Commencement Stories – Judy Cervantes

Sexually abused and practically forced into special education classes, UCR graduate student now getting a Ph.D.

Judy Cervantes will receive a Ph.D. from UC Riverside this June.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( – We hear stories about strong women often. We probably know a few ourselves – our mothers, grandmothers, friends, colleagues, sisters, cousins. Their stories of hardship and perseverance leave us in awe. They sit with us, making us wonder, would we be able to stand just as tall if we were to experience the same thing? Judy Cervantes’ story is one of those.

She nearly was placed into special education classes in elementary school, and was sexually abused as a child, yet she survived. Judy will graduate from UC Riverside with a Ph.D. in June. But, to fully understand the scope of her achievement, let’s go back to the beginning.

Her parents are immigrants, and came to the United States illegally. Her dad moved to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 10. Not with his parents, or grandparents, not even his brothers or sisters; he came with a cousin and almost died in the process. They didn’t bring enough food or water for the trip, and the walk took more than a week. Once he made it to the U.S., he used false papers to get a job in construction, where he was exploited, worked long hours, and treated poorly. His advice to his only daughter: “I work with my hands, so you can work with your brain.”

Judy’s mother left Mexico at the age of 18. Though her transition was a bit easier, she did come to the United States illegally with forged papers. Her parents met here and married.

Judy's father told her, “I work with my hands, so you can work with your brain.”

Judy’s father told her, “I work with my hands, so you can work with your brain.”

The eldest of three, Judy’s childhood wasn’t an easy one. Inside the home, because she spoke English, and was better educated than her parents, Judy was always in charge of helping her brothers with homework. She was forced to act like a second mother to them.  Outside the home, the family had to deal with burglaries and robberies. They grew up in Santa Ana, in a neighborhood filled with gangs, violence, and drugs. “We were lucky, because my parents did a great job of instilling enough fear in us to stay away from that world,” she said. “They always said, the only way to get out of here is to get an education.” Judy took those words to heart.

As a child, her dad was always at work and her mom stayed at home.  They struggled financially. They rented a home, but in order to make ends meet rented out bedrooms to strangers. The family never had any real privacy. All of the common areas in the house were shared, strangers were always in and out of the house, and there were many times they had to call the police on others living in the home.

At the age of 4, her dad’s cousin moved in with the family. One day, he called her into his room and sexually abused her. Judy said he threatened to kill her and the family if she ever spoke up about what happened. “I still can’t talk about it without crying,” she explained through tears. “I repressed the memory for years, and it didn’t haunt me until I was a teen and at that point it was very painful for me to deal with.”

It took Judy a long time to find peace, and realize she was not the guilty one. When she finally did forgive herself, she learned that breaking the silence is the only way to make sure it stops, the only way no one else would have to experience the same pain and torture. “As a society, we have to talk about it. A lot of people are going through it, and they have to know they’re not alone. It’s not a taboo. It’s certainly not normal, and it needs to change.”

Her personal life was far from what anyone would consider perfect, but she also struggled academically. Not because she fell short, but because her teachers, one in particular, didn’t believe in her abilities. When Judy was in the fourth grade, her teacher told Judy’s mother she needed to be placed in special education classes. Not understanding what that meant, Judy’s mom thought it was some sort of an achievement.

Judy hopes her success will give other Latinas hope, and will teach them that they, too, can accomplish anything.

Judy hopes her success will give other Latinas hope, and will teach them that they, too, can accomplish anything.

“A family friend had to explain to my mom what special education classes meant.” When they tried to contest it, the teacher took the family to the school board, forcing Judy to spend months taking various exams to prove her academic abilities. She passed all of the tests with high scores. Today, she laughs about it. “I proved her wrong!”

Judy started at UC Riverside in 2004 after graduating from high school. She earned two bachelor degrees, in Spanish literature and in sociology, and a master’s degree in Spanish literature. In just a few weeks she will be awarded a Ph.D. in Spanish literature.

“It’s very exciting. I’m the first in my entire family to go to school, and to be able to walk away with a Ph.D. is amazing. Some members of my family don’t even know what that is,” she said.

After graduation, Judy will move to De Pere, Wisconsin, to begin her job as an assistant professor in August, teaching Spanish language classes at St. Norbert College. But leaving UC Riverside, she admits, is bittersweet. Judy hopes her success will give other Latinas hope, and will teach them that they, too, can accomplish anything.


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