LOS LUNASSurrounded by family, friends and supporters, 11 men were recognized for advancing their education at the Level II graduation ceremony and celebration at Central New Mexico Correctional Facility last month. 

Robert Cordova was one of nine inmates at CNMCF to receive his GED at the March 7 ceremony. When he leaves the facility, he has a job waiting for him, as well as a support network — in his words “a team” — who will help him keep moving forward. 

Robert Cordova received his GED at the Level II graduation ceremony and celebration at Central New Mexico Correctional Facility on March 7.

“I made bad decisions that caught up to me and now I’m facing the consequences,” Cordova says of his time in prison. “When I get out, I have a job lined up. I have everything I need.” 

Earning his GED puts Cordova on the path to working in the food industry with the ultimate goal of having his own restaurant and signature dish — a barbecue burger bowl.  

“All I can say is don’t give up; just keep going with it and keep going,” he said. 

During the ceremony, the men receiving their degrees heard from Angel Garcia, the social services manager for the city of Albuquerque’s community safety and violence intervention program since 2019. Garcia brings a unique perspective to his job and remarks at the graduation as a former gang member in Los Angeles who served more than a decade in prison. He was jumped into the gang at 11 and a gun was put in his hands at the age of 12. 

Before the ceremony, Garcia said the opportunity to get an education changed his life. 

“And these men deserve that too,” Garcia said. “They are on a great path now and should continue.” 

When Garcia was released from prison, his mother suggested he move to Albuquerque and stay with his uncle, who gave him a directive — if you’re going to live here, you’re going to college. 

Garcia enrolled at Central New Mexico College and earned a degree in the electrical trades with a concentration on solar panels. 

Now he sits in the same room as the mayor of Albuquerque and helps craft policies and programs to reintegrate inmates back into the community. 

“I have a passion for working with people struggling in college like I did. I wake up every day and love going to work,” he said. “I’m one of the ‘been theres and done thats.’ I’m like them under the suit so all the experiences connect us together. When you get out, just being accepted in certain spaces helps reduce the stigma. The best thing people can do for these men is show them kindness.” 

As Garcia delivered his keynote speech in Nikes and a pinstripe suit, he told the graduates there would be more tests for them once they were released. 

“Our past doesn’t have to define us. Find me, I’ll guide you,” Garcia said. “When you leave here look for me. I got you. Somebody did that for me. I’m here to do it for you.” 

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photos
Keynote speaker Angel Garcia, social services manager for the city of Albuquerque’s community safety and violence intervention program, speaks to graduates at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility during the Level II graduation and celebration.

Student speaker Jason Cervantes-Ponce told his fellow graduates, “today is the day we show our families and the system we can succeed.” 

Monique Vigil was one of many family members and friends who joined the graduates for the ceremony. She drove down from Santa Fe to support her brother-in-law as he received his GED. 

“He has a young daughter and it’s really important to him to be a good example to her,” Vigil said. 

Calling the facility’s education program and the ceremony “a great thing,” Robert Madrid, CNMCF program manager said the educational opportunities helps the inmates understand there’s more to life. 

“It gives them a second chance,” Madrid said. “I’m very proud of them.” 

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.