It was winter 2002 in Hermiston, Ore., when Jesus Jaime-Diaz sat down with his 14-year-old brother, May, and told him that he could do whatever he wanted. After everything Jaime-Diaz had been through – poverty, gangs, violence, arrests – he wanted to set a positive example for May. “You can go to college. You can go to the other side of Oregon” Jaime-Diaz told him. “You can be a Beaver or a Duck, and I’ll help you buy a car.” Jaime-Diaz, sure that his brother would choose an expensive car, quietly began to wonder what he’d gotten himself into.
May told his older brother that he wanted a 1977, Camaro, and that he’d rather be a Beaver than a Duck. Jaime-Diaz didn’t know why May said that. And he never would. May died a month after their conversation, when their mother’s single-wide trailer burned down.
“It didn’t seem like life was worth living after that,” says Jaime-Diaz. “It’ll never be the same without him, I will always feel numb & empty.”
What made Jaime-Diaz persist was May’s wish to become a Beaver. “When he died that popped into my head. And I made myself a promise. In order to keep myself alive I’m going to honor May and become a Beaver. I thought, ‘What you wanted to do I’m going to do for you,’” Jaime-Diaz says.
A Long Way to Go
On paper, college for someone like Jaime-Diaz seemed improbable. He’d dropped out of high school, and had been working at Hermiston’s Wal-Mart distribution center for four years when he decided to get his GED. “I always hung my head low when I thought about how I didn’t have a diploma,” Jaime-Diaz says. “It always hurt that I was a dropout.” He finished his GED a few months after May’s death, and then got his Associate’s degree at Blue Mountain Community College in 2005. “I remember when I was at Blue Mountain on my first day,” Jaime-Diaz says. “I thought, ‘I am in college.’ To this day it still feels unreal. The other day I was freezing on an old couch at home, hungry, suffering with my family and now I’m here.”
After Blue Mountain, Jaime-Diaz honored May and became a Beaver. It was through fulfilling his promise that he found his passion – helping educate and uplift marginalized communities. This spring, Jaime-Diaz graduated with majors in speech communication and ethnic studies. But before that, he spent 10 weeks at an internship working with barrio youth in Santa Cruz, California. Their stories were all too similar to his own.
Jaime-Diaz first heard about the Santa Cruz-based organization Barrios Unidos when he spotted one of their posters in ethnic studies professor Robert Thompson’s office. It depicts two hands clasping each other in a gesture of solidarity. The image resonated with Jaime-Diaz, who decided that day he would work for Barrios. He made that a reality after e-mailing the organization to volunteer his services.
From January to March 2009, Jaime-Diaz worked with at-risk kids of all ages. At the Live Oaks Community Center, he assisted in workshops for teenagers who were on probation. He played volleyball with them and cooked traditional Mexican dishes, like ceviche, with them. Soon, teens who weren’t even on probation started showing up, simply to have a new, healthy place to hang out. Jaime-Diaz spent time at Pajaro Valley High School in Watsonville, helping reduce gang hostility among students. He worked at Barrios’ Cesar Chavez High School for Social Change, too, teaching workshops on the core foundation of ethnic studies – slavery, genocide and colonization.
Through Barrios, Jaime-Diaz worked with young kids at the Beach Flats Community Center, which was a home away from home for young children whose parents worked multiple jobs, and who were at high risk of succumbing to the gang life. “I got to play Candyland with the kids,” he says. “I never got to as a kid, because I didn’t speak English and could never join in. Those kids helped me heal emotionally, and I will always be thankful and never forget them.”
Jaime-Diaz got to give the kids in Santa Cruz what he had always been looking for – a mentor. “They told me I made a difference in their lives, and that no one had ever treated them that way. I’d always looked for that kind of guidance as a little kid.”
The Road Ahead
Now, Jaime-Diaz is enrolled in Oregon State’s Master’s of Interdisciplinary Studies (MAIS) program, studying adult education, speech communication and ethnic studies. “My focus is on college recruitment and retention of oppressed and underrepresented communities,” he says. “I hope to pursue my doctorate in adult education with an emphasis in community college leadership, and ride it out as a ‘Beaver.’” Eventually he wants to return to eastern Oregon and develop an intercommunity approach in the recruitment of Latina/o youth. “Education does not make you better than anyone else. What it does is give you a moral responsibility to assist others in getting there” Jaime-Diaz says.