By Laura L. Acosta / UTEP Communications
Angela Ortega got up in the middle of the night to catch a ride from her home in El Paso’s segundo barrio to the cannery in Sunland Park, New Mexico. There she worked long hours on the assembly line, packaging food and dreaming of a different life for her five children.
Ortega often told her children, “The only way out of poverty or ignorance is education. Make sure when you grow up, you get an education.”
Unfortunately, Ortega didn’t live long enough to see if her children followed her advice. She died suddenly from a fall when her youngest daughters Teresa Heimer and Rose Mary Ortega were 13 and 10 years old, respectively.
“One day we had a mom,” recalled Heimer, an assistant principal at Constance Hulbert Elementary School, “then one day we didn’t.”
Yet Angela Ortega’s prophetic words resonated with her daughters with each hardship that followed – Heimer was a teenage mother and a single parent until she married UTEP alumnus Brett Heimer. Rose Mary Ortega dropped out of school in the eighth grade. She earned her GED at age 34.
In 2003, Heimer uprooted their family tree as the first of Angela Ortega’s children to graduate from The University of Texas at El Paso with a bachelor’s in education, followed by a master’s in education in 2006. Rose Mary Ortega received a bachelor’s degree in education in 2009.
“Education was not on my list of priorities,” Rose Mary Ortega said about living paycheck to paycheck as a single parent. “I just wanted to work and survive. So after my sister graduated from UTEP, she pushed me to get my degree. But once I finished, it was like a dream come true.”
With their UTEP degrees, Heimer and Rose Mary Ortega started a new family tradition. They became members of a celebrated generation of first-in-their-family college graduates. Now the children of these first-generation graduates are earning their own degrees at UTEP.
As UTEP begins its second century, a measure of the University’s success is the increase in second-generation college students whose parents paved the way for them to earn a university education. According to a College Board/National Journal Next America education poll, the choices young people make about higher education after high school are shaped by the attitudes and experiences of their parents.
Second-generation Miners like Abel Alexander Jaquez and Veronica Macias not only inherited a love for UTEP, but their parents served as role models who encouraged them to dream big and pursue higher education and career goals.
“I remember sitting in the student section at the Sun Bowl at football games because [Rose Mary Ortega] would get her free ticket,” said Jaquez, a UTEP freshman physics major and Rose Mary Ortega’s only child. “Growing up around that was great because I was able to see my hometown University in a different light and support it. I’ve been brought up to love the Miners. And now that I’m a student, it’s even better.”
When Heimer’s daughter Veronica Macias was in the third grade, Heimer would point toward UTEP’s skyline from their home in Sunset Heights and tell her daughter, ‘You’re going to college. It’s right there.”
“I tell [my son Bryan] the same thing,” said Macias, who earned a bachelor’s in education in 2004, as she watched her two-year-old son fold his tiny fingers into the “UTEP Pick” sign. “He’s definitely going to college. I don’t know where, but I’ll always push UTEP. It’s just in the family.”
Out of the 1,271 respondents of the College Board/National Journal survey, 80 percent of those who were raised by two graduates said their parents encouraged them to attend a four-year school.
Christopher Martinez and his younger brother Mark always knew college was in their future. It was different for their parents, Sylvia and Tony Martinez, who were expected to join the workforce after high school, and not continue their education.
“My dad would tell me, “You could go into biology, you’re smarter than me,” recalled Christopher Martinez, who got a bachelor’s degree in biology from UTEP in 2007. He started the undergraduate nursing program at the School of Nursing in the fall of 2015 and plans to become a nurse practitioner.
“He told me, ‘You have the opportunity that I didn’t. My dad didn’t help me with school. If you don’t want to work you don’t have to. You could just focus on school,’” said Christopher Martinez, owner of Altomar Medical Equipment Company. “He really influenced me.”
Tony Martinez, who has bachelor’s degrees in biology and nursing from UTEP, experienced déjà vu watching his son follow the same path he did.
But it was Sylvia Martinez who started the family on the road to a higher education and success.
“I would see her study when she was going to nursing school and she would encourage me,” Tony Martinez said of his wife of more than 30 years. “She would say, ‘You could do the same thing.’”
Thirty-five years after Sylvia Martinez graduated from UTEP with a bachelor’s in nursing, she still remembers standing outside her parent’s kitchen and hearing her mother slam a rolling pin against the kitchen table after Martinez asked for permission to attend college.
