Never give up on a dream

Re-entry student Raymundo Reyes, who dropped out of high school to raise seven siblings, is on to his next chapter—a literature degree from UC Santa Cruz

Literature and Spanish studies major Raymundo Reyes, who worked 40 different jobs while raising his younger siblings, hopes to become a writer/public speaker and a college professor. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Raymundo Reyes's first job was selling lipstick at a swap meet.

He was 14 at the time, only three years away from the day he would drop out of high school to raise his seven siblings, and he didn't know a string of 40 different jobs lay ahead.

Over the next two decades, in order to support his siblings, Reyes says he drove a bread truck, dug ditches, and worked the night shift at a gas station in Pico Rivera where a person could get shot for not much more than refusing to sell a six-pack after 2 a.m.

He taught swimming, worked in restaurant kitchens, jackhammered sidewalks, delivered exotic dancers to their jobs, and piloted movie stars to the Academy Awards in a sleek limousine.

Now 44, Reyes has a new job in mind.

The UC Santa Cruz literature and Spanish studies major hopes to become a writer/public speaker and a college professor some day.

"I want to present myself as someone who has confronted life and endured life in many ways and, because of those challenging ways, I have learned great lessons," Reyes says. "The most important one is to never give up on a dream regardless of how difficult it may appear to be."

Reyes's father was Spanish. His mother was African-American and lived in Veracruz, Mexico. His childhood took him to Italy, New York, Mexico, and Spain. By the time he was a teenager, however, he was living in Echo Park in Los Angeles. His parents, he says, had been out of the picture for a long time.

Three weeks before graduation, Reyes says, he dropped out of high school in order to fill the role his parents had abandoned: doing laundry, cooking dinner, driving his siblings to school, and working whatever job he could find.

"It was challenging emotionally to try to appear strong to your siblings when you are breaking apart inside … knowing your parents aren't there," says Reyes, fighting back tears. "It has, by far, been the most difficult experience of my life, yet the most rewarding one."

His only friends, he says, were Jesus and the writers who inspired him: Voltaire, Thoreau, Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr., among others.

Although it was hard, Reyes says he is proud of the job he did raising his siblings.

"None of them are in jail, even though they grew up in a neighborhood full of gangs," he says. "None of them are addicted to drugs or alcohol. They have good families."

Once his siblings were out of the house, Reyes quit his construction job with the aim of earning a university degree . He was accepted to several UC campuses, including UCLA and Berkeley, but it was UC Santa Cruz that offered the beauty and the welcoming environment he sought.

With credits he had earned at five different community colleges, he arrived at UC Santa Cruz to study literature.

"I think writing is a powerful instrument to set up a life legacy with your own message," says Reyes who is affiliated with Oakes College and will graduate in 2015. "In a way, every person is a book ready to be written or waiting to be read."

Sally Lester, lead coordinator for UC Santa Cruz's STARS program (Services for Transfer and Re-entry Students), says she admires Reyes's "generosity of spirit and desire to learn."

She tells the story of how Reyes, a peer counselor for STARS, once saw a man selling oranges on a sidewalk, bought every last orange, and gave the fruit away.

"Although, as a student, Raymundo lives on a very tight budget, he remembers when his situation was as desperate as the orange-seller and feels it is his responsibility to help others," Lester says.

Besides his studies, Reyes volunteers at the Office of Physical Education, Recreation and Sports, and works odd jobs on weekends. His other job, he says, is to apply for scholarships. This year alone, he received seven scholarships, including the Rita Pister Scholarship, the UC Santa Cruz Undergraduate Scholarship, and EOP Student Award.

Reyes remembers how a high-powered businessman riding in his limousine once told him that success came from finding a dollar every single day.

"I asked him, 'How do you find a dollar every day?,' and he said, 'I just look for it,'" Reyes says.  "I believe the opportunities are there and I just have to look for them too."