Home at last: McPolin teacher, a Mexican immigrant, inspires students
December 8, 2015
Rodrigo Rivas had said his goodbyes, to his mother and to a homeland that could not offer him a future, and he slid into his seat on the plane, destined for a new life.
He had never flown before, but that was not at the root of his anxiety. Rivas had grown up in the farmland of the Mexican state Zacatecas, where it was common for boys his age to leave home and cross the border into the United States. They carried ambitions of finding plentiful work that would allow them to provide for their families back home. To them, the American Dream was real and it meant an easier life.
"It’s kind of like the only way, you know?" he said. "If you grow up in a rural area, there aren’t really opportunities, so the only way is to come to the United States."
Rivas, then 16, had known for many years that would be his path, too. But the whirs of the plane’s engines brought an unsettling feeling.
"I had my idea of what the United States was going to be like, so I was really excited," he said. "But it wasn’t until I got on the plane that it really became real and made you think, ‘OK, what am I doing?’ That’s when you start thinking about all the different things that could go wrong."
But there was no turning back. The plane soared into the air before touching down in Tijuana, Mexico, near the border into California. Rivas’s older brothers — already in the U.S. — had made the necessary arrangements. He was whisked quickly into the country and made his way to Los Angeles.
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It didn’t take long for him to realize America wasn’t like the stories he had heard. He didn’t speak a word of English, and the paychecks from the only jobs he could find — washing dishes in small restaurants, landscaping — never stretched far enough after sending money to his family in Zacatecas. The pursuit of the American Dream, it was becoming clear, was not without hardship.
"You realize that life is not really that great," he said. "Then you start wondering, ‘When am I going to see my parents again, my relatives? When am I going to go back?’ It was difficult."
But he remained steadfast. He was chasing a future he’d always imagined for himself.
A passion is born
The defining moment of Rivas’s life happened long before he crossed the border into the U.S. The memory is still vivid, and his eyes light up when he tells the story. He was 6 years old when he learned to read, and it felt like a world of information opening at his fingertips. What a gift, he thought. What a marvelous gift — what if he could give it to others?
"I realized I wanted to be a teacher at the age of 6 years old," he said. "When I realized I was able to read, I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ I knew to be able to teach someone else to read would be incredible."
So it was with the vision of becoming a teacher that Rivas toiled in America, working long hours to make ends meet. He had originally set out to earn enough money to go back to Mexico and get an education there, but it became obvious that would not be possible. When time allowed, he began going to night school to learn English. Progress came slowly at first, but he eventually grasped the basics, which made everything easier. He earned his GED in 2001.
Five years after starting school, he was one step closer to his dream — but that life was still far away, if it would ever come at all.
A dark cloud
GED in tow, Rivas came to Salt Lake City for work in the early 2000s. Utah seemed like a good place to live, so he decided to stay, putting down roots in Spanish Fork. It was then that he enrolled in Utah Valley University, staking his boldest claim yet to the future he ached for.
For Rivas, the schoolwork was easy. The sense of wonder he felt when he first began to read was still alive within him. He fed his curiosity with textbooks, soothed his need for knowledge by consuming any information he could find. Four years later, in 2007, he earned his bachelor’s degree.
But a dark cloud plagued him throughout his time at UVU, which he describes as bittersweet. As an undocumented immigrant, Rivas was scared to be himself. He worried that his cover would be blown if he expressed his true opinions in class or took a stand on controversial topics. There was so much to lose.
"You always feared getting in trouble or someone finding out," he said. "There were a lot of emotions. It was difficult."
There was also the growing fear that he would never be able to get a teaching job, even if he completed his degree. When he came to America in the 1990s, people from his hometown would go back and forth with ease between the U.S. and Mexico, so he didn’t understand the consequences of entering the country illegally. But the political climate shifted and the ramifications became more clear. Talks in Washington in the early 2000s about granting undocumented workers amnesty bolstered his hopes, but as those faded so did much of his optimism.
But he still held a glimmer of hope that he could still one day forge a career in teaching, and that was the one thing that sustained him.
"As I started becoming more aware of the laws and wanting education, that’s when I really started becoming more concerned," he said. "I thought a lot about it for about 15 years. It was 15 years that I lived with that. When you know you need that in order to succeed, and to realize that it would be extremely difficult, it’s tough."
For years, the possibility of a path to legal status appeared bleak. With a degree but no way to teach, he was trapped in a country that wasn’t his own. Eventually, he became desperate and applied to the U.S. government for a waiver that would grant him forgiveness for crossing the border illegally. As part of the process, he had to return to Mexico, the first time he had touched soil in his homeland since the day he boarded the plane 20 years before.
Making matters more difficult was the realization that being granted the waiver was no guarantee, even for someone who had worked so hard to learn English and attend college. He waited six agonizing months before getting the news. He would be getting a green card. The last major obstacle to fulfilling his dream was disappearing.
"You have to make your case of why you should be forgiven," he said. "I was lucky in the way I came in, being a minor. Then having a college degree really helped me a lot, as well as the fact that I never left the country. I feel that I got really lucky."
A dream realized
These days, life is different than ever before. Almost two years after being granted his green card, Rivas is in his first year of teaching fourth-grade Spanish dual immersion at McPolin Elementary School. He worked so hard to become a teacher, spent so many years yearning for the chance. And now that it is his reality, it’s as sweet as he had envisioned.
"My dream came true," he said, fighting back emotions with a long breath inside his classroom after school had ended.
For Rivas, new concerns have replaced the constant wondering about his future. But they’re the kind of worries he has devoted his life to taking on. He worries whether the children in his class are grasping the lessons he’s teaching them. He worries about how he can teach them better. At McPolin, where many of the students are Latino, he worries that too many of his students have difficult futures in front of them and not enough are equipped to find success.
He hopes to be an inspiration to them.
"I want them to think about which university they are going to go to, how they are going to reach that goal and why," he said. "Because I think it’s very important for them to set goals and work towards it. I don’t know if their parents talk to them about going to college and becoming a doctor or a teacher or a lawyer. And they need that. I got that from my mom. It makes a difference. And a lot of them don’t get that as much as they should."
Bob Edmiston, principal at McPolin, has noticed the difference Rivas has made in just a handful of months. He said his connection with Latino students is special.
"Being that sort of role model and being able to speak directly to some of the challenges a good sized population of our students here experience is invaluable," he said. "It’s invaluable."
Being able to teach Latino students is why Rivas came to McPolin. He, too, understands the difference he can make, calling the school a "special place." It took many years, but finally in America, he has found a place to call home.
"I want to be an inspiration for my students, to teach them to work hard even if their goals don’t seem possible," he said. "I want them to always do their best because eventually it works out."
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