Marina & Jose Cepeda
Different paths led Marina and José Cepeda to Houston from their native Mexico, but a chance encounter at SER changed their lives.
“I started working as a dishwasher the day I arrived in Houston for $1.25/hr - not a lot of money, even in the 1970’s… I was struggling to survive,” said Jose.
Jose attended a technical school in Mexico where he learned to be a machinist, but his English skills held him back in Houston.
“I was looking for a [machinist] job over here in Houston, but since I didn't speak any English in those days, it was real hard to find - basically, I never did. So a friend of mine told me 'José, why don't you go to SER. It's a good program.’”
Meanwhile, after coming to Houston with her parents and 7 younger siblings, at the age of 16, Marina had to make the difficult choice to work rather than go to school. She worked 12-hour days as a hotel maid, earning what little she could to help support her family, but her limited English proficiency was holding her back.
“It was 1974,” Marina said, “my mother heard about the program to learn English. Once I turned 18, I started the program [at SER]. That’s where [Jose and I] met.”
“In those days, we used to take lunch to class and I had the best tacos in the class,” said Jose, “She fell in love with my tacos.”
Love wasn’t the only thing Marina and Jose found in SER’s ESL class.
“It wasn’t just English classes - they taught us interview skills, resumes, how to fill out an application, and how to answer phones, but above all, the teachers and coordinators were very involved with the students,” said Marina. “It was a relationship - they really wanted us to learn in six months what we would need to succeed.”
“After six months, I was able to find a better job,” said Jose. “I started working for Boeing Tools, which was one of the biggest companies in the oil industry. I was making over $6/hour, which was a lot more than $1.50/hr.”
“Immediately after [SER] I went to [Houston Community College] for clerical training, then worked for Brown & Root, and El Sol newspaper, and then I decided to get my GED,” said Marina. “This program had tremendous impact on my family.”
In the span of one year, Marina’s father (who had previously worked two jobs as a welder to support the family) was able to work just one job, provide for the family’s basic needs (including helping Marina’s seven siblings through school), and save enough to buy a house rather than rent a cramped apartment.
“The program really helped me and my family,” said Jose. “After the program, with the new communication skills and application skills, I was so confident.”
After Marina completed her GED in 1976, she and Jose married and spent the next 25 years raising their three daughters while Jose worked for prominent tool companies in the oil industry. Then Jose decided to try something different and become a truck driver.
“I was making real good money,” said Jose. “ But there were problems in the industry, so me and other drivers got together and formed the Houston Metropolitan Truckers Association and I was the president. We met with companies to negotiate better working conditions and it worked. After that, I went to work for the Teamsters as an organizer in the Port of Houston, then I worked for Railway Express for 12 years, and at the age of 60, I retired with a pension from the union and formed my own real estate business.”
“After 25 years as a housewife, I decided to go to school and I now have my Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology,” said Marina. “I worked for Catholic Charities for six years… [and] now I am a substitute teacher for Pasadena I.S.D. … [and help with] my 10 grandkids.”
When their oldest grandson experienced some challenges recently, Jose and Marina brought him to SER.
“I remember 40 years ago, this program changed my life,” said José. “And today, the program is still making changes in the lives of these young guys. And I know because SER, makes a difference in the way of living of my grandson. I really love the program, and the way that the program is changing lives. The program changed my life forever, and changed my grandson's life. And I'm pretty sure it's changing the lives of so many kids.”