, making friends with individuals from every gang.
Given the tightknit family, the young Oscar had many dreams of what he wanted to be when he grew up. One dream was to become an astronaut. He had aspirations for military life, even wanting to join the army when the Gulf War began.
Life hit him like ice water to the face several times, the first one being the death of his father when he was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Juarez when the family was there for a quinceanera.
His mother was 38 years old left alone to raise six boys.
Learning to persevere
“That’s when my impediment started,” Oscar says. This is one form of trauma precipitated by witnessing his old man die — stuttering, or stammering. “My siblings went to counseling after our father’s death. I was so young I guess they thought I didn’t need to get counseling.”
His family was wrong about that. Consequently, his family believed Oscar was faking the stammering, or that he was imitating a cousin who stuttered.
“It’s been a blessing for me. It changed my attitude. It made me realize others’ suffering, and to put myself into other people’s shoes.”
The “it” is more than a speech challenge/disability — he sees life as a process of challenging any individual to live outside the box.
He was evaluated in fourth grade, received an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), and a speech therapist. For Oscar, during his senior year, the therapist told him his plans for the future — Air Force Academy — were not typical of others with this impediment. “She was telling me how much strength I had by not letting this limit my life, my dreams.”
“I took it as a challenge. I never wanted the easy road. It would have been easier to just shy away from public speaking events. I was fortunate I had a few good teachers who made the difference for me.”
Teaching is in his blood
It was Oscar’s family of five children — Clara, 22; Yasmine, 21; Jesus, 18; Oscar, 14; Alicia, 11 — and his wife who chose Newport over a more lucrative offer of an associate professorship at New Mexico State University, his grad school alma mater in Carlsbad — still close to his large clan in El Paso.
“’Let’s get out of our comfort zone,’ Teresa said. ‘We’ve been playing it safe for so long, let’s gamble.’”
That gamble means a win-win to the third power for Newport. He says he is really motivated to help transform Oregon Coast Community College into “the community’s school.”
His multicultural class is helping early childhood instructors see their students’ lives through a broader and multifaceted lens and narrative frame. “I feel I have to be more of an advocate for the college. Being here does provide me with a venue. I want this college to be more inclusive. I tell my students, ‘This is your community college. I am only a steward of the college.’”
He’s all about teaching, even though he was headed for an academy, which didn’t work out. He was a chemistry major at UT-El Paso. He was one semester away from heading to a lab. That didn’t work out.
In fact, Oscar Juarez’s presence in Newport — as he spreads his knowledge, passion and inspiration — is largely because he dropped out of college to take care of an ailing mother. In doing so, he worked odd jobs, including custodian at a Head Start in El Paso. And that’s when the teaching bug hit him hard.
A Legacy of learning: Part II
"Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz"
"Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.”
— Benito Juarez, Zapotec Indian, president of Mexico (1861–72)
This quotation Oscar recites while we eat our veggie burrito and chicken wings. It was the second Mexican revolution, against the French (1864–67) — essentially a foreign occupation under the emperor Maximilian.
That was the Battle of Puebla, which Mexico under Benito Juarez won. Think of Cinco de Mayo.
He relates how his father spoke no English but opened up a business in both Juarez and El Paso. In fact, Oscar worked in both carpet stores in the summer. And it was his father who told him that he wanted his son to “not work on his knees but with his head” — no trabajar de rodillas sino con la cabeza.
Persistence is another trait Oscar attributes to his father and to the indigenous hero Benito Juarez.
As the last child of six to still be at home, Oscar was asked to undertake caring for his mother. One side of his mother’s face was hit with Bell’s Palsy, then the other side was also paralyzed, on top of bouts of painful arthritis. He ended up dropping out of college to work odd jobs to support them both.
Those jobs and supporting his mother led her to ask him if it was okay if she married another man.
Oscar speaks fondly of both his mother and step-father, who miss his family dearly now that the five grandchildren and daughter-in-law are so far away.
Starting a family young
Oscar was working odd jobs when he answered the request to be a volunteer at his daughter’s Head Start. He then got the job as custodian. Then one day one of the teachers asked him to assist with an unruly child. Oscar was a natural mentor. This Head Start mental health provider witnessed Oscar’s calming and instructive response and so asked him to apply to be a teaching assistant.
It was the assistant director of the program who “saw me interacting with my son . . . it wasn’t a classroom setting.” One week later he was offered the job of teacher’s assistant.
