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Proof of the power of education
Arizona Daily Star
Oct. 18, 2003

In 1963, Elma Carrillo was a welfare mom who wanted more for her four children.

The 23-year-old widow, who rented a two-bedroom house on Tucson's South Side, wept when her 6-year-old daughter, Cecilia, said she wished she had a bicycle like her friend received that Christmas. Through tears, Cecilia told her mama she understood she didn't have the money to buy it for her.

That moment propelled Carrillo to make a series of choices that ultimately led her to the University of Arizona, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1972, majoring in Spanish and minoring in office education. She earned a master's degree in bilingual education in 1980.

Now 63, Carrillo is completing her 25th year as an educator. She began her career at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College in 1978. She plans to retire in December and write her autobiography and a book about how to teach Spanish to the Spanish speaker.

Meanwhile, as a Spanish instructor at PCC's Desert Vista Campus, 5901 S. Calle Santa Cruz, Carrillo continues motivating students - especially Latinas - to obtain university degrees by telling her life story.

That's no surprise to her daughter, Cecilia Velasco-Robles, who as a child wanted that bicycle so badly. Now 45, she holds a master's degree from Arizona State University and is budget director for the city of Tempe. She oversees a $325 million budget.

"My mom shared that bicycle story with me. But what I remember is when I heard her praying one night. I was about 8 years old, and I could hear her crying and praying to God to give her strength and courage to persevere and just make it through each day," Velasco-Robles recalled.

"At that point, I knew that my mom was special, and I would make it in life and make her proud of me."

Carrillo, a native of Tajitos, an old mining town that once existed near Sonoyta, Sonora, implores parents to be a force in their children's schools and understand that education is necessary for their children to succeed.

When she told state workers assigned to her case in the 1960s that she wanted to study at the UA, they gave her puzzled looks and told her she could study to become a beautician or a secretary.

Instead, Carrillo enrolled in English courses while her children - Cecilia, Patricia, Jorge and Maria Eugenia - were in school. She studied and worked as a door-to-door saleswoman selling Avon and Amway products. It was her English instructor, Pat Ackert, who believed in her and helped her obtain a scholarship to the UA in 1968.

"As an educator, I feel like I'm an instrument that is here to better the lives of students. I want them to believe in themselves, and to know that they can achieve their dreams," Carrillo said.

Indeed, Carrillo has had a profound impact on many students.

"She is an incredible woman who has affected thousands through her words of encouragement and drive for excellence. She has touched students in college classrooms, English as a Second Language classes at neighborhood centers and leadership classes for Latinas," said Rosalva Bullock, director of the Rose Family Resource and Wellness Center at 710 W. Michigan St.

"Elma inspired me to do better. She showed me that it was worth it, said Bullock, who said her brother also obtained his bachelor's and master's degrees from the UA because of Carrillo's nudging.

"I told myself that one day I would be helping Latinas alongside Elma. My dream came true. We are both doing that back in the neighborhood where I was born, raised and educated."

Bullock often asks Carrillo to speak to women at the center, where Carrillo began inspiring Latinas four years ago. One of those is Mavi Ramos, who is studying English and took one year of Spanish classes with Carrillo at Desert Vista.

Ramos, who plans on becoming a Spanish teacher, said she was among nearly two dozen women from the center who enrolled in college courses because of Carrillo. "She is one of us, and understands us," said Ramos.

Ramos' excitement about becoming a teacher is infectious and led her husband, a tile installer, to enroll in English classes. Now he plans to open his own business.

Carrillo "has such a passion and pride for the Mexican culture, history and language, and that passion is very contagious with the students," said Miguel Palacios, president of the Desert Vista Campus. He has known Carrillo for more than 20 years.

"Students follow her and gather around her on campus. There is a charisma about her that not all of us have. She ignites a spark in people. She is definitely a person of the community."

* Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at 807-8414 or at cduarte@azstarnet.com.