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His first memories of school are not good ones.
Little Oscar Caralampio walked 30 minutes to the bus stop each morning with his siblings. Whether he would get on the bus was anybody’s guess. Some mornings, as soon as the bus pulled up, he’d run into the nearby avocado groves.
“‘Hey, we can’t wait around for him for too long. We gotta go,’ the bus driver would say,” Caralampio told me.
Frequently they would, leaving Caralampio, who was in kindergarten, peaking out from behind the trees.
Caralampio’s early life had been a series of instabilities.
He was born into Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. Two of his sisters died young. Desperate, his parents decided they had no choice but to move the family to the United States. When he was four years old, they left behind his grandparents and his ancestral home. When he arrived in Valley Center, where he and his family found work as field laborers, around 1996 he spoke only Q’anjob’al, an indigenous Mayan language.
“Not speaking Spanish, not speaking English, it was just really hard to make friends. It was really hard to talk to anybody,” Caralampio said.
The last place Caralampio wanted to be was away from his family. He was an outcast among his classmates. In his five years on earth, he had learned that families sometimes needed to move in a hurry. What if his mom and dad had to go without him? If he could stay hidden in the trees long enough, he got to meet his father in the fields, do what work a five-year-old could and ease his mind until it was time to go to school again.
His family, along with other migrants, tended lettuce, cilantro and onion fields. He and his brothers and sisters were the only children who lived and worked in the fields. Nearly all of the other field hands were single Mexican men, alone in Valley Center to work. The children were in charge of weeding the beds.
His family was understanding when he missed school, but his father repeatedly drove into him the importance of education – especially on those days when he missed school to work in the fields.
“He would constantly tell my relatives, ‘Hey, my kids are gonna go to college.’ And at that time we didn’t speak Spanish. We didn’t speak English. We were undocumented. We were really poor. And some folks, even laughed at my dad like, ‘You’re a crazy guy,'” said Caralampio.
The possibility seemed even more distant, since Tomas and Magdelena Juan, Caralampio’s parents, never attended school themselves.
“I’m not saying they dropped out in third grade,” said Caralampio. “They literally never attended a school.”
The war shaped life in Altea Ixtenam, Caralampio’s village. Educational opportunity disappeared. Violence loomed always on the edge of town. Tomas and other villagers formed a militia called La Patria to keep out both government and guerrilla forces.
They blocked the road with tree branches and rocks and tree trunks.
“Nobody could go in and nobody could go out,” said Caralampio. “La Patria patrolled the entrances.”
The fields of Valley Center didn’t have his grandparents, or even other people who spoke his language, but they were safe.
Chicano immigrants protected and nurtured the Caralampio family. They taught them Spanish in the fields. Lechuga. Cilantro. Cebolla.
The workers created a soccer field on the ranch. They weed whacked and leveled dirt and marked off goal posts with sticks. A man named Juve coached everyone. They ran drills around old tires. Juve tied sandbags to their waists and made them run across the field, pulling the bags behind them.
“We were just a community of people. Nobody was there to tell us we were less than anybody else,” Caralampio said.
Around age 8, he finally picked up Spanish enough to get by in school. He’d adjusted to his new surroundings. Little Caralampio was no longer hiding from the school bus.
Living in the isolated fields of Valley Center was probably better for a young Latino than living in the nearby town of Fallbrook, another agricultural center, where Caralampio lives now, he said.
As the 90’s were winding down, Tom Metzger’s white supremacist movement in Fallbrook was finally beginning to lose power. But during the previous decades, open hostility and violence against Latino migrant workers had persisted.
Between 1988 and 1990, 100 immigrants were killed in San Diego County, according to a report in the Guardian.
A whole generation of North County Latino activists “were in self-defense mode,” Ricardo Favela, a board member for Fallbrook Union Elementary School District, previously told me.
When Caralampio moved to Fallbrook as a high school freshman in the early 2000’s, the days of self-defense were fading and a new era of progressive Latino leadership was beginning. At the time, he had no idea he’d be a part of it.
After graduation, Caralampio went to Cal State San Marcos and volunteered with the Boys and Girls Club. He tutored a Mexican immigrant who didn’t speak English and whose family lived in De Luz. Caralampio saw visions of himself, trying to fit in, trying to learn a new language. At Christmas, the boy’s mother brought him a gift.
“We don’t have money for a gift, but I made some tamales for you. And thank you for helping my son in school,” she told him.
It was a turning point for the college student who had once been a little boy terrified of school. Caralampio decided to get his teaching credential and got a job at a local elementary school in 2017. In 2020, at age 29, he ran for Fallbrook Union High School District school board as part of a slate of Latino candidates elected to local governing boards.
Up until then, Fallbrook had managed to maintain a virtually all-White power structure, because it held at-large elections. That finally changed in 2019.
When Caralampio was elected, no other Latino sat on the high school district – despite the fact that 68 percent of the district’s students are Latino.
Before each board meeting, he now steels himself to be the only Latino voice in a majority-Latino school district.
“It’s tiring,” he said. “A lot of times I have to repeat myself over and over again. ‘This is not the best service for our kids,’ or ‘this is the best service for our kids.’ I feel like, I’ve become a CD, you know, playing the same music over and over again.”
As board meetings have gotten more heated during COVID, race has also come up more often.
At one board meeting, a group of White attendees started openly talking about “stupid Mexicans,” who were getting up to speak, Hector Muro, a Fallbrook activist told me.
The offensive comments directed at Caralampio tend to be more subtle.
“I do have people who come up to me and say, ‘God, we need more of you. You’re one of the good ones,'” he said. “I don’t take it as a compliment.”
Caralampio reads this as a way of saying that Latino lives are only worthy when they come attached with a college degree, a professional career and fluent English – the opposite of the people who gave him security and love as a child in the fields of Valley Center.
“There’s more to somebody’s dignity and life than a college degree,” he said.
Caralampio has many goals for Fallbrook. He wants immigrants to feel at home in school. He wants to see a curriculum reflective of the diversity within the Latino community. He wants to find a way to make sure kids graduate from high school, even when they are feeling the pull to work full-time in the groves.
One of the first things he noticed that might not be tenable for migrant families – or many other working-class people in Fallbrook – was school bus fees. Families were paying $180 per year to put their kids on the bus.
For a family with four kids, that’s $720 a year. He knew his own family would have never been able to afford it, so he convinced his fellow board members to reduce the fee to $50 per year.
Caralampio began his journey in the United States as someone who could not bring himself to get on the bus. He grew up in a world that does not expect immigrant children to become elected officials, became one anyway and made sure that no child in Fallbrook misses a ride to school.