Merced County Times Newspaper
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From dropout to UCM grad, Barragan says he’s just begun

Election 2020

Angel Barragan
Angel Barragan

The most inspirational candidate story going into the March 3 Primary Election might just be the one about Angel Barragan’s life.

The 39-year-old Mercedian is the Dean of Students at Stone Ridge Christian School, a part-time pastor at Yosemite Church and a married father of three children. He’s running as a candidate for the District 2 seat on the Merced County Board of Supervisors. He faces first-term incumbent Supervisor Lee Lor, former Merced City Councilman Josh Pedrozo, and fellow political newcomer Ricky Aguilera.

District 2 represents most of the city of Merced north of Highway 99, the UC Merced campus and the “university community” region.

“I believe I have much to offer this county — a county I grew up in, and a county that I love with all my heart,” Barragan told the Times. “My story is one of overcoming circumstances. I believe my heart is centered on taking my story to people, and to believe in them, and believe that they can do great things. I believe as a supervisor, I can participate in making decisions that will really create greater opportunity for people who are looking to achieve upward mobility.”

Barragan was born in San Jose under difficult family circumstances and impoverished conditions. His mother, Mary, was a first-generation daughter of Mexican immigrants, and the youngest of 18 children. Barragan has never met his biological father.

When Barragan was only 3 years old, his mother escaped a “tough relationship.” Together, the single mother and son would spend days and weeks living any way they could — homeless and in the backseat of a car if need be. They first found refuge at a small, at-risk girls home that a family member was running in Union City. And then, when Barragan was 5, they moved to Ballico (9 miles northwest of Atwater) where a relative had found farm work and housing. They were always looking for shelter it seemed. They lived in a barn for awhile, and then later they moved to a garage in Delhi.

The candidate said he went to 12 different schools while growing up in the area. He also said he became aware in the 5th grade that he wasn’t “academically inclined,” but he was very good at being extremely daring, disruptive and getting into trouble.

“I received straight Ds in Delhi, and I was kicked out of Ballico Elementary,” Barrigan said. “In the sixth grade, I had a teacher who said I would be lucky to make it out of high school alive.”

One good thing that happened after Barrigan turned 10 was the man who married his mother and became his father. Roberto Enciso was a farmworker, but he was a kind person, and he looked after things. The new family eventually moved to the Planada area where Roberto and Mary became managers of the Bear Creek Apartments, a.k.a. “Camp 11.” These were low-income housing units designed for farmworkers in the area.

Barragan called the camp and Planada home through his senior year at Le Grand High School in 1999.

At that time, he was 19, anxious, and had a 1.3 GPA. So he decided education wasn’t in the cards for him, and he dropped out. The only thing he really loved in high school was his sweetheart Nelly who still had a year to go before graduation. After a short time, Barragan worked up the nerve to tell Nelly’s father his plans to marry his daughter. Nelly’s father looked squarely at Barragan and said he wasn’t going to do anything with his daughter until he got a job and proved he could make a living as a respectful husband.

Barragan thought about that, and then finally found a solution in Las Vegas where his uncle lived. He made a call and was offered a sofa to sleep on, and a possible job on the city’s famous gambling strip. In Vegas style, soon Barragan was living it up as a greeter outside Caesars Palace. All he had to do was walk around in Roman soldier gear, and a toga, and take pictures with tourists. Maybe shout out “Hail Caesar!” every now and again.

“I loved it,” Barragan said. “I still love Vegas. I don’t gamble, but I loved the entertainment, and the fantasy of it all. Vegas rocks.”

The future candidate was able to rent an apartment and he bought his future wife Nelly a one-way ticket to join him. She was on an airplane two weeks after she graduated.

Nelly landed a job at a toy store, and the newlyweds had fun in Vegas for about a year, but they both knew it wasn’t going to be a longterm endeavor. She missed her family, and the two ended up moving back to Planada.

They both worked odd jobs, and in 2002, they welcomed their newborn son Michael into the world. Around that same time, Angel Barragan found out about a Merced County job program through the Human Services Agency that provided training in carpentry. He signed up, completed the relatively short course, and ended up getting hired by the Wathen developer group that was building all the nice homes near St. Patrick’s Church in Merced at the time.

It was work, and that was good, but it was also very hard work, with heavy lifting under sometimes extreme temperature conditions. Barragan started thinking about his future again, and he formed this idea in his head that he should be working on bigger buildings.

One day when he was passing a construction site at the high school in Delhi, he stopped and asked the foreman about a job. The foreman gave him a good look over, and said sure, but he pointed out that Barragan had to be a member of the union. Barragan knew nothing about unions, and he started to walk away when the foreman asked: “If I were to help you get in the union, and you were to come work for me, do you promise to bust your butt and give me all you got?”

Barragan replied: “Absolutely.” So the foreman told him about how to sign up, but Barragan needed $60 for some initial union fees. And believe it or not, he didn’t have $60 to spare. But the foreman told him not to worry. He opened up his wallet, gave Barragan the money, and told him he could pay it back with his first check from the job.

Barragan said the opportunity was the first in a string of almost unexplainable things that have helped him move ahead in life. He said he started working on the school project without even knowing how much he was getting paid. He was on a roof when a coworker told him they were making $23 an hour — prevailing wage in the government contract work. As soon as he could, Barragan went inside a Porta Potty to be alone, and called his wife.

“Nelly, we are rich!” he exclaimed.

