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June is graduation month, and there was one ceremony that had a particular impact on me: The graduation of Thermal’s Desert Mirage High School Class of 2015.

The ceremony was held at the Indian Wells Tennis Club on a hot evening. The ceremony began with students in pairs holding large wire bowers covered with flowers, to make a path for the senior class to enter. And enter, they did—wearing white robes and caps for the top scholars, with red for the rest of the class. Many graduates had hand-decorated messages on their mortarboards, and robes festooned with bright floral leis or sparkling lights. As they circled the grass court to their assigned seats, families and friends cheered as the graduates struck poses or danced their way along the floral pathway.

It’s well known that I cry easily, and my tears began as I scanned the half-full stadium, full of proud parents, grandparents and other relatives. I particularly focused on the young brothers and sisters who were getting the chance to participate in a rite of passage where children learn what’s important to their families. I could see the pride and excitement as each family stood to shout encouragement as their graduating student walked by, waving and beaming.

This graduation has particular significance for me. I’ve written about Alejandra Franco before—she is a remarkable young woman who demonstrates how second-generation immigrants have embraced the American dream. In this case, Alejandra is the valedictorian of the graduating class, with a GPA of 4.39, and has been accepted to attend USC—apparently the first student from Desert Mirage to have that opportunity.

The vast majority of these graduating seniors are of Hispanic heritage, and in many cases, Spanish is still the primary language spoken at home. While I could not understand all of the conversations taking place around me, the joy and pride exhibited easily transcended language barriers.

Desert Mirage’s principal, Stephen Franklin, welcomed everyone in both English and Spanish. All stood for the presentation of colors. Then the national anthem was sung by senior Alondra Ibarra, as the audience, hands over hearts, stood respectfully. My tears began again as I listened to the a capella voice of this angel. Wow!

Salutatorian Everett Rivera-Meza, with a 4.34 GPA and heading for UCLA, gave his speech in English and Spanish. “Always follow your dreams,” he said. “Don’t let the noise of others drown out your voice. Wherever we go, our roots are strong.”

Then it was Alejandra’s turn. Her valedictorian address offered was entirely in Spanish. “I had a time limit of three minutes, and was originally going to give it in English and Spanish,” she explained, “but I had to choose, and I chose Spanish because I wanted my family, most importantly my parents, to fully understand.”

Alejandra told two stories in her speech. The first was about “connecting the dots and finding our purpose,” where she linked her father’s immigration difficulties some years ago to her passion for getting an education. “Imagine,” she said, “at 12, getting home after a usual day at school like any other—but then your mom tells you that your father has been taken by (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and you see the desperate look in her eyes is screaming, ‘What are we going to do?’ Then to have your little brothers get home from school and ask why Dad has not arrived from work; having to grip all courage possible to be able to answer with a smile that he is away working. The days pass by, and you witness how Mother is doing the impossible. Being forced to lie to your little brothers and tell them everything is fine, and having to send them to bed with the hopes that father will be back tomorrow. Keeping a straight face at school, but knowing once you get home, you will be confronted by reality. Doing everything possible to be of use, whether it be taking care of my brothers, doing chores around the house … having to wait for everyone to be in bed in order to be able to do homework, staying up late and ... not setting aside education, and not failing your parents.

“At 12 years of age, I was trying to understand: Why did my family have to suffer all of this? Perhaps in that moment, I wasn’t able to understand, but now, almost six years later, I connect the dots and realize that all the suffering was rather a blessing. Because of what happened, my father can live at peace, as he was given a second chance, but I also discovered my vocation: I clearly see my purpose is to go to a university, educate myself, and come back to my community to offer services to families like my own.”

Alejandra’s second story was about there being no excuse for not achieving success. “Hemiplegia is total paralysis of half the body that affects the center motors of the brain and its development—that was the path that was chosen for me at birth. ‘She will never walk; she will never be normal; she will not even live past her first birthday.’ I would become no one.

“Nonetheless, life gave me amazing parents who did not consider me a lost cause, even when all the odds were against us. My parents fought to give me the opportunity to live. Having crossed the border with nothing and sacrificing everything, even going days without any food or water, they risked everything to offer us a better tomorrow.

“Even after all the hardships suffered, I understood that there is no such thing as ‘impossible’ or any obstacle that serves as an excuse to not continue striving forward. Not only did I win the battle to keep living, but I also triumphed over death itself when it knocked at my door. And that is why I speak to all of you as living testimony that with the same perseverance and determination as our parents, family members, friends, teachers or whomever guided us through these years of education, we must keep pushing forward with the purpose of demonstrating our full potential, not as Latinos or Raza, but as the wonderful human beings we are, creating the better tomorrow we see engraved in the callused and hardworking hands of our parents. It is our duty to demonstrate to each and every one who is present that they have not come to celebrate us in vain.”

