At the precocious age of 26, District Four City Councilman Rey Saldaña is the poster boy for the newest generation of Latino leaders.
The San Antonio native earned three degrees in five years from Stanford University, one of the most prestigious universities in the nation. He played catcher on the school’s varsity baseball team, a perennial top-ranked program. He’s fluent in Spanish and won elected office his first time on the ballot at the age of 24. He’ll win reelection next month without breaking a sweat.
He’s smart, athletic, and handsome – an engaging young man who appears quite at ease in his grey pinstriped suit and “vote for me” red tie. Saldaña is still young and learning, but success seems to have come easy.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Saldaña is the second of five children in a family whose parents never made it into high school – much less to a graduation ceremony. He spoke only Spanish when he entered pre-K in the South San Independent School District, yet persevered to learn a new language, catch up with the rest of his class, then excel as a young student.
Even doing well, however, as he entered high school, Saldaña was referred to Communities in Schools (CIS), the anti-dropout program known for its five-word mission statement: “We Keep Kids in School.” CIS coordinator Daffney Bell and high school counselor Rubi Sanchez saw a lot of promise and potential in Saldaña and convinced him to think big. They taught him how to apply to college. Saldaña and his compelling life story will be front and center Monday at the annual CIS “Keeping Kids in School Luncheon,” held at the Omni Hotel at the Colonnade.
“When I first heard the news [of Saldaña’s election to City Council] I got chills,” said Bell.
She remembered her former student as focused – with an inner drive. “Rey just shined. He definitely had the potential. But this was a kid who didn’t even know what he was capable of. He’s an inspiration to us all.”
Saldaña credits Community in Schools to opening his eyes to a world beyond his own neighborhood and school district.
“I would have loved to have come home from school and talked to my own parents about applying for college,” Saldaña said during a long conversation about his life. “They wanted all five of their children to get a good education, but my father dropped out after the eighth grade in Mexico and my mother dropped out in the sixth grade in San Antonio, so they couldn’t help me. It was a world beyond their grasp. I tell young people I meet today that Communities in Schools essentially takes the place of two college-educated, middle class parents that you don’t have in the inner city.”
Saldaña’s journey from South San Antonio to Stanford was not easy.
“I had never been south of Highway 90 or farther north than Fiesta Texas,” Saldaña recalled. “Leaving home was not easy for me and it was especially hard for my mother.”
Saldaña’s father, Reynold, left the northern Mexican city of Sabinas Hidalgo at the age of 18 in 1980. Reynold left behind his job collecting and selling empty soda bottles to start a new, undocumented life in San Antonio. He worked odd construction jobs and then, as a butcher. He met and married Marisela, a McAllen native who came to San Antonio as a child and dropped out of school in the sixth grade. Reynold earned his citizenship and eventually a job at the H-E-B Combo Warehouse on NE Interstate Loop 410 near Rittiman Road. He still holds this position after more than 20 years.
Rey remembers dressing up as a sixth grader to go to the Institute of Texan Cultures where he and other family members watched as Reynold took the oath and became a U.S. citizen.
“When people ask me how I came into public service I tell them I was studying the same material in American history as a young student that my father was studying for the citizenship test,” said Saldaña. “I helped him learn how many members there were in the House of Representatives, about the three branches of government – and who said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death?’ We studied together.”
Rey’s parents may have lacked formal education, but they raised five children with the expectation of doing well in school.
“My family is a very important part of my story, and when I think about my own drive to take my life to the next level, I think about the sacrifices my father and my grandfather – who came to the states in the bracero program in the 1940s – made to provide me with opportunity,” Saldaña said.
The CIS Upward Bound program gives first-in-the-family college applicants the knowledge and confidence to leave home to continue their studies.
“It was a very concerted effort to teach you about the college experience,” Saldaña recalled. “I attended special classes on Saturdays and in the summer, and I was invited to spend the night at one of the college dorms at OLLU (Our Lady of the Lake Universtiy) to understand what it was like to be in school away from home. I had never spent a night away from my own home and bed.”
Saldaña had good grades and good SAT scores, but he hedged his bets and applied locally to the Alamo Community Colleges, OLLU, and UTSA. Then he sent in applications to UT-Austin, Bell’s alma mater, and to Rice in Houston. Pushed harder by his CIS mentor, he also applied “to the Ivy Leagues.”
About the same time he met two brothers named Julián and Joaquin Castro, who had graduated from Harvard Law and come home to launch their public service careers. The Castro twins, he learned, had done their undergraduate work at “a school in California called Stanford,” an unfamiliar name to Saldaña. He followed in the Castros’ footsteps and applied there, too. Why not?