That opportunity came with a cut in pay, but Head Start offered him free schooling. Again, a baptism by fire — “The first day on the job the classroom teacher was out on a training and I was left with the classroom all day. I didn’t know the children’s names or the lesson plans.”
He did the TA job for two years, and then he ended up getting two AA degrees, and finally, in 2013, after one and a half years of online school, he finished his bilingual early childhood education bachelor’s degree.
He then found the time and opportunity to go to graduate school in 2016. Back to UT-El Paso, in their grad program in education and curriculum development. He worked at Head Start fulltime as a teacher.
Barrage of applications
Oscar tells me with a smile that in December 2017 he started sending out applications for full-time college gigs in early childhood education. He sent out more than 100 all over the country. One landed an on-site interview, Grays Harbor College.
On his way back to El Paso, he got the call he didn’t land the Washington job. He emphasizes most colleges and universities were looking for PhD applicants.
He was exhausted, and he got one call from New Mexico State University (NMSU). He then was asked by OCCC for a remote interview. He did so well they invited him out to Newport for a face-to-face interview. He and his eldest daughter drove to Newport, met his (future) boss, teachers and others. He believes a training video Head Start had made of Oscar teaching in the classroom won them over.
In the video Oscar shows how he can easily impart concepts of math and physics to three- to five-year-olds — ideas much older students have a difficult time grasping. He attributes his math and chemistry background to that success.
His trip back — he emphasizes how his family was strapped for money — included a blowout in Kingman, Arizona. Luckily, the spare tire was good. He got home on a Wednesday, got an offer from NMSU, but then he wondered: “I saw the need of this community were high. I also would be in charge of starting the program — bilingual early childhood education. I wanted to leave my fingerprint on a program.”
Challenges and changes
He tells me about how his Waldport neighbor Rick — two houses down from the duplex the Juarez family is renting — wrote a little piece for the local paper inspired by Oscar, emphasizing how local residents can take many things for granted.
“What do I like about the coast? The weather. The scenery, and the green. I like the small things that people might not see. When driving to and from work, I get to see this amazing area. Even the dandelions. I look at them on the ground and I am truly amazed.”
Those conversations with Rick from Waldport made Rick realize how much coastal beauty he takes for granted.
This brings up the thought that the presence of Oscar and his family — as well as all the other new residents from all parts of Mexico and Central America — could be transformative for dyed-in-the-wool locals who are skeptical of outsiders.
In fact, the Chicano-Latino connections Anglo residents are making and continue to make could be yet another story in the legacy of this country’s philosophy of being a welcoming country for immigrants. In 2011, the mayor of Newport signed a proclamation stating the city is a Welcoming Community — part of a large initiative called, Welcoming America movement, which has spread to more than two dozen states to promote immigrant inclusion, respect and integration.
“The reasons I came to Newport and the Oregon Coast Community College involve my philosophy of making change where it really counts,” Oscar tells me. He sees the need for early childhood educators to be much more attuned to the shifting demographics of America.
Increasing the numbers of bilingual teachers across America is a win-win situation, and Oscar is of a generation of adults who was raised to fight for social justice and human dignity. We talk about his Catholic upbringing and beliefs, and we quickly launch into liberation theology, which is centered in activism by nuns and priests supporting indigenous, poor, farming and working communities throughout Latin America in their struggle to break the chains of oppression, structural violence and austerity measures dictated by transnational financial organizations.
We talk about how Lincoln County’s young minds need to be exposed to the big ideas, the big social justice tools, and how to create a more diverse and respectful world.
Advocate for the young people
I’m at Oscar’s multicultural and early childhood ed classes at OCCC to give my own presentation on an anti-poverty program I am helping direct in Lincoln County.
The young people obviously open up their minds and hearts to the big ideas I am presenting around social IQ, social capital and communitarianism. The principles Oscar brings to the classroom align with my work for Family Independence Initiative: allowing people or families to make decisions in their lives about what progress should look like.
Investing in families is key to raising smart, resilient and resourceful youth. Having early education students understand the overlay of how young kids end up struggling with reading and writing and their behavior is a must for the new crop of teachers of the three- to five-year-olds.
Oscar has invited many professionals to his class to talk to his students. I was there when Sommer McLeish, Community Health Improvement Program coordinator for Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital, gave a presentation on early childhood principles and parenting programs. She too is all about building communities within communities.
