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'By working together, we can understand each other'

Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Armando Lopez, who works in several ways to support Latino education in Southern Oregon.

Q: You serve on several boards that support education, such as Project Youth +, SOU Youth Programs and Latino Scholarships. Why are these educational programs important to you?

Armando: I go back to when I was in high school at South Medford. I met so many people who inspired me to go to school and be a better person. They motivated me to help the community. I got involved with Academia Latina at SOU. Carol Jensen asked me if I would consider being part of the South Oregon University Youth Programs board. I didn’t know what a board was. I thought it was going to be boring and just go to meetings instead of being involved with the students. But then I thought, I should move to the next level. I thought about how many people reached out to me. I had the time, so if I could contribute, I should.

Q: Recently you joined the Providence Community Health Foundation.

Armando: In 2018, I attended a Providence fundraising event. I was extremely impressed with their mission and services offered to our community. Weeks later, Jeremy Leever and Katie Hutchinson asked me if I was interested in joining the board. Of course, I said yes. I want to be challenged and learn more about available resources and not just in education.

Q: What does your reforestation business involve?

Armando: My father was a migrant farm worker here in early ’70s. He was going from California to Oregon to Washington. In Southern Oregon he harvested fruits, planted trees and pruned. Years later, in 2003, my father, brother and I opened a reforestation business. Our first jobs were tree-planting and fuel reduction management in the Applegate area and Umpqua National Forest. Now most of our contracts are removing junipers, with chainsaws, on Bureau of Land Management and private lands in Central and Eastern Oregon and Northern California.

Junipers are invasive trees. Each juniper can take up to 35 gallons of water per day. When you remove junipers, it frees up water for streams, wildlife and new vegetation. We hire 40 to 50 workers and are busy from April to November. Clients always highlight how green their land is without junipers and how much more water there is. It’s amazing. My dad and brother have really created great connections and business relationships with all our clients.

Q: How does the family business work?

Armando: We make a really good team. My father and brother take care of the outside business. They check out the projects and meet with clients. I take care of contracts, payroll, all the paperwork in the office and sometime get out in the field. I like to work with my family. My dad really made a lot of sacrifices for the whole family, and working with him is like paying him back for everything he did and still does for the family.

Q: When did you come to Southern Oregon?

Armando: When I was 4 years old, my father came to the U.S.A. in search of a job. He sent money home so that my siblings and I could go to school in Guadalajara. He would visit us every two or three years. His visits were short and not very often because he didn’t have papers. As time went by, my two older brothers emigrated with him. My mother, two sisters and I stayed in Mexico. I promised my mother that I would not come to the U.S.A. without them. That’s how it was. Then in 1989, the rest of our family made the trip.

When I arrived here for the first time, it was cold and a place I didn’t want to be. I missed my childhood. I had a good life in Mexico. I didn’t worry about anything. I was just going to school, working, hanging out with my friends and playing soccer. But after living apart for a long time, I was glad the whole family was united again.

I only planned to be in the States for two years; to work, save money and then return to Mexico. School was not part of my plan. But it was not easy to work as I did not have the appropriate documents and didn’t speak any English.

Q: How is it that you graduated from South Medford High School?

Armando: My sister-in-law helped me to get into South. I was taking ESL (English as Second Language) classes at Washington Elementary School in the morning and walking to South Medford High School for classes the rest of the day.

At first, I didn’t understand a word of English. I kept asking myself, “What am I doing here?” There were only four or five Latinos in the whole school. I was quiet. I was shy. I was scared and didn’t want to be here. My ESL teacher at South, Mrs. Snow Mountain, motivated me and encouraged me to graduate. I sent for my transcripts from Mexico and got credits for ninth grade. I was told, “Look, if you stay an extra year, as a super senior, maybe you could graduate from high school.”

I still didn’t understand, but more teachers and people encouraged me. One day Mrs. Snow Mountain asked me to complete an application for a college scholarship. Graduation is the end of one thing and the beginning of another. For me, it was the end of something and the beginning of nothing. College applications ask for your social security number. That was a nightmare.

