Carlos Ojeda Jr. told more than 500 students packed into a Lanier High School auditorium Wednesday that he had grown up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in New Jersey where everyone “looked like me, dressed like me, talked like me, ate the same foods and danced to the same music as me.”
The motivational speaker had them laughing when he said, “I never, ever, ever saw white people.” They were silent when he said he saw his first murder at age 10, a drug deal gone sour.
By the end of his speech and that of his business partner, Ernesto Mejia, many were wiping away tears.
United States Hispanic Leadership Institute President Juan Andrade Jr. said it was the kind of response he hopes to inspire with a 10-city leadership summit sponsored by McDonald’s that started here and will take the speakers’ messages to cities like Tucson, Ariz.; Reno, Nev.; Atlanta and Chicago to reach hundreds of thousands of students.
“When you grow up, you only learn what your environment teaches you. You only learn what your neighborhood shows you, and you can’t be blamed for that;” but you can be blamed for “letting it stay that way, because the world is diverse and it changes and you’ve got to change with it,” Ojeda said.
His family moved to Reading, Penn., where he struggled in school and was told by one of his teachers that he’d never graduate. Ojeda spent the next hour describing his struggles, his family’s support and one counselor’s belief that he could make it. That, and scholarship money, saved him, he said. Now he has several degrees, has worked for a multinational company, launched his own business and is happily married with children.“You’ve got to ask questions. You don’t know something in class, you don’t sit in ignorance. You raise your hand, you ask that question,” Ojeda said.
Mejia said he went from being a former migrant worker to college student to college dean. Background and circumstances are no excuse, he said.
Senior Linda Vasquez said the speeches had moved her to tears. Her parents, who like Mejia’s family are from Mexico, didn’t finish school but have encouraged her to go to college. She works part time at Bill Miller’s, she said, and wants to “have a better life and be someone who can be a role model for my family.”
A news conference at Café College on Tuesday featuring Mayor Julián Castro and San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Sylvester Perez highlighted USHLI’s goal to breed leadership and civic participation. Andrade said the summit also aims to connect students with college recruiters and financial aid support — an opportunity given Lanier students after the speeches.
Lanier Principal Edward Garcia said it showed students that the face of success looks like them.
“We’re not different than they are,” Garcia said of the speakers who grew up in low-income neighborhoods and were once-struggling students. “We’ve had successes and failures in our lives, and I think it was engaging to students because of that.”
BY MARIA LUISA CESAR : SEPTEMBER 11, 2013