At age 15, Mexican native Fernando Rivera crossed the Rio Grande in 1975 in search of a better life. Rivera had obtained a scholarship to attend Lydia Patterson Institute in El Paso, despite being an undocumented immigrant.
“Someone told me about Lydia Patterson and I asked for a scholarship,” said Rivera, who is now 61 years old. “I didn’t think they would have a scholarship because I was illegal, but they helped me.”
The Institute was founded in 1913 with a mission to not only educate the children of Segundo Barrio but also teach them about religion. Almost 100 years later, the private school continues to offer scholarships to deserving students from El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, which covers a portion of the $2,400-a-year tuition.
Being able to attend Lydia Patterson was merely a dream for Rivera just as it is today for many current students who would not be able to attend without financial assistance. The school currently has 500 students from elementary school to high school age.
“About 40 percent or 50 percent of our students are on work scholarship,” said Maria Christina Woo, assistant principal. “So they have to earn their education by working at the school and paying their own tuition. I think that is one of the values that they have as far as education.”
Woo, who attended the school and has worked there for 43 years, says although she could work elsewhere “and earn more money” she is more than content with her administrative position.
“I’m proud to be part of this,” she said. “It is very enjoyable here. Why? Because of the students. It is completely different than the public schools.”
Rivera, who earned his high school diploma at Lydia Patterson, now works there as student activities director. Among his duties is administering the scholarship program that helped him.
“We do everything around here; we don’t have janitors so that’s what the students on scholarships do,” Rivera said.
He credits the high school, and a former principal who became his mentor, with helping shape him into the man he is today. “I studied hard but I was a troublemaker,” Rivera said.
“The principal gave me a chance. I was in trouble… I lived with my cousin. I was 15 years old and my cousin was 17 years old. My principal said, ‘no, (you) need to talk to an adult.’ He was the person who helped; he told me, ‘you do something wrong and you’re going back to Mexico’.”
The principal, who was also a reverend, then took him under his wing and helped him with anything he needed.
“The reverend helped me a lot with food, money, and to get my papers,” Rivera said. “I tried to give back to him but he said ‘no, give back to the rest of the people and then you’ll pay me back even more.’”
What Rivera’s principal did for him is what he now does for the students at the institute.
“So that’s what I try to teach the kids; it’s a better life if we’re helping,” said Rivera who is married. “I teach them my life.”
Besides learning multiple life lessons during his junior and senior years, the institute introduced Rivera to religion.
“I’m a Methodist now. I didn’t really believe in anything so he (the principal) taught me to believe in God,” Rivera said. “Everyday I stayed after school with him. They would bring food and he would always pray for the food. Now I pray when I eat.”
Rivera then took what he learned from the principal about religion and taught it to his children.
“My son is now a reverend; he just finished seminary school two months ago,” Rivera said. “Now he is working at … a big church of about 2,000 people with a three-pastor ministry.”
Rivera said he likes talking to non religious students informally about his belief in God but, at the same time, doesn’t encourage them to change their beliefs.
“I try to help (them) but not to change,” Rivera said. “If they’re Catholic, no problem. The big thing is that they believe in God. God is the same God in every religion.”
For Rivera, Lydia Patterson has become an important part of his life.
“I am part of the family. We can say the students, the directors, and the principals, everybody, we are a family.
“A lot of students come into school at 7 a.m. and stay all day here. They practice basketball or play volleyball. They have breakfast here, lunch here. It’s a better life.”
If it wasn’t for LPI, Rivera says he would still be wondering of what living the ‘American Dream’ is like.
He compares his life now in El Paso with the lives of his family and friends who remained in his birthplace of Torreon. “It’s a poor area. Everybody is using drugs; they do a lot of bad things… A lot of my friends are in jail, are drug-dealers, and are sick. They stayed in Mexico and I saw the difference.”
Although he left his hometown four decades ago, he says he will never forget his roots. “I still go to visit Torreon, the barrio. I see that they don’t change; they’re the same,” he said.
After 37 fulfilling years as an employee at Lydia Patterson, Rivera said he hopes to continue helping students for the foreseeable future.
“I’m still here; I’m not a troublemaker anymore,” he laughed.