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UW-La Crosse grad from Ellsworth ready to make difference

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on May 11, was written by Patrick B. Anderson, is reprinted with permission here and regards an Ellsworth resident who was a commencement speaker at UW-La Crosse this spring.

José Rubio-Zepeda will make a home outside of Wisconsin for the first time in 17 years next spring when he leaves for Texas.

He came to the Badger State a six-year-old immigrant from Honduras. He will depart having earned United States citizenship, a college degree and what he describes as a “duality” between his native country and adopted home.

Rubio-Zepeda found his voice as a student at UW-La Crosse, he says, and it’s a tool he plans to use after he flips the tassel on his mortar board.

“UW-L has been a place for me to come into my own,” Rubio-Zepeda said.

Rubio-Zepeda was one of 1,518 students who were honored at the La Crosse Center for UW-L’s spring commencement ceremony.

Rubio-Zepeda spoke at commencement before departing for a two-week visit to Honduras to visit family. He planned to pay attention to minorities, immigrants and “anybody who ever felt inferior,” he said.

It’s a familiar feeling for Rubio-Zepeda, who landed in Ellsworth after spending his early childhood near Honduras’ bustling capitol, Tegucigalpa.

Ellsworth has a population of 3,284, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, and 3,173 of its residents are white.

Rubio-Zepeda has an understanding of race not many people do, gained during his childhood and the things he experienced at UW-L, said Christine Hippert, UW-L associate professor in anthropology.

Hippert took Rubio-Zepeda and other UW-L students to the Dominican Republic in 2012 for a nine-day tour of the island. Rubio-Zepeda told her he felt a common bond with the people there, but he also felt more American.

“That’s how sensitive and amazing and excellent he is,” Hippert said. “These are the things he wants to understand.”

Rubio-Zepeda arrived in Ellsworth in February 1997 and saw snow for the first time after leaving Kruse’s Kitchen, a local diner.

“Stepping out and touching snow and picking up and being just extremely disappointed,” Rubio-Zepeda said.

He was shocked by the cold. But it was culture shock that would leave a lasting impact. Ellsworth held many opportunities for the boy who grew up in a city where clothes are washed by hand in a basin where joblessness breeds violence.

But the small Wisconsin town also planted seeds of what would eventually become what Rubio-Zepeda’s duality--an awareness of himself as both an immigrant and an American. He struggled to connect with other kids at school and church.

“I wasn’t really able to relate to them,” Rubio-Zepeda said.

The chain-link fence dividing California and Mexico runs along a dead zone, Rubio-Zepeda said. He visited the border in 2013 with UW-L’s student theatrical group Awareness through Performance.

To his right, there were university students and border patrol agents. To his left, Tijuana and poverty.

“That experience just really solidified my yearning to continue on to graduate studies,” Rubio-Zepeda said.

Rubio-Zepeda planned to attend graduate school at the University of Texas-Austin, earning dual masters degrees in Latin American studies and community and regional planning.

He wasn’t quite sure yet if he wanted to become a university educator or work for a nonprofit or governmental agency.

He just knows he wants to make a difference.