Through compassion and commitment, Belén Carrasco and Regino Cazares overcame hardship to find fulfillment in their professional and personal lives. 

By Suzanne Rust • Photography Coral von Zumwalt

Princess Fiona, family dog; Regino Cazares, 42, fifth-grade teacher; Belén Carrasco, 43, fifth-grade teacher; Citlalmina, 1; Yolyamanitzin, 10; and Belén, 16. Not pictured: Ylaria, forever 5, and Regino’s daughter Azlin, 19.

Making a difference. That’s what drew Belén Carrasco and Regino Cazares to teaching, but their paths to the profession were a winding road. “At first I didn’t think I wanted to be a teacher. In college I double majored in Chicana/o studies and English literature. Then I worked for the United Farm Workers for four years. I moved to Bakersfield, not knowing a soul, and inquired about substitute teaching,” says Belén. Her first long-term subbing job was difficult and frustrating. She vented to someone she thought was a classroom assistant—who turned out to be the principal. But instead of firing her, Belén’s boss complimented the young teacher on her feistiness and drive. “She explained that I’d been the seventh sub these students had seen and told me it wasn’t likely they’d meet another teacher like me. I made it my mission to inspire students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, many of whom were English-language learners and children of migrant workers. I wanted to explore everything I could about teaching and try to change these children’s lives—it became my passion.” She currently teaches multiple subjects to a diverse group of fifth-graders that includes Mexican, Mexican American, South American, white, African American and Yemeni students.

Belén’s enthusiasm rubbed off on Regino, who was a full-time student and warehouse deliveryman. “She’d come home with amazing stories, but she’d also tell me about the students who didn’t have a male figure in their lives. That hit home because I didn’t have a father growing up,” shares Regino. “I began to feel like I could make a difference for many of these kids, so I decided to get my teaching credentials.” Regino teaches math, English language arts, science, art and physical education, also to fifth-graders.

The couple has been together for 17 years. When they met, Regino was already a father to Azlin (now 19 and living with her mom). Watching him interact with his daughter was one of the things that drew Belén to him. “It was thrilling because he would play with her in ways I’d never seen a father play before. He could make any dinosaur or Barbie doll come alive and make his daughter feel special.”

“I love watching children learn the value of making mistakes, solve problems, become independent and discover themselves.” —Belén

They went on to have four daughters: Belén, Yolyamanitzin, Citlalmina and Ylaria, whom they refer to as forever 5 because that was her age when she lost her battle against cancer. “She was a precious gift and a strong message to live life to its fullest. Any time spent in sadness, anger, resentment or fear is time wasted and would not honor the lessons Ylaria taught us,” says Belén. “Whenever I start to feel down about something, I can actually sense her disapproval. I think our family is doing well because we feel the support of Ylaria as an angel on our shoulders.” Regino agrees but admits that there’s no way to stay strong all the time. “There are many moments when something like a deck of Uno cards or a song she liked can trigger a memory, and I have a breakdown.”

Their charity, Project Cheer, founded in Ylaria’s honor, helps them connect with others who understand. That kind of compassion makes Regino and Belén special, and the fact that they’re parents also makes them better teachers. “I think I’m more compassionate because my students become my kids. As parents, we get to hear our own kids’ daily triumphs and struggles,” Belén says. “Going into the classroom, we can relate to how the students must feel after a test or during a difficult lesson. We get it.”

She says that while life is full of hardships, compassion can see you through. Belén attributes this belief to the Chicano heritage she and her husband share. At the end of the day, the couple are most proud of the family they’ve created. “Gino and I both had difficult childhoods and were lost and broken when we met,” she says. “We endured the cruelest form of torture any parent could go through. Our marriage has had its ups and downs. But we stayed strong, did the hard work we needed to do, and built a truly remarkable family. We did it!”

With the school year starting, what’s the most important piece of advice you have for parents and students?

