Click below to listen to Alfonso Lopez’s interview.
Date: June 17th, 2022
Location: Lewis and Clark Elementary, Wenatchee, WA
Interviewer: Dulce Gutierrez Vasquez
Summary: Alfonso Lopez was born in Dolores, Oaxaca in Mexico on June 23rd, 1961 and studied to become a teacher by the age of 19. Lopez taught in Mexico for five years before immigrating to the U.S. to learn English with the intention of returning to Mexico to teach. Lopez stayed in the U.S. and worked on a cattle ranch and in agriculture in Ellensburg before pursuing a teaching credentials through Heritage University. Lopez worked as a teaching aide at Lincoln Elementary in Wenatchee, Washington but was then hired at Lewis and Clark Elementary upon graduating in 1994.
Lopez taught reading in English and Spanish to students as an increase of Latino students created a need for bilingual teachers. During the 27 years spent at Lewis and Clark, Lopez developed and directed a dual language program and eventually became the principal of the school. In 2022, Lopez will be finishing his last year at Lewis and Clark Elementary as he transitions to his new role as the Director of Hispanic Relations in the Wenatchee School District.
Lopez discussed the ways the schools have changed how they address educating Latino students and stressed the importance of all students becoming, “biliterate, bilingual, and bicultural.” Despite not being well received by the community during it’s early years, Alfonso Lopez and the dual language program have been recognized at the state and national level. In 1994, Lopez received the Washington State “Excellence in Teaching Award,” in 19961 the Milken Family Foundation’s “Outstanding Educator Award”, and in 2019 Lopez was the National Distinguished Principal of the Year for Washington State.
Lopez speaks on the cultural traditions he was raised with and expresses the importance of continuing. Lopez discusses his future goals for the community and future personal goals and ends with a message to the Wenatchee community to be more understanding of how Latinos provide for the entire community.
1The Milken Family Foundation lists 1998 as the award year.
Interview Transcript Below
Acronyms: GV= Dulce Gutierrez Vasquez; AL= Alfonso Lopez.
GV: Alright so the date is June 17, 2022 my name is Dulce Gutierrez Vasquez I am the interviewer with the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center for the oral history project of collecting Latinx community stories. I am at Lewis and Clark Elementary with Alfonso Lopez who is the principle here. Alfonso could you tell me your full name, and date of birth, and where you were born?
AAL: Yes my name is Alfonso Lopez and I was born in Mexico and my date of birth is June 23, 1961.
GV: What part of Mexico were you born?
AL: Oaxaca, Oaxaca state.
GV: Me too, what part of Oaxaca?
AL: Alright, yeah I am from Oaxaca. Oaxaca state.
GV: What city in Oaxaca?
AL: What’s that?
GV: What city in Oaxaca?
AL: There is, this is not a city it is a small town that is called Dolores. That is the name of this small town it’s like a little village but the closest city this place is to is Huajuapan de Leon.
GV: Ok, that’s where my family is from.
AL: Alright, good, yeah.
GV: Have you gone back to Dolores since you’ve left?
AL: Oh yeah, I have gone a few times since I left and I still have roots and a house there that I go when I take the time to go there.
GV: Ok, thank you. That’s a long way from Wenatchee, what brought you or your family to this area?
AL: Let me begin by saying that I um, I pursued a career in Mexico so I became a teacher at the age of 19. I taught in Mexican schools for five years and then after five years I decided to come to the US just with the goal in mind that I wanted to learn English and then I wanted to go back to Mexico and keep teaching in Mexican schools but then teach English. That was the original plan that brought me to the US so when I left I just asked for permission for, from my job and I thought that I was going to be ready to go back and six months. I just plan to come for six months but then things changed I came here and I didn’t have a chance to learn English especially in six months. It’s very short time to learn a second language even worse when I came I had to work in the apple orchards and then there all you find is Latinos that are speaking Spanish so therefore I didn’t have any chance to be exposed to English or had a chance to go to school during these six months. At the end of these six months, um, I could have- I could have gone back to Mexico but I felt like I hadn’t accomplished my goal so I decided to stay. So I lost my job in Mexico and I just stayed and I continued working in the apple orchards for about a six to seven years. With that, um, again even with these many years I didn’t have a chance to learn enough English, a little bit throughout these years.
