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'Someday ... I'm going to give back'

It's hard to imagine Juan Carlos Valle sleeping under a Eugene bridge. Or homeless in Mexico City as a child. Or schlepping irrigation pipe in a Medford orchard as a teenager.

Valle, 38, in an immaculate navy suit and tie, takes time over the details of dress, conscious that he's representing his community. He also wants to be a role model — to show that a second language can be mastered and that education can lead to better things.

He's come a long way since his days on the streets of Mexico City, scrambling to make a few dollars. The Eugene resident works for the Social Security Administration. He's finishing a master's degree in public administration and volunteering with nonprofit agencies.

You can tell by the keen light in his eyes that, really, he's just gotten started.

Valle tells the story of his life with a generosity of spirit. He didn't get where he is today without help. Along the way, people pointed out the possibilities and believed in him.

When he was a street urchin, periodically thrown out of the one-room apartment that was home to his mother and six siblings, he worked shining shoes, washing cars, fixing window blinds. But an older friend told him he should be putting money aside. So Valle did. He saved enough to go to school, handing some of the money to his mother, so she wouldn't know he wasn't working.

Food in the one-meal-a-day home was the main concern back then.

"Nobody talked about going to school," he said. "Nobody talked about college."

At 16, he and a friend decided to go to the 'Other Side' — their slang for the United States.

They saved their money and bought a motorcycle. On the advice of friends, they bought new jeans, helmets and gloves — cotton gloves they spray-painted black so they'd look like leather — all designed to make them look less like newly arrived Mexicans.

The two had a friend in Oregon and quickly made their way north. Valle's life for the next several years was in the fields, picking strawberries, picking pears, moving irrigation pipe in a peach orchard. The work was challenging, the employers often took advantage of him, and he discovered a language and cultural barrier almost impossible to surmount.

He calls it the wall.

"You can't climb it or go through it or under it. You feel powerless. Most importantly you feel a lot of fear," he said.

He still remembers a day in Southern Oregon as he was struggling to connect sections of irrigation pipe when a school bus stopped on the road nearby and a boy got off the bus.

Valle could see his clothes were clean. He had a backpack. He didn't look hungry.

"I wished I could have a piece of that life," he said. "When you have all these worries about food and clothing and being loved, you think, 'What would it be like not to worry about all those things?'"

Eventually the chance came. A friend he worked with in Medford told Valle about a program at the University of Oregon. It allowed migrant workers to finish their high school degrees. He applied, was accepted and spent a term at the university getting his GED.

For the first time, he didn't have to worry about food and shelter. The program covered those expenses, and even paid a $10 weekly stipend.

After he graduated, it took him awhile to find his way again. He was homeless — sleeping under a bike bridge near where the city sewage pipe drains into the Willamette River.

Then somebody told him about Centro Latino Americano. He learned he could stay at a shelter the agency ran if he went to school or got work. He did both, signing up for classes at Lane Community College and getting a series of jobs at local restaurants, at the Eugene Hilton and with the city.

He received a two-year degree in hospitality management from Lane Community College, and his boss at the Hilton asked him if he'd thought about going on to the University of Oregon.

"I said, 'What do you mean? You mean I can do that?'" Valle recalled.

So he went after a bachelor's degree in Spanish literature, then applied to the master's program in public administration. He expects to complete that degree in December. Along the way he worked for 12 years for the city.

Three years ago, he got a job with the federal government, working in the local Social Security Administration office, helping people file claims.

Because he had been an agricultural worker, Valle qualified for citizenship under a 1986 law and became a U.S. citizen in 1997.

Emilio Hernandez, assistant vice provost at the University of Oregon office of Institutional Equity and Diversity, knows how difficult the journey from field to office can be.

Hernandez followed a similar path and said that bridging the gap between two cultures can be emotionally wrenching. Anglos can be judgmental toward people who speak with an accent, he said. Go out dressed in jeans and people will treat you differently than if they see you in a suit, he said.

"And you get it from both sides. If you become too acculturated, your own community is going to be alienated," he said.

Hernandez directed the high school equivalency program at the University of Oregon for 13 years. To help students struggling with the new language and culture, the message was constant: "We just saturated them with, 'You can do this. You can do this.'" he said.

Valle got the message. Married now, he has a 4-year-old daughter, but he's not sitting back and relaxing. He's set himself another goal: becoming a city manager someday.

Meanwhile, he's sharing what he has learned with others. For three years he's been on the Birth to Three board of directors, where parenting classes helped him with his skills as a dad.

And he's a new board member at Centro Latino Americano, which offered him shelter when he was living under the bridge.

"Centro took me off the streets," Valle said. "I said, 'Someday if I have the opportunity, I'm going to give back.'"

Valle's client perspective will be invaluable to the board, said Centro's Executive Director Jorge Navarro.

In recent years, the nonprofit agency, which provides a range of support for Latinos, from language classes to shelter, has suffered financial setbacks and growing pains.

"We're hoping to see more ownership in the Hispanic community and that makes Juan Carlos even more important," Navarro said. "It's about really growing Centro into what it's wanted to be all along, a community-based organization."

On the Net:

Centro Latino Americano: http:www.cla1.org/

UO office of Institutional Equity and Diversity: http:vpdiversity.uoregon.edu/

Juan Carlos Valle stands under the Eugene bridge where he once lived. Once a pipelayer in Medford, he now works for the Social Security Administration and is finishing a masters’ degree in public administration. AP