Pablo Baca was nearly 5 years old when his father was deported to Mexico. The next day, his mother packed up the family’s belongings and moved with him and his two sisters to the Mexican town of La Excusa to be reunited with their father.
“My younger sister was just a baby, so we all moved to Mexico to be with him,” Baca said. “[La Excusa is] a small town, there’s really no job opportunities or anything, it’s whatever we have to harvest and whatever animals you have like pigs, cows and goats.”
Nearly 10 years later, the town saw an increase in crime and cartel violence. Baca, who was born in the United States, was 14 years old and he and his older sister were sent back to California for their safety.
“It was getting too dangerous,” Baca said. “We had the opportunity to move here and even though it was just going to be my sister and I, my parents decided that we needed to have a future and go to school. And [the cartel violence] got worse after we came back to California. A lot of kidnappings … and if you have some kind of little business there they would come and you would have to pay them. Basically, you were working just for them. With the little money you were making, you had to pay to stay alive.”
The move worked out well for the Baca family. On Dec. 15, at age 25, Baca completed his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at Fresno State and dressed in cap and gown while his family proudly watched him participate in the Lyles College of Engineering’s annual fall commencement ceremony.
Journey to a degree
When they first moved back to California, Baca and his sister lived with their aunt in Poplar, about an hour drive from Fresno, and immediately enrolled in school.
“I enjoy math. When I came here for school, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t speak English, but the numbers were the same,” Baca said. “I knew I was going to go through a lot of embarrassing moments speaking. It was not hard to learn, because I was willing to learn.”
Baca said his passion for math led to friendly classroom competitions amongst he and his peers. Rosa Huerta, one of Baca’s math teachers at Monache High School, says he was one of her best students.
“He always wanted to be No. 1 in his class. He challenged himself to do 100 percent and when he didn’t achieve his goal he would get mad at himself,” she said. “He sets his mind to do something and accomplishes his goals. I am very proud of him.”
A couple of years later, Baca’s younger sister was sent to the U.S. to live with her siblings who, when not in school, were working in the fields.
“We’ve been working all the summers, every day, my sister and I, since the eighth grade,” Baca said. “Because my parents were in Mexico, they didn’t have the resources to be sending money to the United States, so when we needed new clothes or new shoes, we had to work for it. I’m glad things happened that way, I learned to appreciate things a lot.”
Soon after, his parents sold all their belongings and began to plan to cross the Mexico-U.S. border. Not knowing when or if they would arrive safely, Baca continued to stay dedicated to school and work.
“I knew they were coming, but wasn’t sure when. They didn’t want to tell us because it would make us worry.”
Baca said his parents walked for three days, resting during the day and walking at night. His parents successfully crossed the border into Arizona and made their way to Porterville where they now reside.
Baca’s mother works in a packing house and his father works in the fields throughout the U.S. in seasonal agriculture.
“I always knew I was going to college,” Baca said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I wasn’t going to let all the sacrifices my parents made go to waste.”
After he graduated in 2010 from Monache High, Baca attended Porterville College before transferring to Fresno State. As full-time student and full-time employee, his journey hasn’t been easy.
He’s worked for the Sequoia National Forest Service under the roads engineer for the last year and a half as a full-time intern. Before that, he did farm work in Porterville and would start his days at 5:30 a.m. “It was really tough. It’s 100 degrees, but when you’re in the trench putting the pipes in it’s 10 degrees more.”
Baca’s passion for family is his driving force. Not only does most all of his extended family live in Porterville now, but he also has a wife and a 5-year-old son.
“My son, Achilles, is what pushes me to continue, he’s my engine. I didn’t want to ever say, ‘I didn’t finish school because my son was born,’” Baca said.
He felt it was important for his wife, Jessica, to stay home with Achilles during the first few developmental years while Baca worked and attended school full-time.
“So, every semester, I would have to sit down and talk and think how everything was going to work, and I made it work every semester.”
And now, as the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree, Baca will focus on his civil engineering career. His goal is to earn a full-time position with the Sequoia National Forest.
The Lyles College of Engineering is the only school or college at Fresno State that holds a fall commencement ceremony. Because, like Baca, many engineering graduates start work right away or relocate for jobs after graduating and are unable to attend the spring ceremony.
“Our students and families love it,” said Dr. Ram Nunna, dean of the Lyles College. “Because they often need to leave, we want to make sure they don’t miss out on this very special celebration.”
For Baca and his family, there’s plenty to celebrate.