Herminia Villarreal, who goes by Minnie, was born in Acuña, Mexico just over the border from Del Rio, Texas. Her father was born in San Antonio, Texas, and relocated to Mexico during the Depression. The family moved back to Texas when she was six years old, so he could continue working at his ranch there. An agriculturalist by trade, her father heard there were many agricultural jobs opening in California and went there with Minnie’s older brother, older sister and brother-in-law. They got a ride to Salinas in 1945 after World War II, and once her father found a job at a ranch in Castroville, he sent for the rest of his family. Minnie was 10 years old at the time and travelled to California by train with her mother, and her younger sister and brother.
Minnie’s father passed away soon after the family moved to Castroville. Everyone in her family pitched in to make ends meet. Her sisters worked at the canneries at Monterey’s Cannery Row, and one of her sisters worked at the canneries in San José. Minnie’s mother decided to move the family
Minnie Villarreal graduating from SJCC in 1977
to work in San José. Minnie met her future husband, Leandro Villarreal, in 9th grade while at Roosevelt Junior High. They would pick strawberries, lettuce, carrots, and other produce on the weekends to get extra spending money. Once Minnie turned 18, she also worked in the canneries.
After Minnie got married to her high school sweetheart, they started to raise a family of seven children. All of her children attended St. Victor’s Catholic School, as education was very important to her. Eventually, she started to work for a new preschool that started at San Antonio Elementary. The preschool was under the Santa Clara County Office of Education and encouraged everyone working there to go back to school to learn more about teaching preschoolers. That was how Minnie found herself attending San José City College in the 1970s.
Today, Minnie, who is 86 years old, recalls her time at the college and how it helped her gain the skills she needed to teach preschool. Thanks to San José City College’s Centennial, we got to talk with Minnie about her time at City College and how she was able to co-teach during the day and attend college in the evenings to become a preschool teacher for the Head Start Program.
Where were you born?
I was born in Acuña, Mexico, the very northern part just across the Texas border from Del Rio. My father was in agriculture and had a ranch in Texas for a while. He heard that there was a lot of agriculture in California. A truck was coming to California from the barrio in Texas, and he went with them. We didn’t come with him the first time he went, but my brother, and my older sister and brother-in-law went to Salinas, California to work in agriculture. We settled in Castroville after that, because my dad found a job at a ranch there. My dad passed away in Castroville right after we got there. I was around 10 years old at the time.
I had five sisters and two brothers. There were eight of us. Once we all got to California, my sisters started working at Cannery Row. One of my sisters moved to San José to work in the canneries there. She encouraged my mother to move here when I was around 15 or 16 because there were more canneries in San José. When I was 18, I was able to work in the canneries, too, so we were all working in the canneries for a while.
I met my husband in 9th grade at Roosevelt Junior High School. We used to pick strawberries and carrots and other produce Saturday mornings to get extra money to go to a dance or the movies together. I really liked picking strawberries more than carrots. Sometimes we had to do hoeing – that was hard. There were always a lot of jobs to pick produce before I was 18 and able to work in the canneries.
Left picture – Minnie (far right) and her cousin, niece and friend working in the San José canneries; Top Center – Minnie (center) and her family at her graduation party in 1978; Bottom Center – Minnie (third row, left) with one of her Head Start Classes; Right – Minnie graduating from SJCC in 1977
What brought you to City College?
After I got married and we started a family, my sister called me one day to tell me about a job opening from the Santa Clara Office of Education working for San Antonio Preschool, which was a new preschool at the time. I was ready for a change, and once I started working there and realized how much I enjoyed it, I didn’t go back to the canneries. I had seven children at that time, and my youngest was already starting preschool.
A lady with the Santa Clara County Office of Education came to teach us how to teach the preschoolers. She encouraged us to go back to school through a program called Spanish Dame which later became Head Start.
I started going to college soon after. I took one to two classes a week at night so I could work at the preschool during the day, as well as take care of my children. I always liked school. Everyone was very helpful at City College. They would ask students what they wanted to do to help them decide. It’s been a while, but I believe it took me three to four years to graduate.
The preschool was open only temporarily. After it closed, I applied for an opening at a Head Start program and got it. This was during the time I was going to school. I was first hired as a co-teacher and after I got my associate degree, I got my own class which was very exciting and a little scary, too.
I had around 12 children each year in my class and had a teacher’s aide to help me. The first class I taught was in Mountain View, and the first aide I had wasn’t as helpful as I was expecting. He was 18 or 19 years-old and was a bit rough with the children, yanking their little cars and toys away from them. Next, I worked at Milpitas which I really enjoyed. Then they needed someone who could speak Spanish, so I moved over to the east side to work at Myers School which I also really liked. I had a really good aide there named Julia, and we became good friends.
I taught Head Start from around 1977 to 1985. I stopped teaching when one of my granddaughters was born with a cleft palate. She wasn’t able to eat well because of it and I wanted to take care of her.
Top Right – Minnie in her garden; Top Left – Minnie (center) in 2021 with her six daughters, son, and husband; Bottom Left – Minnie’s garden; Bottom Center – Minnie with la Virgen in her garden; Bottom Right – Minnie at SJCC’s Centennial Celebration
My daughter Gloria, who was in two of my preschool classes, used to help me with my students once she was in junior high. She went on to get her associate degree at Evergreen Valley College and then got her bachelor’s degree in social work at San José State. She worked at a school in special education for almost twenty years. She’s now in HR at the Santa Clara County Office of Education, and has worked for the County for thirty years now. Four of my daughters and my son attended classes at City College and at nearby community colleges. My son joined the Marines, and my oldest daughter raised her children, as well as helped with raising my youngest children.
Actually, four of my children have worked for the Santa Clara Office of Education. One of my daughters recently retired from there after forty years. Another daughter worked there before moving over to San Benito County Office of Education. My son worked there for twenty years before moving to Reno. And one of my daughters was a substitute paraeducator up until a few years ago. The reason why they became interested in working at the County Office is because I used to come home with the job postings and tell my daughters about them.
What are you doing today?
I enjoy painting and drawing. I even took some Adult Education classes to learn more. When I was in junior high school, I had a teacher who encouraged me, since I liked to draw. She asked me to create a big picture for the hall and put it there when I finished it. I was really proud of that. I still enjoy it.
I also like to sew. I’m a seamstress. I made my daughters’ dresses for proms and sewed three of my daughters’ wedding dresses, with the gowns and the veils. I would also sew clothes for my children’s dolls. I love to sew.
One of my favorite things to do is spend time in my garden. It’s a special place. I love the different plants and flowers and I enjoy relaxing in my yard.
When I’m not gardening, I love spending time with my big family. I have 11 grandkids, 25 great-grandkids, and 7 great-great-grandkids.
I have always enjoyed school and my time at City College helped me to become a preschool teacher. I really enjoyed my time teaching. And I still love being with children.