AL: So when I got married I brought my wife and we ended also working in an apple orchard but the day came when the job was done because it was seasonal. So we didn’t have a place where to stay and that took me to Ellensburg where I found a job for me working in a cattle ranch doing all kinds of things like cleaning these horses stalls, mowing the yard, things like that is what I did for four years. As I was learning more English I was escalating positions there in this cattle ranch. Until one day after four years I decided to go back to school here in the US and get my credentials again to become a teacher. So that is basically what brought me to the U.S., to learn English.
GV: How old were you when you came?
AL: I was uh, 26…26 years old when I decided to come to the US when I came.
GV: That’s really young.
AL: Well I don’t know but it’s still I had my chance to uh, to see other culture how things work here in the US and then obviously it changed my life forever. I guess I noticed how different, different and how alike we are with the Anglo culture. And then by working with Latinos and by working with Anglos and this um, jobs that made me a different perspective. So um, throughout the years I learned the language and that is a key component of, be part of the culture in the US and when I didn’t know English I had a different perspective. Later when I learned English obviously my perspective changed and then when I went into education it was even better because again I had to start when I started my classes, when I moved back to Wenatchee from Ellensburg, when I left the cattle ranch, and I started my classes here in in in Wenatchee through Heritage University.
AL: Right away I was, um, I was hired in one of the schools here in Wenatchee, which is Lincoln Elementary School and I went to work there as a teacher’s aide while I was taking classes to get my certification. That took me three years to attend classes and for those three years I worked as a teacher’s aide. And then in the evenings, I was taking the classes finally after three years and also moving from Lincoln to Lewis and Clark during those years, I got my degree as a teacher and then the same day when I got my credentials, I was hired here and this is school, Lewis and Clark. Where I, I started teaching reading. That was my assignment to teach reading to teach reading in English but also reading in Spanish. The uh, numbers that we were getting in those years of kids coming from Latino roots, was big. A lot of, a lot of kids started to come to school so the need for bilingual teachers was great and that’s why I’m– that’s why, or one of the reasons why I was hired in this school. Just to serve the Latino kids, teaching them in Spanish, reading in Spanish but also to teach them reading in English.
AL: That is the way my uh, my profession began 27 years ago in this school, Lewis and Clark.
GV: Do you remember what year you started?
AL: That was in 1994. So it’s been quite a few years and I’m still here but this is my last year at this school too. So I’m moving out of this school after 27 years.
GV: Oh wow, what comes next for you?
AL: I’ve been, uh, I’ve been asked to do the Hispanic Director of Hispanic Relations in the Wenatchee School District. So I’ll be working more directly with Spanish speaking people, Latinos to bring them closer to education, closer to schools to get opportunities to be more visible, to have a voice, to have more equity in education. Because in the Wenatchee School District we have grown tremendously, the Latino group. And with that in mind, we still don’t have representation in different places in the community and society. So the Wenatchee School District is very open to start making those connections and having people that can link their experiences with their people that they represent, and that is my case. That’s why on July 1st I’ll be taking, I’ll be making this change.
GV: So after 30 years you have a lot of experience and perspective on, on why that’s so important, how do you think teaching has changed in Wenatchee from when you started 27 years ago to now? Where do you think the differences are? Or what would young you be surprised about?
AL: Well for sure things have changed, starting by the numbers again and the representations that we have on the numbers of Latinos and Anglos and other cultures or groups that we have in education. We were used to teach only in English to English speaking students when I first came. We were used to, to a population that spoke English, but then when Latinos started to come to school obviously the challenge was huge for schools because we didn’t know how to teach those students who did not know English. And besides they were having, they were bringing a new culture and culture is a big thing in schools too because we need to understand our students in order for them to, to achieve.
