High school dropout Erica Alfaro was 16 years old when her boyfriend threw her out of the house to sleep outside with their 9-month-old baby and it was then she vowed to make a better life for them by going back to school. The 29-year-old Mexican-American not only earned her high school diploma, but she also went on to get her master’s degree this month. On May 19 she crossed the stage at San Diego State University to receive a master’s degree in education with a concentration in counseling.
“I never thought that one day I would be sharing my story to inspire other students. I feel very proud of that 16-year-old girl that took the decision of going back to school,” she says.”If someone had told me that one day my life was going to change and that I was going to make it this far, I wouldn’t believe them.”
Born in Fresno in California’s Central Valley and raised in Tijuana, Alfaro didn’t return to the states till she was 13 years old. Her family shared a two-bedroom apartment in Oceanside, Calif. (a little more than 50 miles north of Tijuana) with another family so she, her two siblings and parents all shared one room, but that wasn’t her biggest struggle.
“I didn’t know how to speak English. I struggled so much in school, that my grades made me believe that I wasn’t smart enough for school. I used to think that school was just not for me.”
Her parents were hardly home, both working long hours in fruit fields, and, Alfaro remembers, they lived in a poor neighborhood surrounded by gangster activity, teenage pregnancy, and poverty.
She got pregnant at the age of 15 and dropped out of high school to move to Fresno with her boyfriend where she endured years of physical abuse.
Without her family close by and afraid of retaliation from her boyfriend if she sought help, she stayed in the relationship and took care of their son, Luis.
“One time I told a family member about my situation. She told me that I had to stay with my baby’s father because I was never going to make it as a single mother,” Alfaro said. “My family is from Oaxaca, Mexico and it is very common for women to live under domestic violence. My dad was the only man in my family that was not an abusive person.”
Her parents visited every three months but because of their financial straits she didn’t want to worry them and she was unaware of any resources and hardly spoke English so she felt she couldn’t call the police.
But everything changed that night in November 2006 when she was out on the streets with her baby and she recalled two life-changing memories.
“It was when I was 14 years old and my mother took me to work with her in the tomato fields. When I told her that I was tired, she said: ‘This is our life, the only people that have a good life are the ones that have a good education.’ I realized that if I wanted to change my life, I had to get a good education. That is what my parents wanted for us.”
The second memory was a field trip she took to visit the local university not long after they had moved back from Tijuana. She was so impressed by her surroundings she asked her classmate about the place and they said “Aqui se hacen los profesionales, maestros, consejeros.”
“That night I decided to go back to school. I promised my baby that I was going back to school and that I was going to make him feel proud of me.”
Despite the odds stacked against her and the lack of support from her boyfriend, she returned to high school in 2007
“My baby’s father tried to discourage me so many times by ripping my homework and telling me that I was just making a fool of myself. He used to ask me: ‘Do you really think you can graduate from high school? You don’t even know how to speak English!’”
But in the safe haven of her school, she found support through Mr. Lee, a teacher who encouraged her to look into college and the first person to tell her she was smart.
“I remember asking him: ‘Do you think that someone like me can go to college?’ He smiled and without saying anything he pulled out my grades from a folder and put them right in front of me. That was the first time that I saw good grades under my name. That day I walked out of his classroom with a new goal. My new goal was to go to college.”
It was around this time that she found the courage to leave her abusive relationship with the help of her 18-year-old brother.
“My brother saw the exact moment when my baby’s father grabbed me from the arm and pushed me to the wall while I was holding my son. He came running and pushed my baby’s father to the floor. [Her boyfriend ] looked scared and didn’t try to fight back,” she recalls. “I walked out of the house with my brother that day. That is when he told me that he was going to protect me and that I didn’t have to live in an abusive relationship.”
According to a report from Casa de Esperanza and the National Latin@ Network, 1 in 3 Latinas have experienced domestic violence in their lifetime and 50 percent of Latinas who experience abuse never report it.
The report further found that Latinas are less likely than women from other ethnic/racial groups to seek shelters. Shelters are also not as equipped to handle Latinas with 1 in 3 shelters not having Spanish speaking staff and half of participating shelters in a study offered child-related services.
“We might not have control of what happens to us, but we do have control of our decisions. We are the ones that decide how our story is going to end. You don’t have to stay in an abusive relationship, you deserve better. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, there are many nonprofit organizations that can help you.”
She no longer has contact with her ex-boyfriend and he’s since been imprisoned.
In 2008 she enrolled in Mira Costa Community College in Oceanside and met school counselor Candelaria “Candy” Owens who helped her find the confidence to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
“I decided to pursue higher education because I wanted to be like her. She majored in psychology, so I decided to major in psychology as well. plus, I loved my psychology classes.”
She transferred to California State University San Marcos and on her last semester, she was given a project that would change her perspective on all that she had endured.
Professor Rita Naranjo assigned the class a 25-minute presentation to share their struggles of getting a higher education. For the first time, she shared her story and once she was done the whole class and Naranjo were in tears.
“When it was my turn to present, I asked my professor to turn off the lights because I was extremely nervous and afraid of being vulnerable. I decided to share my story to honor that 16-year-old girl. The 16-year-old who wanted to know if someone like me existed so that she could have some hope about her future,” she says.
Naranjo encouraged her to audition to be the commencement speaker and she not only landed the role but her university’s newsroom featured her story on their site. Fewer than 2 percent of teen moms finish college by age 30 and so her grad cap celebrated that she was part of the two percent.
Going to school was not without its challenges, including her son’s diagnosis of cerebral palsy in 2012 that led her to go into a depression that kept her from doing well in school. But she was able to overcome it and find happiness at a graduation party after she finished CSUSM, where she met her now husband.
Earlier this month her story once again garnered attention, this time for the photo of her with her graduation gown standing in the middle of a strawberry field in Carlsbad, Calif. with her parents.
She set up the photos as a way to thank her parents for their sacrifices and felt that since her mom still works in the fields and her dad worked them for years, it was an appropriate choice. Since receiving her master’s she was promoted to office manager at Enada Nutraceuticals and recently celebrated her son’s 13th birthday.
“My life is so beautiful today, sometimes I wake up wondering it if is only a dream. Luisito is the smartest boy I have ever met. He always tells me ‘mommy I’m so proud of you.’”
Through it all, she credits Luis with being the inspiration that got her through more than a decade of hard work to build a better life for him.
“I hope that my journey teaches my son that with hard work and determination everything is possible. That when it comes to your dreams, you need to be as persistent as you can be. I want Luisito to know that he is the reason why I never gave up.”
She hopes to one day work for a nonprofit after she joined the Latina Leadership Network Club at Mira Costa community college and was able to attend the Latina Leadership annual conference in Visalia, Calif. in 2010. She describes it as the first time she saw Latinas in higher positions in the workplace and after listening to their powerful speeches about their lives she hoped to one day join their ranks.
“I think that stories are very powerful. My goal is to use my story and other stories as a source of inspiration. I want to encourage underrepresented students to continue with their education, help women that are going through domestic violence and help teenage moms,” she says. “I had many excuses to give up. I was a single mother, a first-generation college student, English is my second language, I had to work full time while being a full-time student. But after seeing and hearing those women, I knew that it was possible.”