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‘It gave me a viewpoint that whatever hand I’m dealt, I can overcome’

Manny Escamilla spoke about growing up on the so-called ‘Devil’s Street’ in south Modesto and going on to Harvard University.
Manny Escamilla spoke about growing up on the so-called ‘Devil’s Street’ in south Modesto and going on to Harvard University. jesparza@vidaenelvalle.com

Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Escamilla survived growing up in ‘The Devil’s Street’ in south Modesto despite facing poverty, a drug-addicted mother who nonetheless protected him, and less-than-stellar grades in school.

“The graduated out of welfare when I turned 18,” said Escamilla, a 26-year-old Harvard graduate student who returns to the Ivy League school on Aug. 25 for his last year.

Escamilla believes growing up the only child in a trailer on Olivero Road near Crows Landing Road prepared him well for his current success.

A solid baseball shortstop at Davis High School, Escamilla dreamed of a pro career but realized his junior year that a .270 batting average wouldn’t be enough against higher-level competition despite a dependable defense.

Escamilla, who was born in Sacramento, was 12 when his mother moved to Modesto. He would take the Modesto XX to go to school in Salida, Davis High and Modesto Junior College, a ride that would require up to three transfers and up to 2 hours depending on traffic and the day of the week.

His high school GPA, 2.93 wasn’t great, primarily because he worked full-time at a warehouse to help support his mother. In college, he has been a 4.0 GPA student.

“I learned what hard work really was, and learned what manual labor was,” he said. “I didn’t want to do this the rest of my life.”

He graduated from Modesto Junior College in 2013, and earned his bachelor’s in religion and education with a minor in computer science.

The 2008 Davis High grad is in his third year focusing on divinity and law at Harvard. He plans to graduate in 2018.

Three years ago, he founded the CodeX Program, an after-school and summer class for middle school students to learn how to build apps and coding so that they can compete in a highly tech world.

Last month, Escamilla spoke at a GED certificate ceremony at Cambridge Academies.

1. How did growing up on Olivero Road affect you?

“I went for a time to Henshaw Middle School. My mom (Alicia Escamilla) knew it was a little bit rough; so I went to Salida Middle School, we used one of our relatives’ address to go to Salida. All my friends at Salida went to Davis High. I also played baseball. We knew some of the coaches, who were friends of relatives who wanted me to go to that school. My mom didn’t want me to go to Downey High. She was also against Modesto High because she was weary of the west side of Modesto.”

2. You have credited your mother for your success in school. What was the greatest advice she gave you?

“My mother is still struggling. She’s in a better place not having to worry about supporting me. It’s still day-to-day kind of struggle, in regards to that battle. She provided for me physically, like food. But she was there emotionally, definitely. If I was exhausted or tired, she was always there to encourage me. She had an open ear to share my difficulties.

“When I got accepted to Harvard, I was a little uncertain because I didn’t match the profile of a Harvard student. I was actually debating if I should go or not. She told me to take the risk and start all over in a new place because it would be worth it.”

3. How did you wind up in Harvard?

“I was actually recruited to apply for a campus visit through the Diversity and Explorations Program (DivEx) for all minorities with underprivileged backgrounds. They paid for everything. It was a three-day trip. At the end, they encouraged us to apply as graduate students. I also applied to Yale, Duke and a couple of other schools. Having visited Harvard, I was comfortable with the decision I made.”

4. How far do you plan in pursuing your education?

“I definitely will go forward with a doctorate. That’s my plan for now. I have a religious background, so God made a way for me to encourage other students. Getting that doctorate puts a stamp on it. If you’re going to do it, go all the way.”

5. How did you find religion?

“Having lived on Devil’s Street, the church was always a refuge for me. It was a rough area, but there were always people who would answer a phone call for help. I go to Apostolic Jubilee Center. In my later teens somehow I got plugged in through some community services they offered. My cousin (Víctor Espinoza) was the catalyst. He went every Sunday. It was a good environment to go into.”

6. Were you ever a victim in your childhood neighborhood?

“There were scary times. We didn’t have internet, so I’d have to walk to the nearest Starbucks and walk over an overpass. I’d be there studying, and then walk home at night after 10 or midnight. There were a couple of times when things could have happened. Thankfully they de-escalated. There were a couple of other instances where we had disagreements with people living near us. The people really looked out for me and for my mom. They knew I was trying to better myself. They looked out for me.”

7. You mentored two young brothers, Emilio and Jessie. What’s happened to them?

“I met Emilio and Jessie five years ago. I stay in contact with them. I chat with them a couple of times a month. They are doing OK. They are in their early teens. They had a definitely lot more difficult environment than me. It is difficult for them, but they are finishing school. Emilio is at Downey; and Jessie is at Mays Hensley. They have had a lot of difficulties. Their father passed away unexpectedly.”

8. What career are you planning?

“What fascinates me is organizational behavior. I want to get a PhD in business and focus on organizational behavior to help organizations better serve the people they serve and the communities they impact. I’m running a non-profit right now and see a huge need for better organization. It’s really, really important for them to be running efficiently. That’s my passion.”

9. Why did you start the CodeX Program?

“It’s a summer summer computer science program that is focused on helping middle schoolers on making apps and websites. It gets children exposed at a young age, and gets them connected to local employers so that as they grow they can stay here and help the Valley.

“During my time at UC Berkeley, I saw disparities between Bay area and the Central Valley. The Central Valley was being left behind the Bay area boom. Some business partners and community organizations started it in the summer of 2015 with 24 students. Now, we’re at 135.

“I fly back twice every semester. I plan and run the academic year. We use school labs at Henshaw, Roosevelt, Somerset and Ustach. In the fall, we’ll include Savage Middle School. We have a staff of 10 during the summer, and we have a board of directors with eight people.”

10. Was growing up in Devil’s Street an advantage or disadvantage?

“That experience was the foundation that made me the person that I am today. Someone who writes about grit, perseverance and resiliency when difficult times are being faced see it as a disadvantage. Actually, they have the greatest advantage because of tenacity and grit.

“I look back to Devil’s Street and the circumstances. It gave me a viewpoint that whatever hand I’m dealt, I can overcome. I have a duty and responsibility now to go back to let other people who are in the same situation know they can do it also.

“It took away a lot of my childhood, but it was a mandate for me to leave the door open and bring as many people away from there.”

Donations can be made to the CodeX program by visiting www.codexprogram.com. Escamilla can be reached on Facebook or Twitter.

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