San José Unified Celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month
Growing up in México, Janeth González González was understandably nervous about stepping into a classroom for the first time at Washington Elementary School in San José, where her parents moved the family in 2001.
As a third grader, González González spoke little English and was entering into an entirely new environment. But she was put at ease by the presence of her teacher, Ms. Basulto, who spoke Spanish and instantly made her feel at home.
“I can’t tell you how important it was to have a teacher who looked like me and was bilingual,” said González González, who now works in San José Unified’s Human Resources department. “It was 100 percent a factor in making me feel accepted and comfortable. Not only that, but I was also able to look at Ms. Basulto and think to myself, ‘well, if she’s doing this, that means I can as well.’ She really inspired me.”
That sense of identity and cultural acceptance is being celebrated now at San José Unified, which is currently observing Hispanic Heritage Month. The Hispanic community has a rich, storied history in San José and the district is proud of the hundreds of Hispanic employees who make up the workforce and represent San José Unified.
One of those valued members is Olga Baron-Hernandez, a teacher at Muwekma Ohlone Middle School. Like González González, Baron-Hernandez completed her schooling in San José Unified schools. Along with her seven siblings—some of whom were born in México, some of whom were born in San José—she attended Hester Elementary, Herbert Hoover Middle, and Abraham Lincoln High.
Baron-Hernandez and her brothers and sisters participated in initiatives overseen by the California Migrant Education Programs and Services, and during her time at Abraham Lincoln High, she was involved in the world of folklórico, a traditional dance art form with roots in México that emphasizes local cultures with ballet characteristics.
Those experiences had a lasting impact on Baron-Hernandez, who also now teaches folklórico classes every Saturday at Muwekma Ohlone Middle.
“The folklórico program was so important to me in high school because it signaled that I belonged somewhere,” said Baron-Hernandez. “It was a place where I could be me and my culture could be celebrated and valued. And that’s what I want to bring to the District—because that’s what was offered to me. I want to make a difference for the community.”
Baron-Hernandez is not the only San José Unified employee to benefit from the early experiences of the California Migrant Education Program, which has its roots in integrating students from Mexico into local school systems.
Lilia Valenzuela and her family moved to San Jose from Mexico when she was a child, and she attended Gardner Elementary, Herbert Hoover Middle, and Abraham Lincoln High. As the daughter of migrant workers, she remembers working in the fields during the summer to help the family.
It was through the Migrant Education Program as well that she received her first paying job as a freshman in high school, working as a bilingual tutor for students in elementary school. Thirty-seven years later, she’s now an Operations Field Coordinator, in charge of managing all 140 San José Unified custodial workers.
“I’ve always felt welcome here,” said Valenzuela. “The District has been another family for me-they’ve helped me since my childhood.”
For many of the District’s employees with Hispanic roots, working for San José Unified can feel like coming full circle. González González, whose earliest memories of the district were about meeting culturally familiar teachers, now helps recruit employees from countries with Hispanic origins.
“It’s been incredibly exciting to hire bilingual teachers from México and Latin American countries,” said González González, who has multiple family members attending or who have attended San José Unified schools. “It makes me feel good that my family will have the same kind of positive experiences that I enjoyed.”