Students hear from community difference makers

About 150 students from high schools around Odessa learned about the backgrounds of prominent people in the community Tuesday as part of Leer es Saber, or Reading is Knowing.

Organized by Hispanic Heritage of Odessa and the League of United Latin American Citizens, the program was held at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church and was billed as a Columbus Day Reading Program.

The event featured presentations from Odessa Police Chief Mike Gerke, Fire Marshal Michelle Cervantes, Odessa High School Principal Mauricio Marquez and Marisol Chriesman, director of corporate and foundation relations and endowment compliance officer at University of Texas Permian Basin.

The theme was AHORA, the immediate response to stroke victims.

Each dignitary described the journey that has gotten them to this point.

Gerke grew up in Pecos on a family farm picking cantaloupes and chopping cotton. He was planning to go to University of Texas at Austin to be a chemistry major. But between high school and college, he went to a party where his best friend was shot and killed. When he was 17, Gerke said he was a pallbearer at his best friend’s funeral.

“… That wakes you up, so even when I was at UT it just didn’t feel right. So I came home, I worked on the family farm for a little bit and at some point I said, you know what, law enforcement is where I need to be. And our theory of law enforcement and Odessa Police Department is there are some bad people in this world. I think we saw that on Aug. 31, 2019, when there was an active shooter. There were some bad people, but by and large most of the people in this community are great people,” Gerke said.

“So in law enforcement, we say we need to focus on those really bad people and everyone else you just make their lives better …,” he added.

Gerke asked the students to ask themselves what they can do to make their community, family and this world a better place.

Fire Marshal Michelle Cervantes was born in Alpine and grew up in Andrews.

Cervantes targeted her talk to the young women in the room.

She noted that it’s not easy to get in and advance, but it is changing drastically in that you see more women in powerful positions.

She urged them to do whatever they want, set goals, make sure they finish school and don’t give up.

“Because again, it’s not easy for women. You probably have to work a little bit harder, but the rewards are great,” Cervantes said.

Galindo said he was born in Odessa, but lived in Mexico for a few years. He said he got to experience the culture, which has helped him in his career as a law enforcement officer as he can speak Spanish fluently.

“… But one thing I want to tell you is you have to find something that you like. When I was your age, when I was in high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do either,” Galindo said.

He added that he was blessed because he had an uncle who worked for federal law enforcement. He got to go around with his uncle and realized that was something he was interested in.

“So I enrolled in the academy and did what I had to do, and now, like I say, I’ve been here 25 years. I love what I do. Every day is something new, something different. I love working with the community. Like I said, I like what I do, so my best advice to you is to find something that you like to d, and work your career around that,” Galindo said.

Marquez grew up in Monahans. His parents came to Texas from Mexico and his father died when Marquez was 6 leaving his mother to raise Marquez and his three brothers.

“I was 6; my little brother was 8; my oldest brother was 10. Most people would say that I grew up poor. We didn’t have much. But truth be told, I won the lottery the day I was born … because I was born to a lady by the name of Rosa Marquez,” Marquez said.

He added that even though they didn’t have financial means, they had what they needed. He pointed out that there’s a difference between what we want and what we need.

“And my mom always made sure that we had everything that we needed, which was called family. When I got home every day, and my brothers got home, there was always food on the table. Even though she could not help us with our work because she did not speak English,” she made them do their work, Marquez said.

He added that his mother knew that education would one day change the trajectory of their lives.

“When I was around your age, I knew what I was going to do because I had an amazing mother who helped me along my journey. And then I had amazing teachers, coaches (and) principals that helped me throughout my journey. Like my head basketball coach. I just told you that I lost my father when I was 6. My head basketball coach became a father figure. Because I was fairly good, I was a team captain and sometimes I thought I was too good to practice and he put me back in place,” Marquez said.

He thanked his coach for doing that and his teachers for helping him along the way.

Chriesman also is from Monahans. Her parents came to the United States separately from Mexico.

“They met later on in life in Monahans. They didn’t come together; they came with their families or cousins,” she said.

“I don’t know how many of you can relate to that. It is a tough, tough life when you are first generation born here in the United States. We are stuck between two worlds. We are stuck with our Mexican family, and I say Mexican because at that time when my family got here, they were still Mexican. They were not Americanized. They were not assimilated. They were here for a better life. And for that, I thank them. I was also not American, because … the other kids in my grade would call me Mexican. They’d say there’s the Mexican kid. Then they would use the derogatory term because Spanish was my only language. I didn’t know English when I started school, so I was in those ESL classes. So I go back and look at my pictures. I was with all my Mexican kids. They came over around the same time their parents did. And that’s what I was known for. I had my destiny planned for me. All my parents could ask me was (to) at least graduate high school. But after that, you’re going to get married, you’re going to stay home, and you’re going to have babies. That’s how I was raised. They didn’t do that because they didn’t want the best for me. That’s all they knew,” Chriesman said.

Her parents didn’t push education; they pushed work. She started working at age 13 in Monahans.

“It was hard for me to be in extracurricular activities because I needed to work, not to pay bills,” Chriesman said.

She thanked her parents for that.

“They never took any of my pay for bills. But they did say if you want to play volleyball, if you want to be in drama, if you want to go to prom, if you want nice clothes at the beginning of the year, that’s on you. That will really motivate you to be successful when you get older because I wanted nice clothes, I wanted to play volleyball, I wanted to go to prom. And they couldn’t afford it for me. My dad worked in the oilfield. The oilfield back then is not what it is now. He did not make that kind of money,” Chriesman said.

Her mother was a cook where Chriesman worked.

Her family didn’t have a lot of money, but like Marquez’s family, they didn’t know they were poor and they had what they needed.

A teacher took Chriesman under her wing in her gifted and talented class in fourth grade and told Chriesman to push herself.

All she wanted to do was go to college, although she wasn’t sure what it was.

“I am the first person in my family on both sides of the family with a bachelor’s degree. It is in communications. My goal was to be a newscaster and I quickly realized I don’t want to get up at 2:30 in the morning …,” she said.

She also declared she was going to leave West Texas and never come back.

“Here we are. It’s that magnet, and you know what, this is the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve had the most career opportunities here. I worked in the nonprofit sector. I’ve worked with men and women with Chief Gerke’s office working child abuse cases here in Ector County. I’ve testified in court for those kids. I advocate for children and teenagers, because I didn’t have anyone to do that for me. So if you want to go to college, I will make sure to find a way to get you to college. I am also the first in my family to have a master’s degree, a master’s in Public Administration,” Chriesman said.

She earned her master’s at age 38 because she couldn’t afford to go on to graduate school after college.

“It was baby steps to get to where I’m at now and I still have goals for myself,” she said.

She is now married and has 9-year-old twin boys.

“If you go to school, get a trade, get a certification, you don’t just change your life, you change your children’s lives and your family’s life,” she said.

Odessa High School sophomores Mia Madrid and Valerie Herrera, both 15, said the speakers Tuesday were inspiring, especially Chriesman.

“They inspired me to work harder than I usually do, especially … the lady from UTPB really inspired …,” Madrid said.

OHS AVID Director Naomi Fuentes said it was hugely important for the students to see people from the community who have done well.

“They need to see people like them in these positions,” so that they know it’s achievable, Fuentes said.

She noted that it was also important it doesn’t matter where you come from.

“You are not your circumstances. Your choices are what drive your life, not where you were born. I loved that message today,” Fuentes said.