Florentino Vidal began working on his family's ranch in Mexico at age 7, forgoing grammar and high school for a childhood spent growing lettuce, carrots, watermelon and tomatoes.
Vidal, 47, said he knows the Spanish alphabet and can read some, but gets confused writing much more than his name. Now he will have the opportunity to resume his studies and earn his Mexican diploma here in the United States.
The Mexican government opened its latest Plaza Comunitaria, or Community Plaza, Thursday at San Fernando Middle School, minutes from Vidal's house. There are 13 such centers throughout Los Angeles County, aimed at helping Mexican nationals complete their basic education. The centers offer free classes, in person or through video and the Internet, to Mexican nationals living in the U.S.
"They are leaving our country without that education," said Mario Velazquez, acting consul general at the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles. "We have failed in giving education to those Mexicans. We must try our best to give that education, even if they are abroad."
More than 40% of Mexican nationals over age 25 living in the U.S. had less than a ninth-grade education, according to 2005 data compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Consular officials said the Spanish-language classes improve immigrants' self-esteem and enable them to help their children with schoolwork. The education in their native tongue also better prepares immigrants to learn English and encourages their assimilation. Hundreds of Mexican nationals have taken classes since the first local center opened in 2003. There are similar programs elsewhere, including San Jose and San Bernardino.
Vidal, a legal permanent resident who arrived in the U.S. in 1979, said he and his wife raised their four children to value education and not to take anything for granted. The eldest now attends Cal State Northridge.
"We would tell them to study, study, study, until we got mad," he said.
Vidal wanted to study but said he was busy working construction to support his family. At the opening of the San Fernando center Thursday, Vidal flipped through a third-grade Mexican geography book. He said he was interested in learning about the history of his country so he could pass that culture along to his children.
Jose Palmillas, 34, who also attended the opening, started high school in Mexico but dropped out after one year to work in Mexico and then to come to the United States. Palmillas, a naturalized U.S. citizen, said he has earned the same salary in his maintenance job for many years and believes that finishing his education will enable him to advance in his career.
"I feel like something is missing," Palmillas said. "I couldn't attend school when I was young, but now I am going to study to get ahead."
Palmillas said he also wants to be a good role model for his children, ages 1, 11, 13 and 18.
Laura Gonzalez, a parent community facilitator for the Los Angeles Unified School District, works with about 70 students at a Plaza Comunitaria near Roscoe Elementary School in Sun Valley. Many come to her unable to read or write.
That illiteracy affects people in all aspects of their lives, including their ability to get apartments and jobs, said Daryabuth Martinez, program assistant at the Plaza Comunitaria at Cerritos College. Many parents have enrolled in classes at her center so they can learn to read to their children or grandchildren, or so they can more easily learn English and move past low-wage cleaning and restaurant jobs.
Space for the program is provided by schools and community centers, and the Mexican government supplies the textbooks. Students work at their own pace with the help of mostly volunteer teachers or tutors.
"They don't just learn how to read and write but how to grow as people," Martinez said.
San Fernando Middle School Principal Rafael Balderas said his goal is to build a "college-going culture."
"Remind your parents that we are pushing you through high school to graduate, not to be a dropout," Balderas told young students on hand for the opening Thursday. "But you know what? Your parents need to do the same thing. They now have the opportunity to go and get their GED, to become a United States citizen, to vote and to make a difference in the country."
Marisela Soto, 32, stopped going to school after sixth grade in Mexico but enrolled in classes at a Plaza Comunitaria in Los Angeles. Before taking the classes, Soto said, she was embarrassed to speak in public and worried about her inability to help her children with their homework.
Since enrolling, Soto said, "My self-confidence grew a lot."
On Thursday, she stood before a crowded auditorium at San Fernando Middle School and invited parents to follow her lead and go back to school.