(Viola Canales, a writer from Texas, shows a copy of her book, "The Tequila Worm," during a visit to the Cabrilllo College Watsonville Center Tuesday where she addressed students. Photo by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian)
WATSONVILLE — Author Viola Canales stood in front of a group of local high school migrant students Tuesday morning and told them to follow their dreams, embrace their Latino heritage and hold onto their family ties even as they graduate and venture out into the world.
Canales was born and raised in McAllen Texas, where she spoke no English when she started school. This was in an era when speaking Spanish in school was punished.
“It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life,” she said.
Canales persevered, and rose to the top of her class. She eventually transferred to boarding school when she was 15, and then attended Harvard University.
There, she earned a bachelor’s degree and later her Juris Doctor.
Canales was speaking at Cabrillo College’s Watsonville campus as part of the college’s Summer Migrant Program, run by the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services.
The six-week class focuses on college preparedness with an emphasis on reading and writing.
“It’s a way to bring them to college, so when they get there they will be comfortable,” said organizer Victoria Bañales, who teaches English at Cabrillo.
After graduating from Harvard, Canales practiced law at O’Melveny and Myers in Los Angeles and served as a Civil Service Commissioner for the City of Los Angeles. In addition, she served as a field organizer for the United Farm Workers.
She has also served in the U.S. Army, where she was tactical director overseeing Patriot and Hawk missile systems.
She currently works as a professor at Stanford University.
Canales has authored four books, most recently “The Tequila Worm,” which she said was inspired by her experiences growing up.
“Books are both a mirror and a window,” she said. “A mirror that reflects the culture of the writer.”
But Canales said the book also mirrors the life experiences of the students, most of whom are Latino.
“I think it’s important for them to be proud of their heritage and culture,” she said. “The U.S. is not a monolith. There is diversity, and through that diversity there is strength.”
Most importantly, Canales told the students that everyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from, has a special talent.
“Life is about finding what that is, and then growing it to the point where it blossoms, and sharing it with others,” she said.
A major part of that, she said, is persistence in school.
“Education is important,” she said. “Stay in school.”
But even as Canales encouraged the students to go to college and seek their purpose in life, she also encouraged them to hold onto their family ties.
“I don’t care how many friends you have on Facebook — a million, two million — when it comes down to issues and the darkness of life, and everything that is going to be up and down, your family will be there for you.
“Stay connected with your other world,” she added. "Be a bridge.”
When the students seemed reluctant to ask questions after Canales finished her talk, she was quick with a lighthearted admonition.
Cesar Chavez, she said, was a very shy man who nevertheless led marches and rallied farmworkers so effectively that he changed the face of the American workforce.
“You’ve got to be able to get out of your comfort zone and talk,” she said. “Feel comfortable with making mistakes. That’s part of leadership.”