All About Their Mothers

by Rebecca Schoenkopf

Mothers are the force behind Project Avanzando’s high GED-passage rate

The men at Wilson High School in Long Beach last Saturday were mostly in the audience, tending small children dressed in their quinceanera and wedding-party best. The women at Wilson High School were mostly onstage, dressed in caps, gowns, tears and broad smiles.

Saturday was the culmination of Project Avanzando’s six-month program, funded by the US Department of Education, shepherding farm workers through the process of getting their GED’s. “Pomp and Circumstance” swelled throughout the school theater for the 65 men and women filing onto the stage from as far away as Palmdale and Lancaster; 89 percent of Project Avanzando’s students had passed their GED tests and were receiving high school diplomas.

Project Avanzando, now in its tenth year in the Southland, provides transportation, childcare, and six months of tutoring at eight sites, two nights a week, three hours a night. In some cases, they help students pay the fees for their tests. They check in frequently when a student starts missing class or showing up unprepared. They cheerlead their students constantly, through long nights and strife at home.

Back in April, I visited Burnett Elementary, where Ana Vasquez was teaching area and perimeter to 17 students—16 women and one man—for the math section of the GED. Ten years ago, Vasquez was a student in Avanzando’s first class. Now she’s getting her master’s at Cal State Fullerton.

Project Avanzando graduates

Patricia Feliz, the program’s director, told me then about the upheavals that can happen at home when a woman (most students are women) starts to better her situation. Men start worrying they’ll be left behind. There was one woman in particular who after a promising start began skipping classes. Project Avanzando checked in with her. “It turned out her husband had left her,” Feliz said, “and she wasn’t sure if she was going to be homeless the next week, the husband was threatening to have her kids taken away from her because she wasn’t home with them at night, she was here in class. And I just told her, you know what, you are probably one of the most intelligent people I know! Because you’re here, and you’re passing your tests, and there aren’t very many people who could go through everything you’re going through and still hang on!”

The woman Feliz was speaking of in April did pass her GED. She had to skip the ceremony, though, because of more tsuris at home—the husband in jail, the children detained. Rather than miss a weekend visit with them at the foster home, she missed the caps and gowns. Feliz’s heart was with her. Mine was too.

It was easier for Antonia Zapata. Her husband was miffed too. When I visited her at her job in La Puente this week, she mentioned, frequently, el machismo de Mexicanos. (She speaks English, but was shy about it, preferring to express herself properly in Spanish, which I don’t speak. Her friend Elizabeth translated.) “My husband was really upset with me going back to school and leaving the family aside,” she said. Elizabeth’s translation then switched pronouns: “She was gonna learn, get her high school diploma, or she was gonna make more money than he was. Sometimes in the Hispanic families, they feel that they’re superior to the women, so he didn’t want her to be more superior than him.”

But Zapata’s husband isn’t pissy any more. “Now he’s even proud of me and tells me that he’s proud, and he even sometimes helps me with the homework,” she said. So what changed his mind? “I had a lot of family members and even his mother tell me ‘keep going to school, you’re doing good, you’re keeping on the right track.’” Was it his mother’s opinion that pushed him over? Do Latino men listen to their mothers? Both Zapata and Elizabeth drawled out si, si and then exploded in laughter.

Zapata works as community liason for a school in La Puente, so going back for her GED wasn’t a matter of bettering her financial situation. It was a matter of personal growth. That held true for many of the men and women I met. Luisa Lopez told me she’d been out of school probably 40 years. Why go back now? “Because all my children are professionals,” she told me proudly. “Now it’s my turn.”

Latino immigrants in LA have dismal rates of educational attainment. Only a third of California’s agricultural workers have a high school diploma or higher. Another third have only an elementary school education.

Jorge Cazales, the US-born son of immigrant agricultural workers, was a high school dropout until this week. He was one of the few men on stage at Wilson, and the first student to speak. “Before I got into this program,” he told the crowd, which roared its approval, “I had dropped out of high school. My mom, Francisca Florez, got her GED from Project Avanzando last year. I felt that if she could do it, why couldn’t I get my GED and go further?” Cazales is 19. He wants to go to college and medical school. He wants to be a doctor. I wanted to meet his mother. He invited me to their North Long Beach home, and translated for his mom.

“She got really sad because I dropped out of high school,” he said for her. “One day she just got tired and said, ‘If you’re not going to get your education, I’ll go get my education.’ When they come here, they see all the hardships, that they get the minimum wage, sometimes even less. They’re treated like they have no rights, but she says she didn’t care about that because she came over here to get me a better life for me and my sister. She says it’s worth it to go through all that.”

Donate to Project Avanzando.

Rebecca Schoenkopf is the former editor-in-chief of LA CityBeat and former senior editor at OC Weekly, where she wrote about art, music, politics and more. She taught political science at UC Irvine and was an Annenberg Fellow at USC, receiving her master's in Specialized Journalism focusing on urban policy in May 2011. She lives with her son in a neighborhood we'll just call Hancock Park-adjacent. Follow her on Twitter at


made me cry.  good one.

2011-09-19 by donna

Yeah, education upgrades really make a significant difference in our lives. Theres much increased self respect, as well as increased earning power.

But dont get me wrong, Im a dyed in the wool Marxist. Yup.

2011-09-23 by robert hagen

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