When Edgar Omar Dominguez Casalez was 15, he received two lifelines — his mentor, Carlos Reyes, and a horse, Canelo. Both play important, though different, roles in what’s becoming a remarkable Minnesota journey.
Now 18, Dominguez Casalez will graduate high school soon and then head to college, two achievements still too rare in the state’s Latinx communities. The former amateur boxer is a rodeo rider, which partly explains the horse.
MPR News spent the past semester following Dominguez Casalez as he pushed to finish high school, apply to college and keep his rodeo dreams alive, all while struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic that sickened his parents and shut down three jobs he depended on to help pay family bills and save money for school.
Collectively, it’s a compelling story about the good things that can happen when determined kids in challenging circumstances connect with adults who can help guide and cement their dreams. That’s true especially for first-generation college students like Dominguez Casalez.
“Dream big, you know?! One has to always dream big,” he said. “A lot of things can happen. They can be minor setbacks. One has to dream big and always, like, push to go the hardest.”
In a state that struggles to close persistent education gaps between white students and most students of color, Dominguez Casalez’s story shows the power of finding people who want to help, and then accepting it.
‘This kid is driven!’
Carlos Reyes met Dominguez Casalez for the first time during his sophomore year of high school at Twin Cities Academy in St. Paul and they instantly hit it off, although they might not have met at all if it weren’t for free pizza.
Lured by the prospect of Domino’s, Dominguez Casalez showed up for a meeting of Youth in Action, a college access and mentoring program for Latinx high school students in the Twin Cities coordinated by the group Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio.
Later that day, Dominguez Casalez’s mom, Noricela Cazales, informed her son he would be joining the group. He responded, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. I'm not ready for this.” But Cazales thought he was, “After that she just forced me and I was like OK, why not. We'll give it a shot.”
During a trip to Fort Snelling, where mentors and mentees would be paired, Reyes remembers, “It was like, the first activity, we started talking and then he was telling me about his horse and about boxing, his school and everything. I’m like, man this kid is driven! This kid is cooler than me! What am I going to say, right?”
Dreams aside, the on-time graduation rates for Latinx kids are dismal here compared to white students.
In 2019, Minnesota’s 70 percent graduation rate for Latino students was 49th in the country, according to Minnesota Compass, a research project led by the Wilder Foundation. Only Louisiana was worse. That year, 89 percent of Minnesota’s white students graduated on time.
Minnesota had the lowest graduation rates for Latino students in the nation from 2014 to 2018.
Mentoring programs have shown they can make a real difference in closing graduation gaps.
Students who participate in Youth in Action, known as YA!, are more likely to graduate high school and pursue college. The program has a 100 percent high school graduate rate for students that stick with the program over the last four years. Mentoring is a big part of that.
The majority of students spend three to four years with the same mentor. They meet once a month during the school year and participate in larger cohort meetings. The idea is to help Latino students learn skills to help them navigate life after high school, connect them with the resources to help them get into post-secondary education, while also recognizing their leadership and ability.
“We’ve had students say to us, ‘I have things to say, I know that my voice matters but I don’t always know if my voice is going to be welcomed in that space’” said YA! program manager Tanya Schuh. “So to be able to provide a space where they do feel safe to do that and step into that confidently is really cool.”
Many students in the program are children of immigrants who came to the United States looking for a better future for their kids.
They see higher education as the key to unlock that future, “but if [parents] haven’t gone through the system themselves, if they haven’t experienced higher education here or in another country, it’s pretty tricky to navigate the system,” said Schuh.
This past year has been especially difficult given the additional stress put on kids from COVID-19. Schuh said she’s made more mental health referrals for teens and their networks in the YA! program during the pandemic than she has in her entire time working for the program.
Dominguez Casalez knows those struggles well.
Dreams and demands
Dominguez Casalez carries a lot of shared dreams with his family, as well as shared responsibilities. It’s sometimes difficult to shoulder everything while still trying to be a teenager.
The pandemic made it that much more challenging. Dominguez Casalez, his parents and sister had to quarantine for three weeks after his parents contracted COVID-19. No one was working. He and his sister managed to avoid getting infected, but he became the parent, taking care of the household.
