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A legacy of learning: higher education helps Avenal siblings return to their hometown roots

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Antony Lopez
Lopez siblings show off their school banners: (Left to right) Francisco, Leticia , Antony

All three attended top universities and were their high school valedictorians.

This story is featured in the Avenal episode of The Other California, KVPR’s podcast all about small towns in the San Joaquin Valley.

The inside of the Veterans Memorial Hall echoes with the crack of pool balls. Groups of players are clustered around billiard tables, pool cues in hand.

In another corner, a caller leads a game of Loteria or “Mexican bingo” as players stare intently at the colorful cards in front of them.

Avenal’s city manager, Antony Lopez is here to meet with a city councilmember to see how the senior and nutrition program is going. But before he has his meeting, he directs me to one end of the Bingo table where a woman is knitting.

He introduces me to Donna Curty who worked hard to get Avenal incorporated back in 1979. She started a petition, which turned into a ballot initiative. “But we won by 70 votes,” she says smiling.

Donna was also part of the committee that brought the state prison to Avenal. A lifelong resident, the 86-year-old remains engaged in her community. “There she goes, complaining again,” she jokes.

She didn’t think the city was improving quickly enough until Antony was hired.I see he's making changes and I'm glad to see that,” she says.

Soreath Hok/KVPR
Avenal's city manager, Antony Lopez stands outside the historic downtown theater.

Antony was first hired as an associate planner with the city. But once the former city manager announced her retirement, Antony saw an opportunity to step up to the role. In fact, to prepare he went back to school, earning a masters in public administration at USC before starting his new role in October 2020. During the height of the pandemic, he led the effort to make Avenal one of the most highly vaccinated cities in Kings County - 73% of residents are fully vaccinated.

Antony says this role as city manager is one of the most challenging opportunities he’s had. “I think what surprised me the most is just how much the community does care,” he says. Economic development is a major area of improvement. Residents want to see more businesses come into town. “My job here is to grow and develop a city I'd be proud to raise a family in,” Antony says.

Back in his city office, Antony is met by his two older siblings who also live in Avenal. Their parents, who both immigrated from Jalisco, Mexico, were farm workers. Their father died about five years ago, but their mother still lives in Avenal and the siblings all reside on the same block. The family is close-knit, and driven, especially when it comes to education. “I think we've all just kind of try to set our own paths. But we've all kind of ended up being kind of in the same realm, regardless,” he says laughing.

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Antony Lopez
Francisco Lopez graduation photo at Yale.

His older brother Francisco graduated from Yale. His sister Leticia graduated from Wellesley and Antony from Georgetown. All three were Avenal High School valedictorians.

The Lopez siblings are part of a younger generation of Avenal natives taking leadership roles in their community. It’s the first thing Francisco noticed when he moved back last year during the pandemic. “A lot of my high school friends are either now teachers or principals,” Francisco says.

Francisco had lived in Phoenix and was most recently in the Bay Area, but then a great opportunity at a community college in nearby Coalinga brought him home. “I'm working at West Hills and that is just kind of an amazing luck for all of it to kind of work together,” he says.

He now works as West Hill’s director of special grants, overseeing the National Farmworker Jobs Program that gives training and career support to farmworkers.

Unlike Francisco, Leticia returned to Avenal right after college in 2007. “It wasn't necessarily my plan. I planned to come and be here for 2-3 years max, and then leave, go back to the Bay Area or LA,” she says.

But she found a job opportunity in Hanford at Adventist Health, where she now works as director of grants. The family works together to connect each other to opportunities and resources.

And it was a Valley opportunity that exposed all the siblings to some of the country’s top universities. It’s called the Ivy League Project, and Francisco says it helped him pave the way for Leticia. “I was a trailblazer in a lot of ways, but I was also just bumping my head into doors and trying to figure things out,” Francisco says.

Leticia, meanwhile, blazed her own trail as the first woman in her family to go to college. She also took part in another college program that allowed students to attend Berkeley for the summer. She was only 14 so her parents were reluctant to let her go. “The culture is different. they didn't like me being alone and living in this house with people they don't know,” she laughs.

But it was the kind of challenge she needed, she says. “Exposure is really important. I always tell people, if you have a chance to do this, do it. Especially if it's free. Especially if it's going to take you outside that box.”

Education is what allowed the siblings to leave Avenal to discover new ideas and places, but it’s also what brought them back to invest in their hometown.

This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit calhum.org.

Soreath Hok is a multimedia journalist with 16 years of experience in radio, television and digital production. At KVPR she covers local government, politics and other local news.