Cal Poly Alumnus to Discuss Journey From the Fields to Apple Inc. on March 12

Enrique Diaz speaks to younger students about STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers and the importance of going to college.
SAN LUIS OBISPO — A Cal Poly alumnus and former undocumented immigrant will discuss his journey from 6-year-old field worker to 46-year-old retired Apple engineer in a presentation at 11 a.m. Thursday, March 12 in the Advanced Technologies Laboratory (No. 7) on campus.

Enrique Diaz said he didn’t realize how he had beat the odds until he hit middle age.

“I didn’t piece it together until I was about 40, thinking, ‘How did I get here?’” Diaz said.

Now 48, the Gilroy resident will detail his journey from the Central Valley to Silicon Valley as part of the College of Engineering’s Diversity and Inclusion Speaker Series.

“Enrique’s story is inspiring for everyone,” said Eric Mehiel, associate dean for diversity and student success in the College of Engineering. “His achievements are especially encouraging for those who face significant obstacles and challenges due to factors beyond their control.”

Born in Mexico, 2-year-old Diaz came to the U.S. with his 17-year-old mother in 1972. His father followed a year later. When Diaz was 6, he began helping his parents in the fields, picking garlic.

“I don’t have bad memories of working in the field,” Diaz said. “I just wanted to help out.”

As the years passed, Diaz worked different agricultural jobs, including irrigation duties, hoeing and weeding cotton and tomatoes, picking grapes, thinning lettuce and driving a tractor.

“Kids in our area would work,” he said, noting that 90 percent of his classmates were from Mexico. “It wasn’t a unique story.”

When he was in the third grade, a teacher made a simple comment that would eventually have a profound impact on Diaz’s life: “‘You’re pretty good at math,’” he remembered her saying. “‘You should consider being an engineer.’”

Diaz didn’t really know what an engineer did, but the comment stuck with him. And when he was thinking about college, he remembered those words. While he’d never had a computer, Diaz knew they were becoming increasingly important. So, he decided to pursue computer science.

Cal Poly’s environment offered a stark contrast to his upbringing, but fellow students treated Diaz well, so the different backgrounds didn’t deter him.

“Naivete played a big part in my life,” he said, comparing himself to the happily naïve fictional character Forrest Gump. “It became a shield — a super power.”

While working as a resident assistant at his dorm, Diaz met his future wife, Emily, a fellow RA and the daughter of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. 

After three internships with Hewlett Packard, Diaz went straight to Apple Computer (later Apple Inc.) after graduation, while Emily became a high school English teacher. As a research and development scientist, he was involved in the original Bondi blue iMac, the “Cube,” iPads, MacBook Pros, and more. In the mid-90s, Apple was a place for rapid innovation — and, for employees, long hours.

“It was a lot of late nights and weekends,” said Diaz, who became a U.S. citizen at 41.

At 46, knowing that both his father and grandfather had died young, Diaz looked at his finances and decided to retire early.

“I got to a point where I was, like, ‘I think I have enough,’” he said.

Jesse Gift, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, met Diaz while producing a documentary on a former field worker-turned-pediatrician. Now Gift has plans for Diaz’s story.

“We believe these are stories that must be heard and that mostly have never been told,” said Gift, whose Epic Indy produces film and speaking events. “We’re in development on several film iterations of Enrique’s story, including an animated film, a documentary and a scripted dramatic film.”

Diaz’s story does offer a nice story arc. After all, the boy who once loaded buckets of garlic now lives comfortably in the Garlic Capital of the World.

“I used to loathe garlic,” he said. “Now I love it.”

Enrique Diaz, with his mother Dolores. Dolores brought her 2-year-old son to America in 1972.
Enrique Diaz, with his mother Dolores. Dolores brought her 2-year-old son to America in 1972.

In photo at the top, Enrique Diaz speaks to younger students about STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers and the importance of going to college.

Contact: Pat Pemberton
805-756-7402, 805-235-0555
ppembert@calpoly.edu

February 20, 2020

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