WORTHINGTON - A financial educator, Jose Lamas has dedicated his professional career to helping others become more financially stable and comfortable, repaying a debt to numerous good Samaritans across the country who embraced him at a time when he had nothing.
Having migrated alone to the United States’ west coast in the mid-1980s, Lamas faced homelessness in a place he’d hoped would provide refuge and a new life from personal family struggles he had faced in Mexico. He was only 12 years old at the time.
Fast forward approximately 30 years, Lamas’ work helping immigrant populations within a 12-county region fight poverty, learn to budget and become insurance-literate earned him the 2017 Dean’s Distinguished Award.
The Nobles County-based University of Minnesota Extension financial capability educator will share how he got from being a homeless 12-year-old bouncing between an estimated 200 households to becoming self-dependent and landing the career he’s enjoyed for nearly 15 years during Monday’s free Celebration of Success event at Minnesota West Community and Technical College.
Hosted by the college’s Culture Corner and Nobles County Integration Collaborative in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Lamas will be joined from 6 to 8 p.m. by other area Latinos who will also share tales of their journeys that led them to where they are today. Scheduled guests include: Ellias Gomez-Marroquin, Minnesota West information technology; Victor Sanchez and Jesus Ordaz, Next Generation of Barbers; Maria Parga, Lupita Restaurant Supermercado owner; Joe Briones, Briones Construction and Roofing Company; Michael Rivas, Metro PCs; and Lizbeth Castillo, El Vaquero.
“The speakers will share their tips for success and how they overcame obstacles in developing their careers,” Minnesota West Director of Cultural Diversity Le Lucht said.
Other presentations will be given by the NCIC’s El Sistema Imagine program, as well as District 518 Community Education Adult Basic Education Citizen Teacher Stacy Everding and U.S. citizenship class students. Cheniqua Johnson and Karem Gonzalez will entertain.
Lucht said the evening is a way to bring cultures together and celebrate the successes that many area residents of Hispanic origins have found in southwest Minnesota.
Lamas said it has become easier to share his story as more time has elapsed, but it still produces an emotional response as he digs back down to his youthful memories.
Accustomed to hard, manual labor on a Mexican vineyard, Lamas expected to find work upon arriving to California and make a living and new life for himself.
Things did not happen as planned, as he quickly learned his first lesson in the differences between his youthful home and the foreign northern country he’d come to.
“It was very difficult to find work because I was so young,” Lamas said. “I spent a lot of time homeless in the streets of San Diego and Los Angeles.”
Lamas lived a mostly secluded life, but he did place some reliance on others, who he called very nice people that invited him into their homes.
“They say ‘you can stay here’ - sometimes as long as you want,” he said. “But in your mind you knew you could only stay so long.”
Eventually he decided it was move on from the west coast, hitchhiking and riding public transportation and in county sheriff cars to get to his unknown destination. He remembers initially landing in a small town in this region, although he doesn’t remember exactly where.
“I saw cornfields, which reminded me where I was from,” Lamas said of the reason he was drawn to the area.
Rides in a couple of county sheriff’s cars brought him to Worthington in 1990, where the then-15 year-old found what he was looking for - which to this day makes him emotional as he recalls settling into where he’d call home for the next 28 and counting years.
Thanks to four more families in Worthington who provided for the teenager, Lamas was introduced to legal services and received assistance enrolling at Worthington High School, where he graduated in 1995.
He continued his education at Minnesota West and later transferred to Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in history.
He began his career with Minnesota Extension in 2005, although on a volunteer basis with the VISTA program. Extensive training allowed him to climb the ladder in his position and become recognized for his service, particularly to immigrant populations.
Now a U.S. citizen, Lamas said he has learned the importance of education, and hopes to further his own and one day earn his master’s degree.
“I feel like I can do more to contribute to society,” he said.
His life now looks nothing like he thought it would, but after years of finding temporary shelter in one family’s household after the next, Lamas is proud to consider Minnesota his home.