Human rights activist Marina Schuster speaks for Bhutto-Ispahani lecture series.
In a simple pair of shoes, Paul Alvarez carries with him a powerful sense of tradition and love for a grandmother who sacrificed mightily for her kids and her grandchildren.
On Saturday, during Winter Commencement, University of La Verne Professor Paul Alvarez will wear his black wingtip shoes, shoes that symbolize his own academic achievement.
Alvarez, Professor of Movement and Sports Science, bought the shoes with money given to him by his paternal grandmother, Erma Alvarez, who dropped out of Catholic school in sixth grade in order to work. Despite her limited schooling, she believed in the importance of a good education. She sacrificed to make sure that each of her children began school with a new pair of shoes, and then continued that tradition with her grandchildren.
In all, she bought dozens of pairs of shoes.
“Even though the clothes might be patched or worn, she was very insistent that every kid went to school with a new pair of shoes. Her seven kids all started at least their first year with a new pair of shoes,” Alvarez said. “Then she would send some money for her grandkids. It wasn’t that we couldn’t afford them. It was just her mindset; it was important to her.”
Alvarez earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees and then decided to continue on for a doctorate — the first in his family to do so. His grandmother again sent him money for a new pair of shoes for “closing the circle and having finished the degree,” he said. He selected black wingtips.
He walked in commencement ceremonies at UC Riverside in 2003, wearing those shoes, with his grandmother looking on. “She was my last remaining grandparent,” he said. “I appealed to be able to walk before turning in the final draft” of my dissertation. “She was able to be there to see me graduate with my doctoral degree.”
Erma Alvarez was born in Los Angeles in 1913; born in Mexico, her husband, Angel, got through only fourth-grade. After they married, they lived in Hawthorne before settling in Hemet, where they became legendary.
Erma Alvarez was once asked by an acquaintance to go to the courthouse with him because he wanted somebody who could speak English and Spanish. The judge was impressed by her, Alvarez said. Soon, other residents of Hemet began asking for her help because they didn’t understand English well; Erma Alvarez became a regular interpreter, ultimately translating the legal code into Spanish, her grandson said.
Angel Alvarez was well-known for the barbecue beef he served at the Riverside County Fair, beef that was once served to Ronald Reagan, then California governor.
All along, they instilled in their children the importance of education. Alvarez said he and his siblings recognize that their grandparents were ahead of the time in terms of recognizing that and the factors that can contribute to a positive experience.
“If kids are making fun of you because you have ratty shoes and torn up clothes, that’s not going to help you in your education,” and can impact your self-esteem, he said. “The shoes became a focal point, a reminder of just those little things that can go on and make a huge difference.
“The shoes became symbolic of something they could do within their means,” he said.
Alvarez’s father was the oldest son and his parents always encouraged him to go to college. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and went on to a successful career. When Alvarez was growing up, there was never a question about whether he would attend college, he said. Instead, the question focused on which college to attend. “The expectation was set higher,” Alvarez said.
At La Verne, Alvarez said he has been privileged to work with so many first-generation college students, particularly Hispanic students. He understands some of the family dynamics that can be at play with parents who may not recognize the opportunities college can provide. He used a small amount of money his grandmother left him when she died in 2005 as seed money to start a scholarship for La Verne students.
When he’s on campus, Alvarez favors sneakers. He saves his dress shoes for special occasions. But whenever he puts on his wingtips, he is again reminded of his grandmother’s legacy.