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: Punishing the poor and needy

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Every afternoon in downtown Denver, homeless men, women and children are given shelter, food and a place to wash themselves. Not far away, hundreds of people are receiving high quality medical care at one of our Catholic hospitals or Marisol Health. Some local parishes also distribute food, clothing, or help with rent. Whether you are on the Eastern Plains, the Western Slope or along the Front Range, people of faith are contributing their skills and resources to your community and making it a better place to live, and especially for the less fortunate.

Since we celebrated our nation’s independence about a week ago, the ability of people of faith to make a positive contribution to our society has been on my mind. People of faith make our society a better place as they seek the good and the true, and the right to live our faith in the public square is guaranteed by the Constitution. Unfortunately, there are forces at work trying to change that, and if they succeed it will be the vulnerable who are hurt the most.

Many people are familiar with Jack Phillips’ case because he recently received a favorable verdict from the U.S. Supreme Court. In brief, Jack was sued by a gay couple for refusing to make them a wedding cake, since doing so would contradict his belief that God created marriage to be between a man and a woman. His case – and others around the country – clearly show that there are people who want to silence Christian people and use the force of law to make them act against their faith or be punished.

Tim Gill, the multimillionaire who is funding and directing many of these efforts, plainly stated his intentions in a June 2017 Rolling Stone interview. “We’re going into the hardest states in the country,” he said. “We’re going to punish the wicked.” According to Gill, people of faith are “wicked” when their views do not agree with his. In this worldview, there is no room for differences on matters of prudence or conscience.

What you won’t hear from activists like Tim Gill is that the people who will suffer the most from his campaign against faith and the freedom of conscience are the homeless, children waiting to be adopted, or those needing hospital care. In short, the people who will be hurt are those who rely on the charitable activity of people of faith.

Take, for example, the Catholic Charities adoption programs in Boston, Illinois, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. that have been forced to shut down because they believe it’s not in children’s best interest to be placed with a same-sex couple. In Illinois, Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Springfield estimates that about 3,000 children were impacted by their closure. As was predicted, the state is now experiencing a shortage of quality foster families. Surely, this does not benefit society.

It is unexpected, but homeless men and women are also being impacted by changes to regulations. In Sept. 2016 the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development finalized rules that require homeless shelters to accommodate transgender people by placing them according to whatever gender they present themselves as, rather than their biological sex. Most often, it is men identifying themselves as women who approach the shelters, and this frightens the women, especially since many of them have been victimized by men on the streets.

Religious freedom can seem like an abstract concept, but when you look at the fruits of this basic liberty, its importance becomes clear. Moved by their faith, Catholics and others in the Archdiocese of Denver spent 2017 providing over 212,000 nights of shelter, emergency assistance to 28,000 households, 714 job placements, and almost 73,000 volunteer hours through Catholic Charities.

Further, hundreds of immigrants are assisted with English as a Second Language classes, business training, and faith formation through Centro San Juan Diego. In the name of Jesus, tens of thousands of sick people receive medical care at Catholic hospitals, clinics and nursing homes. This list doesn’t include other Christian, Jewish, or Muslim charitable endeavors, nor does it include individuals whose faith guides the way they run their small business or their work for their employer.

It is a convenient and worn-out argument to accuse people of discrimination to pressure them into giving up their beliefs, but this tactic ignores the people who suffer the most from the intolerance of those insisting people of faith give up their beliefs. Our country has long recognized and benefited from the gifts of faithful people, and restricting this spirit of generosity will make our society poorer.

I am grateful that the Supreme Court recognized that Jack Phillips’ right to religious freedom was infringed, but his case will certainly not be the last. As Christians, we must respond to this pressure with the joy that is born from faith, with loving, persistent resistance and forgiveness. Let us respond to Pope Francis’ appeal that he made as he spoke in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. “Let us preserve freedom. Let us cherish freedom. Freedom of conscience, religious freedom, the freedom of each person, each family, each people, which is what gives rise to rights.”