By Lee Rasizer, CCA Director of Public and Media Relations
Edith Ortega jokingly refers to the complicated dynamic in her large Hispanic family as “splitting the tortilla.”
There are seven children in total, spanning three relationships and two countries, Mexico and the United States.
Three of those siblings – sisters Michelle (age 20) and Ivonne (29), along with Edith (35) – share much more than a father within that prism. To build upon the cultural analogy, they’ve experienced the whole enchilada, both together and apart.
Depression, abuse and drugs touched them all, either from a distance or directly.
They’ve “borrowed” each other’s shoes and makeup, and shared stolen moments.
They’ve sometimes lived together and, often, far apart.
DNA binds them together. Experiences have strengthened the bonds, as has another common strand: a commitment to education.
Last December, at the annual Student Success Awards that celebrates unique pathways that have led to academic perseverance, May 2005 CCA graduates Ivonne and Edith had front-row seats as little ‘sis Michelle was cited for her ongoing achievements.
Once characterized for her rebellious side, Michelle had found the strength to put what some close to her had hoisted upon her as a pre-determined future of early motherhood, dropping out, and partying and managed to ignore them all. Low expectations instead were trumped by the pursuit of high grades. And here she was, being celebrated for As and Bs, with sisters who also didn’t buy into the gloomy forecasts and set an example for her to follow, serving as cheering section.
“They were sitting there, chatting, saying, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe you’re on the President’s List,’” Michelle recalled. “I swear Ivonne said it 20 times. ‘I can’t believe it … I can’t believe it. …”
It wasn’t unbelievable. Maybe unexpected, given actions not so far from the rear-view miror.
It took lessons learned, decisions made, and, yes, obstacles overcome, for all three sisters to break a seemingly vicious family cycle replete with early school exits and substance abuse.
“It’s definitely a proud moment to know that even though we’re from different moments in time, we have things in common now,” Edith said, wistfully.
Arturo, the sisters’ shared patriarch, was a law student in Juarez, Mexico. Edith described him as “studious,” but as unfulfilled and regretful after leaving college before graduating, migrating to the U.S., and starting a construction career.
Edith and Ivonne stayed south of the border with their mom, Guadalupe, save for a year in Chicago when Edith was around six and Ivonne a newborn.
“As far as I could tell, life in Mexico was great,” Edith said. “I was fr
om that generation of kids who played outside and left the doors open.”
At age 11, Edith said her goodbyes to Ivonne and her mother and joined her father in Denver. He’d soon remarry. Yet, even with the move and the family shell game, the hardest thing Edith had in her life was the expectation that she receive good grades.
It wasn’t much of a challenge, given what she called her “nerdy, straight” personality.
“One of the things my dad told me a long time ago that really sticks with me is that he wanted to give us as much as he could so that we could strive for a little more,” she said.
Edith graduated from Aurora Central at age 17. She’d leave a household that, by that time, included Ivonne, who had taken a similar path and left Mexico at 11 to pursue an American education.
“That’s when the chaos began,” Edith said of her pending life’s journey.
She “wandered off” for a coup
le years, enrolled at CCA in 1999, and entered what became a bad marriage.
“There was a lot of abuse, verbal and otherwise, and it included all the financial difficulties that come with being independent and married. I had to work and balance school.”
Divorce followed. Full-time work became a necessity along with her classwork. A diploma remained at arm’s length. But she didn’t quit.
“Along the way I had many, many jobs and I realized it sucked to be at the bottom, and it wasn’t fair to be on the bottom,” Edith related.“I figured out the only way to move up where I wanted to be was to be the boss. So, I had to keep going to school or else I’d never make it out of the sucky jobs.”
Edith originally studied Computer Information Systems but changed course. She’d fail the test for her real estate certificate and gave up that potential pathway, too. General studies was next, and so much time had passed in her journey, it allowed Ivonne to catch up and enroll at CCA at her side.
“When I was 18 and Ivonne was 12, I didn’t want to talk to her,” Edith said. “She had nothing interesting to tell me. This continues in my head until she’s 25 and then I think, ‘Oh my God, she has something interesting to say that I want to hear.”
The two ended up graduating at the same time, first at CCA and then at four-year schools. The two are currently finishing up advanced coursework, with Ivonne choosing the counseling route and Edith business management.
“I was glad that I at least made it to the finish line with her and not after her,” Edith said with a smile.
A grueling decision
It was expected that Ivonne would take advantage of an American education from the time her mother made the sacrifice of sending her to Denver to join her father’s burgeoning family.
“That was very hard for me,” Ivonne related. “I had been with my mom growing up. I was starting to be a teenager, and now I would be away from my mother. But back home in Juarez, the border town with El Paso, Texas, things were really, really bad. Most of my friends were getting pregnant and dropping out of school, and my mom didn’t want that for me.”
The separation was expected to be temporary but became permanent. And despite her mother’s wishes, when Ivonne graduated Aurora Central, college didn’t appear to be possible due to financial constraints.
Ivonne was told by her father that she would have to get a job to pay for college or forego it. But she found a way. As a student from a low-income family, the financial aid she received ended up covering most of the expenses and allowed her to exit higher education nearly debt free.
“I was determined to get an education,” she said.
