MILTON-FREEWATER — Mario Uribe began the next step of his career this morning at McLoughlin High School as students flooded into the school’s gym for their first day of school, many receiving a high five from Uribe and other educators.

As the high school’s new vice principal, Uribe is eager to start making a difference, including by dismantling some of the barriers he encountered in reaching this point in his career.

Uribe is the Milton-Freewater Unified School District’s first Latino administrator in anyone’s recent memory, noted Superintendent Aaron Duff.

“And while that’s a celebration, he’s a highly-qualified educator. And he wants to build relationships with the kids.”

Uribe, 35, well understands school can be a lonely and confusing place. He learned for himself when he was put in a self-contained English as a Second Language, or ESL, class upon arriving in Milton-Freewater from Mexico at the age of 8.

Starting from scratch

In his first hometown, Uribe was an outgoing kid. The farming community was small and everyone was essentially family and he talked with neighbors and friends with ease, the vice principal said in a recent interview.

But his mother wanted her children to get a better education than Mexico’s school system offered, and his father already worked in the U.S. during agricultural seasons, Uribe explained.

While his family stayed with friends in rundown, rat- and roach-infested quarters, his parents worked every job possible to survive and save, Uribe said.

His mom worked at Stadelman Fruit and Garrett Packing food processing companies while his dad toiled at Tyson Fresh Meats. Both jobs were grueling, Uribe said, recalling his father returned him with fingers swollen to the size of sausages and shoulders aching from continuous motion to carve the cold beef carcasses.

At Freewater Elementary School, Mario and his brother, Daniel, were put into the ESL class, where they didn’t interact with mainstream students. Whether it was by design or accident, that began a pattern of shyness, self-isolation, and withdrawal at school, the opposite of the boy he’s been back home.

He worked hard to meet enough goals to escape ESL and be placed into a traditional classroom, he said.

“I wanted to get out of that class as fast as I could.”

Creating an American life

His parents were able to save enough money to buy their own home within a few years, but there was no question of ever asking either for spending money, Uribe said in his office late last month.

“So, at 11 or 12, my brother and I worked at a nursery. We picked melons, tomatoes, cherries. We moved pipes. I learned how to drive there and I learned to work in 100 degrees,” Uribe remembered.

He also remembers early encounters with racism in the workplace.

“The owners weren’t the kindest people, although they gave us a job. They would say, ‘You Mexicans work so hard, you’re like donkeys.’ They said we didn’t want to advance in anything, we just wanted to work.”

Looking back now, Uribe can see there were always helpers, starting with his teachers. In fifth grade, educator Chip Ambler worked to cheer up the desolate boy.

“He always said, ‘Hey, Super Mario, how are you today? He did the best he could, but he didn’t know any Spanish.. And I really didn’t know enough English to be in that class,” despite reaching those ESL goals, Uribe said.

It was then, he now thinks, an understanding of honoring and bridging cultural differences began forming.

In middle school, Mario began seeing friends endure injustices because of the color of their skin. At 97 pounds, he was bullied plenty, as well, he said.

Those circumstances motivated the young teen to begin working out and to overcome social anxiety in order to support his friends.

“I was starting to strive for myself,” Uribe said.

Mario constantly looked up to his older brother — when Daniel joined wrestling at Mac-Hi, Mario did the same, eventually winning at state. His name is on Mac-Hi’s wall of wrestling fame.

And when Daniel graduated in 1999, his little brother resolved to do the same.

“He was setting the bar for me, he was the person for me to match up to. We were never huggy or affectionate, but we knew we were there for each other,” Uribe said.

Unlike anyone else in his family, however, Mario went on to attend college, even as he’d expected to work in the fields.

Instead of heading off to manual labor he applied for college admission. Not because he thought he could, Uribe said, but because enough other people thought he could. And should, making sure he had the information to do so.

“I didn’t even know we had three colleges here, you know? I’d only driven to a few places in Walla Walla.”

