The Making and Breaking of Isaac Peña

As the children stream into Twin Peaks Charter Academy in Longmont, Colo., fresh from being dropped off by their parents in a never-ending cavalcade of cars that stretches from the parking lot back to the main street, most of them know exactly what their day has in store.

There will be the usual trials and tribulations that all middle school kids across the U.S. face, hallway and cafeteria hierarchical dogfights, and the ever-present specter of Señor Peña.

Isaac Peña is one of the Twin Peaks’ Spanish language teachers and his effect on the kids is instantly apparent when he’s running the show. Draped over his university style lectern at the front of the room, like the Mexican flag proudly displayed behind him, Isaac treats the 11 to 13-year-olds in the room like they are his own. This means instilling into them Isaac’s own personal set of values.

These are values such as honesty, integrity, and respect. As the children course around the pastel walled corridors, moving along the brightly colored, cubist inspired floor tiling; Señor Peña’s words are constantly ringing in their ears, “Actions always have consequences,” and, “Make good choices.” The latter mantra is repeated so often in the classroom that the students finish the sentence for him.

“He wants to make a difference in kids lives,” says Sandie Sandman, Twin Peaks’ computer teacher for 1st through 6th grade. “He wants them to be well mannered and polite, when his class is in the computer lab and I walk in the room, they all immediately stand up.”

But it’s not all old school manners all the time, “Etiquette and manners is a big push for him, having integrity, but he’s a person who also wants to have fun as well,” says Sandie. “He’s a clown,” adds Sandie with a wry smile.

Isaac Peña appears at first glance to be a composite of everything America has to offer. Peña’s rags to fine threads story reads like a fairy tale; migrant worker family from Mexico strikes out across the border, scholastic isolation and sporting acceptance, political ambitions thwarted and then achieved, marital joy and strife, naked Capitalism, and the faintest wisps of celebrity thrown in for good measure.

Isaac’s life story is so utterly stunning that it defies belief. Unfortunately, Isaac Peña would have done well to remember his two favorite mantras.

Mind-boggling narratives aside, how do others deal with such a colorful personality?

Olivia Christopher, who works much more closely with Isaac, agrees wholeheartedly with Sandie’s appraisal of Isaac. However, Olivia does disagree with Isaac about some things.

“Isaac was concerned my daughter would grow up without moral character because I’m raising her without any religion,” says Olivia, “that conversation ended badly and we haven’t talked about it since.”

As the sun dipped behind the front range of the Rockies, casting a huge shadow on the face of the twin peaks for which the school is named, it was finally time to see Isaac in action, away from the restrictions of the school workplace. Isaac Peña lives in a converted loft space in downtown Longmont with his two sons, Adam, 12, and Noah, who is 10. When we arrive at his house, Isaac immediately settles into a much more relaxed routine. Homemade Mexican food is simmering on the stove top, beers are flowing from growlers, and Isaac is in a garrulous mood.

“I’m the youngest of seven kids and all of my siblings were born in Mexico,” says Isaac. “When my brother Adam was three, he passed away. My father then decided to move to the states and I was born in southwest Kansas.”

Isaac’s father had been a laborer with the “migrant worker” program during the 50’s and 60’s before his move to the U.S. But the Peña family’s assimilation into American culture was slow going. “We all didn’t speak English when we went to school,” says Isaac, “we grew up on a farm out in the country so we didn’t have a lot of contact with anyone outside of school.”

School itself presented the Peña kids, in particular Isaac, with plenty of difficulties. “Because I’d had no contact with English speakers, we all got stuck in special-ed classes,” Isaac explains, “people around me were my family and profoundly retarded people.” Getting out of these classes became Isaac’s main priority.

This was the early 1980s in Kansas, and in 1984 Isaac says he, “became cognizant of my race, and where I stood in relation to the rest of society.” Isaac wasn’t the only person cognizant of his race, “I remember a principal and some teachers calling me a wetback.”

