"I was just this kid from Delano and I didn't think I could do anything," recalled Yolanda Espinoza. She's referring to when she was just out of high school in the early 1970s and pondering what to do with her life.
Until she enrolled at Bakersfield College, signed up for a class in Mexican history and met the teacher named Jess Nieto.
She didn't know it then, but her life would take a dramatic turn when Nieto told her, "You need to write a book.",
Her story is typical of countless others whose lives were impacted by the kind of teacher who is passionate about sharing knowledge in a way that awakens a student's interest, leaving them wanting to learn and explore about their history. Jess Nieto fit the bill.
Though he would later leave education, he never really quit teaching.
He passed away Sept. 21, two days shy of his 70th birthday.
One of the things I admired was his personal, unpretentious manner. Though he held a doctorate degree in Higher and International Education from USC, he was not hung up on titles. Colleagues, friends and students called him simply "Jess." That's what he preferred.
"He was smart and that's what drew me to him," said wife Peggy Nieto, who met her future husband in 1969 while both were students at Cal State Long Beach. She recalls that on their wedding day they were strapped for cash because of a mix up.
Unable to access their funds, they had their first dinner as newlyweds at that most romantic of places, Wienerschnitzel.
Born in Kentucky and raised in Los Angeles, Peggy Nieto admits at first she wasn't crazy about moving to Bakersfield. Jess grew up here and convinced his wife to give it a try. The man with a doctorate degree from USC could've chosen any number of places to work, yet he decided to come back to a community faced with social, economic and educational challenges. "He felt he could make things better," she said. Peggy became a teacher and taught for 34 years at Beardsley Junior High.
Born in Deming, New Mexico, and raised in Bakersfield, Nieto was the founder of the Chicano Studies program at BC. Nieto was a rabble rouser who was well grounded, articulate and knowledgeable in fighting for equal representation for all students. Coming back to Bakersfield in 1971, Nieto began teaching at BC and eventually went on to become dean at the Delano Center.
This was a time of great social upheavel across the nation, when the Chicano movement was going strong, as "Mexican-American" (a term of the times) students began to question why their history was distorted or, worse yet, omitted from the history books. The Vietnam War was raging. Hispanic, black and poor white kids were cannon fodder. Hispanics and blacks were killed at higher disproportionate rates in Vietnam, according to the American War Library.
Nieto counseled young men who sought other options than joining the military at the time, Peggy said. There was a war of another sort going on right here in the fields of Kern County where thousands of farmworkers were striking for better wages, respect and the right to form a labor union. Jess Nieto did not shy away and lent his support to the fledgling United Farm Workers union.
An even-tempered man, Nieto could get worked up when it came to injustices at the hands of people in power. One such case was around 1990 or so. When he called me, I could tell by the tone in his voice he was angry. There had been a fight between two students at Foothill High School. The campus cop proceeded to take one of the students involved and called the Border Patrol. The 17-year-old, an undocumented immigrant, was deported. An embarrassed school principal, Mike Ramos, directed me to the Kern High School District office. KHSD essentially brushed off the incident, only saying that it wasn't district policy to turn over students to the Border Patrol.
Nieto went on to other endeavors including running his own advertising agency and then setting up Heritage of America, a non-profit educational and cultural foundation that did immigration work and held citizenship classes.
"I can't believe he's gone! He was way too young," said his long time office associate, Pat Rainey.
Jess Nieto succumbed to an illness and a severe head injury suffered in a fall in July. And as for that "kid" from Delano who had no idea what to do with her life? Yolanda Espinoza went on to become a history teacher for more than 30 years.
Those words uttered by Nieto about writing a book stuck by her. Thirty-nine years later Espinoza wrote that book, an award winning portrait of her father titled, "El Caracol: the Story of Alfonso-Labor Camp Child."
"Jess was my inspiration," she said.
Jess was an inspiration to us all. He leaves behind his wife Peggy, their two adult children, and four grandchildren. Peggy Nieto will continue with the Heritage of America Foundation. She plans to raise money for scholarships and has started a gofundme account. Donations can be made at the Jess Nieto Memorial Scholarship.
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.