AL: If we don’t understand their culture, if they don’t they don’t, we don’t understand the way they see things, obviously that represents a big challenge. So a change that I have seen throughout the years is that schools little by little, it’s going very slow but little by little, we are opening doors for the underserved students which are Latinos. And when I say opening doors, what I mean by that is for example, the schools are hiring bilingual teachers. Although they don’t teach in Spanish but that connection or that skill is so imperative because the teachers need to communicate with parents and many parents don’t speak English. And then if they are not bilingual how are they gonna communicate? That is a struggle, so districts like when Wenatchee are more open hiring more diverse educators that can serve students and families in a better way.
AL: Now I’m talking about Wenatchee, that is my perspective that is one part that has changed but again we’re not there yet, where we need to be. We need a lot more representation in people that can serve and not only Latinos but also Caucasian students and other groups. So we need more diversity.
GV: Thank you, um where where- where would you like the direction of schools to go?
AL: For the years and experiences that I brought into education these many years, I know how difficult it is for Latinos to accommodated schools because of the different beliefs in their culture but also the language. But one of the things that I see in education is that, if the United states is one of the first world countries, we still need to do things a little different in my view in education and one of them is just educate our kids and our youth in a way that they are more global citizens. People that are more prepared to understand the world, because our world is shrinking, is becoming smaller not only that but I would like to see a school teaching languages because is very obvious that whoever speaks two or three languages are more prepared in live for themselves but also for the country. That would be a great benefit for our country to have a people educated that way. Another aspect is to teach students how to work together because many times we don’t do that, kids don’t understand one group or the other one and schools need to make an effort to bring all perspective together and teach students how to, how to live together. I’m leading this school, or I was leading this school where 16 years we have had a program called Dual Language and in this program, those are the things that we teach. Students become biliterate, bilingual, and bicultural. And if we do this in a good way, obviously are doing the- the job, and that is what I would like to see in the country, more schools doing this. Because preparing kids this way is preparing them for life and is again, not only for them but is for the country.
GV: So when I was researching and preparing for this interview I saw that the Dual Language program that you have been a part of has received a lot of recognition, including national recognition, I saw that in 2019 you got the National Distinguished Principle of the Year Award. And what was that like for you?
AL: I’m going to begin with other awards that I got, not because that I want to be mentioning my name or making my name bigger or something like that. The reason why I want to share this is that I feel that as an educator I have a responsibility to be a role model for kids that are coming through the system. And then the more they know that things can be accomplished, the more they will believe in themselves. And then I will feel like I am doing my job, so in 1980- in 1994 I got one of the first awards here in Washington. That was called the Excellence in Teaching Award that brought some name to the school. That was a state award, then in 1996 I got a national award that is called the Milken Family Foundation Award, that is nationally award to teachers in every state. And with that, recognition is coming to the procession and to the school, but also to the district. And then when students start seeing you that way they believe that things can be accomplished and then in 19- uh in 2019, I was awarded with the Principal of the Year for Washington State and then obviously that gave me the opportunity to do things, for kids, for the community and one of them was to have the blessing to visit the White House and have a chance to talk to educators at a national level and also people that are leading education in the US. That was one of my biggest blessing that I have gotten in life because they gave me a perspective of how things work at a national level but also it gave name to this school with this program we are having, the Dual Language Program, which is what I’m all about because I really believe that this is the way to educate kids.
GV: So the language program is really celebrated now, has that always been the case? Or did the community receive it differently when you first started?
AL: Yeah, absolutely. When we started our communities and our political views… and things are changing as the years come by. At the beginning when we started with this program 16 years ago we didn’t have a good reception. People did not accepting the program very well, for views, for their own views. Like, we live in the US, the national language of our country is English, why to do Spanish? Why to become a school that is like a Mexican school. Things like that. Obviously many people rejected the idea the school should be teaching all kids in two languages. But time went by and little by little, slowly people have understood that um, who doesn’t want their own kids to get the benefits of being bilingual, bicultural, and biliterate? That is going to open more doors for them. Who doesn’t like that? We need doctors, we need teachers, we need lawyers, that can serve in two or three languages. And if we prepare the kids that way, obviously the doors are opened for them. And again, I’m saying for the country too, because who knows, these kids can go and work in other countries as well. Nowadays there are different technology companies that are hiring people that need to work with other countries, many countries in the world, and if they, our kids, our people, speak those languages obviously we are going to be more powerful. So that is why I’m sold with this idea that this is the way to go.
