Centro San Juan Diego honors 1st graduate of program with Mexican university

Three years ago, Monica Chavez didn’t even know how to turn on a computer. But this Dec. 6, she was the first student to graduate with a bachelor’s degree through a program made possible by a partnership between the Centro San Juan Diego and a university in central Mexico, the Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP).

Chavez chose to pursue a degree in social work. She bought her computer, and with the assistance of technical support and video tutorials, she learned how to use it. She studied even as she continued to care for her children, the oldest of whom has special needs.

“She is the tip of the arrow,” said Luis Alvarez, director of Hispanic Ministry and Centro San Juan Diego, during her graduation ceremony. Also present at the ceremony were Archbishop Samuel Aquila, the Mexican consul, Jeremías Guzmán Barrera, and 11 staff and directors from UPAEP who came from Puebla.

“It was 13 years ago that the Centro San Juan Diego was established to serve the immigrant Hispanic community — aware of this community’s great potential,” said Archbishop Aquila, speaking in Spanish. “As archbishop of Denver, it gives me tremendous joy to be a witness to the great capacity and effort of the Hispanic community. It brings me joy that as a Church, we walk with Centro San Juan Diego and UPAEP.”

In addition to Chavez, husband and wife team Norma Moreno and Esteban Palafox obtained diplomas in law. They both live in Phoenix, Arizona, and from there, they did their course work as they continued to work at a hair salon.

“Finally all of these years of effort have come to an end!” Moreno said, as Palafox described his graduation as “the best Christmas present.”

Opening doors

In the United States, only 15% of the Hispanic population has a bachelor’s degree or higher. Centro San Juan Diego aims to address this need through agreements that enable the Hispanic population of Colorado to gain college degrees. Thus, in 2012, Centro entered into a partnership with UPAEP that is allowing many to enroll in various bachelor’s programs online. Today there are 46 students following in the footsteps of the first graduate.

For Juan Carlos Reyes, director of family services for Hispanic Ministry and director of the UPAEP partnership, the experience of accompanying the students is “a delight.”

“To see their enthusiasm and their determination is for us a motor that simply pushes us forward,” he said.

monica-2

Monica Chavez, far left, and Norma Moreno and Esteban Palafox made up the first graduating class from Centro San Juan Diego (CSJD). The bachelor’s degree program is made possible through a partnership between CSJD and Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP). (Photo by Nissa LaPoint)

“Usually, when Hispanics come to the United States as adults, they don’t have going to school on their Plan A list or on their Plan B list,” Reyes explained. “Opportunities like this one remind them that they can reach goals that perhaps they never imagined. This is potential. It’s dynamite.”

Reyes said that thanks to his role accompanying the students at UPAEP, he has “met the best members of the Hispanic community of Denver.”

Effort and perseverance

Chavez has lived in Colorado for 19 years. She always wanted to go to college, but it had never been possible in her home country. In fact, she hadn’t been able to finish high school. Five years ago, she saw an ad in a newspaper that enabled her to get a step closer to her dream, and nothing has stopped her since. She got her high school studies completed, bought a computer and started studying. She chose to take extra courses each quarter so as to finish her studies ahead of her class (two and a half years).

“I worked day and night to do my homework,” she recalled.

Today she dreams of putting her degree at the service of the needy, working in a charity or in a non-profit organization.

Chavez dedicated her degree to her mother, Martha, who died 19 years ago, and her niece, Kendra, who died two years ago.

“I am sure that both of them are celebrating this triumph from heaven,” she said, her voice choked with emotion during her address at her graduation ceremony. “This is an amazing accomplishment, not just for me but for my family. It was everybody’s effort.”

For Móinca Cortiglia, director of academic innovation at the UPAEP, now for the new professionals, a new challenge arises: “to carry out your profession in the world, to give testimony of what has been forged in you, to help the world with learning and dedication.”

COMING UP: Healing hatred and anger after Charlottesville

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The confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the nationwide reaction to it are clear signs of the tensions simmering just below the surface of our society. But we know as people of faith that these wounds can be healed if we follow Christ’s example, rather than the path of revenge.

It was with a heavy heart that I learned about the Aug. 12 clashes between white supremacists and counter protesters in Charlottesville that resulted in the injury of around 34 people and the death of Heather Heyer. It was an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” melee.

These events remind me of Pope Francis’ 2017 World Day of Peace message, in which he pointed out that “Jesus himself lived in violent times. Yet he taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for ‘it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ (Mk. 7:21).”

What we witnessed in Charlottesville was an outward expression of hundreds of hearts, and as a shepherd of souls, I cannot stand by silently while people allow hatred toward others rule their hearts. Particularly reprehensible were the derogatory words the neo-Nazis and their white supremacist allies shouted toward African Americans, Jews and Latinos. This is not how God sees his children!

Every human being is bestowed from the moment of conception with the dignity of being made in the image and likeness of God, and we are all loved by him, even amid our sin and brokenness. Satan seeks every opportunity to twist these fundamental truths in the hearts of human beings and we can see the devastation it brings throughout history.

It can be tempting to respond to these attacks on our fellow man with violence, just as the members of the Anti-fascist movement (known as “Antifa”) did in Charlottesville. But this is not what Christ taught, since it allows hatred to gain a foothold through a different avenue. It is worth repeating: the human heart is the true battlefield.

Jesus’ response to violence and persecution stands in contrast with the way of hatred and anger. Instead, he taught his disciples to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44) and to turn the other cheek (Mt. 5:39). Christ’s radical answer is only possible because God unconditionally loves every person and is ready to forgive us when we repent. God’s love is the only thing that can cut through the hatred that is bringing people to blows, heal the human heart and form it after his own. As people of faith, we are called to bring the truth of love to these festering wounds so that hearts may be healed by Christ.

Joseph Pearce, the Catholic convert and former white supremacist, is a perfect example of this. In a recent article for the National Catholic Register, he recalls how it was his encounter with the objective truths of the faith that demolished his race-centered identity and seeing his enemies love him when he confronted them with hatred that changed his heart. We must pray for the grace to love as Jesus loves, to love as the Father loves.

“The way out of this deadly spiral,” Pearce says, “is to go beyond the love of neighbor, as necessary as that is, and to begin to love our enemies. This is not simply good for us, freeing us from the bondage of hatred; it is good for our enemies also.”

May all of us follow the great example of Mark Heyer, the father of the woman who was killed after the white supremacist rally. His daughter’s death, Heyer told USA Today, made him think “about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.’”

Jesus desires that every person have a heart that is whole and free from hatred, anger and pride. He desires to form our hearts, and that only comes about when we are receptive to his unconditional love, for only in receiving his unconditional love will we be able to give it to others. I pray that all the faithful will be instruments of healing for our country by bringing Christ’s forgiveness to their neighbors and their enemies.