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Teacher's Lesson Is It's Never Too Late : Estela Gonzalez, who calls herself a 'super-late bloomer,' renewed her life after raising eight children.

April 29, 1993|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like many of us, I used to mourn, with each birthday, the passage of time and opportunities. But after meeting Estela Gonzalez, I'm inclined to believe life can be renewed at any age.

Gonzalez, 58, was born in Mexico. But she has lived in Oxnard's Latino community of La Colonia since she was 11. There she married, raised eight children and is the abuela, or grandmother, of five. For most of her life, Gonzalez's world was defined by her roles as wife and mother in a closely knit, traditional, Spanish-speaking family.

But two years ago, Gonzalez found the courage to overcome cultural barriers and divorce her husband of more than 30 years.

"I don't think I did anything special," she said. "It was what I had to do to survive. We were having problems and should have done it 10 years before. But it took a lot of serious thought to finally face that the marriage was dead."

Gonzalez said her children, ages 23 to 37, had been urging her to take the step for years, but she felt obligated to wait until they were grown. And the sudden asthma-related death of an 18-year-old daughter caused her to further postpone the decision.

Nevertheless, Gonzalez was breaking new ground before she ended the marriage. In her 40s, with her youngest child in junior high school, Gonzalez raised eyebrows by going back to school.

"Neighbors criticized why I was going out of the house when my place was taking care of my kids," she said. "My answer was that I was not going to be having babies all my life to take care of. And my family observation showed others meddling in the lives of their children and grandchildren because they didn't have anything else to do. And I didn't want to do that to my kids."

So off she went to community college.

"I had an 11th-grade education. And when Oxnard College opened up, I was very frightened to go," she said. Now Gonzalez believes she is fortunate that the early satellite classes, not far from where she lived, made it possible for her to earn an associate arts degree in Early Childhood Development.

"I started with one class," she said. "When I saw people of all ages going and everybody at the same level on the subject, I said, 'Hey, this is for me. I'm coming back for more.' "

And since 1979, Gonzalez has put her education to good use as a preschool teacher at La Escuelita Migrant Child Development Center in Oxnard. Her pride in the colorful setting and equipment was apparent during our recent tour of the center. And judging from their enthusiastic response to Gonzalez, all her little charges could be her grandchildren.

"We try to develop the whole child according to his or her personal needs and abilities," Gonzalez said, as we entered one of the school's several play areas.

"As you can see, here we have clothing to try on and a mirror to see how lovely we are. And the dolls have many textures and colors of skin to increase awareness that we are all different, but in some way we are all alike," she said, as she bent to straighten toys in plastic bins.

The children and staff at La Escuelita speak Spanish. Gonzalez said there is strong emphasis on English language development. This is especially important for children who may only be in the program a few weeks or months before their parents follow seasonal agricultural work elsewhere.

Gonzalez, who writes stories for children, said she is especially fond of the reading corner. "And I am very selective, in watching television, to listen to people who speak very well and use a rich vocabulary," she said.

"I began trying to write much later as an adult. I was a super-late bloomer."

Eventually, she hopes to publish her stories. Among other reasons, she is upset about the racial and ethnic stereotypes she believes are prevalent in many children's stories.

"Any culture is a mixture of the old and the new," she said. "And I would like more realistic stories about modern-day family life and family members of different ages. For example, I do a lot of interaction with my grandkids. The oldest is 8, and I'm 58."

She also enjoys interacting with young adults and actively gives something back to her community by teaching a weekly evening parenting class at the center.

About three months ago, Gonzalez, who has again assumed her maiden name, and her daughter, Rosa Moreno, established "Comadre a Comadre," a monthly support group for Latinas. The group meets evenings at La Escuelita and encourages members to talk about their health concerns, personal needs and family issues. Sessions are conducted in Spanish and often feature a speaker from a local social service agency.

"My mother has been a strong role model for me and my sisters," Moreno said. "I'm very proud of what she has accomplished, because she has done it all by herself."

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