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California Experience Drove Principal to Teach

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Many parts of Roberto Archuleta’s life are depicted on the wall of his office at the Fairview Elementary. They include a poster of a movie about César Chavez, an early depiction of a Spanish picaresque novel character and a drawing of Don Quixote.

This month, Archuleta retired as principal of the school after 35 years in education, including 32 years working for the Española School District.

He was born and raised in downtown Española by his mother, Pilar Archuleta, and his father, Ramon Archuleta.

Ramon worked for 10 years in the city of Española Water Department, repairing pumps and busted water lines.

“My dad would come home full of mud and stuff, you know,” Roberto Archuleta said. “My dad had an eighth grade education, so he worked with his hands, basically. My mother had a sixth grade education.”

Ramon died in an accident, a week before Roberto’s graduation from high school in 1969.

He was transporting gasoline from Española to the Totavi gas station when a drunk driver drove into him.

“He hit him head on, causing the truck to blow up,” Roberto Archuleta said. “That was a significant occurrence in my life, and so even kids here that have lost a dad or lost a mom, you know, I can relate to that.”

He said he was not considered one of the students most likely to succeed.

“Nothing in my life has been easy, or given to me,” he said. “In my junior high and high school, I was in the top 10 percent of the class. But I was not supposed to succeed, because I was from the poor side of town, kind of guy. Most of my friends were fatherless.”

After his father died, his counselor called him in and told him about a foster program in California for students that would help him find a place to live and tutor him through his first year of school.

“I said, ‘This is it man, this is my ticket, to get outta here,’” Archuleta said.

But when he got to California, the program fizzled out, and he had to stay with a temporary family, with eight other children.

“It wasn’t really appropriate,” he said. “I was sleeping on the couch.”

That foster parent found him another place to live with an Spanish entertainment producer Pedro Paramo. In Merced, Calif. he worked for six months at Paramo’s radio station and music venue as a gate collector. It was called El Valle Grande, not to be confused with the one in Texas.

“It was a high-class place,” Archuleta said. “Guys with tuxedos, he sold liquor and food. It was mostly Texan music.”

He later studied political science at Merced College, a junior college in Merced. He initially wanted to be a lawyer.

The Chicano movement

Archuleta’s first teaching position was not with a school district, but at a winery in California in the midst of a heated labor struggle.

He was involved in a strand of the Chicano movement led by César Chavez, who at the time was working to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement for farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley, in 1970 and 1971, where a lot of grapes were being harvested.

“That was an important part of my life. I don’t brag on it,” Archuleta said. “I would help collect canned food for him, go to his rallies, that type of thing.”

According to “Harvest of Empire” by journalist Juan Gonzalez, Chavez’s United Farm Workers Organizing Committee was part of a trend of Latino activism in that era centered around winning basic rights for mexicanos and Puerto Ricans that they did not have, despite being American citizens, like the right to unionize, the right to vote and the right to public services like housing, water, sewer and schools.

“The movement was produced by the times,” Archuleta said. “There was the Vietnam conflict. César Chavez was bringing up racism. They would fly planes with pesticides right over the workers, they had no restrooms for the workers. Guys like my brother came back from ‘Nam alive, to go to college and to be prejudiced against, to be told, ‘You can’t enter this college,’ or, ‘You can’t pass an English class, because you don’t speak enough correct English.’ These guys were not gonna take it sitting down.”

In the summer, he worked in various communities as a summer school teacher with a friend who had discovered prejudice and racism, so they both worked in one of the camps run by the E & J Gallo Winery.

“The housing there was, people lived in shacks,” Archuleta said. “We were pro-student, pro-Mexican-American and pro-Portuguese, because what Gallo did, Gallo brought in Filipinos when the Mexicans went on strike. When César was strong with the Mexican population, and they were all on board, Gallo brought in Filipino workers.”

Then the Filipinos joined the union, he said, so Gallo brought in Portuguese workers. During the summer, Archuleta taught the children of the Portuguese workers, both parties trying to speak in broken Spanish.

“We had so much success in the school that we were ousted out of the school,” Archuleta said. “They said, ‘We’re short on funding, we’re cutting your program.’ That’s what they did with us.”

The teachers supported the struggle, so the company closed the school, Archuleta said. So they moved the school to the farm.

Teaching in camps

The people lived in a campground, with a cafeteria. Teachers took all of their paper, crayons and other school supplies to the camp. They taught all subjects, but more than anything, Archuleta said, they taught cultural awareness.

