Martin Mares has achieved something single-handedly that virtually no other person in the United States has done. He’s personally helped over 280 teenagers from Parlier, Calif. and the surrounding communities, many of them ESL students from poor immigrant families, earn acceptance into the Ivy Leagues. Over a 1,500 more of his mentees have gone on to attend state colleges and universities in California. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, because Parlier is not an affluent, highly-educated community. But Mares knew its kids had potential. “I was saying, we have great kids here, we’re going to create something different, we’re going to be visionary, we’re going to be progressive.”
In 1992, the retired educator, who had risen through the ranks to district superintendent, helped three local students gain acceptance into elite universities. The next year, that number climbed to four. Today, he says, 150 migrant students in Central California are participating in the project. “Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean that you can’t have high expectations,” he says. “So I changed the culture of the communities in Valley and told kids that you know what? You can go to an Ivy League university, it doesn’t matter if your parents are farm workers or they’re not educated. If you have the ganas then you can make it.”
Today, the Ivy League Project chooses among the brightest and most ambitious 9th, 10th, and 11th graders from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and his model of personal coaching combined with trips to prestigious institutions has been replicated in other states, like Arizona and Texas. Students take initiative and fundraise for the trips themselves. Many of Mares’ mentees are the children of immigrants, and some were brought into the United States as babies or toddlers. “They don’t know Mexico, they don’t know Costa Rica, they don’t know their mother country, or that life,” he explains. “Many of them find out that they’re undocumented during the of period of time when they’re getting their driver’s license or they’re applying for college; they ask for their social security number and their parents tell them we don’t have one, we came here, we’re undocumented. I hear people talking about, ‘well, they ought to go back to Mexico’ and so on. Seriously, you’re going to send a kid back to another country when they’re educated, smart, bright?”
Mares was born to a Mexican immigrant and a first-generation Mexican-American. His paternal grandfather arrived here in 1900, and followed the crop harvests around California with his family. Mares himself grew up working in the fields, so he understands where the kids who join the Ivy League Project are coming from. This year, his organization is on track to attain formal not-for-profit status. He hopes to expand from mentoring to scholarship programs funded by Project alumni.
I hear people talking about, ‘well, they ought to go back to Mexico’ and so on. Seriously, you’re going to send a kid back to another country when they’re educated, smart, bright?”
“We want our students to be world leaders, and leaders at the national, community, state, and regional levels, and in our specific communities,” Mares says. “I think it’s important for our students to be at the table. If you’re not at the table, then how can you voice your opinion about policies that affect you and [your] community? America is about diversity. We need to embrace diversity, not stand back and add to arguments like does America speak English? Everybody brings some kind of diverse gift. It’s imperative that we embrace the gifts, and that we learn from each other.”
That’s why, he explains, immigration reform is so important. Creating a path to citizenship would help uplift economically disadvantaged students, who in turn can uplift their families and communities. “We can’t afford to lose a strong economic backbone of people that can add to our economic community,” Mares says. “To me, it doesn’t make sense. Their life is here, not in Mexico or another country. This is all they know. There should be a pathway so that our students have an opportunity to get their citizenship.”