Toribio Gonzales toughs out the toughest accounting classes

Derek Stowe

Like a steam locomotive, immigrant and recently documented U.S. citizen Toribio Gonzales goes the extra mile to ace Professor Russell Norman’s Accounting 101 class in hopes of arriving at his destination: a Glendale College Certificate in Business Administration.

To embark on a new career, Gonzales, 50, must power through one of the most challenging subjects for someone who grew up as an unpaid farm worker in the small town of Rancho El Durazno near Guadalajara, Mexico.

Luckily, he has an instructor with a sense of humor.

“I’m the best damn man for the job,” said Norman, 92, referring to what his buddy, a first sergeant in the army back in 1943, said to a panel of WWII generals.

It was in response to a general on the panel who asked him, “What makes you so sure you want to be post-sergeant-major at Fort Dix, [New Jersey]?”

Of course, Norman’s buddy got the job because that was just the kind of response they wanted. They needed “somebody tough” because at the peak of the war, that friend would go on to command 55,000 men.

“I like hanging around with older people,” said Gonzales. “I mature by listening to their stories.”

Gonzales can fix cars bumper to bumper. He said, “It’s a tough industry, although the money is excellent.”

In 2002, Gonzales received his AA degree in Auto Technology and then worked at Miller Toyota of Anaheim for six months before he was laid off. Then his doctor told him that if he doesn’t quit working on cars, he may lose the ability to walk because of his arthritis.

“I have no choice but to change careers,” he said. “And GCC is one of the greatest colleges in Southern California.”

“In life, you’re given just one body and one reputation,” said Norman. “So take good care of them both.”

Gonzales plans to get a job in a big business, “I prefer management, but book-keeping or sales would be fine too,” he said. “I want to be able to practice what I have learned in class.”

“When making big life decisions,” said Norman, “Combine right thinking with right action.and then just let go and reap the rewards.”

“It was a tremendous struggle all along to make it up to this point, but I never gave up,” said Gonzales, who came from a third world country that didn’t offer him much.

Back in Mexico, Gonzales was not only a farm worker but also a construction worker and a vaquero. A vaquero, also known as cowboy or equestrian cattle rancher deals on horseback with cows. A “caballero,” on the other hand, is a gentleman who rides horses, joked Gonzales, who also used to ride the cows just for the fun of it.

As a construction worker on the ranch, he mixed cement and often had to carry bricks on his head.

The second of 12 children, Gonzales moved to his grandparents’ ranch at a young age.

“It was hard to take the pressure of so many brothers and sisters,” said Gonzales. “My grandparents had more land than my father and 50 or 60 head of cattle along with sheep, goats, donkeys, chickens, and pigs. That was the beauty of it. And, it was safer because there were no other kids to beat me up.”

After seeing his father running a farm successfully, he studied how his grandfather managing the ranch and sold livestock, milk, poultry, oranges, tomatoes, potatoes, and onions. That was how Gonzales developed a passion for business.

The negative part was that he never got paid for any of his hard work other than food and lodging, he said. “They weren’t bad people, but they were ‘codo y ávaros’, which means ‘selfish and greedy’.”

After he had spent the whole day milking cows, he would have to wake up at 4 a.m. the next day to ride the milk-truck half-an-hour to town, said Gonzales. “I hated it. It was ‘un camino muy trabajoso y curvos,’ which means ‘a laboriously windy road with deep pot-holes’.”

He said he got the courage to emigrate because of the fact that there were no resources for school or jobs to make money.

“Where there’s no education, people beat the hell out of you when you’re a kid,” he said. “I was beaten nearly to death more than one time. I could barely get up and make it back home.”

Although he had just met someone, Gonzales realized that a romance with a beautiful girl but with no way to provide for her was going to be short-lived.

“I saw no hope,” he said. “You had to be there to feel it. It was not a good life anymore.” When his hometown friend begged him to try for the U.S., he jumped at the chance to start a new life.

At the age of 17, Gonzales borrowed the $300 he needed for a “coyote” to get him across the border. His older brother had already made it across and was able to scrape it together for him.

Leaving behind the few remaining townspeople, both teens hopped a bus from Guadalajara to Tijuana with their sights set on the “American Dream.”

Once in Tijuana, the coyote took them to a river, possibly near Playas de Tijuana, said Gonzales. The river current was strong, but freedom was waiting on the other side. So he tied his clothes to his head and waded through the frigid water by means of a rope.

“When I came to the United States, I couldn’t even write or read Spanish,” he said. He could only speak Spanish and not a word of English. But that didn’t stop him.

He soon paid his brother back by working in a Japanese restaurant washing dishes and then started taking classes for his GED.

Much of his inspiration to learn English came after ending up in the emergency room unable to talk to the beautiful nurses. In an on-the-job accident at a tortilla factory, he had crushed the middle and ring fingers of his right hand, which are still crooked even after two surgeries.

“[My fingers] still ache in the cold weather,” he said showing his thick hands riddled with nicks from rebuilding Toyotas.

Ever since childhood he has admired the business savvy of his father and grandfather who were industrious entrepreneurs of farm produce. Now Gonzales believes he has it in his genes. “I feel I can carry on the legacy,” he said.

Besides continuing to fixing cars part-time, Gonzales works for Pickwick Gardens Conference Center in Burbank. “I set up tables for five rooms which can hold up to 1000 people,” he said. Sodexo is the company that runs the banquet halls. They cover over a wide area of the U.S. and the world including hotels near Disneyland.

Because of his connections at Pickwick, Gonzales believes his general business certificate will serve him well in getting a job in Sodexo management. Otherwise, he will apply at a dealership since he knows a lot about cars.

“Even though they say, ‘nunca miren atrás’, which means ‘never look back’,” Gonzales said, “Until this day, I am trying to assimilate the abuse that I had while I was in Mexico.” At least toughing it out in Accounting 101 beats riding a milk truck down bumpy road or getting beat half to death by a townie.

The fact that Gonzales has so much experience could just be in his favor.

When his counselor told him that a certificate would be the fastest way to get out in the field, Gonzales enrolled in GCC’s business program right away.

“It’s a combination of a degree [or certificate] with those skills you’ve acquired in the other parts of your life that are going to get you towards the job that you want,” said GCC counselor Denise Leong-Bratton.
Gonzales is still confident about making the most of his body and his reputation in his pursuit of new career at the age of 50.

“He should be so proud of himself that’s for sure,” said business department chair Linda Serra. “Can you imagine getting over all those obstacles?”

His American dream is slowly coming into view.

Since his arrival, he has overcome the language barrier, become a certified auto mechanic, earned his U.S. citizenship and moved in with his hometown girlfriend.

“Once you get education, it guides you on a better path in life,” said Gonzales.

His journey is far from over.