Four years ago, Junior Villarreal walked through the gates of Sunnyside High School, an earnest freshman with a passion for history and baseball who seemed poised to overcome the challenges facing so many Hispanic students.
He was a bright, engaged kid, the class comedian who had run for president in the seventh grade and barely lost, his family and friends said. At 15, he passed the state test needed to graduate from high school and went on to score "basic" in algebra and "proficient" in U.S. history.
"I'd come home from work and start cooking and want to watch one of those Spanish-language novellas on TV, to wind down," his mother, Lidia Ruiz, recalled. "But Junior wouldn't let me. He was watching the History Channel or the Discovery Channel, and he'd start quizzing me. 'Mom, did you know this? Mom, did you know that?' "
What she knew is that no matter how bright or curious her son was, it might not be enough in a part of town where, teachers say, six out of 10 Hispanic students never graduate from high school.
Hard as she tried, she said, she could not erase the reality of their lives.
She and Junior's father, Alfonso Villarreal, were born in Mexico to poor parents with little education. Moving to southeast Fresno, scratching out a living amid some of the most concentrated poverty in the U.S., only meant trading one country's deprivations for another. Alfonso had divorced Lidia and left Junior and a younger son, Anthony, and she was forced to work two jobs, day and night, to keep them from sinking.
Ruiz said she did not have enough hours in the day to make sure her sons always stayed out of trouble. Trouble found Junior first.
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He began smoking weed and walking with a strut that made her question whether he had joined a gang. She dropped him off every morning at school only to learn later that he often never made it inside. Over a three-year period, she said, he missed hundreds of classes at Sunnyside High and Cambridge High.
School records show that he failed a total of 21 courses -- algebra, biology and English among them. But he kept trying, enrolling in summer school three times to pick up lost credits.
"One night, he was so depressed," Ruiz recalled. "He said, 'Mom, I have nothing to live for. I'm not going to graduate. I'm not going to get a job.'
"I told him, 'Mijo, you have me and your brother. You don't understand how much I worry. I'm so afraid someone's going to call me and tell me you're dead, Mijo. If I don't have you, I don't have anything.' "
On March 25, the phone call came.
Junior had been stabbed on the sidewalk in front of the Walmart on Kings Canyon Road a few blocks from Sunnyside High. It was 2:30 p.m., school still in session, when the fight broke out between Junior and at least one other high school student. His name was Ramiro Santana, a kid from the same neighborhood, a kid also on the verge of dropping out.
Junior died a few minutes later in the emergency room at Community Regional Medical Center, his heart severed by the knife. He was 17 years old. On his death certificate, his "occupation" was listed as "high school student." The "business" he was engaged in: "education."
"Junior was my hope," Ruiz said, tears in her eyes. "He was going to do something."
She cannot help but blame herself for not being more vigilant. Had she done a better job of tracking his classroom absences and missed homework assignments, she might have kept him from falling so far behind that he could never catch up.