‘We have shared memories as a family’: All eight children of farmworkers are Hornet alums

Henry Barela was a brilliant child. And he never let his own kids forget it. 

“We heard all these stories that he was the smartest guy in the class,” said Jesus Barela, the fifth of Henry’s eight children. “We wanted to be like him.” 

One thing Henry didn’t have, however, was someone who encouraged him to go to college, and his kids knew how that missed opportunity frustrated him. 

Over the course of nearly three decades at Sacramento State, they more than made up for it. 

Ultimately, with all of Henry and wife Catalina’s children becoming Hornet alums, few families are likely to have a stronger claim than the Barelas to being Made at Sac State. The University helped transform the family of farmworkers, barely removed from returning to the United States from a decade in Mexico, into a family of scholars. 

Seven of the Barela children graduated from Sac State with bachelor’s degrees. Five obtained master’s degrees and another two earned teaching credentials, all from Sac State. Two later earned doctorates elsewhere. 

“We have shared memories as a family,” said Eva Barela, the oldest sibling. “We all went to Sac State, and we can relate to each other.” 

Henry Barela sits at a table and listens to three of his children, as a portrait of him and his wife Catalina hangs in the background.
Henry Barela listens to three of his children talk about their time at Sacramento State, as a portrait of him and his wife Catalina hangs in the background. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Many parts of the Barela family story are familiar. Henry started as a farmworker in 1957, earning about $7 a day in San Joaquin County. The family moved constantly as Henry sought better opportunities. They returned to Mexico and, from 1970 to 1980, lived in Jalisco, a central-Mexican state that stretches to the country’s West coast. There they ran several small businesses including a toy store, a tostada factory and an animal feed supply. 

When the Mexican economy stagnated in 1980, they returned to the United States, eventually settling in a migrant camp in Solano County. The oldest children worked alongside their parents in the fields. 

But an important reason for returning to the U.S. was Henry’s desire for his children to have the education he missed. When a high school counselor told Eva in 1982 that she could attend Sacramento State through the newly created College Assistance Migrant Program for children of migrant workers, Henry drove her to campus to meet with a CAMP adviser. She was admitted that summer. 

“Sac State became my home,” Eva said. “I was there all the time. I learned how to socialize. I became part of the life at Sac State.” 

Martha Reyes, the next oldest, followed Eva to Sac State a year later. They soon were joined by brothers Luis, Alejandro and Jesus. They drove together to campus each day from Solano County, arriving at 6:30 a.m. and often staying until 6:30 p.m. 

Eva was the trailblazer for her younger siblings. But the family also received support from the faculty and fellow students, especially Latinx faculty and friends and mentors they met in CAMP, bonding over shared experiences and heritage. Those relationships led one mentor to connect Luis with an internship at McClellan Air Force Base, leading to his current work as a civilian engineer for the United States Marine Corps. 

At Sacramento State, the Barelas found ways to branch out, leading Eva and Martha to study abroad. Martha said her studies in Mexico City deepened her appreciation for her culture. Jesus became a campus activist as a member of the Mexican American student group MEChA, helping push University leadership to create a multicultural center and even serving as a bodyguard for Cesar Chavez when the late renowned labor leader spoke on campus in 1991. 

Martha Reyes, from left, Eva Barela and Jesus Barela listen to their father, Henry Barela.
Martha Reyes, from left, Eva Barela and Jesus Barela listen to their father, Henry Barela. All eight of the Barela children attended Sacramento State. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

They also knew they had a support system back home in Solano County, where their parents still worked in the fields. 

“They sacrificed a lot,” said Martha, who works for Sacramento State Student Affairs. “They could have made us work, but no. Instead, they were always supportive. Mom would say, ‘You have an exam? Let me fix you something.’ ” Catalina Barela died in 2003. 

Eventually, the younger children – Lorena, Oscar and Diana – followed their older siblings to become Hornets. Diana, the youngest, graduated in 2009, completing a nearly three-decade Sacramento State story for the Barela family. Over the years, graduations became family reunions and mini-alumni reunions rolled into one. 