“These are kids who had grown up in Portugal and were brought over with their parents, and they grew up near seafaring places, so they would draw these beautiful ships with masts,” Archuleta said. “And one little Portuguese boy wrote a note that said, ‘Chicano Power, Portuguese Power, Together We Can Beat Up the Whole World.’”

After school, the teachers visited with the families and they finished the program there in the camps.

Archuleta identifies as Mexican-American more than Spanish.

When asked what drew him to the Chicano movement, he said growing up in Española, he had never experienced racism, but that changed when he left home.

“When I went to California, I found out what racism was,” Archuleta said. “I was put in a racist situation.”

Archuleta said he was sharp and could type quickly, but could only get work as a maintenance worker and janitor at Merced College.

“I cleaned the professors’ offices, that was my place,” Archuleta said. “I was a good janitor, but it dawned upon me that everyone in the maintenance department, in the janitorial, were either black or Hispanic. And in the business office, in the library, all of those people were white. So I took it to the dean of students, and I said, ‘You know what, this is what I’m finding, this is what I’m seeing. I have office skills, never once was I interviewed for a position in the library or the business office. Are y’all prejudiced here, or what?’”

The dean allegedly stood up and tried to intimidate Archuleta.

“That had a reverse effect,” he said. “That wasn’t going to intimidate me, and I realized there is prejudice.”

At that time in California, Hispanics and Mexican-Americans were totally disrespected, he said.

“There was outright racism against Hispanics,” Archuleta said. “Now I hear in the news, and everything, I don’t want to live in California, but (I hear about) all this ‘haven for Mexicans,’ and it’s totally turned around. I can’t figure it out.”

He said he later became the president of a Chicano club on campus at Merced College.

“We brought in speakers, we brought in drama groups, and before you know it, I noticed the FBI was taking my picture,” he said. “That caused me to come back to New Mexico. Back then, I was afraid that they were gonna frame me. That was Black Panther days when they were active, the Native Americans had taken over Alcatraz Island. I went to San Francisco at the time. That was the days of rock concerts, crazy stuff.”

Highlands president

Back in New Mexico in 1970, students and Archuleta’s brother, Manuel Archuleta, were campaigning for a new president of Highlands University.

According to “La Raza Unida Party” by Armando Navarro, Manuel Archuleta was a graduate student and leader of the Party in San Miguel County, along with Juan José Peña.

In phone calls, Roberto told his brother about his fears of FBI entrapment, so Manuel invited him to come back to New Mexico and join the struggle at Highlands University.

“If we have to, we’re gonna take over the University,” Manuel told him.

“That caused me to say, ‘If I’m gonna go to jail, it’s gonna be for a good reason,’” Roberto Archuleta said. “It’s gonna be on my home turf, trying to get in the first Hispanic president of a university.”

The activism led to the appointment of Frank Angel in 1971, the first native-born Hispanic president of a four-year higher education institution in the United States.

Later, when the movement settled down, Archuleta said he predicted that children in the generation after his would not have the same activist energy.

“Because we’re educated,” he said. “I grew up shining shoes and selling papers to make money. My kids never had to do that. Never had to scrounge for money. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t dirt poor, either. They didn’t have that hunger, that desire to better their social (status). They didn’t even know what that was about.”

He said he also predicted that the children of later waves of Mexican-American immigrants would make up the mass of the next activist movement.

“These were kids who were dirt poor, trying to look for opportunity, being told, ‘You can’t go to college,’” Archuleta said. “So I feel that, I understand that. I don’t think we should allow migration, just flat out migration, but this country has a lot.” 

Finding Jesus

When asked how his activism in the Chicano movement affected his teaching later on, Archuleta said he got married at 19 years old, and his wife Loretta Archuleta became a born-again Christian.

“I wasn’t ready for that, I pretty much fought that,” he said. “In the movement, that I had been involved in, I had kind of lost faith in God, really. Almost to the point of being an atheist.”

But at the end of that summer, he went to El Buen Pastor Church, when it was still located on Española’s west side, before moving into the larger location where it is currently housed. Later, Archuleta would help found a Christian academy there.

“This young preacher was preaching, and he talked about your sins being white as snow,” Archuleta said. “To me, that concept was overwhelming. I was not an angel by any means. He made an offer to come up, and I went up, and I was sincere. It changed my life.”

Returning to school at the end of the summer, he met up with his brother and the others in the movement.

“I could no longer do the things we used to do,” he said. “I could no longer advocate marching, protesting, and maybe even violence, you know, ‘cause, we were pretty much at that level, at that stage. I had to let go of hatred.”

