Alonso Jurado

“I got dropped at a bus depot as a kid with a duffle bag and $100. A lot of immigrant success stories begin the same way.”

A Gary Community VENTURES GranteE

By algernon Felice Jr.

Editor: Will C. Holden

Creative Director: Algernon Felice Jr.

When Alonso Jurado was 15 years old, he was dropped at a Denver bus depot with a duffle bag, $100 and a Spanish-to-English dictionary. It might seem jarring to some. But as immigrant stories go, Alonso doesn’t think his is all that unique.

Aguántate, niño. Aguántate.

He heard that a lot growing up. He knows others did, as well. He utters it to himself in moments of doubt now. Alonso doesn’t think there’s a perfect English translation for the mantra, which he describes as uniquely Mexican. The closest he can come up with is “endure.”

“Things might be rough right now, but you can get through it.”

“No one said following your dreams is easy; put your head down and toughen up.”

“If you’re not grinding at the top, you’re grinding for someone else — might as well be on top.”

Aguántate, hermano. Aguántate.

But what does this command really mean? How will you know when you’ve accomplished what it demands? And can you actually do it all on your own?

Some 20 odd years since he first remembers hearing that phrase, Alonso still struggles to answer those questions. Here’s what we do know: More than a decade has passed since Alonso was that lonely kid at a bus depot. He’s now a U.S. citizen. He speaks English. He owns a home. He’s married.

By all accounts, he’s set himself up to live a uniquely American dream.

Aguántate, indeed.

He doubts that this quiet mantra will ever leave his head or his heart. He’s not sure it should. He’s also certain he didn’t get here on his own — and that this journey shouldn’t be as difficult for those who come after him.

For organizations like Ednium: The Alumni Collective, who are actively working to reimagine Metro Denver’s K-12 public education system, stories like Alonso’s are invaluable — in large part because they agree with him: They’re not unique. Denver Public Schools has more than 36,000 students who are English language learners. That represents 42% of its student population.

Suffice to say there are lots of Alonsos out there, ready and eager to grind; to endure. How can our education systems and cities come alongside them to harness and amplify the unique talent and drive they offer?

Ednium is partnering with Gary Community Ventures to imagine new credentials Metro Denver high schools can offer students before they graduate to better prepare them for what comes next, and to help them live choice-filled lives.

Alonso will be at the table for those discussions. These are the experiences he’s bringing with him.

Lead photographer: CierraAnn Media, Assistant photographer: Mimarie Creative, Venue: The Headquarters | Sunday Night Meets

Alonso Jurado Q&A

You told us the bus depot in Denver on Champa and Broadway has special significance for you. Can you elaborate on that?
When I was 15 years old, I got on a bus in Chihuahua, Mexico, which is where I grew up. I rode it for 19 hours, and I got dropped off at the bus depot at Champa and Broadway. I think it’s where many immigrant stories start in Denver. I came with a duffle bag, $100 and my mom. Somebody picked us up from the bus depot and took me to our friend’s place, who essentially gave me a place to stay. The next day, we met Big David, who went to Lincoln High School, and my mom signed over my guardianship to him. So that day, I was in Big David’s custody.

It’s hard to imagine what that day was like for your mother. Have you ever spoken with her about it?
I’ve been really crazy in my life. The thing I’ll always admire about my mom is that she’s always stood by me. We talk about that day a lot, and she always says, “I never wanted to be the one who stood in your way of you following your dreams. You had so many obstacles in life, and I never wanted to be one.” I’ll always admire her for that, because I remember her looking at me a couple times as she was signing those guardianship papers and asking me if I was sure. And I was. Two days later, she got on a plane and flew back. I can only imagine what that must’ve been like for her. How much strength that took.

What was it like growing up in Chihuahua?
I have two older brothers. My parents got divorced when I was about 9, and my father just bounced. So it was really just my mom and my brothers growing up, and she really sacrificed her life for us — her wants, her needs. She just went to work and provided for us. In Chihuahua, the main options for work were really agriculture and ranching. But the one other thing we have is manufacturing. There are a few other companies who manufacture automotive parts that get exported. My mom worked for one of those big corporations. And those places, man, they work people to the bone. And they barely pay people a living wage. My mom worked 15-18 hours a day sometimes, just to bring food to the table. I’m proud to say that my family made it out of those conditions, but we did so at my mom’s expense.

