Graduate Fulfills College Dreams After Escaping War

  • BY Cal State East Bay
  • June 10, 2016

Cal State East Bay graduating senior Luz Marina Lopez de Cablas was the second best student in her high school graduating class in El Salvador. The daughter of El Salvador’s minister of education and the seventh of eight siblings, Lopez de Cablas had always excelled in school, so it came as no surprise when she secured a coveted full-ride scholarship to a prestigious Catholic University.

But her country was on the brink of what would become a bloody, 12-year civil war.

Lopez de Cablas said the first day of class, half of the students were missing — all males, recruited by the rebel forces known as guerrilleros. Word was at the time that they were coming for the female students next.

“We heard they needed nurses, cooks, sex … I didn’t want to get kidnapped, I was only 18,” Lopez de Cablas said.

So she left school and applied for a visa to the United States — a decision that changed the course of her life. It took months of waiting and sleeping outside the U.S. embassy in El Salvador to make sure her paperwork was filed on time, but determined to find a better life for herself, Lopez de Cablas said it was a small price to pay.

“I came with $5 and a suitcase, but it didn’t matter because I came for the freedom,” Lopez de Cablas said with tears in her eyes.

She arrived in San Francisco on Dec. 6, 1978 and moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, working as their housekeeper in exchange for room and board. She began taking English classes in her free time and after two years had learned enough to get a job at Crocker Bank, which was eventually purchased by Wells Fargo. She moved up quickly due to her hard work and ability to speak both English and Spanish, but eventually left banking and went to work for an international airline.

She married and had two children, Michael, now 21 and Marina, now 23. The family moved to the Slavic Republic for several years but after she and her husband divorced, Lopez de Cablas and her children returned to the U.S.

But life was harder than ever.

She took a job working as a life insurance saleswoman and realtor, but it was 2008 and thanks to the stock market crash, people weren’t buying homes or life insurance.

She remembers coming to a graduation ceremony at CSUEB for a relative where she saw an 80-year-old woman receive her diploma. It was then Lopez de Cablas realized she still had time to pursue her dream of earning a college degree.

“If she could do it, then I could, too,” Lopez de Cablas said, her voice catching in her throat.

In 2011, she started classes at Las Positas College in Livermore, eventually graduating with honors and two associate’s degrees. She transferred to CSUEB in 2014 where she began working on her bachelor’s in business administration with an emphasis on finance, marketing and real estate.

She credits her husband Amando Cablas’ moral and economic support for her success and said without him, going back to school wouldn’t have been possible.

At 56, Lopez de Cablas is a nontraditional CSUEB student but that didn’t stop her from jumping into the campus community. She joined GANAS, the Cal State East Bay program that serves community college transfer students, and worked as a supplemental instruction leader for financial management and as a teaching assistant for real estate finance.

Lopez de Cablas will walk across the CSUEB stage Sunday to receive her degree and begin her next big project — finding not just another job, but a career. She also wants to leave her children with a legacy.

“It is never too late to achieve your goal and dreams,” she said. “With dedication and hard work, we can achieve the impossible.”