My tears flowed.

This graduating class will be attending nine University of California campuses, 11 Cal State colleges, and schools in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and New York. Many graduates will be continuing their education at College of the Desert, at technical schools and in the military.

Many, like Alejandra, are the children of immigrants. They should be celebrated as a welcome addition to the American story that they are helping to write. They deserve our support, our admiration and public policies that support their participation—out of the shadows and in full pursuit of the American dream.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Back in 1968, when the feminist movement was in full swing, a significant protest was staged in Atlantic City against the Miss America beauty pageant.

The protest was organized by author Robin Morgan, who attacked “the degrading mindless-boob-girlie symbol” so prevalent in the media, and the “ludicrous ‘beauty’ standards we ourselves are conditioned to take seriously.”

I was part of that feminist movement, concerned about the objectification of women—paraded in bathing suits and awarded crowns based on little more than whether they met the then-common standard of “beauty,” meaning long-legged, tiny-waisted, barely talented and white-skinned. (No black woman had ever made it even into the finals.) While I did not take issue with the women who willingly participated, many of whom went on to enjoy interesting lives, I sympathized that there were so few opportunities based on anything other than superficial beauty to which they could aspire.

There are concerns that the current Miss America pageant, although now offering lucrative scholarships and emphasizing young women pursuing education, has not been giving out that scholarship money as advertised. A recent exposé on HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver asserted that although the Miss America Foundation claims to make “$45 million in scholarships available to contestants—the pageant promotes itself as ‘the world’s largest provider of scholarships for women,’ the money it actually provides is just a fraction of that.” According to Oliver, in 2012, the Miss America organizations spent only $482,000 on scholarships, using questionable statistics to stretch to the $45 million figure.

Locally, several organizations offer money for education, usually based solely on scholarship and outstanding essays by applicants. With much competition for limited awards, students often scramble to cobble together enough money to cover tuition, books, fees and the other costs associated with higher education or career training—to avoid taking out loans and graduating with debt.

What’s an aspiring young woman needing money for college to do? One local event that offers scholarship money is the Queen Scheherazade Scholarship Pageant, which picks three young women to represent the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival. In November, 13 young women vied for the 2015 titles of Queen Scheherazade, Princess Dunyazade, or Princess Jasmine. I attended, in spite of my aversion to “beauty pageants,” because I am acquainted with one of the contestants, Alejandra Franco (about whom I have previously written). I must admit I came away impressed, not only with the young women and their accomplishments and aspirations, but also with the support they had from family, friends and local officials in the audience—and the community’s seriousness of commitment to this long-standing cultural event.

The master of ceremonies, KESQ’s Laura Yanez, talked about her own sister’s experience with the pageant as Princess Jasmine in 1995. The contestants had to demonstrate that they knew what would be required to represent the county fair at events throughout Riverside County. They presented themselves in business dress, evening gowns and beautiful harem-like costumes. (There were no bathing suits, but the feminist in me rebels somewhat at the implications of harems.) They also had to present a brief speech that included their aspirations, academic and extra-curricular activities, and why they should be chosen. They responded to randomly drawn questions about the history of dates in the Coachella Valley, the county fair and its attractions, and community resources. Finally, they had to show the judges they could be effective representatives for the festivities.

La Quinta High School students included Shannon Slankard, who plans to be a pediatric oncologist; Maritza Cubillas, who wants to major in engineering but is also avid about studying dance; Loren White, whose smile is a standout, and who aspires to be an orthodontist; and Amanda Cardinal, who remembers tap-dancing at the fair when she was just 5 years old, and is passionate about robotics.

Representing Coachella Valley High School: Liliana Aguilar, who wants to achieve a doctorate in medicine; Itcelia Segoviano, who hopes to be accepted by Harvard or UC Berkeley and study law to work with at-risk juveniles; and Charyne Toribio, a student at College of the Desert, an avid basketball player whose goal is to become a toxicologic/anatomic pathologist (whew!).

From Hemet High School was Morgan Lawrence, an excellent communicator who plans to study communication and graphic design. Cathedral City High School was represented by Vanessa Martinez, whose aspirations include a double major in peace studies and women’s studies, with the goal of a career in global humanitarian efforts.

Shadow Hills High School had two entrants: Destiny Patlan, who said, “I am Indio!” and is an active community volunteer helping the homeless; and Silvia Ruelas, who plans to study political science and criminal justice, and said, “Our future is our key—failure is not an option.” From Desert Mirage High School, Alejandra Franco is passionate about getting into Yale and becoming an immigration lawyer here in the Coachella Valley: “My duty is to make evident that education is not out of our reach,” she said regarding her responsibility toward her younger brothers. West Shores High School graduate Carla Cabrera is currently a student at Cal State University-San Bernardino, hoping to achieve a master’s degree for a career as a registered nurse.

