By ROBERT DIGITALE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
When Jose Soto Jr. was 14, he got up at 4 a.m. two days a week to take a four-hour bus ride across dry ranching country from his hometown to Guadalajara, Mexico.
Those long days in travel and classes at a music conservatory amounted to a quest for a better life. They were a foretaste of the longer journey that the 19-year-old Elsie Allen High student and his family would make to build a new life in Santa Rosa.
Four years after coming to the U.S. and entering high school speaking no English, Jose is about to graduate as Elsie Allen’s Student of the Year.
The honor recognizes Jose’s involvement in the school’s choir, band and drama classes, but also his repeated fundraising efforts for the school with the mariachi band that his family started. It’s also a testament to a young man who teachers say is determined, good humored and big hearted.
“There has never been a student like Jose,” said Annie Scully, who taught Soto in English language development classes and also in the AVID college prep program. “He has such a desire to give and it’s often expressed through his music.”
Many students learning English often find themselves limited in school activities, Scully said. But Jose “has paid absolutely no attention to those limits.”
Jose said he is indebted to Elsie, its teachers and students. As a younger man in Mexico, he once felt so frustrated from missing his father that he quit school. But he said his experience at Elsie has helped prepare him for college and eventually to seek work as a professional violinist.
“It changed my life,” he said. “It was hard but they gave us all the help.”
Jose was born in Talpalpa, Mexico, the second of six children. His father, Jose Soto Sr., had gone to the U.S. as a teenager and eventually gained legal residency through the 1986 federal amnesty law. During Jose’s childhood, his father often was gone for much of the year earning money in farm work on the North Coast.
Jose began playing violin at about age 9. He said he wanted to be like his father, who played violin in a mariachi band. At age 14, Jose won a singing competition and as a result received voice lessons at the conservatory in Guadalajara.
But a few years later, he stopped going to school. He admits he was upset about his father’s long absences.
Three months after quitting, his family was allowed to immigrate to the U.S. He came to Santa Rosa with two shirts, two pairs of pants and two pairs of shoes. The family slept in a garage for three months.
Jose began school at Elsie in summer 2008. His first task was learning English. But he also enrolled in drama. Even though he didn’t speak the language, he wanted a creative outlet.
“The stage, that’s part of my life,” he said.
In his sophomore year, he took a class trip to view murals in San Francisco’s Mission District. On the ride home, he told Scully he wanted to help more students take similar outings and he offered his family’s band, Mariachi Barragan, to help raise funds.
The result was an annual benefit, Noche de Los Muertos. His mother and other relatives helped make 400 tamales when the event was held last fall. Jose said the band and he are ready to perform at next year’s benefit, even though he will be a graduate.
When other drama students prepared to go to Scotland for a festival last summer, Jose and the band performed at a benefit dinner. He also raised $1,100 for the drama students with raffle tickets offering the winner an hour-long performance by the band.
To graduate from Elsie, Jose had to take extra classes each semester. He also attended a summer session at Santa Rosa Junior College for students with limited-English skills.
He called music teacher Kyle Thompson “one of my heroes” for teaching him trumpet and encouraging him in the choir.
This summer, Jose plans to start classes at Santa Rosa Junior College. He eventually wants to earn a four-year degree and the chance to play violin in the San Francisco Symphony.
“Elsie taught me how to go there,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jose Soto Jr.
Birthplace: Tapalpa, Jalisco State, Mexico
Lives with: parents Jose Sr. and Maria; brothers Juan, Francisco and Leonel; sisters Alondra and Adrin; and cousin Carlos Soto.
Favorite songs: Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” the first song he learned in English, and the Mariachi classic “Cielito Lindo.”
Favorite hobby: Playing music
Dream job: Professional musician
Favorite food: Tamales, chilaquiles
Quote: “The most important three things in my life are my parents, God and Elsie Allen.”