Graduation is a proud day for any educator, but for Gladys Martinez, principal of an Anaheim charter high school, Saturday was extra special. Among her graduating students was her mother, Yolanda, the class valedictorian.
"It was so wonderful, like I was in a dream. I feel as if I were floating in the air," Yolanda Martinez, 48, said after the graduation ceremony at Santa Ana Community College.
During her valedictory address, she thanked her parents and daughter for motivating her to continue studying, and she encouraged the other 14 graduates to continue studying. "It is possible to achieve what we aspire [to]," she told her classmates, adding, "I hope to see you in college."
Like many of her fellow graduates, Yolanda Martinez put schooling on hold when she immigrated to America. The Mexican native got a job, married and raised a family. Thirty years went by before she decided to hit the books again.
Yolanda Martinez's daughter, Gladys, the oldest of four children, is a self-assured woman, the first in her family to go to college.
Almost two years ago, Gladys Martinez co-founded EDUCATE, a charter school that helps immigrant adults learn English and get high school diplomas. The school has 280 students and campuses in Anaheim and Santa Ana.
Yolanda Martinez was among the first to enroll. She said she joined the program at first as a favor to her daughter, who needed students.
"My mother is why I am here today," said Gladys Martinez, 26, director of the Anaheim campus. She "encouraged and pushed me to take school seriously....It was my turn to push her into her dream."
Not that her mother needs much pushing.
The Ontario resident is enrolled in courses at Chaffey Community College in Rancho Cucamonga, hoping one day to get a bachelor's degree in sociology and become a teacher, just like her daughter.
"I never expected to learn again," the beaming high school graduate said. "It's hard to believe that it's true, but I did it. This is my first step, my first step to the future....I don't know if it is too late ..."
"It is not too late," her daughter assured her.
Yolanda Martinez dropped out of vocational school in Mexicali, Mexico, when she was 17. She and her mother moved to the San Fernando Valley to join her father and to care for him.
She had never met her father, a Chicago native and World War II veteran, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia shortly before Yolanda was born. Her mother had moved to Mexico to shield Yolanda from her dad's illness. As a young woman, Yolanda Martinez was expected to work and help her mother. She eventually married and had a family, while holding jobs and caring for her aging parents. They live nearby in Ontario.
"Thirty years," Yolanda mused during class recently. "It went by really fast."
Yolanda inspired in her children an interest in education. Daughter Janett, 23, is a senior at Cal State Fullerton, studying to become a Spanish teacher. Yesenia, 17, will be a senior at Katella High School in Anaheim in the fall. And 14-year-old Armando just graduated from junior high in Ontario.
Gladys said that when she was growing up, "My dad made sure we did our homework, but my mom was the one who helped us with the homework."
Now Yolanda has graduated with a 3.9 grade-point average.
Classmate Ludy Ureno, 30, of Anaheim just started her studies. "Everybody in here is an inspiration," she said.