Jose Anzaldo standing near his home in Salinas | Claudia Meléndez Salinas
By Ilyne Junuén Castellanos
Salinas High School student Jose Anzaldo had just finished one of his distance-learning classes when he noticed an incoming call from an unfamiliar number. To his surprise, it was a UC Berkeley student telling him that he had been nominated for one of Berkeley’s most prestigious scholarships — the Fiat Lux Scholarship.
Anzaldo had dreamed of attending UC Berkeley since he was in third grade, and after being accepted to the university in late March his nomination for the Fiat Lux scholarship meant the possibility of a full-ride scholarship to the university of his dreams.
Growing up in Salinas, Anzaldo was the subject of a PBS Independent Lens documentary, “East of Salinas,” released in 2015. The film followed Anzaldo’s life as an undocumented student navigating his education with the help of Oscar Ramos, his third-grade teacher at Sherwood Elementary School, who would go on to become his mentor and close friend.
A study published in 2020 estimated that more than 450,000 undocumented students are enrolled in college, making up 2 percent of all postsecondary students. Over half of them are eligible for or are DACA recipients.
“The documentary covered a lot about my life,” said Anzaldo. “It helped challenge my mentality so that I could understand that there’s more to work than just doing and finishing it. My work will eventually contribute to something bigger.”
The experience has had long-lasting effects on Anzaldo’s life. The filmmakers behind “East of Salinas,” Laura Pacheco and Jackie Mow, have continued to support Anzaldo throughout his university application process by helping him find scholarships and other resources.
“In Salinas, it’s not talked about too much, but there’s a lot of trouble in school … It’s definitely something that’s been around me and the entire time that I’ve been in here, but thanks to them [Pacheco and Mow], and thanks to those people who have supported me, I’ve been able to push through those things and even help people around me focus on their main goals.”
Anzaldo’s experiences at Salinas High helped him narrow down what career he wanted to pursue. He is determined to become a social worker, and experiences like CHAMACOS (Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers & Children of Salinas), where he was involved with its research program, helped him learn about the chemicals and conditions that negatively impact field workers, like his mother, and their families.
A study published in 2020 estimated that more than 450,000 undocumented students are enrolled in college, making up 2 percent of all postsecondary students. Over half of them are eligible for or are DACA recipients, but as President Joe Biden calls for immigration reform, Dreamers like Anzaldo are still uncertain about what a pathway to a stronger DACA program and citizenship might look like in the future.
“Living the lifestyle I lived, with the platform that I grew up with, I got to experience a lot of comments and hurtful things from people who would say, ‘Why are we investing so much time and energy on students who are undocumented?’” Anzado said. “I just try my best to not focus on those comments and prove that there is something worth in anyone, no matter what status you hold, or where you’re from, or where your background is.”
While serving in the state Assembly, Supervisor Luis Alejo watched “East of Salinas” and soon got in touch with Anzaldo. “As an elected official, it’s been good to see Jose share his inspirational story, but also his hard work, his dedication and his ability to overcome all odds,” Alejo said. Following the documentary, Alejo became a mentor for Anzaldo and helped him apply to DACA.
“Jose’s story is also the story of a dreamer who was shut out … Even though he tried to raise the money for his application, he didn’t have the opportunity for four years under the previous president to apply to get his DACA status,” said Alejo. The supervisor said he believes Anzaldo’s public presence will have a positive influence on other students who have faced similar situations.
“By sharing his story, I hope that it will inspire other young people that I’m sure have gone through the exact same experiences. The fact that Jose could stay focused and overcome every barrier that has come his way is really an inspiration for all of us as a community, but also for a lot of young people.”
A challenge Anzaldo faced as an undocumented first-generation would-be college student was a lack of access to information and resources. “Growing up, I was lucky enough to have developed a mindset to be able to look for the answers and find a way,” said Anzaldo. He said he thinks many students are not given the proper resources and attention needed for them to succeed.
Programs like AVID at Salinas High helped Anzaldo learn more about higher education and the steps he would need to be successful. With the guidance of his teacher, McKenzie Briney, he was able to visit Berkeley and other universities and put into action a plan to attend his dream school.
As Anzaldo worried about whether he would become a Fiat Lux Scholar, his mother did not have a doubt in her mind. On April 23, Anzaldo’s mother was proven right, and Jose found out that he was going to his dream school on a full-ride scholarship.
“I have a bigger purpose than I might even realize and that’s something that I plan to fulfill with this scholarship and opportunities that are ahead of me,” said Anzaldo. “To other undocumented students, I want you to know that … as long as you keep persevering, you’re gonna get through those tough times.”
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