All of these young women have been honors students in Advanced Placement courses of study, active in campus sports and extra-curricular activities, and volunteers in their communities. Some work while going to school. Many will be the first in their families to attend college. All of them are worthy of our support. Politics aside, I was impressed by these admirable young women doing whatever is necessary to ensure their futures.

If you’ve never been to the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival, this is something you should do at least once. Admission cost is reasonable, and you don’t want to miss the camel and ostrich races, monster trucks, marvelous mutts, nightly live music, wonderful displays of art and fabulous food. Plus, you’ll be supporting the 2015 Scholarship Pageant winners: Morgan Lawrence as Princess Jasmine, Shannon Slankard as Princess Dunyazade, and Carla Cabrera as Queen Scheherazade. You will see them in full Arabian regalia all over the county and at the fairgrounds Feb. 13-22.

I now know how dates came to the Coachella Valley! Do you?

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Alejandra Franco is a remarkable young woman.

She’s heading into her senior year at Desert Mirage High School, but first, she is excited about her trip this summer to study at Yale University in their Global Scholars Program for high school students. 

“I kept getting emails from Yale and other colleges trying to recruit me,” she says, “but I want to study at Yale, so this was a wonderful opportunity. I didn’t expect to get picked when I applied, because there are so many other talented students out there. Then they offered me a full scholarship. I just had to find a way to pay for the plane ticket, and got help from the local migrant program. I’ll be studying politics, law and economics.”

How does a young woman living in Thermal, in a school district often portrayed as underprivileged and underperforming, find the way toward becoming the first in her family to attend college?

Again, Alejandra Franco is remarkable—smart and dedicated—and she is indicative of upcoming second-generation Hispanic Americans eager to embrace the American dream and determined to excel

“My dad doesn’t put any limits on me. He and my mom are always there for me,” she says.

In addition to her studies, Alejandra is also active in the community. She volunteered with the congressional campaign of Rep. Raul Ruiz, who also left the Coachella Valley to pursue higher education and then kept his promise to return here to practice medicine and give back to the community.

“I want to become an immigration lawyer,” she says, “so that I can help people here who need that kind of help but can’t afford it. I see the issues in the Coachella Valley. There aren’t enough lawyers to help the people here who need help. I definitely plan to return here. This is where I come from.”

Despite stereotyping as being separate from the majority population and unwilling to learn English and assimilate, second-generation Hispanic Americans—the children of first-generation immigrants—usually do quickly assimilate. Research shows that Hispanic immigrants learn English as fast as those from other countries, and in a generation or two, their mother language is nothing but a faint memory.

“What we see is the classic American story, where the second generation is doing better, in fact significantly better, than the first,” said Paul Taylor, a senior fellow at the Pew Research Center, to NBC Latino. Some 61 percent consider themselves just “typical Americans.”

In 2012, Hispanics had become the largest minority group on college campuses, making up a record 16.5 percent of all college enrollments—and that number is growing at a rapid rate each year. “Most have parents who came here without a formal education, so the jump in college completion among the second generation is significant,” Taylor also told NBC Latino.

With high school graduation among Hispanics around 80 percent, and their pursuit of college education soaring, what is making the difference? Is it a better education system? More dedicated teachers? Improved counseling? Parent involvement?

In the case of Alejandra Franco, it is all of the above.

“I’m friends with some of my teachers,” she says, “and they’ve really helped me a lot. My graduating class is very competitive, with lots of Advanced Placement students. Sometimes, people can say hurtful things. I remember one of my teachers said, ‘Just remember, (those hurtful things said) won’t matter in 10 years. What will matter is who you are as a person and what you have accomplished.’”

Alejandra hears that message at home as well. “My parents are not putting any limits on me, and I can talk to them about anything,” she says.

She sees herself as the role model for her three younger brothers and is determined to set a good example. “I tell them they have to work hard, because without an education, they won’t be able to have a stable future.”

Alejandro Franco, Alejandra’s father, is completely supportive of his daughter’s educational pursuits. “He meets with my teachers and asks what he can do to help with my studies,” she says. “And my mother, Ana, is studying English, got her GED and is planning to take college classes. My father says he knows we (his children) can have a better life, that this country is full of opportunity, and it’s up to us to take advantage of that. He regrets not having been able to do that himself. ”

While Alejandra Franco is indeed remarkable, there are many, many other second-generation American achievers coming up into what will soon be a “majority minority” country. We’re privileged to have them as our neighbors.

Alejandra’s bottom line? “I want to share my accomplishments with my community, because they helped shape me.”

Published in Know Your Neighbors