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What he went through: Willmar grad looks back on the road to graduation that took him to Mexico and back

Jose Carreno drills his Chinese class with some grammar questions. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — Jose Noe Carreno will graduate this week with high honors from Willmar Senior High School.

While that’s no small accomplishment for any teenager, Carreno’s path to graduation has had its share of twists and turns. He’s grown from a frightened boy watching immigration agents shackle his mother to an 18-year-old high school student who has kept his grades up while working nearly full-time. And he’s heading off to college in the fall.

When Carreno joins more than 240 classmates in their Cardinal red caps and gowns on Sunday, his parents and siblings won’t be there to see it, but the grandparents he’s lived with for three years will be there to cheer him on.

Carreno remembers vividly the morning Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and Willmar Police officers started pounding on the door before dawn in April 2007. He and his little brother were still sleeping in their bunk beds when the beam of a powerful flashlight in his face woke him up.

The entire family was questioned, and their mother, who was not a legal resident of the United States, was shackled hand and foot in her pajamas and led away as the sun was rising. There was no chance to say goodbye. All three of her children are U.S. citizens.

Carreno remembers that they didn’t go to school that day. He recalls being very sad, and he knows he did poorly in his math and reading tests that spring. “I’m pretty sure that’s why.”

His mother, Fabiola Carreno, decided soon after that it wasn’t worth fighting deportation, and she signed the paperwork that would free her from detention and send her back to Mexico. Baby sister Elizabeth went with her.

Dad, Vicente Cisneros, stayed in Willmar with their sons, Jose and Vicente, to pay off a truck loan and wrap up other matters before they left for Mexico, too.

When his mother left, “she said she was going to go live in peace,” he said, and she has no plan to return to this country. The family now owns a business and a home in a good neighborhood of Salvatierra in the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico.

The separation and upheaval has been difficult for the whole family. While they won’t see his graduation in person, he will visit them later in June.

Carreno attended school in Mexico for grades 7, 8 and 9. It was hard to adapt at first to living in a country he had only visited before, where he spoke the language but didn’t read or write it very well.

His family decided that he should finish high school and attend college in the country where he was born.

His grandfather, Jose Carreno, was in favor of it, as he had not been able to get a job in his field with an engineering degree from Mexico.

More adjustments were in store when he returned to Willmar.

“I wanted to go back (to Mexico) at the beginning,” he said. “At first, I remember calling my mom every other day, because I missed her.”

Keeping busy helped, he said, and he reconnected with some grade school friends. He spends a couple hours on the phone with his family every weekend. He also makes shorter calls during the week and goes to Mexico at Christmas and in the summer.

He got a job at McDonald’s more than two years ago and is currently a floor supervisor. He has often worked 35 or more hours a week.

People ask him how he has handled that schedule. “I use my time wisely here at school,” he said. “If you use your time wisely, you don’t have that much homework.”

He plans to study business and accounting at St. Cloud State University next year.

One of his favorite teachers was Sandy Kocka, who died suddenly last year. He said he misses her and credits her for suggesting he consider studying business. He had talked about being a math teacher, but “she was the one that told me I would do better in the business area.”

Math is still a favorite subject, and math teacher Brad Haugen is another of his favorite teachers. Actually, he said, he likes them all quite a lot. According to counselor Sharon Tollefson, the feeling is mutual. His teachers have consistently praised him and his dedication.

Carreno studied Chinese and went on the foreign language trip to China this spring. He raised the money for the trip himself, and his grandpa gave him “way more than enough” spending money, too.

He doesn’t use Skype that often, but he did Skype with his parents from China. His mom “thought it was cool,” he said with a smile.

Carreno can’t say enough about his grandparents and all they’ve done for him in the past three years. “He’s always been there for me,” he said of his grandpa. As for grandma, “she cooks good food, and she keeps me happy.”

His grandparents said they were happy to have him live there, he said. “They were by themselves, and there was no one making noise,” he said. “They wanted someone at home.”

When he graduates, he’ll take a trip to Mexico before coming back to start college. His brother, now a ninth-grader, will most likely return to Willmar to finish high school.

When he arrived at Willmar Senior High, he said, he found that he had fallen behind a bit in English, but he quickly caught up. His first year back, he got almost all A’s in school.

During school, he said, he has always tried to do his best. An A- or a B on a test will upset him, he said, and he had hoped that he would graduate on a higher rung of the honors ladder at school.

“I always want the highest,” he said. He was pleased to learn he was the highest ranking Latino graduate in this year’s class.

Carreno said he expects that he will continue to live in the United States after he finishes his education, but Mexico will always be a vacation destination. And he plans to heed his parents’ advice as he moves forward: “Never forget where you came from and what you went through.”

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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