Juan Ahuatl will never forget his father’s advice on that hot summer day he worked in the strawberry fields when he was in middle school.
Picking berries was a life lesson his parents wanted him to experience. They had recently learned through an interpreter at Juan’s school conference that he was receiving poor grades, talking back to his teachers, being rebellious and not completing homework.
“I told them that I didn’t like school,” he said. “I didn’t care how I did because I didn’t see the point.”
Disappointed in their son, Evodio and Maria Ahuatl took Juan to work with them so he could see what it took for them to earn a living.
“Since the day I was born, my parents knew that I would have to work twice as hard to get somewhere in life due to not having parents that had good careers,” he said.
At first, Juan was excited to pick berries with his parents, believing the work would be easy and he would be contributing to his family’s income. On his first day after a few hours working in the hot sun, he started to complain and wanted to go home.
“I was hungry and thirsty, and my knees hurt really bad. I started crying and my parents just said keep working, but I kept crying until I ran out of tears,” he wrote in an essay.
His father scolded him and told Juan something he would never forget.
“Work hard in your studies because if you don’t, you will stay poor like us who work here so many hours a day just to barely get by in life. However, because of your legal status and educational opportunities, it would be a great shame if you didn’t take advantage of it,” his father told him in Spanish.
“My parents knew they couldn’t force me to change what I was doing or make me care,” Juan said. “Instead, they showed me what life would be like without a good education.”
His father’s words became his inspiration to change his life.
Fellow Kennedy High School Class of 2011 graduate Angel Cardenas became his role model and friend in high school for how to set and achieve goals.
“Angel has always talked about going to college and wanting to have a great career,” Juan said. “He really inspired me to do better. He never seems to be fazed by anything and always made the best of things.”
Angel graduated as a valedictorian and will attend the University of Portland in the fall.
Juan graduated with a 3.4 grade point average and will attend Oregon State in the fall to study mechanical engineering, becoming the first member of his family to attend college. Both boys received scholarships.
“I am a Duck fan but they don’t have an engineering program so I am going to OSU,” he said with a grin.
“Math is my favorite subject so that’s why I picked engineering plus I like drawing and designing things.”
He was a member of the track and field, cross country and basketball teams as well as volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and the Father Bernard Youth Center.
“Juan has the inner drive of a champion and I believe he will go on to be successful in college and beyond,” said Steve Ritchie, head coach of JFK’s cross country, track and field program, and executive director of the Benedictine Foundation of Oregon.
Juan took college level math classes in high school and was a National Honor Society member.
Of his volunteer work, Juan said “the best community service projects are the ones you perform out of the kindness of your heart, the ones you do without being asked or getting recognized for doing; they are the little ones, the ones that count most to me.”
He works each summer at a local farm and takes pride in being able to pay his cell phone bill, purchase clothing and help with car insurance.
At times balancing activities along with schoolwork was challenging, he said. That’s when he remember’s his favorite quote by the late Steve Prefontaine.
“Giving anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift,” Prefontaine said.
And that’s what his education has been – a priceless gift.
He has seen what his parents have sacrificed and how they have worked in pursuit of a better life for themselves and their children. When he was 7 years old, he lived in a one room home with a cement floor, walls covered in black mold and a window covered with a plastic bag to prevent the rain or insects from coming in. Three families lived in the house, sharing only one bath that was “in such horrible condition that my mom didn’t even want us using it.”
“At the time, it was the only thing that my parents could afford to rent, but they took pride in it and kept it as clean as they could,” he said.
He noticed the times his mom cried because there wasn’t money for food or the times his dad worked night shifts without sleep for days. “These little things that I witnessed made me sad, but also made me realize the only way to make my parents happy and proud was to give them As and Bs on my report card,” he said, adding things are much better now.
He sees students who aren’t applying themselves in school and wants to tell them to do their schoolwork and set goals. He’s thankful for his teachers who talked to him when he started slacking off in school.
Life hasn’t been easy, he said, but it has taught him valuable life lessons.
He takes joy in how his parents, aunts and uncles and siblings are proud of what he has accomplished – so far.
He knows he wants a career where he will “never burn from the heat of the sun, where I won’t have to use brute strength, where I will have a steady income and never have to worry about not having work for days due to poor weather conditions but, most importantly, to give myself a better, brighter future.”
“From these experiences, I have learned that no matter how hard things get or how much you’re struggling at the moment, with hard work and determination, you will end up succeeding and meeting your goals,” he said.