As a sixth grader, there’s wasn’t much Johny Ek Aban ’19 could have done to help his parents save their new family house from foreclosure. It was 2007, on the cusp of a brutal recession for the entire country.
Now, Ek Aban is getting ready to graduate in May with an economics degree and job offer in hand. He plans to return home to the Bay Area to share his knowledge of financial literacy and education with families like his own.
Although he grew up in wealthy Marin County, Ek Aban’s childhood was not one steeped in luxuries. His parents came to the U.S. in the late 1990s and found low-wage jobs like washing dishes and cleaning houses, sharing an apartment with other new immigrants until they could afford their own apartment of their own.
His parents were teenagers when they first met in Mexico. “My dad loves to tell me the story of how he used to harvest corn and go sell them at Oxkutzcab open-air market. That’s how he bought his first pair of shoes when he was 10,” says Ek Aban who first heard this story when he himself was 10 years old. His father wanted to encourage Ek Aban to work hard at school – to consider his education as his main job as a child and be successful at it.
“At a similar age, my mom’s father decided to come to the United States and so grandmother had to go out to work the fields while my mom, who was the eldest, became the head of the household in Mexico – getting her younger siblings ready for school, preparing their meals and taking care of the household chores. She experienced bullying because they didn’t have a dad anymore – even though he’d send money, but he wasn’t there,” he says.
That’s why when Ek Aban was born in the same rural village in Yucatan, Mexico, his parents made a tough choice. In order to give their baby son a future without the privations they had faced growing up, they decided to emigrate to the U.S., leaving their baby behind until things improved for the young couple in a new country.
Ek Aban was raised by his aunt and grandmother for the first two years of his life until his mother, who couldn’t stand the separation any longer, sent for him.
Once he was reunited with his parents in the U.S., it was all systems go for a young Ek Aban. His parents were committed to his education.
His mother, Jazmin Aban Caamal, says that teachers used to tell her that her son was gifted and they should find ways to support his academic pursuits. “He always looked for programs or things to do to learn and keep busy, he even started learning the Mayan language,” says Aban Camaal. “We supported him by being there when he was presented with certificates or any award events, we always took him to school on the first day of classes, including at Pomona College. We always celebrated his talents and we made sure he knew we were very proud of him – that he would reach his goals because he had what was needed to succeed and he could always count on us.”
Any extra funds they brought in would go to his extracurricular activities, like swimming lessons in the fourth and fifth grades, and summer camp in middle school.
But life in the U.S. wasn’t easy, Ek Aban and his mother used to wait in lines at the local food bank for basic grocery staples while his father worked in restaurants, doing everything from washing dishes to cleaning tables.
Although Ek Aban didn’t feel embarrassment waiting in those lines as a child, he does remember what it felt like when he attended a summer camp mostly comprised of more affluent children. “Back then, I didn’t know how to pinpoint what it was,” he says, vividly recalling instances that left him uncomfortable: unwrapping a cold turkey sandwich from a paper napkin while his peers opened Thermos containers to eat steaming hot spaghetti and meatballs.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I could have that,’” he says.
His family was able to purchase their first home in 2005. But within a few years, at the height of the economic crisis, they lost the house. The stress and financial fallout, followed by his parent’s divorce, left Ek Aban feeling adrift in middle school. To this day, he wonders if he could have done more to help.
However, Ek Aban notes that his parents separated amicably and continued to prioritize his wellbeing and education. Every Saturday, the three of them met for breakfast at local diner Lundy’s for what they called a “family check-in.” They supported him as he applied for scholarships and gained a seat at a private high school in the ninth grade – along with the support of a college access program for underserved students called Next Generation Scholars (NGS).
In private school, Ek Aban remembers the food, specifically the gourmet meals, like quinoa pomegranate pilaf with poached salmon in lemon ginger caper sauce, that were often served for lunch – a big change from the sandwiches he was used to.
Thankfully, Ek Aban had NGS to help him navigate private school and the issues that came up. NGS touched on topics that were typically not addressed at his private school, including questions of food scarcity in poor communities. The lesson inspired him to start a community garden so that low-income families could grow fresh vegetables of their homeland, like his father used to harvest as a child.
“NGS taught us about food deserts and now that I’m an economics major, I totally understand what’s going on because my liberal arts education gave me those tools,” says Ek Aban.
At Pomona, he continues to be passionate about equity and access. This year, Ek Aban is the executive vice president of the Associated Students of Pomona College (ASPC) – his economics major helpful for the budgetary responsibilities the position requires. He’s also part of FLI Scholars (Pomona’s first-generation and low-income student group), having served in various roles for the group, including co-president his sophomore and junior years.
“At Pomona, you’re more than likely to find a mentor who can help you through a lot, there’s so much that happens here that could stress you out or make you upset so it’s always good that there’s a mentor who can help you academically, who can help you socially and say ‘It’ll be OK,’” he says. “It’s the type of community that is fostered here. People are always willing to explain something to you, they’re willing to coach you through.”
“My FLI mentors, Te’auna Patterson ’18 and Juan Jaramillo ’18, would cook food in the Blaisdell kitchen and let us know that there’s mac and cheese… those are little touching moments,” he says, “They’re grounding moments and they were critical for my continued attendance at Pomona.”
With one more semester to go at Pomona, Ek Aban plans to return to the Bay Area to join the global investment firm BlackRock in San Francisco. He also plans to pay it forward and give back to his community.
Although he’s not sure where he’ll live yet, he plans to spend quality time with his family. He has a new baby brother – his mother remarried – whom he wants to bond with, support and see through to college. His father is now the owner of two small shops fixing computers and smartphones.
“I hope they can finally feel like they did their parental duty, they did well by me, they did what they set out when they were teenagers,” says Ek Aban. “They worked hard to give me these opportunities despite language barriers… this is the moment when those sacrifices have finally paid off.”
Adds mom: “I feel incredibly proud of him. I’ve always told him that for the very little we were able to give to him, he has accomplished so much. I admire his dreams to improve, to be a good example for his cousins and little brother. I’m so happy he will soon graduate, and I will be there to celebrate another goal – another dream. I cannot contain all this happiness in my heart sometimes.”