“It made a big difference for our younger siblings, to be there at every graduation,” Martha said. Each graduation reinforced the expectation that all the Barela children would attend college, to graduate. And each graduation further validated Henry Barelas’ decision to move his family back to the United States. 

Now, 38 years after she enrolled at Sacramento State, Eva Barela says she and her siblings can serve as an example to other young people from migrant families, especially those who think a college degree is out of reach. 

“Don’t feel that you can’t go to college,” she said. “Give college a chance and have self-confidence. If we made it, anyone can do it.” 

The Barela Family

  • Eva Barela ’90 (Spanish and Portuguese), MA ’93 (Spanish)
  • Martha Reyes ’91, MA ’98 (Spanish)
  • Luis Jimenez ’91, MS ’03 (Electrical and Electronic Engineering)
  • Alejandro Barela ’92 (Liberal Studies and Credential), MSW ’14
  • Jesus Barela ’95 (Art), Credential ’96, MA ’09 (Art Studio)
  • Lorena Barela (attended ’93-’94)
  • Oscar Jimenez-Castellanos ’99 (Liberal Studies and Credential)
  • Diana Barela ’09 (Sociology)
A portrait of Henry and Catalina Barela hangs in Martha Reyes’ dining room above traditional Mexican figurines and a photo of Catalina. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Three Sacramento State alums win 2019 Estrella awards

Sacramento State was well represented at the 2019 Estrella awards, which were presented Dec. 10: Three of the four honorees are Hornet alums.

Leslie Valdivia-Rivas ’14 (Public Relations), co-founder of Vive Cosmetics, received the Rising Estrella award; Maritza Davis ’07 (Public Relations), vice president of experiences and social responsibility for the Sacramento Kings, received the Inspiration Estrella Award; and Alice Perez ’99 (Finance and Insurance), a director with AT&T External Affairs, was honored with the Legacy Estrella Award.

The awards are given annually by the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (SHCC) to recognize Latinas making an impact in the Sacramento region.

In addition to the alumna honorees, Sacramento State alumna and award-winning mariachi singer Beatriz Figueroa ’19 (Sociology) provided entertainment during a lunch before the award program. Figueroa is a familiar face to the Hornet Family, having served as the national anthem singer at Commencement for the past three years.

Davis, who was introduced by SHCC Board Chair and Sacramento State Vice President for Public Affairs and Advocacy Phil Garcia, spent a decade redefining community in Sacramento as the co-founder, with her husband and fellow alum Roshuan, of Unseen Heroes, a marketing and events agency responsible for events such as GATHER: Oak Park and the Midtown Farmers Market. Last year, she took a position with the Kings, where her responsibilities include managing programs such as the Junior Kings and more than 350 community events annually.

In her remarks, she encouraged attendees to continue to work on behalf of the city and the city’s youth.

“Sacramento is an amazing city, we are amazing people that all come together,” Davis said. “It really does take a village every single day.”

At AT&T, Perez is the public safety and emergency response lead and a liaison to local governments and nonprofits in 11 counties. She previously worked as president/CEO of the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce and as vice president and director of U.S. Bank’s national multicultural banking initiatives. She has been recognized widely for her work in the community, and currently serves on the board of the University Foundation at Sacramento State.

Perez was introduced by her daughter Renee Nelson, and took the stage to standing ovation. In her remarks, she highlighted the importance of putting words into actions when it comes to making change in Sacramento.

“It’s important that we lead the change that we want to see, and we don’t just talk about the things that need to occur to make a difference in the community, but that we take a stance and that all of us owns it,” she said.

Valdivia-Rivas was unable to attend the ceremony, and her sister accepted the award on her behalf. The first in her family to graduate from college, Valdivia-Rivas co-founded Vive Cosmetics in 2016 after realizing the lack of Latinx representation in the beauty industry. The company has been featured in Oprah Magazine, Buzzfeed, Teen Vogue and Latina magazine.

