When Mario Magaña was 15, he made a tough decision: quit middle school and return to his family’s farm so his younger siblings had a chance for an education. Magaña loved school, which was 30 miles from his home in Los Horcones, Michoacán, Mexico, but he sacrificed anyway. His father could no longer afford the rent, meals and tuition for six children. So Mario stayed home to grow corn, sesame, rice, sorghum and watermelon with his brothers, sisters and parents; he gave up, temporarily, dreaming of an education.
The idea that he would one day go to college, get an advanced degree and become a faculty member at a university seemed unlikely, even impossible. But he didn’t stop. With help from others and a desire to create a better life for his daughters, he persevered. Now, Magaña has become an inspiration for young Latinos to build pride and skill through education.
Today, Magaña is a 4-H Regional Extension Educator at Oregon State University, creating educational programs and camps for Latino youth in Oregon. “I wanted to help Latino kids and families succeed, especially those who are in the same or worse situation that I was before. I wanted to give them educational and safe activities to go to,” Magaña says.
The road to his education was a long one. He came to the United States when he was 20, enticed by a cousin, who told him stories about cars, dancing, and – key to a better future – money. “In the 1980s in Mexico there was a depression. We tried to raise crops, and we weren’t able to make back what we invested. My friends and family started going to the U.S., so I left too,” he explains.
He entered the country without a visa, walking hours to cross the border. During the trip from Chula Vista, Calif. to Los Angeles, he hid in the trunk of a 1973 Ford LTD, escorted by a coyote, a person paid to smuggle immigrants. Eventually, he arrived in Washington state in the middle of winter, ill-equipped for the harsh climate. When he found a job, he gravitated toward what was most natural to him: picking apples, cherries and asparagus; driving tractors; pruning fruit trees.
Citizen and Father
It took him nearly a decade before he was able to continue his education at a Washington State University High School Equivalency program, which he’d heard about on the radio while he was working in an apple orchard. By this time, Magaña was married, a legal resident and a father of two daughters.
During his educational program, he caught the attention of a counselor, who urged him to apply to college so he could set a good example for his children. “When the counselor asked me for my social security number so he could fill out a college application for me, I gave it to him only to please him, to make him happy,” he says. He never thought anything would come of it. He didn’t think anything could.
A year later, though, Magaña got a call from a staff member at Oregon State’s College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP). He had been accepted at Oregon State University.
There were still difficult decisions to make. Magaña and his wife, Norma, had a new car; they were buying a home; she was seven months pregnant. Who would pay for the car and their house in Grandview, Wash., Magaña wondered. How would they manage?
In the end, they returned the car and agreed that he would see if he could make progress at Oregon State.
Initially college was no less daunting than other hurdles he had faced. He spoke limited English, so he sat at the front of his classes with a tape recorder. He listened to his lectures over and over again, even in bed at night. He made friends who shared their notes with him. He bought a Spanish/English dictionary and used it so much it wouldn’t close.
“After the first year, things started getting easier. I was at least able to understand the lectures,” Magaña says. “After two years I finally understood what my counselor was saying. I could do whatever I wanted.”
After an internship with 4-H in Yamhill County, Magaña decided what he wanted to do: work with Latino kids. He got help from Scott Reed, then assistant dean in the College of Forestry, to apply for a master’s degree in forestry with minors in adult education and Spanish at OSU. For his thesis, he investigated the experience of Mexicans working in Oregon’s forestry industry.
As an undergraduate in forestry and an intern in OSU’s PROMISE program, Magaña impressed Reed. “He was very intelligent and driven. Mario creates pathways for people. He’s improving the lives of people who interact with him, and he’s doing it one family at a time,” Reed says.
Currently, Magaña is hoping to develop a program to enable Extension educators to travel to the Mexican states of Jalisco and Michoacán so they can learn the language and better understand students from Mexico. A large number of Mexican immigrants to Oregon come from those two states.
Ultimately, Magaña wants to minimize immigration to the United States. “I always ask the questions, ‘How can we make land in Mexico more productive? How can we make more technological advances to create jobs so that people don’t feel the need to come here, so that the family fabric in Mexico isn’t torn apart?’”
Meanwhile, he has become a role model for his daughters. Two of them, Ariz and Laura, attend OSU. As a Bill and Melinda Gates Scholar and a major in bioresource research, Laura has received full funding for college through the Ph.D. level. Magaña isn’t sure whether his third daughter, Itzel, will attend OSU, but he’s confident that she’ll continue her education.
“My long-term goal is to help families to succeed and sustain our Mexican culture,” he says. “I want all families to be able to have what mine did.”