GV: Thank you, earlier you talked but how it was important for schools to recognize students’ culture. Are there certain traditional aspects of your culture that are important to you?
AL: Yeah absolutely, when you lose your language, you lose your roots. And you lose your culture completely because language is culture, if you cannot communicate in that language obviously many things cannot be translated into the other language. So that is one of the main aspects that I would encourage people, not only Latinos, but other peoples that come from other countries with another language to cultivate to nurture to keep the language because the language is culture in the end and we see it in the Latino community here how people, when they speak and maintain their language, how different they behave because they know their culture, they know their roots.
AL: Little by little, one of the changes that I’m seeing though, is that um, young students, little kids when they come to schools, descendants of Latinos, they come speaking Spanish but as they go to school and the schools teach, um, in English only they start losing their Spanish. And if they don’t lose it completely, they don’t later speak it correctly. And that is obviously a big loss because now by having this asset of speaking one language when they are young why not nurture it, and then learn the English language in schools, and then become bilingual in life. That is going to give you all these benefits.
GV: That’s where I’m at, I lost a lot of it but I’m trying to relearn [laugh] a lot it now too.
AL: [laughs] Yes.
GV: I read really slow in Spanish. Are there any other traditions besides language that have been important besides language for you, for your family, that you’ve kept?
AL: Particularly for my family, and I would like also the Latino to continue having traditions like the way we celebrate mother’s day, for example. That is just one example, we are losing this tradition in the US. We don’t celebrate it the same way we celebrate it in Mexico, for example this tradition is a celebrated in schools in Mexico with programs in schools. Here, the schools don’t do it. In this school, we do it. But, um, it’s a way to celebrate someone that is very important. And the Latino culture, well, that is one of the things that I would like to keep. Keep those beliefs, uh, los Tres Reyes Magos, uh, for kids that grew up in Mexico especially, they believe in these Three Kings bringing some prizes or toys on, I believe it’s, January sixth. When they bring these toys because they have, they’ve been behaving nicely. This hasn’t come with Latinos to the US, instead we celebrate Santa Claus. Which, there is nothing wrong but what I’m saying is those parts of the Latino or Mexican culture is, we’re losing those.
AL: Other aspects like, more important aspects like, I guess is like, the way our language works. Spanish, and how much of the respect is embedded in the language which is not in the English language. And if we don’t speak in Spanish then we lose that respect to elders, for example, the word “Usted” which is an imperative in my view to keep using to give respect to people that deserve respect is just in Spanish. Now, with the new generation even if the speak Spanish in our communities, they don’t use this term and then that respect is lost right there. So for traditions like those, aspects like those, are important. It is important, to illustrate that being Latino is nothing wrong….being Latino means that to me, a hard worker. A person that, left their country or their countries and came to the US looking for better opportunities. Most Latinos are hard workers, I think, and can say most of them- most of them, we are here to provide with our intelligent or with our physical skills and when we talk about Latinos coming and taking away things, that is completely wrong.
GV: When you think about your childhood and your family, what were the traditions that meant the most to you?
AL: Well I mentioned already some of those because they are attached to prizes, or um things that we could earn by being good. But, um, other aspects of when I was young growing up in Mexico, one of the traditions that I wished we still had was the fact that we would, used to get together as kids and have different games that we don’t have anymore nowadays our kids are more exposed to technology with phones, iPhones, TV, little by little it’s less. But now kids are using a lot phones and videogames through the phones or at home that are obviously not considered a good part of education because instead of learning something good or positive, they are learning something violent, most of the time. For things like those, for things like this, one of things that I really appreciate is the way I grew up with my friends, playing games like marbles, and soccer maybe with the not even a soccer ball. Let me see what other things I still remember, one of the traditions too, that I think is really important to Latinos is- I remember the day we didn’t have TV or even radio and how beautiful it was to sit down with our families at dinner time and then the parents sharing their stories and their tradition orally. And then, that’s the way we learned a lot of things by listening to our parents an obviously that has a lot of benefits too because that keeps the parents and the kids and the families more together. Eating together, sharing stories together, more respect by listening to our parents the things that they knew, thing in our Latino community and in our Anglo group we are losing- we have lost- right now it is very rare to find families that spend time with their kids, sharing stories, or even reading books to them. Things like that. It’s easier in this new way of living, new way of doings things, just buy a phone for the kid and then leave me alone because I have to work or I have to work two works, two jobs, and then I don’t have time for my kids. And that obviously, comes later, translates into disconnection between the parents and the kid. And that translates later into troubles too.
