By Mimi Pollack
When Juan Martin Sajche left his small village in Guatemala in 1997 at the age of 15, he never dreamed he would one day be a respected Spanish teacher at Morse High School in San Diego. The past twenty years have been quite a journey.
Juan Martin came to this country sponsored by his father. Many years earlier, his father and uncle had migrated here, looking for a better life. They left their families behind like so many others, sending money home every month. Then, as a teen, Martin — as his family calls him — came to join his father in El Cajon where he lived.
It was a lonely life for him. He spoke very little English at the time and his father worked long hours and did not have time to give his son much support or supervision. Thus, when Martin began high school here, he fell in with a bad crowd. Gang life beckoned and he could have easily taken another path in life.
Fortunately, Martin met Carmelina Pantoja, a teacher’s aide, who took him under her wing and guided him. He finished high school and enrolled at Grossmont College in 2002. It was in his ESL classes at Grossmont that his teacher noticed how good he was at helping other students and explaining things in a clear and patient way. She encouraged him to become a teacher and major in education.
And so, his path of working with and serving others began.
He went back to Guatemala for a summer and worked as a teacher’s assistant at a school in his village, San Andrés Xecul, Guatemala. He realized that the students there were not receiving the kind of education they deserved and made a vow to remedy that by opening up his own school one day.
In 2004, he started working at San Diego Community College Continuing Education as a teacher’s aide in the ESL program. He quickly became a favorite among the teachers for he was a quick study and related well to the students there. He also worked as a cook at various restaurants to make ends meet while juggling a full-time load at school. He’s a mean short order cook.
A year later, he enrolled at San Diego State University, while at the same time becoming active in his community. He volunteered at the San Ysidro Health Clinic as an interpreter for the CASA program which provides assistance to individuals with HIV. They ended up hiring him as an AIDS counselor. He also volunteered at the Center for Social Advocacy as an outreach worker for human trafficking.
Martin did all this while maintaining a full load at SDSU, but still decided to put more on his plate. He began to think of how he could give back to his homeland, and in 2007 organized a successful toy drive for the poor children in his village and surrounding areas at Christmastime.
Teaching still came first to him and it was in 2007 that he obtained his teaching credential from SDSU — making him the first in his family to not only graduate from high school, but college as well.
He found work as a temporary full-time teacher at Coronado High School, which led to his full-time employment as a Spanish teacher at Morse High School in 2009. He has been working there ever since, and served as the chairperson of the department for two years.
Martin is very dedicated to his students at Morse. He wants not only to teach them Spanish, but also to guide them on their path in life. He stays after class many afternoons to meet with them.
Remembering his volunteer work back in his village 15 years ago, and his vow to go back and help, he enlisted a good friend to help him realize his dream of opening a school. After much work, they opened Colegio San Andrés in his hometown in 2012. He now travels there every summer to work as a volunteer teacher.
Things have been more complicated in his personal life. Here in San Diego, he met and married a woman from Guatemala. Together, they had a daughter, Nelly, and she is now a bilingual student in elementary school. However, the marriage didn’t last and they divorced. Today, he lives with his girlfriend and their young son, Christian, in Tijuana and he commutes to work every day. He sees his daughter and his parents every Saturday. His father still lives in El Cajon and his mother has since migrated here. He likes living a cross-border life as it suits both his Latino and American sides.
In the fall, Martin will be entering a master’s program in education, again at SDSU, in order to continue his life journey and find other ways of giving back.
As he says, “I want to be an example for my children and provide them with a good life to ensure they have a bright future and, in turn, help others themselves.”
Reprinted with permission of La Prensa San Diego