Margarita Galban is a familiar face at Sierra House Elementary School. Sitting at a low table in the cafeteria, teachers, students and administrators stop to say "hello."
"She's a celebrity. We love her here," Sierra House Principal Ryan Galles said.
Galban has a long history in California. She came to the state more than 20 years ago and moved to Tahoe in October 2004. In that time she has raised four children, perfected her English, opened and closed a restaurant, worked with the Lake Tahoe Unified School District and received her General Education Development degree, also known as the GED.
Galban said she loves to learn and has pursued knowledge in one form or another her whole life. She attended primary and secondary schools in Mexico before enrolling in the Benemerita Universidad Autonoma in Puebla, where she studied for five years to get her degree in human rights and social sciences.
The degree led her to an organization dedicated to helping farmers in the rural areas. The group, called the Confederacion Nacional Campesina, or the national farmers confederation, fell under the umbrella of the department of agrarian reform.
After three years of work with the CNC, Galban decided to come to the United States. She wanted to save enough money to open her own office, and she'd heard that the U.S. was a place of opportunity where she could make enough money to start out on her own.
In 1990, she moved to Union City, Calif., where she worked for a catering truck. She fell into the job because of her connections, she said, and even though the job had nothing to do with her degree or ultimate goals, she stayed for three years.
"When I came here, I came with friends that I knew from school. And they all worked in the catering truck. So it surrounded me and was my first chance at work," Galban said in Spanish.
The chances of moving back to her country became remote when she met her husband, Jose Aguirre, in California. Both of them had enrolled in adult English classes at James Logan High School, where they stayed for six months to refine English-speaking skills gained in Mexico.
"I studied English, but I couldn't speak it. I didn't know how to pronounce all the words, and my friends would laugh at me," Galban said.
In 1993, Galban and her husband moved from Union City to Hayward, Calif., where she accepted a job managing Ponderosa Apartments. Again her connections helped her secure the job - a couple of Peruvians who had been running the property recommended her - and she stayed for six years. The pay and the housing were good, and the couple decided it was time to start a family.
Galban and Aguirre had their first three children in the Ponderosa properties. But with more children came more work, Galban said, and her idea of starting her own office or continuing her education fell to the wayside.
"I arrived in the U.S. to work, thinking that I would save money, but after I arrived I had my first daughter and after that I had my second daughter. So it became more housework. It was like I didn't have time to go to school," Galban said.
Starting a family and a business
Galban's third child was born with Noonan syndrome, a disease which causes abnormal development in many parts of the body. In her son's case, it meant convulsions or seizures, and silence. To this day, her 14-year-old son doesn't speak.
"He required a lot of time. I left the work at the properties. The truth is that I dedicated myself to my children more than anything. I thought I couldn't keep going to school because at that time I had a lot of doctors appointments with my son," she said.
Galban would call an ambulance at least two times a month for the boy. The family had the insurance to cover many of the hospital bills, but the out-of-pocket payments stacked up. They couple was always paying bills, she said.
In 2004, the family took what was supposed to be a quick vacation to Tahoe. But when Aguirre was offered a small location for a restaurant, the two decided to try their luck in the basin. Later that year, they opened the Caballo Negro Taqueria near the Y.
"We worked seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And for reasons of destiny, I became pregnant once again, and I couldn't work with (Jose) like I wanted to," Galban said.
"We had a lot of work and a lot of clients, but we dedicated all our time to the business. To pay for all the costs of the restaurant and the house, we just couldn't do it," she said.
The Caballo Negro closed its doors less than three years after it opened. Aguirre started working as a handyman and Galban increased her involvement with the Family Resource Center and the district schools.
She also started looking into expanding her education. Galban had heard that transferring Mexican credits to the U.S. could be difficult and tedious, and she feared that her 20-year-old degree had lost its relevance.
So she decided to start from the beginning, and went after her GED in 2009.
"I was part of the first generation of people to graduate from the Spanish GED class in South Lake Tahoe. I've always loved to learn and I saw that my daughters were already mature enough to help with my sons. I was able to go to school again," she said.
Galban already spoke English, and was familiar with complicated medical terms because of her son's condition. But she wanted to perfect her language skills, and the GED offered her that opportunity.
"Language is a huge barrier for us. Sometimes to listen to it is different than how we write it. The main challenge I faced was the language and the dedication of most of your time to work. You dedicate yourself to your work and you no longer pay attention to trying to learn," Galban said.
Vicky Peoples, an adult education teacher and education specialist in El Dorado County, has helped students from 17 to 80 years old prepare for the GED test. They all share a desire to receive the diploma, but their reasons vary. For some, the GED will help them get into college or secure a job. For others, their pride is on the line.
"The people who come in always stress that they feel really bad. Maybe they've raised family, maybe they've raised grandchildren, and they don't like to say they don't have the high school diploma. And it doesn't mean they haven't been successful. Often the older students have been very successful. It's a life goal. They have a reason that drives them to get their diploma," Peoples said.
The things they left behind
After receiving her GED, Galban enrolled in Lake Tahoe Community College, where she studied grammar, writing and reading. Now, she's enrolled in a class about child and adolescent psychological development.
Galban said she's fallen behind the times when it comes to political activism, and doesn't think she could adapt to a California organization like the farmers' group she worked with in Puebla. And many of her studies dealt with Mexican laws that are either outdated or irrelevant in the U.S.
She said she wants to perfect her English, and eventually would like to write novels about the things many Latinos she knows left behind when they immigrated. Galban still has family in Mexico, family she hasn't seen since she left the country. It hasn't been easy to miss parties and birthdays, funerals and weddings, she said.
Her eldest daughter is enrolled in San Jose State University, and Galban said she also wants to be a social worker. Her other daughter is a junior at South Tahoe High School, and her youngest is a first-grader at Sierra House. Her eldest son is also at the high school, where he studies in a special needs program.
Before moving to the high school, Galban's son studied at Sierra House with Carolyn Lyons, a special-education teacher at the school. In that time, Lyons said she got to know Galban and her love of learning.
"Margarita tries to make sense of the language barrier. It's important for her to learn and that's why people are drawn to her. The thing I love about her is that she tries to bridge the gap between English and Spanish speakers. And she doesn't even know she does this," Lyons said.
For Galban, she just wants to keep learning and help her children do the same. None of her them want to move to Mexico though. They're too accustomed to living in California, she said. They have a good life here, but it's not complete.
"There's a lot of talk about what we gain, how you become an American when you move here and how we become wealthier, but we lose a lot of things when we move. Not economically, but we leave family, we leave careers, we leave friends," Galban said.
"My children have grown up making adopted families here. People say we have more opportunities in this land, that it's the country of dreams, but we lose a lot, too," she said.