When Omar Leon emigrated from Mexico to the United States in the mid-1990s, education wasn’t a priority.
“I was a teenager, 13 or 14,” he said. “I was the second oldest of nine siblings in my house. We were really poor. The expectation was to go to work. One of the first things I did was pick asparagus in Stockton. It was hard work. I remember the pain in my back. Whenever I eat asparagus, I think about that.”
Leon, 42, just completed his 12th year of teaching Spanish and coaching boys soccer at Central Valley High School.
He believes his career path from undocumented field worker to educator/coach was predetermined by a higher power.
“I never imagined I could be a teacher, not in my wildest dreams,” Leon said. “This had to be God’s plan. I could have died crossing the border.”
Leon and his mother Maria crossed the Tijuana-San Diego border illegally.
“My dad (Fermin) was already in the United States and paid money to get us across,” Leon said. “I had to jump a fence 10 times my size. I almost broke a knee. I had to endure the pain and keep running. I remember running across a freeway into oncoming traffic.”
The drive from San Diego to Los Angeles took longer than two hours.
Omar, Maria and more than 50 other people were packed into the back of a moving truck.
No air conditioning.
“It was hot as hell in there,” he said. “We were thirsty and hungry. I don’t know how long the drive was. At some point, I was unconscious. Now when I watch the news and see those things happening, it reminds me of my story.”
Leon became a U.S citizen in 2014.
He became the first male from his family to graduate from high school and college.
He attended Escalon High School, Modesto Junior College and Stanislaus State.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in Spanish and teaching credential from Stanislaus State.
“I got good grades in high school,” Leon said. “I didn’t know the language but I was way more advanced in math and English. My counselor asked me what my plans were after graduating. I didn’t think going to college was an option. I didn’t have legal papers. I applied for college and got into Cal Poly, Fresno State and Stanislaus State. I had no idea what a major was. I wanted to do something in agriculture but not the hard work.”
“They (my parents) knew life was going to be better for me financially and for them indirectly after I graduated from college because I was going to help them,” he added.
Leon taught Spanish for 31/2 years at Tracy High School prior to being hired by Ceres Unified School District.
He started teaching and coaching at Central Valley High School during the 2008-09 school year.
The boys soccer program has won eight league titles, advanced to the section finals seven times and participated in the playoffs 12 times under Leon’s guidance.
He’s had a host of players earn scholarships to four-year schools.
“The most satisfying part is seeing a kid graduating, going to college and pursuing a career,” Leon said. “The students relate to me because their stories are like mine. I used to work in the fields with some of their parents and grandparents.”
Hugo Contreras, a 2012 Central Valley grad and salutatorian, played three seasons of varsity soccer for Leon.
Contreras also worked in the fields to help support his family.
“Working in the sun for eight hours wasn’t fun,” Contreras said. “I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”
When Contreras was having issues with his citizenship status, Leon offered to adopt him.
“I talked with his parents and they agreed,” Leon said. “But it was not possible. Thank God the Dream Act was in place and that’s how he went to college.”
“I was 17,” Contreras said. “I thought he was kidding at first. It tells you a lot about him as a person for offering to do that. He goes above and beyond to help his students and players.”
Contreras graduated from Stanislaus State in 2018 with a degree in Mathematics. He also got married that same year.
Leon held Contreras’ wedding ring in his pocket during the ceremony.
“I really appreciate him,” said Contreras, who oversees 27 other employees as a Department Lead for Blue Diamond Growers. “He helped me a lot in high school. I remember a few times we went to play soccer far away. The bus stopped for us to eat. I didn’t have money to pay for lunch. He told me to order whatever I wanted from the menu and he was going to play for it. Any time I need something, I can count on him.”
Leon and his wife Gladys have been together for 23 years.
Gladys earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Stanislaus State.
They have one daughter, Mona (7).
“My wife hasn’t had an official job,” Leon said. “But she does most of the work. She takes care of our child. She has never been with a babysitter. She’s already having a better life than we did as kids. She has food on her plate every day. We didn’t have that when we were little.”