Archuleta said his brother called on a man named “Vito” to try to convince him to stay in the Chicano movement, during a meeting at Charlie’s Spic & Span restaurant in Las Vegas. Archuleta felt like at that point, he was pushed out of the movement.

“This guy tried to convince me of my error in giving up the movement and turning to Jesus,” he said. “This guy was a communist, a sharp guy. He told me that religion was the opium of the masses, and that a lot of the things they did wasn’t done by other religions.”

They argued for about an hour, until Archuleta told the man he can’t argue with him.

“All I can tell you, Vito, is I accepted Jesus Christ in my heart, and that was real,” Archuleta told the man. “That is something I’m committed to, and I’m gonna serve the Lord.”

Archuleta said that ended the argument, and upset Vito.

“He pointed at me and he said, ‘You get out of the movement, because the movement and religion have nothing in common. And if you stay in the movement, we will kill you,’” Archuleta said.

He said he walked out of the restaurant, into the daylight.

“The light is hitting me right in the face, it was like the Lord telling me, ‘You’re out. You’re in the light now,’” he said. “That guy gave me the answer.”

But Archuleta still had sympathies for what the movement stood for.

“I understood what the movement was about, but it wasn’t the same sympathy,” he said. “I knew I was gonna meet up with the clan, the old guys, and I had to consider they might beat me up or even kill me. But I was determined, I was convinced that what I had found was the right thing.”

None of his former compañeros ever actually beat him up. He continued to argue with friends still within the movement, who challenged him on the issue of poverty, and how activism can work toward solving it.

“It’s not about being rich or being poor, it’s about knowing Jesus,” Archuleta said. “You can offer the poor maybe 20 or 30 years of a better life, with the movement. I can offer the poor an eternity with Jesus, an eternity in Heaven.”

So he changed his major from political science to education.

“That’s how I got my calling into education,” he said.

After graduating in 1978 with a teaching degree from Highlands University, he applied for a job in the East Las Vegas Schools, what is now called Las Vegas City Schools. Filling out his application, he said the superintendent recognized him from an earlier protest of an unspecified action taken by the school board.

“He recognized me and said, ‘You protested us,’” Archuleta said. “I said, yeah I did, sir, I said, ‘But I’ve changed, that was a different me.’”

They talked about his activism. He didn’t get the job.

‘Hooked’ into teaching

Archuleta says he was hooked into teaching at first.

He was a student teacher in the sixth grade class at Armijo Elementary in West Las Vegas when his principal secretly recommended him for a teaching job in West Las Vegas.

“The teacher had an emergency, and he left like for, two weeks, or so, and the principal asked me if I could handle this class, for about two weeks, without bringing in a sub,” he said. “And I say, ‘Sure I can.’”

The class did great, he said.

“At the end of the year, lo and behold, little did I know, I applied for West Las Vegas schools,” Archuleta said. “That principal had a vacancy, and he had recommended me for the vacancy. The only thing is, he didn’t tell me.”

So Archuleta pitched the idea to his wife and by 1978, he was living in a camper trailer outside a one-room schoolhouse in Trementina, outside Las Vegas.

“We were out there in nowhere land,” he said. “Just like Little House on the Prairie.”

He taught 16 students in first through eighth grade, but also had the responsibilities of school nurse and counselor. There was also a custodian and a cook.

“I wasn’t raised a cowboy ... So I didn’t know if I could relate,” Archuleta said. “The other question I had was if there was Hispanic students. I knew I could relate to Hispanic students. That was what brought me. My whole life, I felt like I was a Northern New Mexico educator. My education, my experience, I never sought to work anywhere else other than Northern New Mexico, because I knew that’s where my strength was at, and where my heart was at, too.”

Since then, he has stayed in education because he loves to share his experiences with students.

“I grew up in poverty,” Archuleta said. “I used to sell the SUN as a little boy, plus shine shoes. I always felt like I could relate to students in poverty, and in hardship. So my heart was in it. And to this day, I have a passion for that.”

He received his master’s degree in elementary education from Highlands in 1980.

His next position was a supervisor and teacher at Mountain View Christian Academy in Las Vegas.

Then in 1982, he helped Richard Espinoza found El Buen Pastor Christian Academy in Española. The school closed due to financial insolvency in 1987.

“He did a great job, he’s a good man, a great educator,” Danny Espinoza, Richard’s son said. After graduating from District Bible College in Arizona, Danny helped Roberto with running the school.

“He’s a genuine and a good man,” Espinoza said of Archuleta. “He loves the Lord. He has a passion for the kids, their education and commitment.”

