For Richard Aguilar and his wife, Tatiana Ybarra, their future is guided by their past.

Life experiences both painful and joyous have paved the way for the two seniors. Aguilar, a 36-year-old civil engineering major, and Ybarra, 27 and studying criminal justice, both come from Native American backgrounds. For Ybarra, whose family is from Shoshone reservations near Elko, Nevada, the lessons learned growing up still guide her.

“My elders taught me to always know where I came from, because you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t respect where you’ve been,” she said, recalling her stepfather encouraging her to always acknowledge the land she was on and learn whose tribe it belonged to. “I think he knew I would listen and turn it into something one day. He was right.”

Ybarra, who works in the campus Office of Tribal Relations and serves on the Legislative Affairs Council when she’s not tending to her studies, is grateful to be pursuing her education on ancestral Mechoopda land, which makes her stepfather’s lesson all the more relevant. Minoring in American Indian studies, she often finds herself in wonder when she considers the rich human history that occurred on the banks of Big Chico Creek flowing through campus—people fished its waters, and they used the surrounding land to cook and raise families. It’s a daily reminder, she said, of why it’s important to keep sight of the past.

Ybarra and Aguilar work together to instill that reverent mindset in their three sons, aged 6, 5, and 3. Her grandmother, a Navajo elder who, like many American Indians from older generations, attended boarding school as the only means of education, lives with the couple and helps raise the boys. Her support and guidance, Ybarra said, makes their balancing act as students and parents possible.

Her grandmother’s history and presence are also a reminder that in the first half of the 20th century, assimilation tactics—boarding school included—continued an ugly erasure of native culture and customs. It strikes a personal chord for Ybarra, especially recently, as her home reservation saw the shutdown of its tribal courts.

Her goal at Chico State is to carve a path toward becoming a district attorney, returning to her reservation, and becoming a tribal prosecutor there. Long-term, she wants to begin her own law firm and empower young women to become lawyers.

“My people are being criminalized and prosecuted by older white males that don’t understand the cycles of violence and trauma and discrimination my people have faced,” she said. “They’re incarcerated disproportionately. I want to help alleviate some of that stress.”

Tatiana Ybarra and a classmate look at a project she has on her laptop.
Tatiana Ybarra (right) expanded her interest in social justice work while taking a multidisciplinary course that focused on alleviating homelessness in fall 2019. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU, Chico)

Her greatest sources of support and inspiration are found at home. Ybarra’s father and brother, Mathew, both died after her parents separated in her youth. The losses shook her, left her uncentered. But when things were toughest, she said, Aguilar was there. Already a close friend who encouraged her to persist in classes at her junior college, he supported Ybarra emotionally as she searched for ways to stabilize her life. The two grew close, started a family, and two years ago, they married.

“He’s a great friend and motivator,” she said. “He supported all of my goals and looked for ways to help me achieve them.”

Aguilar, 36, had a similar upbringing: His family, too, was deeply protective of its culture and roots, but also split. His lineage created an identity marker he struggled to cope with in his younger years. His paternal side was Walker River Paiute and Pit River Maidu; his mother, though, was of German descent and a Jewish background. With few opportunities for those different cultures to interact in his separated family, Aguilar clung to what he knew: Native American customs. He lived on the reservation, went to powwows, made fry bread, and connected to his “traditional side,” he said. When he met Ybarra, though, he saw something that changed his perspective.

“I didn’t really understand how strong indigenous women could be until her,” he said. “The ideas in my family were more patriarchal, and that’s furthered in split families. She completely flipped that for me.”

He fed off Ybarra’s drive and determination to fight for what she believed was right, and her devotion to the rights of women and indigenous populations resonated with him. His own experiences and cultural exposure had taught him that the most important figure in a child’s life was male; Ybarra showed him differently. Aguilar felt deep gratitude for the lessons she continued to teach him, ones he didn’t get in his early education. He turns to her for strength, both in fatherhood and in his studies.

Aguilar’s goal, like Ybarra’s, is to gain skills to enrich his native community on the reservation. He ultimately wants to launch a small engineering business, involving people from his reservation, and focus on making it sustainable by using natural energy sources and natively secured water and food so those who want to maintain the traditional indigenous lifestyle can. He also wants to help develop a pipeline to bring more people from his reservation back to school.

The couple realizes there will be compromises to make down the road: With both wanting to serve their home communities, they may have to split time in Nevada or in Lassen County, or they may dedicate years at a time to each place. Aguilar worked at the powwow on Ybarra’s reservation in Elko, and Ybarra interned for the district attorney’s office in Lassen County last year, and both were welcomed by the communities. Regardless of how they do it, Ybarra said, the payoff will be worth it.

“Either place is home to us. …The work will get done, and that’s our end goal,” she said. “We are choosing to do the work, and all it requires, to build our communities from the inside out and start new cycles of growth within our families.”

Ybarra and Aguilar are convinced that education is the key to transforming lives, as it has done ever since he convinced his now-wife to stay in school when life circumstances might have pulled her off-course. He wants to continue lifting those around him up, with Ybarra at his side.

“For me, I know my success will happen. My kids are the true future. They’re growing up in a traditional lifestyle from the beginning, but they’re also getting an education,” he said. “It’s important to incorporate the whole lifestyle. I believe we don’t have enough respect for the environment or for women—they both give life to us, and that’s important in our culture. Our kids, I hope, will have an appreciation of that and a voice to share it.”

For the moment, Aguilar and Ybarra are doing their best to stay focused and on track amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. Ybarra said the adjustment hasn’t been too jarring, given the close familial bonds her family has. But in other ways—her grandmother’s age increases her risk for COVID susceptibility—she said they feel increased pressure to take the threat seriously.

“In the indigenous community, at least in ours, our elders and our babies are the most important groups to us,” Ybarra said. “They’re our history and our future.”

While far from ideal, of course, schooling and working from home is at least providing an opportunity for the pair to spend more time together, teaching lessons to their children by chasing their own success—a precious opportunity indeed, given the childhoods both experienced.

“I hope they can see us and what we’re doing and let that be motivation for them,” Ybarra said, “but the truth is that they are our own motivation. They’ve been our guiding force to better ourselves. We both come from broken homes, single mothers, and we want to set an example of a strong family that stays together. When they look back on their childhood, they’ll know we fought harder because of them.”