At the same time, Mario could see Daniel’s path of early marriage and having children at a young age was not what he wanted. That would consign his to a life similar to his father’s, one of tedious, difficult work just to keep a family afloat.

“I thought, ‘I can’t do that,’” Uribe said with a shake of his head.

Guided to college

At the urging of Mac-Hi teacher Nita Kinney, he spent a summer working for the U.S. Forest Service, earning about $9,000 — more money than field work had ever fetched — then began at Walla Walla Community College with a plan to pursue a career in criminal justice.

“I knew I wanted to help people,” he said.

“If I could change a law, so no one could be called a ‘donkey’ or ‘jackass’ at work, that would be the best thing I could do.”

Along with his longtime girlfriend Yazmin Bahena, now his wife, Uribe moved on to the University of Idaho, where he got a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

All along the way instructors noticed Uribe was a natural tutor to others and encouraged him to look at sociology and teaching careers.

In fact, Uribe had started realizing the job in customs and immigration he was hoping to get would put him at just about the opposite of what he wanted to do with that criminal justice degree in the first place, he said.

“I would be picking up people, some of whom I would know, to deport. I couldn’t do it, I know people come here to work.”

By now Uribe and Bahena were newlyweds, and someone needed to get a job.  Uribe jumped into a stint with AmeriCorps, not realizing those volunteers earn a small stipend and not a real salary, he recounted with a smile.

It was enough to cover rent, the couple’s only big expense. While Bahena did her student teaching for the Walla Walla School District, Uribe ended up tutoring for AmeriCorps at Sharpstein Elementary School.

Laure Quaresma, now the superintendent for the Athena-Weston School District, was Sharpstein’s principal then and remembers Uribe’s work ethic.

“Mario would arrive before all the staff and work on projects to support teachers. He set up a reading room that required massive hours of copying and stapling,” Quaresma said.

“He was bound and determined to get it done.”

She also saw the “absolute caring for kids” in the young man, she added.

“This AmeriCorps position ignited a fire in Mario and he moved forward to become a teacher.”

A turning point

After Uribe assured Quaresma he really didn’t want to go into teaching, he found himself at Heritage University in Toppenish, Wash., at Quaresma’s urging. There he earned master’s degrees in education and administration.

That’s what comes from learning from someone with experience, Uribe said.

“I thought, ‘She’s older than me and smarter than me. I’m going to listen to someone else for once.’”

His first teaching job was at Edison Elementary School, where he taught for six years. Uribe dove into union leadership and training, helped with curriculum review and taught in the school’s dual English-Spanish classes.

That work was a turning point, imbuing him with the confidence he really could make a difference for children, he said.

Uribe said that while he and his wife were vacationing in Italy this summer, Bahena noticed the job opening at Mac-Hi, his alma mater.

The vice principal position opened when former vice principal Jay Rodighiero was promoted to principal at Freewater School, where he oversees special programs.

“I knew Mac-Hi was one of the main places with a population I could help out,” Uribe said.

“Here I can grow.”

The high school here is about 60% Latino. Some are first-generation Americans without navigators at home to help them get into college or even explore higher education.

Kids like the one Uribe used to be.

When the job offer came from Mac-Hi principal Mindi Vaughan, Uribe recalls being nearly speechless as his wife cried tears of happiness.

“I told my wife I have never felt so accomplished in my life,” he said.

Vaughan said she values her new employee’s connection with the community, and is counting on him to keep communication open between families and the school.

“He’s very progressive and innovative in finding what will meet the needs of our students,” she said.

That means for all students, Uribe said.

“‘I see your color, I see who you are and I see you need help,’ no matter what your cultural background.”

But there is no doubt his visibility at Mac-Hi can change the expectations in local Latino families, he added.

“Every step I take forward is a win for me, but it’s a bigger step for my extended family. Everyone is looking at me, my cousins look at me.

“Just seeing someone who looks like you, has the same cultural background, and has had the same struggles and harassment ... it means everything,” he said.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.