GV: Do you have kids?
AL: I do-
GV: Were you able to teach them the games that you played? Canicas, or anything?
AL: Yeah, obviously because those are the games that I learned. When they were young, when they were little kids, we played all these games that I used to play. But again, obviously, as time went by they got into the new culture and they played later, different games. But yes, [smiles] for your question, I had a chance to teach all of these games that I learned. And again, now that they are more adults, they still remember these games and they enjoyed them a lot. Nowadays, they still play a little bit.
GV: Hopefully they’ll pass it down to their kids-
AL: Yeah, hopefully because it is part of what we are. We the Latinos.
GV: So you are moving onto a new position, and you’ve seen the community change a lot in these last 30 years, do you have any goals or hopes for yourself or for the community…for the future?
AL: Absolutely, like I said, I spent 27 years in this school and I think we built a good program with the beliefs that I’ve shared before; better education for all kids. Now that I’m moving into something different, I have goals and dreams that I still want to accomplish and one of them is to integrate the community more closely, because when you believe that diversity brings strength, then that is a good start. And I really believe that is the case. In my new position, my goal, my dream, is to connect the Latino community more with the things that we do, starting with the school. Make them aware that there are so many opportunities and many times because we don’t know them, then we miss those opportunities for our kids. But not only that not only that but bring the perspective of Latinos into education because people are very smart, they are intelligent, they have ideas but there is no connections where they can come and share their ideas openly. So the education would be more equal with more equity, that’s why my goal is to bring the community more into education but also into other aspects as well.
GV: What about for your personal goals?
AL: For my personal goals, I think I have been blessed with all the things that have happened in my life. Now that I am approaching to retirement, before I go, I never expected this position to be offered to me. The one that we are talking about, the director of Latino relationships with the Wenatchee School District, um, I never expected this to happen but my goal was to become a super intendent, I have my credentials to become a superintendent and lead a district. And my goal was to do that and to start applying and looing for a job in three years before I get to the point where I need to retire. But now with this opportunity, I still have that goal in mind that someday maybe, not in two years but in three years or four, I’ll be striving to become a superintendent.
GV: I’ll come check on you in four years to see-
GV: -If you’re a superintendent. [Laughs] If there is one message that you would like the Wenatchee community to know Latinos, what would it be?
AL: I mentioned it before, and I think it’s pretty strong but the message would be that Latinos have come here looking for opportunities, have come here to provide for their families, but also in that quest they have provided for the entire community. Whatever Latinos do, it’s part of this machine of producing for everybody, and as Latinos are more time here, they are producing more, and more, and more. Those are the ones that basically bring the food to the table. When people thing that Latinos have come to take away, that is not the truth. Legal or illegal, people have come to provide. And then, if our communities are flourishing and growing, a lot has to do with what Latinos do. Therefore, I hope that there would be more understanding from all cultures, what Latinos are here for, and how much they are producing, not only physically but mentally too. Young people are coming, they are graduating, they are taking jobs already that are good for them gain, but good for the country with different perspectives. Yeah, that would be the message that whoever listens to this message, that they need to be more open minded to understand Latinos better. A lot of people do, already, and they know how much work and how hard-working Latinos are, but there are still people that don’t understand that.
GV: Thank you, that is a really good message to end on. Thank you for your time for this interview, I can really see how your story tells the story of Wenatchee and how it changes and hopefully how it continues.
AL: Well thank you very much.
[End of Interview]
Interview length: 35:45
Transcribed by: Dulce Gutierrez Vasquez on June 22nd, 2022