“The more a student knows his history, the better he does in class.” Surge Legaspi assigns each student to write a personal family history. “So many of my students live with step moms, with aunts. I hear reasons why they have problems.” Surge, the 35-yer-old son of illegal immigrants, teaches tenth grade world history in Madera, half an hour north of Fresno. Eighty-five percent of the students are Hispanic, but only fifteen percent of the teachers. “I never had an Hispanic male teacher until I went to college.”
Surge grew up in Ivanhoe, a farming community south of Fresno with 5,000 people. ”Three thousand of them are from Villa Hidalgo, outside of Guadalajara.” His father was a farm worker, his mother a seamstress. “My parents were never part of the system. They were not citizens, not part of the United Farm Workers, they did not vote.”
School was a mixed bag for Surge. “As a child, school was my sanctuary. It was the only interesting thing in my life. I was enthralled with travel. I thought perhaps I could be a truck driver. That was as exciting a future as I could imagine, being a farm worker. I never thought I could be a teacher.” Surge went to community college near his home, then transferred to Fresno State. “I hated going to school. It was only an hour from home, but I had no one to turn to.” Surge dropped out, but eventually returned and graduated.
Surge taught in a public school, paid off his student loans, and got laid off in the 2008 cutbacks. That inspired him to travel. He went to Guatemala, then Bolivia. He taught in private schools and travelled during breaks. He returned to the Central Valley and lives in Fresno’s Tower District, the city’s funkiest neighborhood, midway between his family and his job.
Surge was considering extensive travel once again when his father died in a car accident last April. “The accident changed everything. For my parents, returning to Mexico was always the goal. I think that was always nostalgia. Now, that’s not going to happen. My mother has nothing to hide. There was a time when we couldn’t talk, she and I, about sex, religion, anything. This tragedy opened us up.”
Surge has a younger brother who still lives at home and cares for his mother on a daily basis, but he is hesitant to leave his mother to move abroad, so he travels during breaks and tries to impress on his students the value of seeing the world. It’s a challenge because travel, beyond immigration, is not part of Mexican culture. “I visit my relatives in Mexico and after a few days I want to go to Mexico City. They warn me not to go. They have fear. I meet 18, 20, 21 year old Europeans travelling for a year. That would never happen in Mexico. Mexicans stay close.
“I am a broken record with my students. I just tell them to travel, travel, travel. But the girls get pregnant at 18 and the guys join gangs. I used to be involved with gangs. It’s a dead end. I just keep telling them to get out and see the world.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“To one person, how you can live tomorrow is your own world. To me, it is different. To the migrant worker, it is completely different. If everyone travelled more, we could solve most of the world’s problems.”