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Finding the American dream

Maria Morales learned to read English from the newspaper, now she has earned her master’s degree

Posted: July 15, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: July 15, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Morales with her master's degree from Mt. Saint Mary's College.

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It started in 1989. Her first Letter to the Editor was published in The Signal newspaper on May 13, 1989, and her love affair with the English language was born.

When Maria Morales first moved to the United States from Mexico in 1979 and settled in Canyon Country, she didn’t know any English. She worked in the onion fields. Now, she holds a master’s degree from Mt. St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles.

Morales, of Valenica, could be considered the poster girl for the American dream.

Now in her mid-50s, Morales works as a substitute teacher for William S. Hart, Palmdale and Lancaster school districts. She is a member of the California Association of Bilingual Educators.

Born in Mexico

She started taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes after work, finally getting an ESL certificate in 1989.

“I’m a product of ESL classes,” Morales said. She carries with her several binders and portfolios, full of newspaper clippings, stories she’s written and notes she needs to remember.

She taught herself to read English with The Signal, and became engrossed in community issues. She mailed a letter to the editor, trying to have her voice heard.

“So I respect your opinion, please respect mine,” she wrote.

This first clipping was the first of many. Morales regularly sent in letters when she felt people needed a different perspective, or to bring neighborhood issues to light.

Meanwhile, she was busy raising five children, working and going to school.

“I always knew I wanted to have a career, and I always knew I wanted a degree, but I couldn’t because I was born in Mexico and was poor,” she said. “I was the first one to graduate from high school. My mother couldn’t read Spanish, and my father was an orphan. The only education he had was provided from the priest who taught him to read and write.”

In Mexico, she had worked in a factory from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, and then went to school from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., finishing high school in two years. She carries her high school transcripts — with several 100 percent grades — in her portfolio.

Pursuing education

However, when she moved to the United States in 1979, she didn’t know the language. She met her husband at an ESL class at Placerita Junior High in 1981. He was deported in 2000, and she hasn’t heard from him since.

“It was hard,” Morales said. “I always had to work, take care of the children and go to school.”

In Mexico, her mother had told her to focus on work, not on school. She didn’t listen and became absorbed in her books. When she came to the Santa Clarita Valley, she knew she would put a good deal of work into her education.

Morales enrolled at College of the Canyons in 1989, but only lasted a semester.

“I didn’t pass it. It was hard,” she said. After a few years’ break, she returned in 1994 to continue with ESL classes, and began work in 1995 with the Newhall School District as a bilingual assistant.

“My teachers said, ‘You’re so good with kids, why are you taking ESL classes when you can get your degree?’” Morales said.

Starting in 2003, she became a full-time student at COC, graduating with her associate’s degree in 2005.

Morales continued her education at the Dr. Dianne G. Van Hook University Center earning her bachelor’s degree in 2009 through California State University, Bakersfield. A government grant covered the majority of the tuition.

However, she didn’t receive grant assistance at Mt. St. Mary’s College, and her newly minted Master’s of Education, has left her with $100,000 in student loan debt.

A love of books

“I love to write,” Morales said. “Books are for me, I always need to find the message.”

She has written a collection of short stories she self-published through iUniverse. She hands the books out, free, to people. Though they may appear to be simple pieces of computer paper stapled together, the stories on the page are vibrant and full of life.

She writes in English and Spanish, and some stories incorporate both languages.

“I don’t choose when the story decides to come,” she said.

All of her stories are based on real people or events.

“Some people ask why I only write about women and children,” Morales said. “It is because they are the ones that need encouragement the most.”

She is currently working on a second collection of stories and poems.

Encouragement

Morales said she grew up in a family that included 10 children.

“I always told them, ‘We are going to school, we are going to graduate — no matter what.’” She said. “I pushed all my sisters to graduate from high school and college.”

The result of her encouragement has produced two secretaries, two doctors, one lawyer and a teacher.

“I also have a brother who is an engineer,” she said.

Morales has also encouraged her own five children to pursue an education.

“My children, 30-year-old twins and my other children ages 28, 26 and 24 have all graduated high school,” she said. “The youngest is one class away from graduating as a computer engineer from Channel Islands University. All my children worked so hard to get their degrees, just like I did.”

Morales said she carries a message to the Latino community.

“We are able to graduate, and now we can help others,” she said. “That’s my message. We need to continue our education so we can keep helping others.”

New dreams

In addition to earning her Ph.d, Morales hopes to be able to return home on vacation to visit family and friends in Monterrey, Mexico.

“The last time I visited Mexico was six or seven years ago,” she said.

She also needs to pay the $100,000 in student loans she has accumulated.

“It is hard to pay when I only make $100 a day as a substitute teacher,” she said.

However, Morales is undaunted in her pursuit of higher education.

It isn’t easy, but there is always a way to succeed, Morales said.

“All of us have suffered, but there is hope, there are evening classes, weekend classes its doesn’t matter how long it takes. It took me 20 years,” she said. “Next year, I will start my Ph.d.”

lifestyles@the-signal.com

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