Graduate Celedonio Rodriquez: After being forced to live in the shadows, NAU helped him shine

Cele Rodriguez Running

Graduate student Celedonio Rodriquez grew up in Mexico, where each day, he and his siblings would dig through the nearby dump, collecting wood and other burnable items to heat the stove and warm bath water that night.

Wanting to reunite her family, Rodriquez’s mother decided it was time to join her husband, the children’s father, in northern California. She sold her chicken stall and began packing.

At the age of 12, carrying only a few bags of necessities, Rodriquez and his family embarked on a 39-hour bus ride from Mexico City to Tijuana, leaving behind their home, friends, extended family, cat and the only life any of them had ever known.

Rodriguez, who only spoke Spanish, enrolled as an English language learner in the U.S., and joined the school’s cross country team.

“Very shortly after joining the cross-country team, it became apparent to the coach I was not going to be his average runner,” he said.

Rodriquez went on to win the California State Cross Country Championship and was ranked No. 18 in the country. He was offered full-ride scholarships from multiple Division I universities, but because he was still living in the United States illegally, he was unable to accept any of the offers.

Then, at the age of 19, Rodriguez was granted a green card. He enrolled at and graduated from Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado.

In the summer of 2008, he signed with Adidas, and his professional running career brought him to Flagstaff. Though he retired from running in 2013 at the age of 31, he had grown to love this mountain town and knew he wanted to make it home.

Cele Rodriguez and wife Malia
Rodriguez and wife, Malia

He settled down—got a job teaching at Flagstaff High School, and started a family with his wife.

When things started to feel stagnant, he enrolled in graduate school at Northern Arizona University.

“I spent my days teaching Spanish until 3 p.m., then would speed over to NAU to attend classes until 7 p.m.,” Rodriguez said. “I remember this one instance where, in order to take my comprehensive exams at NAU, I had to find a substitute teacher to cover the classes I taught, but there was a mix-up with the sub. I used my kids’ scooter to speed down the pedway in between two of my exams to go back to Flagstaff High School to try to sort things out and crashed on the way. I recovered, made it to work, figured out the problem with the sub and rode back to NAU in time to take my second comprehensive exams, all with a dislocated shoulder.”

When it came time for Rodriguez to pick a capstone project, faculty member Robert Neustadt suggested the play he had written called “Border Voices” be translated into Spanish—a play that deals with immigration and humanitarian issues on the border.

“Unfortunately, I have firsthand knowledge of the crisis and death which happens while people attempt to cross the border into the United States. I understand the life struggles of the immigrants once they successfully cross, and I know what it’s like to be forced to live in the shadows.”

Rodriguez finished translating Neustadt’s 100-page play and will graduate on Dec. 13 with a degree in Spanish education. He plans to take what he has learned through his studies at NAU back to his high school students at FHS.