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Tamales and Scholarships: El Monte's Annual Tamalada Renews a Commitment to Education

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The 11th Annual Tamalada will raise funds for El Monte student scholarships | Photo Courtesy of El Monte Coalition of Latino Professionals

In many Latino communities such as El Monte, tamaladas are special events that bring families together to make and eat tamales, usually during the holidays. Making tamales can be a huge load of lonely labor for a single person, but when the work is divided among mothers, daughters, siblings, cousins, tias and grandmothers, the process of assembling the corn dough and meat-filling into the softened corn husks becomes an opportunity to strengthen bonds.

For the past 11 years the El Monte Coalition of Latino Professionals (EMCLP) has organized an annual tamalada that brings together members of the El Monte community as a kind of large, extended family that is bound not by kinship, but by their commitment to education. On Thurdsday December 19, EMCLP and the El Monte Promise Foundation will honor local educators and raise funds for college scholarships.

In the past five years, The Bobby Salcedo Esperanza Award has been awarded to outstanding educators and commemorates the life and legacy of Roberto "Bobby" Salcedo, a respected teacher and administrator that was killed during a visit to his wife's hometown in Durango, MX in 2009. He was one of the founders of the EMCLP and was part of a movement of local young Latino professionals that seek to effect change in the El Monte community.

Bobby was known for his light-hearted humor and dedication to education. Photo courtesy of Bobby Salcedo Memorial Foundation.
Bobby was known for his light-hearted humor and dedication to education. Photo courtesy of Bobby Salcedo Memorial Foundation.

By the age of 33, Bobby was an accomplished civic leader that had served at nearly all levels of El Monte and South El Monte's education system. He taught several years at South El Monte High School and quickly realized that he could impact more students as an administrator. He became Assistant Principal of activities at SEMHS and later, Assistant Principal of Instruction at his alma mater Mt. View High School, and lastly, El Monte High School. Bobby was a former-President of South El Monte Sister Cities Program with Gomez-Palacio, Durango, and was a member of the Kiwanis Club. In addition, he served on numerous education measure committees. Shortly before his death, he had been re-elected for his second term on the El Monte School Board. He'd been married for two years to his wife Betzy Salcedo, and was close to completing his Ph.D in education at UCLA. At his memorial ceremony, thousands of parents, students, colleagues, family and friends gathered at Mt. View High School's football stadium to honor his memory, his contributions to the community and his friendship.

This year's Esperanza awardees are Erick Escamilla from El Monte Union High School District, Mario Gonzalez from Mt. View School District, and Pedro Galindo Sr. from the El Monte City School District. In addition, EMCLP and EMPF will also award the Lifetime Achievment Award to Nick Salerno, the recently retired superintendent of the El Monte Union High School District. Esperanza Award recipients were selected for their exemplification of Bobby's tireless commitment to education that went above and beyond the basic classroom teaching duties. Their ability to mentor students and inspire them, for example, are part of the selection criteria, as well their capacity to empathize and work with students who experience hardships that may prevent them from pursuing a college education.

For Erick Escamilla, history teacher and former coach at South El Monte High School, receiving news of this award was a deeply emotional event. "It got me right in the heart. It's very meaningful to me. Bobby and I were great friends and colleagues; we had neighboring classrooms, we coached track together. Eventually he became my boss. I got to know Bobby through the whole gamut."

Erick Escamilla (right), South El Monte teacher remembers Bobby Salcedo (left) as a great friend and colleague | Photo courtesy of Erick Escamilla
Erick Escamilla (right), South El Monte teacher remembers Bobby Salcedo (left) as a great friend and colleague | Photo courtesy of Erick Escamilla

Escamilla, like Salcedo, grew up in El Monte and decided to come back after college rather than leave their working class roots for more affluent neighborhoods, as most educated upwardly-mobile Latino professionals often do. "We could have gone somewhere else but we want to give back to the students here," he says. It's this commitment to giving back to their community that brought the founding members of the EMCLP together over 11 years ago. A closely knit network of colleagues and friends, EMCLP focuses on promoting higher education in a community where only 12% of its residents have received a bachelor's degree or higher, according to the latest Census data.

The EMCLP strategized and planned a scholarship project, geared toward students that were undocumented or that may not have stood at the top of their class, but could greatly benefit from an extra boost. "We wanted to be different from other scholarship programs and from other scholarship fundraisers. We were one of the first organizations to offer scholarships to undocumented students," says Carlos Salcedo, a founding member of EMCLP and brother of Bobby Salcedo.

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According to Salcedo, while there were already other scholarship fundraisers in El Monte, EMCLP wanted to start a unique fundraiser that was also culturally relevant to El Monte. Thus, the tamalada was conceived. Since then, EMCLP has continued to seek ways to address the community's particular needs and lack of institutionalized support toward a college education.

After several years of tamalada fundraising and more strategizing, they took a risky move. They decided to pull the plug on their scholarship program and bring a new scholarship foundation to life, with the newly formed El Monte Promise Foundation. "In the first years, we were totally grassroots and were so excited because we raised $12,000 at a single tamalada. But eventually we realized that our community's need was much greater," states Norma Garcia, founding member of EMCLP and President of the El Monte Promise Foundation.

Inspired by Bobby Salcedo's commitment to raising funds for scholarships, Erick Escamilla started a successful scholarship and breast cancer awareness program at South El Monte High School | Photo courtesy of Erick Escamilla.
Inspired by Bobby Salcedo's commitment to raising funds for scholarships, Erick Escamilla started a successful scholarship and breast cancer awareness program at South El Monte High School | Photo courtesy of Erick Escamilla.

The El Monte Promise Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating a college-going culture in El Monte by working with parents and local school districts to coordinate systems and resources that support this mission. The EMPF, together with EMCLP, has focused their fundraising efforts into an innovative scholarship investment program with a significantly more extensive reach, which includes a matching investment in college savings accounts, as well as financial literacy workshops for families. The EMPF's Scholar Saving Program has been tailored to El Monte, and is a pilot program that has attracted much attention from other Latino communities in search of effective scholarship and college preparation programs.

"We've seen in other model scholarship saving programs that children with a college savings account to their name are seven times more likely to go to college," states Garcia.

Throughout the last five years, at each tamalada since Bobby Salcedo's death, the event has continued to grow and evolve. It is also a bittersweet event, as his absence is deeply felt by so many that knew him. However, notably, the event brims with pride for what has been accomplished as well as with determination for all that is yet to be done. "Bobby was the vehicle for us to bring light to the plight of our students. We needed to do more to help our kids to get to college. Its about making more systematic change. This is something that Bobby wanted to do," says Carlos.

Carlos Salcedo sees how his brother's life and legacy has touched the lives of others and inspired so many El Monte and South El Monte residents into taking more active roles in their communities. "Sometimes we need a cause to wake up that philanthropic part in us."

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