When the Academy closed, Archuleta taught seventh and eight grade at the El Rito School. Then he came back to the Española School District, where he taught fifth grade in Alcalde for a year.

Then he worked as a bilingual coordinator for Jemez Mountains Schools out of Coronado High School in Gallina for two years.

He was principal at Velarde Elementary from 1991 to 1997.

“It looks like I was demoted for a year there,” he said. “I got on the wrong side of politics. So I ended up staying in Velarde for a year as a teacher.”

In 1999, he was an assistant principal at Española Middle School when it was still housed on Hunter Street, until 2003. 

High math scores

Then he returned to Velarde Elementary in 2003 as a sixth grade teacher for a year. Then he was selected to be the principal again. He held that position from 2004 to 2010.

He did a stint in the summer as an interim Human Resources Director for the District while it lacked a superintendent.

“I didn’t like central office,” he said. “It was kind of political and, well, everybody wanted a favor, if that makes any sense. I didn’t like that. I’m kind of by-the-book, in the way I do things. If I’m told, ‘These are the guidelines,’ or whatever, I follow guidelines. But everybody kind of wanted a little favor, and I wasn’t into that.”

Archuleta is proud of the fact that one year, while he was principal at Velarde Elementary, the sixth grade students there had the highest math scores in the state. But he’s hesitant to say it was the proudest moment of his career.

“Every place I’ve been has been a challenge,” he said. “I like to think that I’ve given my all in every place I’ve been.”

This is the second time Archuleta has retired. The first time was after his last year as Española Elementary principal in the 2010-2011 school year.

He retired because he had 25 years in the public schools.

“It’s to your advantage to retire, because you can stay out a year, and come back, and do what is called ‘double dip.’ You get your income, plus your retirement. That is really what a teacher is worth.”

Spanish teacher

Then from 2012 to 2013, he taught fourth grade for a school in Ohkay Owingeh. He considered quitting teaching for good, however, McCurdy Charter School needed a Spanish teacher.

“They pretty much hunted me down,” he said.

His son was a parent at McCurdy and encouraged him to take the job. They offered him any shift he wanted and he chose to work as a full-time Spanish teacher.

He taught there for a year, from 2013 to 2014. It was his first experience teaching Spanish despite being bilingual and having studied the language for his minor at Merced College.

Archuleta’s son is Raul Archuleta, who played baseball for Highlands University. He has his own son, Isaiah Archuleta, who went to McCurdy at the time. Isaiah is now 17.

“Part of the attraction for me was I was going to get to teach my own grandson,” he said. “He was a seventh-grader then.”

To this day, he said his McCurdy students are his friends.

“They’re gonna be seniors this coming year. They’re juniors now. I consider them my friends because I really got along with seventh-graders, after I broke ‘em. It was a challenging group of kids, and I took the challenge. It almost broke me, but I don’t have no regrets. It was a good experience.”

Despite retirement, Archuleta said he still is passionate about education.

“It’s not like if, we’re anxious to get out of this. It’s just that it’s time, if that makes any sense,” he said. “I don’t have the energy I used to have. I had a knee operation, so I can’t even get around as fast as, or as I’d like to, or need to. All those things take their toll.”

There are about 430 students at Fairview Elementary, and Archuleta said it takes a lot of energy to run it.

Archuleta tells his most difficult students that they will be principals one day.

“They look at me like, ‘Huh? You’re crazy,’” he said. “A lot of me really feels it. Because I’m them. It was fortunate that my activism didn’t get me felonized, because I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”

He believes his life is a credit to Jesus.

“I’m not a fanatic, I’m not gonna promote a church, but I will promote the Lord, and I do promote him,” he said. “But I think people know when you have morals and character, things that go above and beyond you.”

Archuleta loves carpentry, but he felt like teaching is what he was made for, so he stuck with it.

“I guess it was a passion, because after I retired (the first time), I came back to it, you know?” he said.

He also picked up fishing when he retired for the first time.

“When you’re working, you don’t have time for these luxuries,” he said. “I used to fish when I was a kid, and I had pretty much given it up. ... I won’t let go of it now.”

In retirement, Archuleta also wants to write children’s stories. Now, he and Loretta have four sons.

“Because of my upbringing, I tend to believe nothing is mine, nothing is my own,” he said. “All my experience, all my stories, I’ve heard. I may have a handful, five of my own, but most of the stories, it’s an oral tradition. If I do anything like that, my first thing will be that these stories come from the community.”

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