Sommer brings up ACES — Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which looks at how early childhood trauma can affect kids’ development. The more precarious the parenting, the higher the child’s risks are for later health problems. Abuse, neglect and household dysfunction are just three ACES.
Both Oscar and Sommer are looking at arming parents with the tools to make sure the household is one of enrichment, lowered chances of abuse and neglect, and where the children can thrive and get a head start in education.
As I leave his two classes, Oscar runs into a few students — Spanish speaking young men and women who are animated and confident around him.
That is a picture worth more than a thousand words. As more people in our county come to understand the power of the journeys people are making today — sacrifices to leave behind their homelands, communities, families — to live and work here, the more powerful the story of diversity is when traditions and cultural signposts and activities are then shared among all in our community.
A few days earlier, Marco of Flip ‘n Chicken showed me the Oceanlake Elementary School Day of the Dead celebration his wife and others in the community put on. Here I was, in this little restaurant, while the Mexican showed me on his android phone the costumes and the dancing and drumming and guitar playing.
Oscar nodded, affirming his role in this county will have a lasting impact for some of those offspring of the Latino and other communities when they take his early childhood education courses to become mentors and guides in the classroom for the next and the next generation of children.
Riffing with the El Pasoan in 10 easy questions
Paul: What defines you as a teacher?
Oscar: I have to give all my best every day. I know being a teacher is my vocation and I enjoy what I do. Another key thing to define me has a teacher is the ability to take a complex problem and break down to its basic element and teach it to my students. I must also have compassion with my students.
Paul: What defines you as a father?
Oscar: This is somewhat a difficult way to describe. I was fortunate that we had a nuclear family at home with my dad providing the example, but when he passed away, my eldest brother took his role. Imagine a 20-year-old being the main male figure in our household but he tried his best and carried a great burden on his shoulders. My wife, Terry, is the person who has made me a better father. She reminds me when I am wrong and what I did right. Seeing the births of all my children brought me a new sense of security. I will be the first to admit that being a father is difficult and we don’t provide a support system. I always hoped that being a good father made me a better man, and being a good man made me a better father.
Paul: What is the best definition of a good teacher?
Oscar: A good teacher is a person who has embraced their vocation. Like I explain to my students, teaching is a vocation, meaning you enjoy every single moment and wake up energized each day. As a teacher we make many sacrifices for our families and children. I must emphasize when I mention children, they were my students. I say this because at times I was a stable figure, role model and sometimes a parent to them after spending nine months together. A teacher will use their own resources to help provide students the opportunity of giving them a toy or so forth to those who may not have what we all have. There were times, and still currently, financial hardships teachers face but we put a brave face.
Paul: What is the main difference being a Latino in Lincoln County vs your life in El Paso?
Oscar: The biggest difference is the change in demographics. In El Paso, Latinos are the majority group in the city, and in Lincoln County we are the minority group. The food, produce and language are very distinct from back home. We have found it very difficult to find food and produce that make up our diet. Mexican produce is very limited and expensive here. Another major difference is not being able to speak Spanish with other people. Being bilingual is great, but I still feel the urge to speak my native tongue or even joke around with friends and coworkers.
Paul: What are some of the key issues in your multicultural class students might struggle with?
Oscar: One of the biggest issues my students are facing is the financial struggle. Poverty has no racial line. Another issue is understanding the views and pressures other cultures have and understanding the similarities of each group. Finally, speaking about the elephant in room, white privilege.
Paul: You have seen in your lifetime a real spotlight on Americans’ supremacist history, no? How do you have that conversation with your five children about how they might be greeted by cops, officials and even just the public based on the color of their skin?
Oscar: Yes, I have seen the American supremacist history in action. Growing up in a majority Latino community, I was still called “wetback” and “illegal.” The attitudes by white Anglo people were very disheartening. Being subjected to injustices and discrimination in school, work, and in society would hamper my ideal of equality, but I became resolute in what needs to be done. When I drove to Newport the first time around, I noticed the same discrimination in Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Idaho. We have been able to avoid some of the discrimination towards our children. We have taught them we all are equal and have the same value in society, but society has not kept up to the times. I still get the look when I’m driving and notice a police car following me. Or even walking into a store and I hear the “keep an eye code” over the intercom. Yes, I did work in retail do understand the codes to be vigilant with certain customers. On several occasions, I had sheriff’s deputy officer and customs and border agent berate me due to the color of my skin. All of these experiences have only made me more of an advocate for social justice.
