Starla Jones/Hobbs Municipal Schools
Life may have turned out differently for Juanita Castillo had she not gotten pregnant in ninth grade.
But Juanita – who would marry at the age of 15 – never regretted devoting herself to her husband and a family that would eventually number seven children.
Life – then and now – is good. Still, Juanita, a Hobbs Municipal Schools custodian for the past 19 years, couldn’t help but think she’d missed an important rite of passage.
“I always dreamed about walking the stage to get my diploma,” the 62-year-old said.
• • • •
Juanita was a Houston Junior High School cheerleader in 1974 who kept her pregnancy a secret from her parents and boyfriend. Everyone found out the shocking news the day before Juanita’s son was born.
Within two weeks, she married Isidro Castillo – a HHS junior at the time – and the couple dropped out of school to thrust themselves into adulting. They rented a tiny home and, while Juanita stayed at the home to watch Isidro Jr., her 17-year-old husband scrambled to earn a living.
“Being so young, (Isidro) moved around a lot but he always had a job,” recalled Juanita, who would later supplement the family income by picking watermelons and potatoes.
“I was young. I didn’t think nothing of it,” she says now of the back-breaking labor in sweltering fields. “We were not making a whole lot of money. Minimum wage was only $4 (an hour) and by then, we were raising four sons. But we had money coming in and we had food on the table.”
A portion of income came from Isidro’s U.S. National Guard paycheck, an enlistment that occurred after he earned the required General Equivalency Diploma (GED). Juanita soon earned her GED as well with an eye toward the future.
“I wasn’t looking for a job at the time I got my GED,” Juanita explained. “I had all of these kids to raise, but I wanted something there.”
Sadly, although she earned her GED as a 20-year-old, she never got the chance to “walk the stage” as a high school graduate.
Through the years, Juanita eventually would land a series of part-time jobs – detailing cars or driving a school bus
– while her family of four sons grew to include three daughters. In her spare time, if there is such a thing for a mother whose youngest children now included twins, she coached.
“At that time, in our neighborhood, we were losing kids to the streets – to jail, to drugs,” Juanita explained. “Some of them were dying on us. I wanted to make sure my kids kept busy.”
So Juanita checked out some library soccer books, then learned how to play the game with her sons and their teammates. A jock at heart, she and Isidro would eventually coach five soccer teams simultaneously – something they did for decades.
“We didn’t have any coaches in south Hobbs at that time,” she said. “Keeping the neighborhood kids busy, keeping them off the streets was my No. 1 goal. I made sure that they were involved in some kind of sports – either with the city or school. I knew they would have to keep their grades up if they wanted to be involved in sports and I wanted them all to at least graduate from high school.”
Juanita later branched out into other volunteer coaching jobs – basketball and volleyball at the Hobbs Boys and Girls Club – and even found time for herself.
While shopping at Tootie’s, a grocery store that has long-since burned down, Castillo spotted a group of women playing softball in the nearby park. She asked if they needed extra players.
Forty-four years later, Juanita is still playing softball, these days on her daughters’ teams. Her more than four decades of play earned her a spot in the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame last year.
Yet, in spite of her personal successes and the success of her children, Juanita still had a lingering regret about not “walking the stage.”
“This dream of hers about walking the stage would come up a lot,” said Cruz, one of the twins and a USW operations director. “So I told her, ‘Mom, I’m getting a little tired of hearing this. I signed you up for a class at New Mexico Junior College.’”
By then, Castillo was Jefferson Elementary’ s full-time custodian (“I like cleaning,” she says matter-of-factly), a grandma, a great grandma, and a catechism teacher. And she’d seen her children “walk” many stages. (One son has a doctorate in biochemistry, two others have bachelor’s degrees and Cruz has a master’s degree).
Surprised that she was now an official college student in her 50s, Juanita said she couldn’t disappoint her daughter by not following through on a degree plan. But she feared she might not be able to juggle a full-time job, coaching responsibilities and studying for a degree. So she, Isidro and Cruz kept her plan to finally “walk the stage” a secret.
• • • •
College work for somebody who’d dropped out of ninth-grade more than 40 years earlier wasn’t easy. Unfamiliar with computers, Juanita had difficulty navigating the internet, typing papers and taking online tests. But Cruz, who lives with her parents, helped Juanita figure out the technology while mapping out a strategy that began with easy and interesting courses. Things like Art Appreciation and Photography. Three years passed with Juanita taking one eight-week course at a time, as the subjects became increasingly difficult. Botany and astronomy, for instance.
“I knew my mom is a hard worker – somebody that takes pride in her work,” Cruz explained. “But watching her read her books, write her papers and take her tests gave me a whole new perspective. I could not have been more proud.”
Yep. In an ironic role reversal, it was Cruz who kept her mother on task. Every. Single. Day.
“She would tell me, ‘Mom, this is your homework for tonight,’” Juanita laughed. “If I had a game or practice, I would finish with that, cook dinner and then, when I was done, I would go in the bedroom and lock the door to start on my homework.”
The bedroom door remained locked for several years to prevent the family matriarch’s academic secret from leaking. Finally, with graduation on the 2021 horizon, Juanita surprised each of her children with the news at Christmas in 2020.
“We gave out graduation announcements in envelopes and made it look like a gender reveal with blue and pink bows,” Cruz said. “At first, everybody thought somebody was pregnant. When they realized what mom had been doing, everybody was just stunned. It was a huge reveal – the biggest family secret we’d ever had. Everybody was just in awe.”
By then, however, COVID was changing the course of daily life. Juanita, who had been promoted to her current role as lead custodian for the entire HMS district, was in overdrive monitoring stringent sanitation procedures at every school. And New Mexico Junior College’s May 2021 graduation was transformed into a “virtual” event, with no spectators or stage to walk.
“So I called my counselor and asked if I could still walk the following May,” Juanita said.
• • • •
Juanita Castillo walked the stage to receive her NMJC associate’s degree on May 6. She uncharacteristically had on makeup, was sporting a new hairdo and wore a new dress and shoes purchased by Isidro, her husband of 46 years.
“My mom’s not one to get made up or fancy. She doesn’t do that for herself,” Cruz laughs. But on graduation day, she was proud of herself. It was her big day.”
Juanita said that graduates were told to arrive at NMJC by 6:30 that night. She was there at 6 p.m. Sitting in the front row.
“I looked around at everybody. There were a lot of young ones and some middle aged. I was probably the oldest one there but I didn’t care,” she said. “When the song (Pomp and Circumstance) started, Oh my gosh, it felt so good.”
Sitting in the audience close to the stage were all of Juanita’s children, her husband, grandchildren and brothers. ”When my family started coming in, they were waving and taking pictures and I was just sitting there taking it all in,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Man, after all these years. Finally. Finally. Now I know how my kids felt when they graduated.’”
Cruz estimates it took only seconds for Juanita cross the Lea County Event Center stage and receive her diploma from NMJC interim president Steve McCleery. “We had waited so long and it was a quick ten seconds,” Cruz said. “But it just meant the world to her and us.”
Today Juanita is enjoying the new world of information that opened to her through higher education.
But she has no plans to study for future degrees. And she’ll remain in the custodial job she loves. She is simply content that she proved to herself and her family something that was clear from the day that fate altered her life in 1974.
“Graduating was a great accomplishment for my children and grandchildren – to show them that you can follow your dreams,” Juanita said. “I showed them that you have to work at anything you do – a marriage, a job, being a parent. Anything you do will be hard. But in the long run, it will pay off.”