Leading the Way to Citizenship One Student at a Time

Professor Cesar Guzman (backrow, far left), who teaches citizenship classes at Imperial Valley College and in the community, stands with a group of students in a class he taught at the First United Methodist Church in El Centro in this 2020 photo. Photo courtesy of Cesar Guzman

Fifteen thousand.

That’s how many people long-time Imperial Valley educator Cesar Guzman has helped become U.S. citizens through his work teaching citizenship classes offered as part of an Imperial Valley College (IVC) program and his volunteer work in the community.

Today, at age 78, though retired as a full-time educator, he still works part-time for the college program, volunteers in the community, and serves on a local school board in the city of Brawley, something he has done for nearly half a century.

He’s not about to stop yet. He enjoys it all too much to stop, especially when it comes to helping residents of the Imperial Valley become citizens.

“I have a passion for citizenship, and people need a lot of help in that area,” said Guzman, who has taught citizenship classes since 1975. “I’m happy to give my time to help people become citizens, which gives them the opportunity to vote and have a say in who represents them.”

Pictured is Professor Cesar Guzman, who continues to teach citizenship classes part time even after his 2011 retirement.

There was a time, he pointed out, when there were few Hispanics represented on local governing boards in the Valley. Today, that representation is more balanced, and he takes pride in seeing that increased engagement in local government. Citizenship, he said, has been a part of that surge in engagement over the years.

“It means a lot to people to be able to vote and to participate in government,” he said. “Citizenship provides that opportunity and so many other opportunities.”

Guzman is one of four educators in IVC’s non-credit citizenship courses offered in Brawley, El Centro and on the college’s main campus in Imperial. His fellow educators include local community leaders Oliver Alvarado, former city planner for the city of El Centro; Ray Castillo, a former Imperial County supervisor; and Olga Leon, who works in the migrant education program as a parent liaison in Brawley. Each has been certified to teach citizenship courses.

Students enrolled attend a 30-hour course during which, along with studying about government, the Constitution, and American history, they receive help with filling out their citizenship application and support in preparing for their exam and interview. Upon completing the course, they receive a certificate that allows them to then take the citizenship test through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

IVC President Lennor Johnson credited Guzman for his efforts to help students.

“Mr. Guzman has been dedicated to educating and guiding students through the complexities of the United States Constitution, American history, and the many facets of citizenship,” Johnson said. “His efforts have been instrumental in shaping the lives of countless individuals, aiding them in becoming informed, responsible, and active citizens. We are immensely grateful for his service and the profound impact he has had on our students and community.”

Guzman has been a part of the program since the college first introduced the classes under the leadership of the late Ruben Lopez, who served as dean of IVC’s external campus program for years.

Before that, starting in 1968 when he moved to the Imperial Valley straight out of college, Guzman worked as a teacher in the Brawley Elementary School District and then as a counselor in the Brawley Union High School District.

Professor Cesar Guzman (back row, fifth from right) is pictured with another group of students from a recent citizenship class. Photo courtesy of Cesar Guzman

Born and raised in a rural town in Colorado, Guzman grew up on his family’s farm—he was one of 16 children. The family didn’t have much money. In fact, he said they were “dirt poor.” However, they had a strong work ethic and a belief in education.

He knew from an early age he would become an educator, just like so many of his brothers and sisters became.

From high school, he went on to earn a degree in education from Adams State University in Colorado. The year was 1968, and California schools were actively recruiting teachers from other states. The assistant superintendent of the Brawley elementary district convinced him to give Brawley a try.

“What convinced me was that he told me Brawley was 25 minutes from the city of Mexicali across the border,” Guzman said. “My grandmother lived in Mexicali. I had never met her, and I wanted to, so I made the decision to move to Brawley.”

Though he didn’t speak Spanish at the time, he made it his mission to learn, studying Spanish at San Diego State University. He also earned his master’s degree in counseling from the University of La Verne in Los Angeles.

Along with his work in the Brawley school districts (the elementary and high school districts), he went on to serve on both Brawley school boards. Between the two, he served continuously for 47 years through 2020, and he was re-elected to the elementary district board last year.

When he joined IVC in 1975, he was hired as a counselor, a position he held throughout his years with the college. As an extra-duty assignment, he took on the role of teaching the citizenship classes, along with English as a second language courses and Mexican American studies.

Professor Guzman is again pictured with a group of students on their way to becoming U.S. citizens. Photo courtesy of Cesar Guzman.

Though he retired from his full-time position with IVC in 2011, he has continued teaching citizenship classes part-time for the college, plus volunteers to teach citizenship classes through area churches and in communities that request his help. He also volunteers to help individuals fill out their citizenship applications beyond his work in the classes he teaches.

When asked why it means so much to him to teach the citizenship classes, he answered, “Just seeing the students when they become citizens and how happy they are. The whole thing becomes brand new, and it is like a new day for them.”

Guzman, who has been married to his wife, Leticia, for 40 years and has a son, Danny Guzman, said when he looks back on the 15,000 students he helped become citizens, and thinks about the students he can still help today in the Valley, he knows he made the right decision to make Brawley his home, and to accept the challenge of teaching the citizenship classes.

“I know the classes have made a difference,” he said. “I’ve seen it firsthand with every citizenship ceremony I’ve attended.”

He added that the demand for citizenship classes has never slowed over all the years he’s been involved in the program, and as he gears up for his next class, already packed with 40 students, he said that points to just how important it is to so many people to achieve that citizenship goal in their life, for themselves and for their families.