The first letters to arrive at the Saldaña home came from Harvard and Yale. They were rejection letters. He made it into all the local schools, and then Rice accepted him. Then came acceptance letters from Princeton and Stanford.
“I was absolutely shaking, running around the house, yelling, ‘I got in! I got in!’ Everybody thought I was crazy,” Saldaña said. “Deep down, I didn’t think I was the right caliber of person to go to these institutions, but still, I was ready to jump in the water. I told my Mom I had been accepted at Stanford and I wanted to go there. My Mom tried to convince me that the local schools were just as good and that I should go to Palo Alto in my own backyard. I love my Mom, but I told her, ‘I think I’m going to take this opportunity, Mom.’ She cried a river of tears. It was tough.”
Rey attended Stanford University as a Gates Millennium Scholar, one of 1,000 students selected nationwide that year for a “good through graduation” full scholarship. He earned undergraduate degrees in political science and communications in 2009 and a master’s degree in education policy in 2010. He came home, moved back in with his parents and three younger brothers, and surprised everyone but himself by winning as an underdog in his first run for a Council seat in 2011.
“If I had lost my council race I’d be teaching eighth-grade geography right now. Instead, I live in the same home I grew up in, thanks to the great generosity of San Antonio City Council pay,” he joked.
Council members earn $1,040 a year, $20 a week. He works as an adjunct professor at Palo Alto and Trinity, although he is not teaching there this semester, and in the Trio outreach program.
Winning admission to Stanford, as the Castro brothers learned before him, was no guarantee of success for Saldaña. Inner-city Latino students find themselves struggling to compete against more privileged students who come from well-educated, middle-class or wealthy families – often are the products of elite private school educations.
“You do have to play catch up, you are behind when you start, so you spend a lot more time in class,” Saldaña said. “I had to get over the hard fact that I didn’t write very well. I had to go through my papers many times to get them to be good enough. I didn’t adjust well and I think I failed math my first semester. My GPA suffered every year afterwards because of that first semester. I thought I was prepared for multivariable calculus and, boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Academic challenges are made harder by social challenges.
Leaving home is much harder for untraveled children of inner-city, working-class families who also battle low self-esteem issues after experiencing racism and poverty.
“I have a lot of great friends just as talented and hard-working as me, but they didn’t come from families that valued education,” Saldaña said. “They came home and were handed applications to get jobs at fast food outlets rather than applications to colleges. Different immigrant families give their children different levels of support for a good education. My Dad and Mom knew the road to improvement was through us getting the education they didn’t get. They made sure when we kids came home we were given space and support to do our homework and studies, even if they couldn’t understand what we were reading.”
Saldaña said he, too, was wracked by self-doubt.
“I was so frightened that I would (arrive at) Stanford and that they would realize they made a mistake and that I didn’t meet expectations,” he said.
Recalling the Castro brothers’ moving story of leaving home for the first time and crying on the flight to California, Saldaña said, “I’ve joked with Julián that at least he had Joaquin’s shoulder to cry on. I was alone and didn’t even know how to go through airport security.”
Like the Castros, Saldaña learned he was just as good, just as smart, and had just as much potential as the Anglo students who sat in the same Stanford classes. He just had to work harder and catch up.
“It turned out that Stanford does a great job of welcoming and understanding all its students,” Saldaña said. “The top schools have the most resources, so they do the best job of working with students from underprivileged backgrounds. I tell that to high school students who are afraid to apply to the top schools. I realize I am the ‘exception to the rule’ in terms of the opportunity I received. Our public schools need greater investment and resources to multiply the number of students who get the same opportunity.”
Saldaña will be honored at the CIS annual luncheon on Monday. He’ll be telling his story to a room of more than 500 CIS supporters and potential supporters. I hope his South San family is there to hear: His parents and older sister, Vanessa; a teacher in the South San ISD, his three younger brothers; Rodrigo, 20 (a student at Baylor), Rene, 15 (a sophomore at South San HS), and Ramiro, 11 (a sixth grader at Zamora Middle School).
Saldaña’s fiancée,Jessica Flynn, works at the Columbus, Ohio, headquarters of Abercrombie & Fitch. She won’t be there, but he hopes she’ll find a good job in San Antonio and move here soon.
Readers interested in joining or supporting Communities in Schools, which currently supports more than 7,000 at-risk students in 70 San Antonio schools, can click here.