In my senior year, I had to do a senior project and write a paper. One day I went to the South Medford library searching for a topic. I grabbed a magazine, I think it was Newsweek, I found an article with the title, “Why Hispanics Drop Out of School.” The article referred to language difficulties, lack of financial resources and family support. The article reminded me of what I was experiencing. The more I read, the more I wanted to go to school. I decided, they can deport me to Mexico, but they will never take away my knowledge.

Why am I on these boards? Because I had people who believed in me. The Carpenter Foundation believed in me. They gave me a $600 scholarship. To me, that was like $6,000. But after high school I didn’t apply for college, I went to work instead.

In September, I got a call from the scholarship coordinator, “Armando, I have a scholarship for you. When are you going to use it?” It was hard and embarrassing to tell him that I didn’t have a social security number. He said, “I don’t care, you earned the scholarship.”

That week I went to the SOU Hispanic Clearinghouse and spoke to the coordinator, Maria Rius. She looked at my transcripts and said to take the SAT. I was able to start college in the winter of 1994 as an international student. It was expensive, but it was less expensive going part-time. I was paying like $900 per quarter. I went part-time from 1994 to 1997. Honestly, I almost gave up. However, again I met wonderful professors like Cindy Wallace who encouraged me a lot.

Every time I heard the word “immigration,” I panicked. In my sociology class we were starting to study immigration. Before we got into the topic, the professor asked, “Have undocumented immigrants taken food from your family? Raise your hand.” No one did. He said, “These people come to work and make their own living, and they really don’t ask for anything but work.” This experience gave me encouragement. My father, my family, everything we have is because we’ve worked for it. I graduated from SOU in 2001.

Q: How did you get legal status?

Armando: My father and my two brothers got their green cards during the Ronald Reagan amnesty program back in 1986. When we arrived in the U.S., my mother, two sisters and I applied for a program called Family Unity Immigration. Our application was approved but was pending for years. In the meantime, we could not work or travel outside of the U.S. legally. Right after my Dad became a U.S. citizen in 1997, I got my employment work permit. In 2008, I became a U.S. citizen.

Q: Are you the first member of your family to graduate from college?

Armando: Yes. At SOU, I got involved with youth programs as a mentor for high school students. I worked, went to school and volunteered in those programs the whole time. After I graduated, I got a position in the SOU Office of Admissions as an admissions counselor. That was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. My supervisors, Carl Thomas and Mara Affre, whom I greatly respect and admire, gave me all the support and tools to assist students and their parents with admission and financial aid. This job helped me realized that I was not the only person with obstacles. Carl and I are currently on the Project Youth+ board, which provides educational support for low-performing students throughout Southern Oregon.

Q: What words of wisdom do you have for people in Southern Oregon?

Armando: We can’t be afraid to explore and learn new things. I’ve been in situations where no one looks like me, but I know we can work together. By working together, we can understand each other and accomplish any obstacle that arises.

Q: What’s important to you?

Armando: My family is very important to me. My friends and community are very important to me. The Latino community and my business are very important to me.

Q: What’s clearer to you now?

Armando: In high school you worry about graduating. Then you worry about going to college. Then in college everyone asks, “What do you want to be?” I still don’t really know what I want to be, but I’ve learned that life is going to take me where I want to be. I’ve learned to let life flow. I’m not going to worry as much. If you have positive energy and met good people, something good will to come to you.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

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Armando Lopez bio

Armando Lopez was born in Michoacan, Mexico, and grew up in Guadalajara. At 17, along with his mother and sisters, he emigrated to the United States to reunite with his father and two brothers.

In 2001 Armando graduated from SOU with a double major in sociology and Spanish. His passion for promoting higher education among Latinos led him a job as an admissions counselor at Southern Oregon University. During his time at SOU, he participated in minority outreach programs with SOU Youth Programs, ESD migrant education, Rogue Community College and local high schools.

Armando joined his father’s reforestation business in 2009. The focus of their business is removing junipers to increase water, vegetation and wildlife. Some of their big projects have been at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge and Steens Mountain Wilderness.

Armando is a committee member of the Southern Oregon Latino Scholarship Fund and a board member of Youth Project+, SOU Youth Programs, and The Providence Community Health Foundation.

When Armando is not working or in meetings, he is coaching JV boys soccer at North Medford, hiking, biking or learning to golf.

{ }Armando Lopez walksWednesday through the Jacksonville Woodlands. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune