By Christine Tully
Cristina Santana’s small stature and quiet, comforting manner are nearly lost in her sizable bulletproof vest. She roams the streets of Sunnyside, Washington, with her husband, Arturo, whose medium-sized build fits his T-shirt labeled U.S. Probation in large, yellow letters on his back. They walk with confidence among the streets of their hometown, often stopped by passersby for a quick hello.
The Santanas’ confidence and determination to beat their obstacles led them to where they are today – Cristina, a community corrections officer in Sunnyside; Arturo, a federal probation officer in Yakima.
For Arturo, the influence of gang and drug activity in his hometown of Sunnyside didn’t stop him from pursuing his goal of higher education. For Cristina, the lack of support from her parents didn’t end her dream for something beyond working in the asparagus fields. Together, their obstacles didn’t prevent them from graduating high school and becoming first-generation college students at and graduates of Eastern.
Arturo was born the son of field workers who wanted him to follow a different path. They shielded Arturo from the work in the fields and focused on sending him to school. For them, Arturo’s education was a priority.
Although Arturo’s parents tried to keep him on the straight-and-narrow path, gang and drug activity in the neighborhood made it difficult to make the right choices. Gang activity was widespread in the area, with criminal records often running through the family.
Despite his parents’ best effort, Arturo was arrested at the age of 16 and sentenced to 36 weeks in the juvenile rehabilitation facility.
“I was a big disappointment because I could see it in my parents’ eyes – they just felt powerless,” he said. “They tried everything they could to keep me on the straight path.”
Because he was considered a low-risk individual in the criminal justice system, Arturo was moved to an alternative detention facility. A probation counselor worked with Arturo, asking him to set goals for his future beyond high school.
“I began to create this plan of where I wanted to be, but then I had all of these barriers and obstacles still in my community because ultimately I was going to go back home,” he said. “Now that I’d been in trouble, I had more baggage to carry, in a sense, when I went back to my community – peer pressure and other factors. But it was a turning point for me.”
He knew at that point he wanted to become a probation officer to make a difference in others’ lives.
Arturo was sent to a halfway house and released around November 1996. He returned to school with new goals in mind: he wanted to go to college. He made a pact with his best friend who was in a similar situation – they were trying to break free of bad influences.
“We started formulating a plan, and I think it was only us two because the small group that we had were just so focused on going to graduate high school and that’s it. That’s the biggest accomplishment,” Arturo said. “They were not looking at long-term college or anything like that. It was only us two out of a small group that were like, ‘We want bigger and better things.’”
Unfortunately, Arturo was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. While waiting to go on his first date with Cristina, Arturo was arrested again.
Although Arturo wasn’t involved, he was sentenced to serve jail time. He wanted to leave the past behind him and focus on graduating high school, so Arturo was allowed to serve his sentence on the weekends. The summer before their senior year, Arturo and his best friend took classes to make up credits in order to graduate on time.
With college in mind and probation check-ins during the week, Arturo and his best friend tried balancing their goals of college with outside influences and increasing violence in the area. After checking in with their probation officer on Sept. 10, 1997, Arturo would never see his best friend again.
“He was my partner. We were going to school, we were going to college, and we put all of that behind us. We were honor roll students. We were on track to graduate – the first of our families to graduate. We had these dreams and goals that we were starting to develop and get to,” he said. “And he was murdered that night.”
Arturo struggled to overcome the devastation of his best friend’s death. Arturo felt alone, but also felt the need to keep good on his promise and continue excelling in school. Arturo began to confide in Cristina, and they continued to develop plans for their future that extended beyond high school.
“[Cristina and I] were in this together. We needed to get out of here. We needed to do something,” Arturo said.
‘She didn’t have to tell me twice’
Cristina doesn’t recall having a first day of school. She often alternated schools, shifting between curriculums in two states because of migrant field work with her family.
Growing up as the youngest female in a family of eight, Cristina’s family moved to the United States to work in the Yakima and Skagit Valley fields, moving back and forth from Texas and Washington depending on the season. She would often miss school due to the intensity of the field labor and the need to help her family.
“When my dad came to the U.S., he was like 33 years old, and he had eight kids,” she said. “He really struggled to make ends meet, you know, to make sure that we had everything we needed. And to him, working was really important, so education was never a priority.”
Cristina never had a role model for education, and four of her five sisters quit school to work. It wasn’t until college recruiters visited Sunnyside High School during her senior year that Cristina began to think about attending college.
With a newfound goal, she visited her guidance counselor to ask for advice on the college application process. Unfortunately, the odds stacked up against Cristina – neither her family nor her guidance counselor offered support for her dream.
“[The guidance counselor’s] response to me was like, ‘No, you keep on doing what you’re doing with your family. Keep working in that field with your family. You are attractive. You’re attractive enough that one day the foreman will see you and want to marry you,’” Cristina said. “And I was kind of disappointed for the fact that this is the only person that I have that could get me to college, and he’s not.”
Cristina stayed determined. She asked Arturo for help with the financial aid form and applied for a nine-month dental assistant program in Texas – she figured some type of program was better than nothing at all. She was accepted, received a scholarship and packed her bags.
Although Cristina’s father didn’t support her going to school, her mother had a change of heart.
“[My mom] went to my room and was like, ‘Here’s $100. Go wherever you want to go,’” Cristina said. “She didn’t have to tell me twice.”
She grabbed her stuff, walked to the Greyhound and bought a bus ticket to Texas. The trip took her three days.
Once she arrived in Texas, Cristina had little money left to buy food, scrubs, books or a car to get to class. She borrowed her grandfather’s truck, which was unreliable and left her stranded several times.
“I don’t know if it was in my own mind, but I didn’t want to ask my parents for help because I didn’t want my dad to be like, ‘See, you failed. See, you need me,’” she said.
After completing her dental assistant program, Cristina decided to enroll at Eastern to be with Arturo and earn her bachelor’s degree in social work. Cristina’s parents began to see how important education was for her when she asked her dad to drive her to the SAT testing center in Texas, about an hour-and-a-half away.
“My dad is like, ‘You know what, I apologize. I apologize for everything I had you go through. You want to go to school, you can go to school. I’ll support you through whatever you need to do,’” she said. “That was kind of the starting point of my dad seeing education and looking at it a different way, as not something bad.”
That was the turning point in the perception of education for Cristina’s family. Now, Cristina and Arturo’s nieces and nephews attend or have aspirations for college.
“Ever since then, my dad has just been so supportive of everything that we’ve done and everything that we’ve accomplished,” she said. “So after I ended up taking my test, then I ended up getting accepted into Eastern.”
During Arturo and Cristina’s senior year at Sunnyside High School, a representative from Eastern’s Chicano Education program visited their high school to talk about options for higher education. They came at a perfect time – Arturo knew he wanted to go to college but hadn’t heard of Eastern before.
“With the big banner out there for Eastern, then the Chicano Education program, that just rang a bell, a cultural connection,” Arturo said. “It was not just school, but also on a personal level, and I think for me that’s what kind of led me in that direction.”
Arturo had never left the Sunnyside area before he applied to Eastern; he was planning on applying to University of Washington or Washington State University, but the Chicano Education program felt like home. He applied to Eastern and was accepted with a scholarship.
But attending college came with its own set of challenges for both Cristina and Arturo, including staying focused on academics and the culture shock that came with a new city and environment.
“There was this time where I started questioning if I should be there, and maybe my dad was right, and maybe my counselor was right – this was not a life for me and that I should stay with what I know and do what I know how to do and not try to get something more,” Cristina said.
Cristina felt out of place, but the Chicano Education program provided the support she and Arturo needed to make it through. Their determination to finish college helped them to avoid outside influences like parties and instead work on their academics.
“We already had this kind of mindset that this is just another stepping stone on our path to where we want to be,” Arturo said. “Nothing’s going to happen to prevent us from getting there.”
Graduating from Eastern with their degrees in social work, Arturo in 2003 and Cristina in 2004, they now work to improve their community through their jobs and volunteering. As probation officers, the ultimate goal, Cristina said, is “to create permanent change and never supervise the individual again.”
The Santanas stay involved with their community with programs like Upward Bound, providing support to low-income high school students who would be first-generation college students. Despite their hurdles, Cristina and Arturo’s grit led them to be a beam of light for others.
“We’re making a difference. We are working with people who live in our community. They are going through difficulties in their lives, and we have the opportunity to help them make a change to better themselves as people,” Arturo said. “But more importantly to better our community, and have this be a great place to live in.”