In a desert farm town of unpaved streets 50 miles east of Mexicali, Mexico, Gregorio Aguilar's employer sold her ranch, leaving Aguilar, her foreman, jobless.
Aguilar needed to feed a wife, four daughters and a son who lived with him in a two-bedroom adobe home without running water. So, carrying $8, he crawled under a fence at the nearby U.S.-Mexico border and walked to Calexico, Calif., a few miles away.
Cooking, Installing Tires
Friends picked him up that afternoon in 1966 and drove him to Los Angeles, where he cooked on a ranch near La Canada and, later, installed tires, sending home half his pay.
Two years later, citing a strong work record, he acquired permanent legal residence, and a year after that his family arrived in Los Angeles.
The sturdy, 5-foot-3 laborer with the small mustache has installed an average of 60 tires a day since, and his labor has produced more than smooth riding.
This spring, Gregorio and Guadalupe Aguilar's eldest daughter, Maria, 29, will be graduated from UCLA Medical School and start an internship and residency in psychiatry there. Soon to be the first doctor in her family, she was one of 250 applicants for 12 psychiatric positions. Another daughter, Trinidad, 23, was graduated from Harvard University in June and aspires to medical school. She studies epidemiology in a UCLA master's degree program.
Guadalupe Aguilar, 25, named after her mother, was graduated from UCLA and works as a volunteer at a rural Mexican school. She hopes to earn a Ph.D. in psychology.
Virginia, 20, attends Pomona College.
A son, Lazaro, 27, who was graduated from Cal State L.A., promotes records for a record company and Los Angeles-born twin daughters, Mireya and Maribel, 13, study at Luther Burbank Junior High School in Highland Park.
The twins and their sister Trinidad still live with their parents in the yellow, two-story, wood-frame Highland Park home that the family purchased a decade ago.
The Aguilars converted the upper floor of the house into a rented apartment and the family moved into the three-bedroom unit below. Guadalupe Aguilar has supplemented the family income by sewing at home but has seldom worked outside, preferring to raise her children.
Gregorio Aguilar is still the family breadwinner, arriving at 6:45 a.m. daily at a Glendale Mark C. Bloome store for his job as a tire installer.
On a recent morning, wearing neat, dark pants, a white button-down shirt and worn shoes, he picked up papers and cups that blew onto the parking area from a doughnut stand across the street, then piled used tires on a hand truck and wheeled them to a storage area.
When he finished installing a tire, Aguilar, 56, led a reporter to a glass-walled waiting room and said that he advised his daughter to study hard.
"I told Maria that education is the best thing," he said, "because I didn't want anybody to have to work as hard as I did."
Maria Aguilar studied, but she also worked hard, and as her education nears fruition, she would like to practice psychiatry in a Latino community.
"I speak the language and . . . I've seen the health care," she said. "Sometimes it's not the best. You know, for a working-class family it's very expensive to go see a physician and sometimes the county facilities are not the greatest. . . .
"I'd like to reach large numbers of people, especially in Los Angeles where we have such a large population of Spanish-speaking people and so very few psychiatrists who speak Spanish."
Although eager to practice, it took Maria years to decide to enter medicine.
When she arrived in Highland Park at age 13 in 1969, she spoke only Spanish. She enrolled at Franklin High School, where she took English as a second language and secretarial courses.
"Nobody in my family had ever gone to college, so . . . I never talked to any counselors. Counselors never asked me 'What do you want to do?' "
"I guess they assumed that I wanted to become a secretary because those are the only courses that I had. . . . I don't know exactly what to say. I was going to courses that a lot of Mexican kids were taking."
She worked part time as a cashier and decided that she wanted to do more with her life.
In 1975 she enrolled as a sociology major at Los Angeles City College, but said she felt lost.
She dated LACC student Richard Vasquez, who had also grown up in Highland Park. After several months discussing career goals, he suggested she try medicine.
"She wanted a big challenge and I also right away picked up on how smart she was," Vasquez said.
"And I remember I went home that Friday," she said, "and I thought, 'Boy, this would be a really good field, not only because I'll be able to work with people . . . but also the fact that, you know, I love the sciences.'
"So I said, 'Perfect!' "
She spent another year at LACC taking math and science courses she had missed in high school and in her first year-and-a-half at the college. Then she transferred to UCLA, taking pre-medical courses for three years.