“I had to make the food and we had to leave it outside for them,” he said. “Everyone was in the house wearing face masks, hand sanitizer everywhere, washing their hands. It was crazy,” but also scary.
He’s had to help pay family bills for food and cars and sometimes rent, costs he said he’s happy to share given his parents’ sacrifices.
He was an amateur boxer. He has a couple of medals and belts lying around and had been boxing for four years until the pandemic closed down the gyms.
One of those belts helped him get Canelo, the horse he owns and rides. He came as a 15th birthday present from his family after his father said he’d buy him a horse if he won the boxing tournament he’d entered.
Named for the ginger-haired Mexican boxer from Guadalajara, Canelo was his favorite boxer growing up.
Domingues Casalez is on a rodeo team that competes around the Midwest in the riding competitions known as charreadas. Going to see Canelo and practicing has helped him maintain his mental health.
“It helps a lot. I just have to worry about him for a little bit. Make sure he's not doing anything bad, make sure he's working good. That's probably a little distraction from everything that's going on.”
College, and the rodeo
Dominguez Casalez is about to become a first-generation college student. He’s been accepted to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. It was his first choice, close enough to home that he can stay connected with his family but far enough that he can experience the independence of a traditional, middle-class college experience.
Touring the campus with his dad, his mentor Reyes and Schuh, whose father runs the university farm, Dominguez Casalez felt like he could see himself on campus at River Falls.
“It feels really good because being a first generation student. I see my dad walking with us, I see he's happy that I'm making it this far and I'm glad I'm making my family proud and I'm making myself proud as well,” he said. “I can't wait.”
The college paperwork, though, nearly tripped him up. As high school started to wind down, he started to get emails from the school, including financial aid and tuition information. Those documents are hard for anyone to navigate but especially for first-generation college kids.
Looking at it, Dominguez Casalez thought the school was about to cost him a lot more than he expected or could afford.
“It said $10,500. That's a lot for me and my family. And [I] was like, I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to do this, you know? I told my parents, we sat down and talked about it.”
His parents encouraged him to reach out to Reyes, who was also the first in his family to go to college.
They talked through the email, and Reyes told Dominguez Casalez that with his scholarships factored in, he would be paying less than $2,000 per semester in his first year of school — a relief because Dominguez Casalez had saved up about $4,000 from working his three jobs throughout the pandemic.
Sometimes, said Reyes, students like Dominguez Casalez misread those kinds of documents and think it’s over. They don’t enroll.
“They don't go because they can't read that sheet right. And it's not anything where it's like, a complex thing to comprehend,” Reyes noted. “It's more so not understanding and not knowing how the finances of that breaks down.”
Without YA! and Reyes, Dominguez Casalez believes he might have simply enrolled in a cheaper community college program.
Now, though, he has set big goals to achieve by the time he’s 22 years old. He hopes to graduate college and start a fulfilling career in agriculture. He wants to own a big house where he and his parents and sister can live together. And maybe a ranch with cows and horses for him and his parents, who once milked cows and sold cheese in the small town of Valle de Vazquez, in the state of Morelos, México.
The rodeo dream is also still alive. In his journey, he discovered his father was a bull rider in México.
At the end of May, Dominguez Casalez competed in the first charreada of the season. He’s on a new team this year. And after waiting on the sidelines for a few years, he finally got the chance to compete as the team’s resident bull rider.
“It’s really crazy,” he said, “to think about everything that went through in this, this single year.”
Dominguez Casalez knows that what he has survived will be in textbooks, from being at the center of a global racial justice moment, to the pandemic, and everything in between. “A lot of things happened and people really have to know the truth of everything.”
One day, when he has a ranch full of animals, he’ll pull his old masks out and say to his kids, “‘You see this, guys? This is an antique thing! This is really stuff that was happening.’ [and] they’re going to be like, ‘What is that. What is that?!’ ”
Youth in Action is currently accepting applications for Latinx students enrolling in high school in and around the St. Paul and Minneapolis metro area until June 21. Applications to mentor are being accepted from May to August.
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