Parents, listen to your children, discipline with love, allow them to be themselves, and don’t always feel the need to rush in and save them—let them learn from their mistakes. Students, you have two important jobs right now—to get a good education for your future and to enjoy life by having fun. Nothing else is your responsibility! —Belén

My advice for parents is to stay involved with your children’s schooling as much as you can. I know it can get extremely busy with work, maybe your own schooling or just life itself, but never forget to ask your kids how their day went and what they learned. For students, my advice is to have fun learning, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help. —Gino

What is the most challenging part of being a teacher?

Learning that a child’s home life is traumatic. It could be hunger, loneliness, abuse, abandonment, depression, fear. We become mothers, fathers, social workers, doctors, lawyers and counselors. We exhaust every means possible to find solutions. You can’t get away from the sadness you feel when you know a child is hurting. —Belén

Which of your spouse’s qualities do you admire the most, and what still drives you crazy?

Gino is the most patient, kind and generous soul you’ll ever meet. I love his calmness, the way he interacts with children, the overwhelming love he has for his family. Most of all, I love how much our family does together because of him. When I was younger, one parent would grocery shop, the other would do other errands. Gino loves for us to do everything together. Grocery shopping, movies, trips to the bookstore, doc appointments, even quick runs to the bank—he makes them all feel like a family adventure. What still drives me crazy? He doesn’t put things away! —Belén

What stands out as being admirable and driving me crazy is her devotion to justice and equality for the underprivileged. Whether it’s a child who needs food or clothing, a farmworker who is treated unfairly or bystanders not intervening when something terribly wrong is happening, she wants people to know that things like this should not happen and that people should do something about it. It’s on her mind 24/7. —Gino

What's your favorite thing about each of your children?

Belén is so driven. She inspires me. She challenges me. And she does it all with an enormous amount of love and compassion. Ylaria was super funny and always used “serious moments” to get everyone busting up in laughter. Yoly is a great friend. She genuinely cares about people and doesn’t want anyone to feel lonely. Citlalmina is unafraid and has a noticeable determination about her. Azlin has always been super curious and interested in the future. —Belén

My 19-year old, Azlin, is headstrong and curious. It’s hard to change her mind, which can be a good thing sometimes. For my 16-year old, Belén, it’s her determination and diligence. Named after her mom, she’s maintained above a 4.3 GPA in her honors, college prep and AP classes these first two years of high school. And she’s a great athlete: She plays basketball and softball and swims. My angel Ylaria was adventurous and courageous. She always had a smile. My 10-year old, Yoly, is kind and a real comedian. She has so much compassion for others, especially if she sees people hurting. She comes up with hilarious remarks out of nowhere. And there’s my 1-year old, Citlalmina. She’s bossy or, I should say, a great leader, and she knows what she wants. —Gino

Tell us more about Project Cheer.

Our daughter Ylaria had to spend long hours in hospitals and clinics, often in bed or sitting in a chair. She loved keeping busy with arts and crafts, coloring books, writing in journals, painting her nails and other things she could do sitting down. There’s no pediatric hospital in Bakersfield, so children have to travel two hours or more for treatment. When they’re home, there are a few clinics and emergency rooms that can provide blood transfusions and some minor treatments in between trips to the hospital. Project Cheer brings joy to local children battling cancer and their siblings by providing a toy or an activity while they visit these centers. We wanted to make sure that children suffering the unimaginable and their siblings got a little dose of cheer while they waited, just like Ylaria and her sisters used to. Ylaria’s sisters were her best medicine, and she never wanted to do an activity unless her sisters were having fun too. This is why it’s so important for us to include all the family members in this effort. —Belén

What is your greatest wish for your kids?

That they attain happiness through transcendence. I truly believe I am deeply satisfied in life because I try very hard to have compassion for all people, and I understand that the purpose of life is to serve others and that that is the way to achieve happiness. Life will have hardships, but compassion will see you through. I attribute these beliefs to my indigenous ancestry, and I wish for my daughters to attain this same peace in their lives. —Belén

My greatest wish is that they have a wonderful, beautiful family like we do. I also wish for them to be inspired by their sister Ylaria and help make a difference in the world. —Gino