Three-time alum works to help upcoming teachers better resemble students they will lead

Before college, Karina Figueroa-Ramirez had never been in a class led by a Latinx teacher.

When she became a teacher years later, many people assumed she either taught Spanish or kindergarten.

“What really made me think was when people would tell me I didn’t look like a teacher,” Figueroa-Ramirez said. “What does a teacher look like?”

Throughout California, education faces a major challenge: Teachers of the state’s K-12 students don’t reflect the state’s diversity. That means, like Figueroa-Ramirez, a child can go through school never seeing someone who looks like them at the front of the classroom.

Today, the three-time Sacramento State alumna is drawing on that experience at her alma mater, where she is the College of Education’s equity coordinator. Through her work, she plays a leading role in the College’s efforts to recruit, retain and graduate into the teaching profession first-generation, multi-cultural and multi-lingual students.

Figueroa-Ramirez’s primary job responsibility is advising students both within and outside the College of Education who might be considering teaching. When meeting with students, she works to learn and understand their academic and professional goals, so that she is better able to anticipate their questions and connect them to on- and off-campus resources.

Karina Figueroa-Ramirez’s work as the College of Education’s equity coordinator includes overseeing the College’s equity peer mentors, who in turn help support Sacramento State undergraduate students considering teaching as a profession. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

She also oversees the College’s educational equity peer mentors and is heavily involved in campus outreach efforts, such as establishing and maintaining “Future Teacher Clubs” at local high schools and community colleges.

“It’s a privilege to lead efforts in this capacity” she said. “I’m honored to have that opportunity to work with our students and guide them through their academic and professional journeys.”

In much of her work, Figueroa-Ramirez draws upon her own background as a first-generation college student and now a first-generation educator. She came to Sacramento State to study government, with a goal of working in policy. When one of her classmates suggested teaching, she couldn’t help but laugh.

“I said, ‘Me a teacher? You’re funny. No absolutely not,’ ” she said. “In retrospect, I think that was my reaction because I didn’t want to be vulnerable and I didn’t want to expose my insecurities in that setting, which were very obvious.

“I didn’t feel I had what it took to be a teacher. Growing up, I didn’t see teachers who represented my background, experiences and worldview.”

But others, including her father, continued to encourage her, as did a prominent staffer at the state Capitol, where she was a legislative intern, working on matters that included education bills. She started visiting schools and substitute teaching and eventually realized she was enjoying herself. Having earned her bachelor’s degree in 2005, she returned to Sacramento State for her credential and worked as a high school social science and history teacher. In 2012, she earned her master’s degree in bilingual and multicultural education.

Sacramento State was a welcoming community. Figueroa-Ramirez said her classes, faculty and fellow students helped validate, for the first time, experiences she had growing up as a Latina, including experiences such as microaggression and being ostracized.

The College of Education, with its emphasis on social justice, also challenged her to think differently about students. She learned to not define them by their deficits – for example, a “problem child” who inevitably will disrupt class – but instead by their potential.

“We work with students with a restorative lens,” she said. “Instead of judging students or treating them with a deficit way of thinking, we were trained to do the opposite, to see the best in students and how we may be agents of change in the classroom.”

In 2016, Figueroa-Ramirez returned to the University as an employee, and has spent much of the past three-plus years working to help ensure the next generation of teachers is more diverse and culturally competent.

Although it’s too soon to tell how well those efforts are paying off, some anecdotal evidence encourages her. The number of students graduating with a bilingual authorization has increased, and one education faculty member told her that he had never before seen as many Spanish-speaking students. In addition to Spanish-speakers, Figueroa-Ramirez also is working to increase the number of teaching candidates who earn a bilingual authorization in Hmong, a major need in California.

“To give voice to the voiceless, we need to have teachers who will work toward social justice, access and equity,” she said. “Research shows and points to the fact that students are more successful when they see themselves in their teachers. It’s such a powerful profession that provides access to the masses – time every day with students.”