It was the last week of school at Corcoran High in 1998. Miguel Alvarez was talking with his counselor, Mr. Barajas, when he asked if Alvarez would like to continue his studies.
“Of course,” he replied. “This is the reason I’ve been here for the past four years.”
Alvarez had already had a taste of what lay ahead if he didn’t continue his education. He spent his summers in the fields, picking fruits and vegetables in the scorching Central Valley heat. His winter breaks, pruning grapevines. The whole family’s effort was required to have the bare essentials to survive. He knew the best way to help his family was to break the cycle.
Any misery he had yet to experience, he could observe as he watched his mother wake at 2 a.m. to go to work, and his worn brothers return home from the field in the evening. The images of his family’s struggles tore at his soul, but would also prove to be his motivation and inspiration.
Alvarez’s family had done everything they could to get him to this point. Growing up in the small farming town of Palo Alto de Abajo in Guanajuato, Mexico, his father had recognized there was little opportunity there. When he was 16, his father moved the family to Corcoran, California.
“My parents gave me the opportunity to continue in school and enrolled me in Corcoran High school back in October 1994,” said Alvarez. “I didn’t take the opportunity for granted.”
Just days before his high school graduation, Alvarez got into Mr. Barajas’ tiny red Mazda truck and drove 40-minutes to the College of the Sequoias (COS), a community college in Visalia, California. Barajas helped Alvarez fill out his COS paperwork and introduced him to the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) staff. The California Mini-Corp, in the same office as EOPS, helped Alvarez get a job as a tutor and teacher’s aid for elementary and high school students.
“These two programs provided me the assistance, both financial and academic guidance, to make it as a college student,” said Alvarez.
Two years later, as the new millennium dawned, Alvarez transferred to Fresno State.
As a young boy, Alvarez loved art. All he did was draw. Buses, semi-trailers, and boom-boxes, he drew so much that he did not pass the first grade.
While art was his passion, he lacked understanding. Through the art programs at COS and Fresno State, Alvarez learned the history, philosophies, and many techniques to create art. Drawing from that base, he developed “the family” concept in his work.
“I create art based on the hardships and obstacles I had to overcome to complete the dream of becoming an art teacher,” explained Alvarez. “My family’s past is the inspiration. I have painted several of my brothers and me working under the 110-plus degrees for 12-plus hours to keep the shelter and food in our tables.”
During his time at Fresno State, Alvarez had several solo art shows, including two in the Henry Madden Library honoring the life of Cesar Chavez. He also held several jobs as a teacher’s aid, an illustrator for the Mini-Corp program and the La Voz Journal, an outdoor camp instructor, and assisted Dr. Paulette Fleming with an afterschool program at Sunset Elementary School.
In the summer of 2002, Alvarez found scholarships and saved his money to study in Florence, Italy, through the Long Beach State University Study Abroad Program.
In 2003, Alvarez received his B.A. in Visual Arts with an emphasis in painting and drawing. A year later, he received his CLEAR credential at Fresno State. In the fall of 2004, Alvarez was able to land his dream job: an art teacher at his alma mater Corcoran High School.
“I wanted to go back to Corcoran with the hopes of inspiring and open students’ eyes that there is more than Corcoran.”
For the last 17 years, Alvarez toiled in a field of his own, instilling a strong work ethic, a sense of responsibility, and perseverance in his students. He was named Teacher of the Year at CHS in the 2008-2009 school year.
“I tell my students that not all will become art teachers, but that fulfilling requirements, being punctual, staying out of trouble, and getting the best possible grades are the things that will shape their future to possibly get the job they want.”
Last year, Alvarez continued retracing the steps to his success and landed a second job as an adjunct Graphic Design Art Instructor at COS.
“We are so proud and happy that Miguel has taken the transformative education he received in Art and Design and has shared his knowledge and skills with generations of Corcoran High School students, along with College of the Sequoias students. His brave struggle and sacrifice to earn his degrees is surely inspiring many new artists to choose this path as well, thereby showing that Fresno State produces bold leaders in the arts, too,” said Chapman. “Miguel has given back profoundly to his community, exemplifying the university’s highest values.”
Looking to his future, Alvarez reflects on where he started and the people who matter to him most.
“From here and on, good or bad, whatever path I take, when looking at my life, I will always remember the tough mom I have. Just watching her tired smiles, getting out of the car after a hard day of fieldwork, to me, it’s just life — and a reminder that I need to appreciate what I have, who I am and where I’m heading in life.”