Oct 13, 2022
By: Katherine Trowbridge
Maria Gutierrez came to Connell High School not knowing any English. She worked in the fields while attending school for a year, before getting into the WorkSource program that provided a job for her over the summers at Little Angels Daycare, with Kathy Silva. Gutierrez was hired by Silva following high school. She graduated from CHS in 2003 with a 3.5 GPA, an accomplishment in itself with her limited English. Gutierrez gave accolades to the Hispanic Academic Achievers Program (HAAP) which recognized her efforts. She shared, “Jamie Escalante spoke and afterwards he signed our certificates at the ceremony I attended.”
Gutierrez was the first in her family to graduate high school and attend college, but her path isn’t an easy one to success. While her hard work in her two years at CHS paid off with a scholarship from WorkSource, along with a letter to attend Central Washington University, Gutierrez stated she didn’t get to utilize the scholarships. About a year after high school, she married Milkar Gutierrez.
Gutierrez went on to share that it wasn’t marriage that stopped her from attending college. “My parents brought me here when I was young, illegally,” she shared, “Without a valid social security number, you cannot attend college.” She went on to explain, “Getting a visa is so hard. There’s no real path to citizenship.” The way she went about it was through marriage. Yet, even then, she had to go back to Mexico and do it the right way. To get a waiver and come back. Milkar shared that it was a year without his wife and kids. It was a sacrifice but worth it for the couple. It took another three years after coming back “the right way” before Gutierrez was able to become a citizen. She didn’t discredit her parents’ efforts, stating they were “coming over here to get a better future.”
“All my sisters came the same way,” she said. One sister is still in Mexico and serves as a nurse there. Another is a stylist at Dyana’s Salon in downtown Connell. Another is a secretary working to get her AA degree.
Gutierrez did indeed go to college in 2015 after receiving her citizenship. Gutierrez said enthusiastically, “I always loved school.” She also has 16 years experience through church as a Sunday school teacher, so she went into education. Milkar expressed, “She is still going for her Master’s. She’s never gonna stop learning.” Her Master’s will be in English Language Learners. As she puts it, “Because I know how difficult it is to learn a second language, ‘cause I have experienced it.” Gutierrez works for the North Franklin School District serving in all buildings and for the past two years has worked at Connell High School as an English Teacher for the Special Education department.
Jessica Infante Castro, a counselor at the school said, “Her story is so powerful. First generation student. She connects well with students and is another Hispanic woman making a difference in our community and student lives.”
Gutierrez said of her two years at the high school, working within the reading program, she has seen that the majority of the students are Hispanic. “That program will help them find jobs, apply for college, I can see more of my students in well-paying jobs.” Support programs for special education like Skill Source out of Othello and DVR in Kennewick are bridging gaps for students allowing them to do workshops, job shadowing, site visits, and career exploration. “I see them even more looking forward to a future.... not just that they can’t.” Gutierrez’ students are more inclined to have learning or language barriers to success but these can be overcome or strategies used to help these students to succeed. She added very enthusiastically, “Oh, I love my job. I love what I do.”
Along with giving back to future CHS graduates, Gutierrez along with her husband, are giving back to the community in numerous ways. Milkar pastors the Apostolic Christian Church and Maria runs the clothing bank though the church at no charge to the community. The couple has also started a program for youth. Milkar, a product of the Connell Police Department’s Night Court, as a youth himself in the community under then Officer Dale Kuehny, modeled the new program in the same way. “Youth Cave” is held every other Friday for any student (age 15 and older) where they can come, play games, have a snack, and connect in a positive environment. Milkar is also part of the Connell Police Department.
Maria also assists people with paperwork, translating, and immigration paperwork.
“Because there is a need for a childcare center, me and my sister are in the process to open a childcare center,” she shared.
She has also joined the Connell Community Club, “I want to get the Latino community more engaged with activities,” she said. “Hopefully this Winterfest is one of the best. We’re getting a lot of people involved.”
She sees herself and others in the Hispanic community as forerunners for others who will see more getting involved and perhaps feel they can as well, not just in the community but in school as well. Often Hispanics don’t feel they can be involved or feel like “why should I go; I won’t be able to understand it anyway,” she explained, “One of the reasons Hispanics or parents don’t get involved is the culture. In Mexico teachers are very respected. They are trusted and parents rely on the teachers... All the power is given to the teacher. Like if a student is acting up, the parents believe the teacher is there to take care of it, they don’t need to be involved. As teachers here in the US, we don’t have the same authority. So, parent involvement is crucial.”
The Gutierrez’ have been married for 17 years now, with two kids; a junior (age 17) and a freshman (age 14). Their 17-year-old is now a Running Start student, attending Columbia Basin College while in high school. They said, “Running Start is another outcome of being involved in your children’s education.”
Gutierrez circled back to why her parents and many others come to the US, to get a better future...”Many of the students that graduate Connell High School are Latinos, do they fulfill the dreams of those parents coming here?”
They added, “A good way to embrace our Hispanic Heritage is to teach our kids Spanish - Bilingual.”