Ivonne lived for a spell with Edith and witnessed many of the hard times in her older sister’s personal life. Edith’s struggles also resonated when considering college.
“My sister was a big inspiration because she was going to school, working, and she was a parent,” Ivonne said. “And I just didn’t have a good enough excuse not to.”
Ivonne learned from her father’s example, too. After failing to complete his law degree in Mexico, he didn’t give up, either. Arturo Ortega learned English as an adult by enrolling in Parks Junior College (now Everest College in Aurora) to finish some of what he had started academically.
“I remember him studying and trying read textbooks and him not understanding because it was in a different language and at college level,” Ivonne recalled.
“So you had a very smart person, but one facing language barriers. And he had such a hard time presenting to classmates. He knew they would make fun of him because of his heavy accent, or that they wouldn’t understand. As an adult, it hurt him, yet he kept going. He didn’t let it tear him down. So he was definitely inspirational in that sense.”
Ivonne and Edith both were in attendance when their father received his Paralegal degree. The emotional scene resonated for both as they entered CCA together.
Shared determination to earn their own diplomas served as a driving force. But it was also an enjoyable time, too, sharing an education.
“That was a great, great experience,” Ivonne said. “We were partners in crime. We would study together. We took a lot of the same classes. Edith was really, really good at writing papers.
“I would offer to pay her to write my papers and she would never accept,” Ivonne added with a laugh. “But we had a literature class that we had to memorize a poem for. That came easy to me.”
After CCA, Edith graduated from Johnson and Wales University, where she studied business and management, She’s currently finishing certificate work at Metropolitan State University before sitting for her Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam. Ivonne earned a Psychology degree at Metro State and is currently wrapping up her masters through University of Phoenix.
At the same time, one of the most important accomplishments both would achieve fell into that particular time period:
Getting their younger sister on board with this whole noble pursuit of academia.
A difficult switch
Michelle Ortega was caught in the middle between two distinct paths. Edith and Ivonne represented one direction. Life at home, watching as some family members in her peer group fell into bad habits, was the other.
And, really, Michelle could have gone either direction at any time, given her fragile mental state.
She shifted between Hinkley and Overland High Schools, watched as her parents divorced, experienced the end of her own relationship with a boyfriend and “went into a little phase.”
Michelle said she checked out mentally and couldn’t handle her emotions. She would maybe show up to class, physically if not mentally.
She’d argue with teachers. She had no future in mind.
“I just cried,” Michelle said. “I liked to cry. I didn’t talk to anybody.”
She admitted to smoking and drinking. Her father lectured her to no avail and suggested a possible military solution.
“My dad was trying to convince me to go to the Army and I was hesitating, and since I was, I knew that I didn’t want to do it,” she explained. “And I was getting kind of sad because all of my friends were going to universities and I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
Ivonne would play an influential role in getting Michelle to turn course.
“The quote she always told me is that you can’t always be pretty, you have to be pretty and have brains, and that stuck with me because she’s really beautiful and has the brains,” Michelle said. “It finally clicked. I couldn’t stop. I had to keep going.”
Michelle registered at CCA one month before fall semester in 2012. Ivonne and Edith’s experiences at the college entered into the decision, perhaps subliminally.
“They actually have been the only ones in my family that graduated high school and went to college. They pursued way more, so they’re my brighter side,” Michelle said.
Things became fully illuminated after she took a Women’s Studies class.
Michelle had to take pre-college math but ended up falling in love with the subject, generally. She joined TRiO and got more involved with her teachers and other students. She worked at the college.
She found a home as much as a place to learn.
“It just feels good to be known,” Michelle explained. “To walk into an office and someone knows my name, it just feels great. I love CCA. I love being here. It’s my total escape.”
The Student Success Awards ceremony was just a tangible example of the massive strides she made in a short period of time.
“I still say, ‘I can’t believe it,’” Ivonne said, chuckling. “I always pushed her so hard. But we all have our own timing. I’m glad her timing finally came.”
Ivonne and Edith sat with members of CCA’s Cabinet while their sister was acknowledged last December. Both sisters barely were able to contain their pride.
“I wanted to be there to show her my support, not because I didn’t think she could do it, but because I know where she started,” Edith remembered. “When she started school, she was struggling so hard. I’m sure in conversations, thoughts of, ‘This is maybe not for me,’ crossed her mind. But here she was on the honor roll.”
Michelle plans on graduating next May, and before that day, wants to start a women’s resource center at CCA. She also wants to set an example for her nephews and nieces that certain negative patterns which have festered during her life, and her sisters’ lives, can be broken.
“Michelle really values education now, where back in high school, we’d have talks about why high school was so important and she wouldn’t necessarily see the whole picture,” Ivonne added.
The Ortega sisters are a story of blended families, which can be difficult in itself.
They are a story of immigrants.
But they’re also a success story.
“There are seven of us,” Edith said. “Those who have chosen to not care about education, I’ve seen them struggle so much and it breaks my heart for them, but there’s not much I can do.”
Those feelings are counterbalanced by the pride that comes with what the three sisters continue to accomplish.
“I look at it, and man, we are successful,” Ivonne said. “And we’re on our way to even greater success.”
The trio envisions a younger brother following in their footsteps to CCA.
“Maybe,” Michelle said in a hopeful tone, “We’ve broken the cycle.”