A photo of the Becerra family on a couch.
The Becerras

The Becerra family is thankful for having found the support and education they need to succeed.

by Jackie Dubbe, freelance writer

"I want to be a pilot," says 10-year-old Brian Becerra (be-Sair-ra), who  already knows he wants to join the Air Force when he grows up.

His 7-year-old sister, Angela, holds up a picture she's painted of smiley faces. "I want to be an artist," she says, all smiles herself.

The oldest Becerra child, 13-year-old Flavio, reclines on the living room floor of the house the Becerras bought in September. He's watching "MythBusters" on TV with his younger brother and sister. Flavio thinks someday he'd like to work with wild animals.

These are dreams the Becerra children might not have had if they had grown up in their parents' hometown of Guanajuato, Mexico, but they all live in Minnesota now, and the kids have learned about dreaming from their parents.

Their dad, Jose, a U.S. citizen, came to the United States 20 years ago and is working toward his journeyman's license. In the 1990s, Jose worked in a meat packing plant in Iowa. More recently, he worked in Minnesota as an asbestos remover, a job he felt stuck in because he had only gone to school through the 9th grade. Their mom, Carmen, a friendly woman with an engaging smile, left school in her Mexican hometown after third grade, but now her goal is to become a certified nursing assistant.

And the whole family can dare to have those dreams today because of Minnesota's Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs and because Jose and Carmen discovered Harmony Learning Center in Maplewood, an ABE program supported by the joint efforts of District 622 and the White Bear Lake and Mahtomedi school districts, using state and federal ABE funding.

After attending Harmony and taking classes in English and math, Jose and Carmen both graduated and received their GEDs in 2007. Then Jose began working to take the Accuplacer college placement test, which he passed.

Well, he didn't pass the first time, but Scott Helland, the ABE coordinator for District 622, pulled sample tests for Jose to work on.

"No way I could have done it without Harmony," says Jose, in his easy, gentle manner. "The first time I got 45 percent on both the math and comprehension tests." (Sixty-five percent is needed to pass.) "Scott always wanted to look out for us. He had (Ginger Cook) help me with my math.

"Without Harmony, I'd be stuck in my old job," he says, "and there's no future as an asbestos remover. I have a good job now, with a pension and insurance. At Harmony, they're always there for me and willing to look out for me."

"The Becerras came in to take ESL classes," says Helland. When they graduated, they spoke at the graduation, he explains, "and if they're thankful, they're thankful for their own hard work." Helland noticed the Becerras, he says, "Because they were working so doggone hard, you couldn't help but notice them."

Helland says many of Harmony's students come to improve their English and education, historically like every one of America's immigrant groups, "Each new group looks to education as their hope," he says, "and our ranks increase in economic hard times. The folks here are straight out of the history books — immigrants trying hard to give their kids a better life."

He explains that when the Becceras began at Harmony, their son Flavio was failing his math class. "After they got their GEDs, he went on to get As," says Helland. "They could help him (with his math). Education is for the whole family — it's a powerful factor." Jose has finished his apprenticeship in insulation and is working in a union job at the new Twins stadium. He'll start his second year of a four-year education in September on his way to his journeyman's license. He's continuing his education by working on his computer and reading skills in hopes that maybe someday he can go to college. "I always wanted to be a mechanic," he says. "I would like to learn about hybrid cars — maybe once the family is secure economically."

"We are sure that in order for us to assimilate we need to get a better education," says Carmen, "and we are very thankful there are places like Harmony where we can get an education."

"There is a better future with the help Harmony offers," says Jose, "for sure."

"Literacy is the basis for society and individual successes and many other areas as well," says Tom Cytron-Hyson, a member of the board of Literacy Minnesota, a statewide advocacy program for adult literacy. "For both immigrants and the native born, a high quality education empowers people.”

"I can't imagine what my life would be like if I couldn't read and I hadn't had an opportunity to get a good education," says Cytron-Hyson. "It's my responsibility to ensure others have as many opportunities as possible." He says that no matter what some may think, immigrants are hungry to learn English, and the ABE programs often have long waiting lists. He adds that, unfortunately, when most of us think of education, we think of early childhood, K-12 and higher education, "and low-skilled adults are often left out." One of his concerns is that, as boomers retire, we will see a shortage of skilled workers.

Carmen Becerra says she got her GED to set a good example for her children. "I also want them to know it's never too late to go back to school," she says. "I never went to school. Here I got the opportunity to get my GED. I couldn't have done that in Mexico." She says that Rita Bulger, her teacher at Harmony was a great support when she was working toward her GED. "She kept saying I could do it," says Carmen. "They are encouraging."

Carmen, who currently works out of her home researching contacts for a local business, wants to take the Certified Nursing Assistant program and test through the Red Cross so that she can work in a nursing home and eventually in a hospital.

Jose wants to become a journeyman ... and maybe someday a hybrid mechanic.

Jose and Carmen are dreaming of making a better life for themselves and their family. They're glad their kids are growing up in Minnesota so they can dream too.

— Jackie Dubbe can be reached at dupoint@aol.com.

Note: This article is available for use across the state. There are two versions of the article for submission to local newspapers, along with a template designed for use by ABE programs to add local program information. The photograph file is available by contacting ckinville@literacyminnesota.org.