YAKIMA — Ignacio and Maria Ramos grew up in small towns in Mexico, where they lacked access to a full-fledged education.
When Ignacio finished the last school available to him — third grade — he repeated the course in an effort to continue school. Eventually, school staff cut him off.
Maria, who would meet her now-husband of more than 40 years in Yakima Valley fields years later, was able to attend school through sixth grade in her hometown. But to carry on to seventh grade, she would have had to travel an hour and a half each way to another town every day — something she longed to do but her dad wouldn’t allow, she said.
“He said, ‘No, it’s too expensive. We don’t have any money. You have to help us in the field,’ ” the 60-year-old recalled last month. “I want(ed) to be something like a nurse.”
Instead, the two worked hard in the fields and eventually immigrated to the U.S., where they would meet and marry before having a family of 12 children. For them, their hope was a brighter education for their children and careers outside of the fields.
“I always wanted my kids to have a better opportunity than I did. All I asked for back then was that the child that had the least education would at least have their high school diploma,” Ignacio said through translation by his oldest daughter. “That was my only wish, and God gave me a lot more.”
All of their children graduated from high school. Some entered the medical field; others went into education; one son started a construction company and built his parents a new home.
On Friday, the family celebrates Blanca Hernandez, who joins several of her siblings as a college graduate as she walks in Yakima Valley College’s ceremony at the Yakima Valley SunDome.
Blanca and her siblings attribute their accomplishments in part to the strong work ethic and appreciation for education instilled by their parents. Many of them grew up working in the fields, but before the school bell rang they would be sitting in their seats at school.
“Our parents would stop what they were doing to make sure we were in school before 7:45 (a.m.) … then they would drive back to the fields,” said Silvia Ramos, 41, the second oldest sibling in the family and the founder of a local accounting firm.
The siblings also praise their sister Lucy Tovar, 39, the third oldest, for taking college classes in high school and landing a full scholarship to attend UCLA as the first college student in the family. They say she set an example for others to follow.
Programs for first-generation students and migrant students also helped them overcome barriers and access after-school programs, they said.
All 12 of the siblings have stayed in the Sunnyside area, and they see their life’s work as an opportunity to pay forward the help that they received along the way.
“It’s kind of come full circle, where we relate to the community that we serve,” said Blanca’s youngest sister, Yesenia Ramos, 27, who works with students in speech language therapy.
“I didn’t expect to come back and pay it forward … (but) I’m providing these services to underprivileged families, communities.”
Blanca is no exception.
The 36-year-old started working toward her associate of arts degree at Yakima Valley College in Toppenish in 2011 before getting pulled away to work. In 2016, she returned to school with the help of the TRiO program, which helps first-generation students like herself access education and covered the cost of her initial courses and textbooks.
Blanca embraced school while raising her four children, working as a Spanish tutor at the college and as an administrative assistant at a local substance prevention organization, Sunnyside United-Unidos.
Through her work, she learned about a substance-abuse prevention team at Sunnyside High School, where she began volunteering with teenagers, she said. Soon, she was helping with student pledge days to stay drug-free, for example, or “kick butts day,” where students commit to never smoking cigarettes. Her own kids have gotten involved, she said, marching with her in different events with the high school.
The volunteer work grew into a passion, and after graduating Friday, Blanca will complete a certificate in chemical dependency counseling. She hopes to make a career out of helping Sunnyside youths and adults in substance prevention and addiction counseling.
Her parents and siblings couldn’t be more thrilled.
“I feel very proud,” Maria said of Blanca and her siblings.
Ignacio echoed those comments: “I have to give thanks to my kids because they chose education. We didn’t have the opportunity they had — they took advantage of the opportunities they had to educate themselves.”