When Mónica Cuevas, dean of counseling at Fresno City College, looked at a sea of graduates and their supporters packed into the college gym on May 4, she saw reflections of her life.
“Perhaps like some of you, my parents were seasonal farmworkers, which also meant I was a seasonal farmworker,” said Cuevas, the first in her family to go to college and earn a degree. “I would be pulled out of class thinking I was a special student, not knowing any different.”
Instead, she picked, pruned and packed grapes and oranges in the fall, and peaches and nectarines in the summer.
“Our family was poor; there’s no other word for it,” said Cuevas, a divorced mother of three. “We survived on cash aid, or ‘welfare’ back then, and used food stamps.”
Cuevas – the keynote speaker at the 16th annual Latino Graduation Ceremony – recalled the family sleeping around the fireplace when the PG&E bill couldn’t get paid in the cold of winter.
The Roosevelt High graduate would go on to Fresno State and earn a bachelor’s and masters’ degree despite her father’s initial skepticism about how his daughter spent so much time (noon to about 10 p.m.) in college.
When her father finally showed up to watch her graduate, “he was happier than I was,” said Cuevas.
Cuevas told the 239 Latino graduates to “embrace yourself.”
“Embrace, love and celebrate everything about yourself,” she said. “Be proud of where you and your family came from, whether it’s México, or El Salvador, or Texas, or Fresno, or Calwa. Be proud because it helped shape who you are.”
The ceremony, begun 16 years ago by Pedro Longo, has grown ever since it was held inside the college cafeteria with about two dozen graduates. Since then, it has been held at the FCC Theatre, the quad area of the Old Administration Building, and the auditorium.
The growth in student participation and their supporters forced organizers to use the much-larger gym, which filled quickly.
What hasn’t changed that much is the excitement of students and their supporters.
“As we enter a future that is uncertain, a future that seems rife with political strife, we must celebrate our successes,” said Kenneth Chacón, who ended his term as president of the Latino Faculty & Staff Association at the college. “As we look to the future, let us remember our antepasados (ancestors).”
Instructor Marisol Baca, who was recently named Fresno poet laureate, underscored the significance of the ceremony.
“It’s today, days exactly like this day that makes my work as an instructor here and a Fresno City College employee so very worth all the blood, sweat and tears,” said Baca, who also read a poem she wrote for the 2017 dedication of the Dream Center for undocumented students.
“We are the life in that dream,” said Baca.
The graduates entered the gym while Mariachi Universal played ‘La Marcha de Zacatecas.’
On stage, their names were announced. The graduates then received a special graduation sash to use for the regular graduation at Selland Arena on May 24.
The grads also got a special certificate and congratulations from officials including district chancellor Paul Parnell, state Sen. Melissa Hurtado and district trustee Magdalena Gómez.