What role did sports play in your life growing up?
To me, the English word endure feels very Mexican. As a Mexican, I feel like you’re always being asked to endure things. Just endure. I grew up on that. My dad was gone, my mom was gone working, and I was alone at home. I was alone on the streets and I saw a lot of things, man. I took refuge in sports. I still think I was pretty great at soccer, but between 12 to 15, I grew massively. So I wasn’t keeping up with the soccer footwork. But that’s when I found basketball. I had a PE teacher who pushed me in that direction. Long story short, I started playing for my city team, then I got picked up by my district team. Then I got picked up to represent my whole state in these national tournaments. That was the first time I got a chance to leave my hometown. And they told my mom, “He’s going to have a house to stay, he’s going to have food, he’s going to be taken care of.” I think that probably helped her later on when it came for me to move to the U.S.

Eventually, you made the Under 16 National Basketball Team in Mexico. Your room, board and schooling were being paid for — and you were doing something you loved. But you still dreamed about coming to the U.S. Why was that?
Our team went to Phoenix to play at a tournament, and we weren’t there to play other national teams. We were just playing regional teams from the U.S. And we were getting beaten by these teams. Badly. That was frustrating, because as a national team, we were supposed to be better than those teams. At one tournament, we picked up a guy who was playing in the U.S. but was from Mexico. His name was Saul. And he just carried himself differently. He spoke Spanish, he was from the same area as me, but his mentality was different. So I was like, “I want to learn what this guy knows.” Saul had good things to say about Denver, and told us he had just gotten done playing at Lincoln High School. So I looked up Lincoln, got the name of the coach, and I called him. I spoke no English, but I had someone who could translate. The coach said if I could make it to Denver, he’d be happy to give me a look. So we started looking into opportunities over there, and that’s how we found Big David.

Can you tell us more about Big David?
He was born in El Paso, and he came to Denver for similar reasons as me. He was friends with Saul. They both played for Lincoln and had graduated before I got there. The one thing I’ll say about that man Big David is he has a big heart. It can barely fit in his chest, I think. But he was only 20 or 21 years old when I moved in with him, and he was having some trouble figuring life out. Shoot, I was too. I was leaving for school at 6 a.m., eating breakfast and lunch there, going to practice, and I wasn’t coming back until 8:30 p.m. One day, Big David just disappeared. I really had nowhere to go. I thought that was it — I was going to have to go back to Mexico just a couple months into my trip.

Did you end up going back to Mexico after those issues with your living arrangement?
A basketball teammate of mine at Lincoln, found out what was going on, and he said, “Grab your stuff and come live with us.” So I went to live with him in Green Valley Ranch. And that was big, because he started to help me learn English. In a lot of ways, listening to music on the car ride with him to school helped too. But I never wanted to feel like I was freeloading, so I went to work for the company this kid worked for, which was at a little clinic in east Denver. So we’d get up at 3:30 a.m., go clean the clinic from 4-6 a.m., and then go to school and practice. It was tough, and one of the coaches started figuring out how tired I was. His name was Ryan. And eventually he ended up becoming like my adopted dad. Things were still rough, though, because I was still trying to work to support myself. It ended up being too much, so after my junior year, I actually did end up going back to Mexico.

Were you still motivated to come back to the U.S. at that point?
Absolutely. I had a lot of folks tell me I was crazy for continuing to try to go back to the states given all that had gone on — they started saying that there was no way I’d ever go back. And that fueled me. I thought, “I am going to go back, and I’m going to prove you wrong.” So I did. Coach Marini took me back in, and I had a good senior year playing basketball. But I got hurt, and the letters from colleges who were interested in me stopped coming in. That was the first time I really started considering a life for myself where basketball wasn’t the number one priority.

What were the options you started looking into outside of basketball?
I told Coach Marini, “You know what, I think I could be a doctor.” He was supportive, but he pushed me to look at nursing first, since there are some good nursing schools in the area. I started looking into community colleges, and there was one option that looked good for me in Nebraska. So I thought I would go back to Mexico and get a student visa. In order to get one, you essentially have to convince the government that you have resources to come study in the U.S. and then go back once you’re done. And Coach Marini had my back there in ways I can never thank him enough for. This man gave me bank statements showing my access to $20,000 along with a notarized letter, saying that he’d sponsor me through my whole college career.