Paul: What are the key changes need to be made in the entire early education framework?
Oscar: The changes I would love to make are “to learn through play,” community involvement, local curriculum needs and better training of teachers. Learn through play is the easiest change be we need in order to allow teachers the freedom to have fun with children. We are teaching children as if we are factory workers. Federal and state mandates have pushed out the ability to have fun. My fondest memories when I taught were when my students and I had fun learning. Allowing them to use their natural curiosity to investigate and develop the correlation of a solution while having fun. I often ask people what is your fondest memory of school. Almost 99 percent will say when they had fun in a class. The community input is very important in the classroom and outside the classroom. But we have built a wall around schools. Parental involvement is vital to the success of their children. We need them to volunteer in the classroom, we need them feel invested in their child’s learning. They are the experts on their children, not us. When we create an inclusive environment with the community, they will help us identify curriculum needs for their children. If we have a multicultural community, we need to hear and understand their needs. This will go along with using their cultural strengths in school. Lastly, we need to encourage teachers to step out of their comfort zone. We need to bring teachers to use their talents into the classroom by changing how we train teachers. Teacher training usually involves sitting down and listening to a speaker. This is sometimes boring. We need to create training that will foster their skills with hands on activities, learn through play.
Paul: What is your favorite thing to do in Lincoln County, on the coast?
Oscar: My favorite thing to do in the county is walking on the beach with my family. We are trying to go out every weekend to Seal Rock or Waldport beach and enjoy being together as a family. My wife and I enjoy watching our kids running or enjoying themselves in the natural beauty of the beach. This is a major contrast to our former Chihuahua desert view.
Paul: Define community for me.
Oscar: A community is helping your family, friends and neighbors. The mutual cooperation to help each other in a time of need. When I used to be at catechism for confirmation, I had my candidates share the Christmas joy by buying presents to underprivileged children in the community. Understanding the hardships and how we could help make the difference in people’s lives.
Paul: Why would you make a good governor of Texas, or Oregon?
Oscar: First all is the understanding the daily struggles everyone has. I do not come from a family of wealth or a generation of privilege. In Texas, the challenges include affordable housing, Medicaid expansion, education funding and safety net plans. I know how it feels to live in poverty and the challenges to make ends meet. We have programs that are meant to help families from low socio-economic status with food, housing and so forth. But when a family is trying to overcome their challenges, the programs that are meant to help instead push families away. For example, if a family is making more money, their SNAP benefits are reduced. We create more obstacles for those families. In education, the funding would go to the education agency, in Texas it’s the TEA. They would give the monies according to each district; now the problem here is that more affluent districts would get a greater chunk of the monies and poor districts would get the least. I wrote some of my graduate work on the importance of changing the formulas to better match the needs of the community by providing more funds to school with high rates of reduced or free lunches. Another issue tied to this is providing more funding to rural communities. I believe that every family that makes $70,000 or less should receive SNAP. Families are struggling to make ends meet, and food takes a big chunk from family budgets. Giving them more for their food will allow them to build up wealth and not live paycheck to paycheck. I believe families should receive free high-speed internet. We need to build new infrastructure that benefit both rural and urban communities. The one program I would implement is affordable housing. I would take land and old buildings and create new homes. The use of eminent domain in certain areas is necessary to help reduce families living in poverty or homeless. For example, I would take 10 acres of land and build four houses on every acre. I would state that companies bidding for contracts must pay a living wage, be local, hire locally and purchase from local vendors. We would offer homes to low-income families and allow them to borrow $20,000 for the closing costs and down payment. The caveat to this would be families would need to live 10 years there and be forgiven the first $10,000; if a family lives in the house for 20 years, the other $10,000 would be forgiven. We would continue to do this for several years. By providing affordable housing, rent prices shall fall. Imagine if we could build homes in rural communities that need the most? It may sound odd, but we would be building new infrastructure in rural and urban areas. And yes, this includes creating partnerships with local native tribes to be included in the infrastructure. Our fellow communities should share the same benefits as everyone in our society. Imagine if we could build homes in rural communities that are in dire need the most? This is why I think I would be a great asset as governor. Hopefully, one day I shall take that bold step.
Paul Haeder is a writer living and working in Lincoln County. He has two books coming out, one a short story collection, “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” and a non-fiction book, “No More Messing Around: The Good, Bad and Ugly of America's Education System.”