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Friday, July 1, 2022

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Alberto Jose Navarro Alberto Jose Navarro

Behind the Smile, a Story of Survival

Life has given Alberto Jose Navarro his share of difficulties, but he aims to succeed.
By Aaron Burgin

“I smile because all the hard work that my mom and I have been putting in throughout these past five years seem to be finally paying off.”

Alberto Jose Navarro, a first-year criminal justice major at San Diego State University, seems to be in a perpetual state of happiness. 

“Many people also tell me the same thing, that they notice that I always have a big smile on my face. I had not reflected on why I'm always smiling, though,” Navarro said. 

But when you talk to him, you quickly learn the story. He’s happy to be safe, after leaving behind his cartel-ravaged hometown in Mexico. 

He’s happy to be alive, after beating cancer during 11th grade. Happy to be an American resident, after receiving his green card just weeks before the start of school. And happy to be an Aztec, ready to immerse himself in a new chapter of diversity and opportunity. 

“I guess I'm just extremely happy for being here,” Navarro said. “Every day I think of how my life did a 180-degree flip and wonder what would be of my life at this very moment had I not come here,” he said. “Never did I imagine that I would be attending a top university such as SDSU, and even be sharing my story. I smile because all the hard work that my mom and I have been putting in throughout these past five years seem to be finally paying off.” 

Paradise lost 

Navarro was born and raised in Puerto Penasco, a fishing and resort town in the Northern Mexico state of Sonora. For most of his childhood, the town was known as an oasis of calm as surrounding communities grappled with drug cartel-fueled violence. 

But in 2012, when Navarro was 11, paradise was shattered as gunfire pierced the tranquility. 

“I was going to baseball practice, when I started hearing gunfire.” 

As he got closer to the baseball field, he became aware that things in his town would never be the same. A bullet-riddled truck, passengers and driver dead, rested near the visitors dugout; a nearby wall was streaked with blood. 

Navarro would learn the shooting was between rival cartels trying to gain control of the city. Two years and several violent outbursts later, Navarro’s mother would ask him a question that would change his life: Did he want to move to Los Angeles?  

The answer was simple. 

“My dad owns fishing boats,” Navarro said. “And I thought how could my life really improve by fishing. And besides that, everything had changed in my hometown, with all of the violence. So I said yes.” 

Dreams deferred - and restored 

Navarro and his mother arrived in Los Angeles, settling in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. Motivated to immerse himself in the American experience, he became fluent in English by the end of eighth grade. 

Navarro became a regular on the Esteban Torres High School Honor Roll. But as he was prepared to start his junior year — the most critical year in a high school student’s career — he received life altering news: cancer. The blunt diagnosis came during a vacation in Mexico, when he saw a doctor after not feeling well. 

Navarro and his mother returned home, where the cancer diagnosis was confirmed and a doctor raised the possibility of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, a likely blow to his dreams of going to college. 

On Aug. 10, 2017, Navarro looked in his mom’s tear-filled eyes as doctors anesthetized him for surgery. 

“I remember seeing my mom, and she was crying really hard, and then I remember getting drowsy and sleeping,” Navarro said. “When I woke up, my mom was still crying, but then she smiled.” 

Navarro would soon learn the reason: doctors said they were able to remove the cancerous mass, and were very confident the cancer had not spread. 

“All my dreams were still possible,” Navarro said. “I went back to school a couple of weeks later, and said to myself, ‘Now, I have to finish what I started.’” 

“It’s all on me now” 

Navarro graduated with honors and enthusiastically chose SDSU as the next step. 

With a criminal justice degree, Navarro said he hopes to return home and work for the Los Angeles Police Department or the Sheriff’s Department. 

“When you’re in East LA, everyone wants to get out of the ‘hood,” Navarro said. “Your teachers tell you, get out of the ‘hood and come back someday and make change. And that’s what I want to do. I feel like there’s a lot of good people in East LA, but people don’t think that way, and I want to change that.” 

Navarro has spent the summer preparing for his freshman year participating in the Educational Opportunity Program’s BEST Summer Bridge program

“It’s been great, I love the diversity and the campus,” Navarro said. “I also have my older sister nearby in Tijuana, which was a big factor in why I chose SDSU. I’m two trolleys away from the border and I get to see her on the weekends.” 

As he prepared to start the school year, Navarro’s mother called him, letting him know they had received green cards making them permanent U.S. residents. 

“I love this country, it has given me so many opportunities I never could have had back home,” Navarro said. “Hearing the joy in my mom’s voice while she was crying, and I started crying too, was one of the best moments of my life. 

“I thought to myself, ‘OK, there is nothing that can stop me now, it’s all on me now,” Navarro said. “I’m the only one who can decide what happens with my life.”