A couple of friends and Isaac’s mother kept his spirits up. His mother told him, “Look, you are blessed to be born this side of an imaginary line, and you’ve been given a lot of opportunities.” The young Isaac didn’t squander the chance. Through all of his schooling Isaac continued to work in the fields with his family, and to keep his eye on the prize.

Sporting plaudits came along with academic awards, and Isaac had found an outlet that allowed acceptance from his peers, “Everybody starts to like you when you win.”

As the food started to arrive at the dining room table, Isaac continued to describe the trajectory that his life had taken from his family’s humble beginnings.

A sporting injury finished Isaac’s plan of athletic greatness, and so he threw himself into his academic study with even more fervor. College loomed on the horizon, but still Isaac was out working in the fields. The work was backbreaking; it involved making sure the water flowed around the irrigation channels on massive fields. Before the advent of the giant irrigation machines that ponderously circle crops nowadays, getting the water flowing into the right place involved placing a pipe into one irrigation channel and forcing it, by means of gravity, to start running into the next channel. The reward for this daily grind? Experiencing the kind of discrimination that made him ashamed to be the only true American in his family. “You need to get off our property or I’m going to call immigration”, was how one landowner responded to the Peña family request for wages due.

The threat of deportation was a big problem, “One of the most vivid memories I have is us hiding from immigration in a drainage ditch under a building. We would wait and pray. Once we were under there for 48 hours.”

These intensely religious experiences have obviously affected Isaac. The bookshelf in his loft is full of the writings of Gandhi, Tutu, King, Mother Theresa, and rather incongruously, Glenn Beck. A massive wooden cross dominates the landscape of the wall. The sense of faith, lofty Utopian ideals, and concept of family is almost palpable in the room. Into this troika of ambient reassurance arrived the burritos.

After the meal was done, Isaac suggested that we take our beers down the giant wooden staircase inside the center of his building and ensconce ourselves in front of the fireplace, away from the ears of his two young sons.

“As soon as I went to university in 1998, after finishing my associates in 1997, I was done,” says Isaac. “I met the boys mom, she got pregnant, I put her through college, through nursing school, paid everything. But basically I’d married an alcoholic.”

The struggles continued and Isaac began working as a parent educator, “with babies birth to three, giving parents anticipatory guidance of what to expect, and what they could do to foster development.” Isaac feels this work, “taught me how to be a better parent.” Peña describes it as, “helping people that didn’t have parents to teach them how to be parents.” This work was also his first insight into, and the start of his taste for, “Public policy, trying to change a generation of people.”

By 2001 Isaac was, “pretty much done with the wife, sick of her antics and the back talk.” Growing up in a Hispanic household, “We don’t hear the backtalk,” says Isaac, “I’m sitting here providing for you, and you’re pissing on me.”

This marital discord finally resulted in catching, “the boys mom with another dude.” In this terrible moment for any marriage, Isaac is still proud of the restraint that he showed that day, “Don’t get me wrong, I punished the guy physically, I spit on him,” says Isaac, “I looked at her, I said thank you, I’ll be taking the boys and I won’t be seeing your ass for a very long time.”

After some time for reflection and anger venting, Isaac returned to the home of the man who had been cuckolding him, “I want to apologize to you,” Isaac said to the man, “because I have no right to put you in that position, to physically hurt you, and to make you beg for God’s mercy.” Against this backdrop, Isaac wondered what he was going to do with his two young sons.

“What is the best way to help them succeed? I’m into politics right now, I’ve got to figure out a way to better their future.” Most important to Peña was not giving them, “some bullshit ass America that’s going to be hated by the rest of the world.”

This drive to be able shape public policy, and work on the resolutions to problems, lead Peña to seek official office. In 2002, Peña says he ran against Eber Phelps for a seat in the Kansas legislature for District 111, which encompasses the whole of Ellis County. When Representative Phelps was contacted to give his assessment of Peña, Phelps’ response was enlightening, “I think he may have talked about running but don’t recall any campaign effort. He was not on the ballot in 2000, 2002 or 2004.”

