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Nabor PinaNabor Pina

Escape from the Streets of L.A.

People die in the mean streets of Los Angeles where Nabor Pina grew up. Now a senior at Willamette University, the Latin American studies major says it was the tough love of his parents that helped him become a university student instead of a street statistic.

"The area I live in is rough," says Pina knowingly. "It's heavily populated by gangsters, like the famous 18th Street gang, who are known all over the U.S., Mexico and South America. In the streets, the smell of marijuana is everywhere. My friends were always drugged out, laughing or passed out"

In an effort to keep his sons safe, Nabor Sr., an immigrant from Mexico, worked long hours in construction for the money to send his sons to Catholic grade school. "We went to grades one through eight in a Catholic school," Pina recalls. "While bad influences were everywhere, at Catholic school they were more controlled. Going there helped keep us away from some of it."

Pina's father also warned him and his brother to stay away from alcohol and drugs. "My dad would tell me, if you want it, try it with me so I can show you how it is." When Pina was eight, his father made him try alcohol. "It was so nasty it was easy for me to stay away from it after that."

Pina said it was harder to stay away from drugs like marijuana because so many of his friends were using. "My dad told us not to try marijuana because he'd had a bad experience and almost died. That really scared us."

Pina's mother, Fanny, also helped the boys resist the streets by staying home with them while they were young. "My dad was always working, so my mom raised us when we were little. She taught us a lot and she raised us well."

But when Pina was in sixth grade, his mother got a job working in a factory. "My brother and I started hanging out in the street and doing bad things," he says.

Pina's parents refused to surrender their sons to the streets. They clamped down, fighting to keep their sons safe. "My parents would ground us, lock us in the house and not let us go out into the streets," Pina recalls. "We'd get mad at my dad and argue with him. He'd get mad at us and hit us with his belt."

Not everyone supports corporal punishment, but Pina says it saved him. "People think hitting kids is bad. Very few people in my neighborhood do it. That's why you see so much stuff in the streets. It really helped me."

Despite having little education themselves, Pina's parents believed education was critical for their sons. "My dad kept telling me to get an education. "He'd say, 'Don't end up like me working 50 hours a week and not getting paid enough.'"

His parents scraped together $150 for tuition every month to send Pina to Cathedral High School, one of the few private college-prep schools in the area. "The two high schools in our area, Belmont and L.A. High, are bad. They've got metal detectors and security guards. Friends who went to those schools would tell me stories about guys who would hit the teachers and stuff. You might flunk, but they'd pass you anyway. The kids don't learn anything. But Cathedral High is one of the best schools they have in Los Angeles."

About the time Pina was accepted into Cathedral High, his father got sick. "From sixth to eighth grade, I really wasn't paying attention in school so my grades weren't that good," he says. "When my dad got sick, that's when I snapped out of it."

At Cathedral, the standards were high. "They were always talking about college. They gave us a lot of homework and we had to study a lot."

Pina began to apply himself. By the time he was a sophomore, he was getting nearly all A's. "I was shocked. It was then that I realized my potential."

In his junior year, his brother, who is a year older, was accepted into a California university. Pina began to realize that college was an attainable goal for him too. He applied to several colleges in California. When Willamette University offered to fly him up to Salem to take a look at the campus, he jumped at the chance. "When I saw the Willamette, I really wanted to come here," he says. "But my parents' income is low and I was worried about the money. Where was the tuition going to come from?"

Willamette's recruiters saw potential in Pina so the financial aid office went to work. They came up with a financial aid package to cover Pina's costs that included multicultural grants from Willamette, Pell and SEOG Grants, Perkins Loans and a Work Study Grant.

Pina's current life at Willamette is full - and a world away from the dangerous streets of L.A. When he's not studying, he works in the admissions office, plays intramural sports, tutors other students in Spanish, or gives campus tours as an outreach ambassador.

When he goes back to his old neighborhood, he's reminded about how close he came to choosing the streets. "A lot of my friends have moved away," he says. "Some of them have gone to prison. Two have died."

To the younger kids in his neighborhood, Pina has become a celebrity. He and his brother are the only ones on 11th Street to have gone to college. His neighbors point to Pina as a role model, encouraging their children to follow in his footsteps. Pina smiles shyly and says, "We get a lot of respect because we're in a university."

When he graduates, Pina says he wants to work with children, perhaps as a social worker or a school counselor. "I'm the perfect example for students who are involved in gangs and all that stuff. Learning is the only way to go. You've got to go to school. When Latino kids say to me, 'I'm Latino, how could I get into a school like Willamette?' I tell them, look at me, I'm Latino and I go to Willamette. You can too."