Lead photographer: CierraAnn Media, Assistant photographer: Mimarie Creative, Venue: The Headquarters | Sunday Night Meets

It took some time for you to get that student visa. But you eventually did, and you ended up going to school at Western Nebraska Community College to study nursing and play basketball. What was that initial exposure to nursing like?
Nursing school was a crazy experience. I remember vividly during my internship that there was a miscarriage on one of my shifts. And it was determined that it was the fault of one of the nurses on call for that shift. And that freaked me out — it just hit me that someone could die on your shift, and it could be your fault. It just immediately felt like I wasn’t cut out for that; like that was too big a burden for me to try to carry. I still had a year left to get my associates degree, and I felt like I had to go a different direction.

What direction did you go when you pivoted away from nursing?
I switched to education, and I got excited about teaching and becoming a coach. And so I got into that. I also started dating this woman who was on the volleyball team, and really got accepted into her community. Almost the whole volleyball team was from Brazil. So we started dating, and she started teaching me Portuguese. So I eventually became fluent in Portuguese.

So you had a girlfriend and a plan for your education. Was life finally starting to settle into a rhythm for you?
It was, but it really just felt like the time was ticking on me, because that student visa doesn’t allow you to stay in the country for longer than the time you’re in school. So I remember going to the library at the community college one day and Googling, “How to stay in America legally.” There were a bunch of options, and one was to join the U.S. Army. And within the Army, they have a need for all these specialty professions — things like psychiatrist, MDs, anesthesiologists. As I kept reading, I also saw they needed interpreters, and one of the languages they indicated needing was Portuguese. That blew my mind. I remember going to the recruiter that same day and he started the process.

That opportunity with the U.S. Army had to feel like an answered prayer. Were you able to pursue it?
The Army recruiter I met with brought me to Denver in December, and right away we launched into things. We did a medical background and a language test. I passed the test, and we set a start date in May, which was great, because that was the amount of time I needed to finish my program in Nebraska. But then they called me in March and said my background information still wasn’t coming back, so they’d have to push my start date back until September. And now I’m starting to sweat it, because my student visa was going to have expired by then. I figured there might be an issue with me going into the military if I wasn’t technically in the country legally. So I decided to go back to school to get my bachelors so I could retain my student visa instead.

Did you ever end up enlisting in the Army?
I finally did — about three years after I originally started the process. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, and the Army officially accepted me right after that. I went through my enlisted contract, and ended up gaining my citizenship as a result, which was huge for me. While I’ll be forever grateful for that opportunity, the military lifestyle was not something I saw myself living long-term. As I was thinking about what I might try to do next, I reconnected with TeRay Esquibel, who I knew from my time at Lincoln High School. He told me about Ednium: The Alumni Collective and this movement to tap into DPS alumni experiences to try to improve our education system. I’d felt so unprepared for life after graduating high school, so everything he was saying really hit home.

TeRay Esquibel at Ednium knew that the Army wasn’t feeling like a great fit for you. Did he start recruiting you to come work for him?
I guess he did. He was telling me that the organization really didn’t have a great handle on what the experience was like for ESL (English as a second language) students in DPS, and that they could gain a lot from my perspective. So I joined their Leadership Launchpad program in the third cohort. And it was a different world. I remember getting off duty from my military job, and then getting asked questions like, “If you could change one thing about your high school experience, what would that be?” There was a night-and-day difference.

Was it a good night-and-day difference between what you were doing in the Army and what you were working on with Ednium?
I honestly just didn’t know you could make a living doing something like this — doing something you enjoyed, doing something that felt important. I got turned on to the writings of this guy named Iceberg Slim through the Launchpad. The crux of his book is either that you’re working for yourself or you’re working for someone else. That stuck with me. I said, from now on, I’m going to work for myself. TeRay and Richard hired me late last year, and I’ve never looked back. I want to empower the next generation to feel like they can take that level of control over their own lives, as well.

What does life look like for you in Denver now?
I ended up marrying a childhood friend not too long ago — she’s from my old neighborhood. And she’s been able to move up here with me. She’s now working as a teacher in an early childhood center, and we bought a house in February. So this is really the first time in my life when I’ve had stability and this opportunity for a normal life. I feel very lucky and very blessed to have had people in my life who got me here. And I feel like I’ve learned a ton along the way about what to do and not to do. I want to try to pay that forward to other kids coming up as much as I can.

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Interested in working alongside Ednium in support of Denver’s homegrown talent? Whether you’re a DPS student, alum, employee, parent or community member, there are many roles you can play. 

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Leadership Launchpad is for DPS alumni ages 25 and younger interested in learning about leadership styles, advancing their own leadership and applying lessons to support their goals.

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