With more money coming into the family, indeed Nelly was able to pursue her dream of going to cosmetology school and become a nail technician. Barragan continued to find construction work though he had to commute. He was sent to San Francisco to work on the De Young Museum. Then he went to work on some apartments near Stanford University. Later there was a Highway 99 expansion project. And then the new county courthouse in Merced.

However, Barragan was most proud while working on the new Mercy Hospital project in north Merced. He said he was the carpenter that worked the longest time on that job — about three years starting when there was nothing but a hole in the ground. He said he worked like a dog, and sometimes some well-dressed engineers would stop by with a pen and pad and asked him to do specific work.

“That’s when my passion for education was born,” Barragan said.

From his vantage point atop the growing hospital, he said he could see all the students walking to the nearby Merced College. He told himself, “One day one of those youngsters is going to come over here with a pen and pad and start telling me what to do, and I’m going to be this old man carrying stuff around. … The idea started to drive me nuts.”

Barragan was inspired to go to Merced Adult School and earn his GED certificate. Likewise, he found guidance in spirituality, and he started studying ministry at Champions College in Modesto. Interestingly, his next construction job was on the UC Merced campus, working on the new building for the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts. This was around 2008, the year another child was born — a daughter named Samantha. Things were going great for the Barragan family.

“Then one day my work crew had a pour to do, and there was this 20 foot, 4×6 that I needed to pick up and move,” Barragan said. “It had rained the day before, and I didn’t realize the wood had absorbed a lot of water. When I went to pick it up, I pulled something in my lower back. I literally felt it stretch. The pain was severer. I couldn’t even walk right. I went to the urgent care place on Yosemite Avenue, and I will never forget the words of the doctor. He said, “You messed up your back — your lower lumbar vertebrae — and you will never go back to construction again. … I couldn’t believe it. At the time I was making $80,000 a year. I remember asking him: ‘What am I going to do now?’ And the doctor said (and these were his exact words): You know that college down the street. You need to go sign up.’ … It was like God himself was talking to me. It just blew my mind.”

Barragan was put on workers compensation, and he started taking classes at Merced College. The year was 2009, and he was finding it hard to believe the concept that he was in college. But he passed his first semester with straight Cs. He was 29 years old and it was one of the proudest moments of his life.

“I went again and again, and slowly I got a B, and then an A, and I kept working my way up and taking more classes,” he said.

Barragan was on his way to graduating from Merced College with an AA in communications and social and behavioral sciences, but he still didn’t know what he wanted to do next. His counselor, Enrique Renteria, suggested he apply to UC Merced.

In addition to his application, it turns out that UC Merced officials had heard about Barragan’s story and how he had worked on the campus construction site.

“I was over by Rollerland and I was afraid to open the letter,” Barragan said. “I did not want to get rejected. Then I looked inside, and it said I was accepted, and they were offering a full-ride scholarship to pay for all the tuition.”

Barragan became a sociology major, mostly taking night classes. When his workers’ comp ended, he took a job selling TVs at Best Buy. Then he found work at Wilson Middle School in Chowchilla as a “behavior management director,” or basically supervising detention classes. The Barragans were also attending Yosemite Church in Merced, and when church officials found out about Angel Barragan’s schooling in the ministry, they offered him a part-time position as a pastor for Yosemite Church Latino. That eventually turned into a full-time position. Meanwhile, Barragan graduated from UC Merced in 2015.

He said he then struggled with the idea of becoming a full-time pastor. He loved the ministry, but he knew in his heart there was another career out there waiting for him. Several months passed, and sure enough, Stoneridge Christian School offered him an administrative position as Dean of Students. They said they liked Barragan’s communication and people skills. In his job, Barragan works with both students and teachers, promoting good attendance and ensuring school safety.

In recent years, Barragan has also volunteered in community endeavors and nonprofit groups. He has been a coach for Merced Youth Baseball, and participated in Love Merced. He said he has got to know local politicians, including Merced Mayor Mike Murphy, who has been an inspiration.

“I started to realize a lot of people want to help this county, but they don’t know how,” he said. “I believe I can bring to the table, through inspiration and example, the idea that there is so much more that can be done to improve Merced County. I decided I wanted to position myself in a place where I can give the greatest impact.”

That place, Barragan said, is the Merced County Board of Supervisors.

“I believe now is my time,” he said of becoming a candidate. “I’m prepared, and life circumstances have brought me to this point.”

The candidate says he has a plan for homelessness, and it’s going to start with him being an advocate for mental health in the region. He wants to strengthen the bridges between nonprofits and county agencies. And he wants to focus on more educational and training opportunities for young adults — including making sure local students feel and understand that UC Merced is just down the street, and not on another planet.

Barragan says he will have a multifaceted approach to economic development, and he would like to see more programs for first-time home buyers. He said he was still renting himself, and it’s going to be a dream come true when his family finally buys a home. “A lot of people are in the same situation,” he said.

The candidate is also calling for: structural improvements to the roads and highways, a greater first responder presence, and more competitive wages in the local workforce. Vote for Barragan, his platform states, if you want to stop losing faith in government, seeing the same old story repeated, being unheard and seeing the gap widen between you and your representative.

Today, Angel and Nelly Barragan have been married 20 years, and they have three children: Michael, 17, a senior at El Capitan High School; Samantha, 11, a sixth-grader at Stone Ridge Christian; and Aurora, age 2.

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