As we continued talking, Peña explained more of the rationale behind his thirst for political power, “I was in D.C. from the end of 2002 to 2005, when I was a Fellow for the Bush (George W.) administration.” The White House Fellows program is an annual, ultra-prestigious program for leadership offered to a handful of the most exceptional young people in the United States. After finishing their year with whichever class they are in, Fellows often move on to become some of the most influential people in American society.

“Basically I worked in the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Education,” says Peña. “We kept track of any new legislation that affected those three areas and on a monthly basis we’d report it to the Bush administration.”

“I’d literally go across the country to California, Arizona and Massachusetts to look at head-start programs to see if they were being run efficiently,” says Peña.

This kind of position is highly coveted, and it takes a special kind of political zeal to get into. Isaac’s girlfriend of almost 6 years, Jenn Wilson, says that, “I get worried about having to move, or be away from our family in order for him to accomplish his dreams of making an impact on politics.”

There is also the downside of Jenn not being, “strongly involved with, or opinionated about politics, so sometime his passion for it can be a little much for me.”

This passion for politics, and the need to be involved with it, may ultimately prove to be Isaac’s undoing. The work involved in becoming a White House Fellow may require a Herculean effort, but uncovering the data about previous recipients is a Sisyphean task all of its own. Thankfully, Rice University has kept a comprehensive list of all recipients since the inaugural class of 1965-66. Isaac Peña is not among them.

So what exactly is driving this overwhelming desire to affect change on policy? As the night dwindled down to embers, Peña sank some more beers and mused about his marijuana themed merchandize business, and his attempt to get onto American Idol.

Peña’s ‘420’ business, which he set up in the 1990s with a friend, specializes in t-shirts, watches and other drug themed items.

The original plan had been to, “Create a watch company, call it ‘420’ watches, and then sell fucking watches with ‘420’ on them,” says Peña. The company turned huge profits in its prime in 1999, “Just a little under $100,000 in cash,” grins Isaac.

Peña had let the business slacken off for a period but was now considering resurrecting it because, “I could have cheese out of the wazoo.”

But how did Isaac see his ‘420’ brand, with all of its connotations, gelling with his own personal religious ideologies? In deference to his devout Catholicism, Peña had changed the meaning of the ‘420’ brand. With a seriousness more readily associated with visiting foreign dignitaries, Isaac explained that, “Instead of the International time to smoke pot, it became the International time for peace.”

With a straight face Peña continued onto how ‘The International Time For Peace’ brand would jibe with his Republican political affiliation, “Good luck trying to argue with a Republican about making money,” said Peña.

The American Idol story is a little harder to pin down. Peña says that, “My thought process was about how I was going to get into office.” He saw American Idol as a possible route in.

“Do you realize how many people watch American Idol? Do you realize how big of a market that is? It’s huge,” says Isaac. Isaac went on the program and sang a Stevie Wonder song and a couple of Spanish songs by Juanez. Peña didn’t make it far in the initial stage, and as such his plan for political domination remains unfulfilled.

Jenn Wilson suspects there might have been a little more too it anyway, “I think he probably did have a logical thought of promoting his political career but I would venture to guess that he would probably enjoy those 15 minutes of fame too! Why not right?”

As the evening reached its conclusion we climbed back up the slatted wooden stairs to Isaac’s loft where his two sons were preparing to help tidy up.

“Sometimes it can be annoying,” says Adam, “Or interesting,” interjects Noah, as the brothers talk about what it’s like to live with a man as driven as Isaac.

“It’s definitely a fun life, he encourages me to play lots of sports, just like he did at school,” says Adam.

Both Adam and Noah are in agreement about the ultimate life lesson that they have drilled into them every single day from the Isaac Peña handbook. A lesson that should be immediately obvious from the tenacious way that Peña sells his story to outsiders.

“Never give up,” says Adam as Noah nods in agreement, “Never give up.”

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

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