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Monday, July 30, 2012 - Page updated at 09:00 p.m.

Jerry Large
Success times 11: The story of a farmworker family

By Jerry Large
Seattle Times staff columnist

As of this summer, every one of the 11 Iñiguez brothers and sisters has a college degree, and five have master's degrees.

That's pretty good for a family headed by farmworkers with no formal education. A guy I'd met some years ago at Washington State University, John Fraire, vice president of student affairs and enrollment, told me about them.

I figured there might be some lessons in their story that could help families and communities do a better job of fostering success, so I asked the two oldest how the family did so well.

There's nothing magical. What they told me is stuff we know but sometimes don't apply: Children need supportive parents and parents need a supportive community. Schools need to relate to their students and students need to believe in themselves and apply themselves.

Those are essential ingredients, but they need a spark. They need someone to set the fire, people along the way to keep it going and maybe a little luck, too.

Uriel Iñiguez, 49, is the oldest. He is executive director of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs. He and his sister Martina, a high-school counselor at Tacoma's Lincoln High School and the oldest daughter, told me their story.

Their parents were the spark. Santiago Iñiguez and Guadalupe Rodriguez came from Mexico to Washington in 1974 or 1975 to pick fruit. They left their five children in Mexico with relatives, but the relatives treated them like indentured servants. Their parents sent money for school, but the kids were made to work instead. Uriel ran away, but his uncles found him, tied him up and beat him.

A neighbor got word to the parents who had been in the U.S. a year and had a sixth son. Their mother came back and brought her children north to the small town of Connell in Franklin County.

Martina said her father grew up in a mountain village and tried to teach himself to read with a book left by traveling educators. He developed an intense belief in education as the key to a better life and he passed that on to his children.

Martina recalls feeling isolated and being harassed at school, but said it helped to have a large family that offered love and support and told one another: You can do it.

Only their father spoke any English, but he would show up to meet with teachers and advocate for his children, like when they were being put into special-education classes. And he would come when one got a bad grade and he needed to show he wanted that child to do better.

The parents insisted the children not miss school. Uriel remembers other parents telling his they should pull the kids out of school to work the fields as other families did. They needed the money, but his mother would say no way.

The whole family worked in the fields in summers, sometimes sleeping in their vehicles.

Uriel was the pathfinder, using what he learned to make things easier for the younger kids. He would sign them up for AP classes when the school kept putting them in special education. He told them, if I can do it, you can, too, though he wasn't always so sure he could do it. He never thought about going to college until his junior year, when a kid on one of his sports teams asked, what college are you going to?

"I said, 'I can't go to college.' " The kid turned to his father, the coach, who said: Yes, of course he can.

That was a bit of luck followed by another. A Latino recruiter from Eastern Washington University visited the high school and invited him to visit and bring his brothers and sisters.

Uriel struggled during his first year at Eastern, spending much of it learning the English vocabulary and grammar he needed for academics. He didn't think he would complete college, figuring he would hang on until the siblings just behind him made it in, then he could quit.

But Eastern had a program to help Latino students and wouldn't let him give up. "Whatever I needed," he said, "they assigned me tutors and I never felt I had to feel bad about asking." During his last year he made the dean's list and guided his siblings.

All are now American citizens, as are their parents.

Today, Uriel sees families struggling with the same issues his faced, but often without the supports that made a difference for him.

Schools are still making the same mistakes with Latino students, he said, only now the consequences are far greater, with Latino students no longer the exception in some schools, but the majority. High dropout rates now endanger the future of the state and the country.

"Where is the trained workforce going to come from," he asks. "I tell people, 'you don't have to care about the Latino community, just care about your own pocketbook.' "

Four of the siblings, including Martina, are educators. Erlinda teaches at Carson Elementary in the Puyallup School District, Ricardo is vice principal of Wenatchee High School, and the youngest, Moises, 22, starts his student teaching this fall at Rogers High School in Puyallup.

Pedro owns a physical-therapy business in New Mexico, Alexia is a project planner for Barghausen Consulting Engineers Inc. in Kent, Jose lives in West Seattle and is national sales manager for Global Voyages Group, Emilio is a supervisor in the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration in Wenatchee, Simon is a social worker in West Seattle, and Jesus starts Dartmouth Medical School this fall.

Uriel's work is about trying to reproduce those results across the state. We should all wish him success in that.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. Twitter @jerrylarge.

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