Struggles produce success, inspiration


Denis Perez / The Advocate

Psychology major Lizbeth Gonzalez (front middle) calls Contra Costa College a “safe place” where she can enjoy the company of her friends La Raza studies major Luis Ledesma (left), political science major Michelle Armienta (middle back) and psychology major Alejandra Navarro (right).

By Roxana Amparo, Associate Editor

She remembers the metal-like carvings scratched across the top of her table, the walk of shame to the office and the trauma of being accused of something that wasn’t her fault.

“I knew why I was being sent to the office, but I didn’t know how to say ‘I didn’t do it’,” Contra Costa College psychology major Lizbeth Gonzalez said.

“I told her one of the few sentences I knew how to say, ‘I don’t speak English,’ and I remember her telling me, ‘You are in the United States. You need to learn how to speak English’.”

“I didn’t even try to communicate that it wasn’t me who (carved on the desk) — I took the blame and was suspended.”

Gonzalez, was born in Michoacan, Mexico and migrated to the U.S. in 2009 when she was 12 years old, with her mom and two siblings after her parents’ divorce.

In search of a supportive environment, they moved in with her family already living in America.

When faced with the unfamiliar territory of learning a second language while at Richmond’s Lavonya Dejean Middle School in seventh grade, Gonzalez was bullied by students that came from similar backgrounds.

“I had classmates and even their parents wouldn’t speak the language (English) and it really hurts to see that people in my own culture wouldn’t support me. They would bully me instead.

“I remember getting bottles of water thrown at my head. I remember one time a girl came up from behind me and pulled my hair and dropped me from my chair.”

Gonzalez said the bullying caused by the language barrier and her own insecurities led her to stop participating in sports and clubs like she had while living in Mexico.

“I was afraid to go to school. My whole life in Mexico I had been an A student. I loved going to school. I loved learning and being part of clubs and sports. When I came here I didn’t find that same sense of belonging.”

La Raza studies major Luis Ledesma said he remembers when Gonzalez began to share her story about being undocumented and about the bullying she experienced in middle school.

“It wasn’t until junior year when we brought back the AB 540 Club — that was when she started telling her story to her friends,” Ledesma said.

Ledesma met Gonzalez while they were taking an additional English class to catch up with reading while attending high school at Leadership Public Schools (LPS) in Richmond.

“I remember reading, but I wouldn’t understand anything, so I would highlight each word I didn’t know. Then I looked them up in a dictionary.”

When Gonzalez started ninth grade in 2011, English was still foreign to her but she found support from teachers who wanted to see her advance in her education. Even if the teachers were not Spanish speakers, Gonzalez said they tried their best to understand her and accommodate her needs.

“That really started to push me because there was somebody who cared about me and went out of the way to teach.”

By the end of ninth grade, Gonzalez had read over 50 books with the help from her English teacher Tyler Hester, who helped purchase the books.

“I could understand people now. I could do my homework and write essays,” Gonzalez said.

“It was really hard and I feel like people don’t realize that we go through so many struggles and that (learning English) was one of them. If you don’t know the language you feel like an outsider.”

Ledesma said both he and Gonzalez started to see improvements in their English as the year went on.

Gonzalez said she wants to go into education and be there for students like her teachers from high school were for her.

When Gonzalez was a senior in high school and it was time to apply for college, she did not qualify for any financial assistance because of her status.

“I always had this fear that I’m not going to be able to go to college because I’m undocumented,” Gonzalez said, “But being undocumented doesn’t mean you aren’t able to go to college.”

In 2015, Gonzalez started at CCC paying the international student fee of $254 per unit.

In order to pay her first two years of community college tuition, she worked at a restaurant.

“It wasn’t a good job in the sense that I was being oppressed for being undocumented. They would say to me, ‘You’re undocumented. You don’t have a Social Security number. You can’t get another job’.”

Gonzalez sought resources through her friends at CCC who were part of Students for Education Reform (SFER) and found out she qualified for AB 540.

Students who qualify for the program can pay the resident fee of $46 per unit instead of the out-of-state tuition.

Through SFER, Gonzalez has been able to connect with teachers and attend school board meetings to figure out how schools are impacted by boardroom decisions.

“As a potential future teacher, it is very important to understand the political system and you want to know how policies work,” Ledesma said.

Spanish professor Irena Stefanova said, “Her life is here and she has a bright future ahead of her.”

Stefanova said she is honored to know Gonzalez considers CCC one of her “safe places.”

“If students feel secure and don’t fear repercussions (for being who they are) — that is important. It’s important to share those stories rather than lie in isolation. A lot of (other) students are also going through it.”

Gonzalez said she has overcome various obstacles and through them grew as a person and found her passion in life — education.

When Gonzalez took La Raza 125 (Latin American History) and La Raza 130 (Contemporary Chicano/Latino Literature) classes at CCC, she began to learn about the many people who have been through similar situations to hers.

“That was when I realized that my accent was part of who I was — it was part of my story.

“By having those connections I felt like I belonged here,” Gonzalez said. “There were people who understood me and weren’t going to make fun of me having an accent because they understood why I had an accent. I think I am starting to stand up for myself. I am doing this for my education.”