SIGNAL PEAK — The Vaquero Awards, held after a two-year hiatus at Central Arizona College on Saturday, are meant to honor those who have gone on to make an impact within the community.

But before this year’s nominees received their awards, guest speaker Ofelia Zepeda delivered a powerful keynote speech about the role CAC has played in educating and empowering local Native American students, including herself.

“I wholeheartedly acknowledge CAC as an important institution, one that was foundational for me,” Zepeda said. “The campus is in a special place, in a desert place.”

Zepeda, who is Tohono O’odham, reminded attendees that they were on traditional homelands of indigenous people. Before reading through some of her poems, Zepeda detailed the very unusual circumstances that led her to become a renowned linguistics professor and author.

“Back in the seventies, it was common for Tohono O’odham children to grow up in the cotton fields, not knowing English and not starting school until very late,” Zepeda said.

Zepeda herself grew up around the fields of Stanfield, helping her parents pick cotton. Neither of her parents had a formal education nor spoke English.

At some point local truant officers looking for children “captured” her and some of her siblings, as she described it, and placed her in the school system.

For Zepeda, this turned out to be a welcome development.

“I remember clearly enjoying school,” Zepeda said. “I made friends with a few teachers, who were taken by what I was able to do.”

Zepeda said her aptitude and enthusiasm for school was such that she lied to her parents about “mandatory” summer school, when in fact she attended summer classes just to pick up English and learn more. Despite their lack of education, Zepeda’s parents supported and encouraged her academic success.

“My mother sensed that education was important and took it seriously,” Zepeda said, “even though it was a totally different world for her. She took pride in sending her children to school each day clean and healthy.”

After graduating Casa Grande Union High School, Zepeda attended CAC — she graduated in 1974 — before going on to the University of Arizona, where she is currently a regents’ professor of linguistics. Zepeda has become a leader on O’odham language research and keeping the language, and culture, alive.

As part of that effort, Zepeda has published several books and poetry collections, and she recited two poems at the event.

The first, “The Man Who Drowned in the Irrigation Ditch,” was a melancholy account of a real-life experience from her childhood when an older relative slipped in the aforementioned ditch and died.

The poem’s narrator foresees the tragedy, envisioning “him falling over backwards, his body slowly sinking into the water.”

The second poem, “Squash Under the Bed,” was more lighthearted.

“There was always squash under our beds,” Zepeda said. “Large, hard-skinned squash with speckled green and yellow designs. It shared spaces with cowboy boots, lost socks, forgotten toys, dust and little spiders.”

When the winter comes, the squash is taken out and Zepeda describes her “swallowing the warmth of summer” and saving the seeds to repeat the ritual the following year.

Zepeda is one of CAC’s original “Wall of Success” honorees from 2009, when it was created to celebrate the college’s 40th anniversary.

The Vaquero Award nominees this year were two Class of 2000 CAC graduates: Adriana Saavedra, who has been CAC’s director of library services for over a decade, and Mike Flores II, president of the Coolidge Unified School District Governing Board and longtime adviser for youth programming in Coolidge designed to provide prevention education, such as Students Against Destructive Decisions.

Former track and field coach Al Shirley was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

For Zepeda, the journey from Stanfield cotton fields to a leading role at the Language Development Institute at UA has been a dizzying experience, but one that she clearly embraced.

“Sometimes I think that maybe I’m not supposed to be here,” Zepeda said. “I tell myself, ‘You shouldn’t have made it.’ That’s always the type of conflict I have. I’m still in disbelief sometimes. It’s a miracle, I believe in miracles.”

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Aaron Dorman is the Casa Grande reporter at PinalCentral, covering government, schools, business and more. He can be reached at adorman@pinalcentral.com.

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