Sylvia Martinez had graduated from Ysleta High School a year early. She earned a scholarship to UTEP, but her mother insisted her daughter get a job to help the family instead.
“Look, she’s not supposed to graduate for another year,” her father, Reyes Hernandez, reasoned with her mother, Eliza Hernandez. “So give her this year and if it doesn’t work out, so what?”
One year stretched into four. With her sister Margie Hernandez, an adviser in the UTEP admission’s office, cheering her on, Sylvia Martinez graduated from UTEP in 1980. In 2000, she and her husband, Tony, and his brother Alex opened Altomar, a home health care agency.
“Going to UTEP was something that I wanted to do, but mom’s thinking was I needed to stay home and take care of the kids,” said Sylvia Martinez, the UTEP School of Nursing’s Gold Nugget Award recipient in 2015. “Going to school and getting a college degree wasn’t something that crossed her mind. But I wanted to have more opportunities than my parents did.”
In Sylvia Martinez’ office hangs a picture from her UTEP graduation. She is in the traditional graduation pose, wearing her cap and gown, flanked by her proud parents.
“My mom has a scrapbook,” Martinez said with a laugh. “She saves everything – newspaper clippings. It gives her bragging rights with my aunts and uncles.”
Parents’ educational achievements continue to have a huge influence on their children’s plans, even after college. Fifty-five percent of children from families with two college educated parents earned a college or postgraduate degree, according to the College Board/National Journal survey.
At his 2012 UTEP graduation, Patrick Tinajero leaned over on stage to take a selfie with the former dean of the College of Education – his mom, Josefina V. “Josie” Tinajero, Ed.D.
As he walked away with his bachelor’s degree in education, Patrick Tinajero felt a huge sense of pride mixed with a little bit of relief. He was done writing papers and studying for exams, or so he thought.
A year later, Patrick Tinajero was back at UTEP seeking a graduate degree in education.
“I never thought that I would go further than the bachelor’s,” Patrick Tinajero said. He earned a master’s in education in May 2015 and planned to start his doctoral degree in teaching, learning and culture in the spring of 2016. “But I wanted to continue my education because I saw my mom, my brother, my sisters – that’s what they did.”
UTEP has been part of the Tinajero family since Josie Tinajero graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1973 and a master’s degree in supervision and administration in 1976. She earned a doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction/bilingual education specialization from Texas A&M University in 1980.
Her four children – Ana Tinajero, Gloria Tinajero Tovar, Robert Tinajero and Patrick Tinajero – graduated from UTEP and are all educators.
“UTEP for me has been an outstanding opportunity to be able to gain the skills to make a difference in the lives of lots of kids, including my own kids,” said Josie Tinajero, a UTEP professor. “UTEP has provided me with great opportunities to reach out to the community, and by doing that it benefited my kids as well. It instilled in them that sense of responsibility for giving back.”
For Tinajero’s children, the UTEP campus was their playground. While she taught class, her children were in the pre-kindergarten center in the College of Education. They participated in summer camps, attended functions at Magoffin Auditorium and cheered the UTEP football team at the Sun Bowl. They also helped Tinajero with community outreach initiatives, including the Mother-Daughter Program she created.
When the time came for her children to attend college, UTEP was the logical choice.
Gloria Tinajero Tovar earned a bachelor’s in business management in 1996. As a UTEP Golddigger, Tovar developed a passion for dance. She received her alternative teacher certification from UTEP and became a dance teacher at Del Valle High School. Robert Tinajero, the director of writing studies and associate professor of English at Paul Quinn College in Dallas, holds a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition from UTEP’s College of Liberal Arts.
Ana Tinajero graduated with a bachelor’s in education in 1995. While in graduate school for her master’s in education, her mother also became her teacher.
“A lot of the students knew the kind of person my mom was,” Ana Tinajero said. “They respected her. They knew she wasn’t going to let me get away with anything, not that I even tried. It was just natural going into the classroom and treating her like a professor and not like my mom.”
The third-generation of Miners in the Tinajero family includes Gloria Tinajero Tovar’s daughter, Mikaela, a music major. Ana Tinajero is already prepping her six-year-old son to become a Miner.
“Just bringing him here and saying, ‘Look, one day you, too, can come to UTEP,’ is a natural way to talk to him about how important education is,” Ana Tinajero said.