Excelling at education as a good example and a way to repay parents
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
“Emmanuel” (not his real name) was recently granted permanent resident status, but his parents are still waiting. He graduated from high school with honors and earned a scholarship to a private college, where he has excelled. The New York Times estimates that there are 800,000 young Latinos, like Emmanuel, in this country who would like to step out of the shadows and serve the only country they have ever really known.
Emmanuel: I came to the United States, about 10 years ago, from Mexico, when I was 11. We moved to the United States for a better life and more opportunities for my parents to find jobs, and for my sisters and I to have a better education. I was raised in a small town near Mexico City. My dad had a small bakery, and my mom stayed at home with us.
We flew to San Francisco with my uncle and my aunt who lived there. They loaned us a car, and we then drove all the way from San Francisco to western Colorado. We left really early in the morning, and I went to sleep in the car. When I woke up and looked out the window, everything was just white. I was so excited. I had never seen snow before. My dad pulled over, and we all got out and played in the snow.
Gallacher: Did you know you were going to stay?
Emmanuel: I was really too young to understand what was going on. I was just excited to be in a new country. I didn’t have any idea that we would stay here for 10 years.
We came here with two suitcases for all five of us and, within months, we had a house, furniture, everything. We came during the time when tourism and construction was booming, so my dad and mom were able to find jobs right away. My dad did construction, and my mom worked in a hotel.
Gallacher: What was your first experience at school like?
Emmanuel: It was really nerve wracking. I was really scared because I didn’t know the language at all. I remember the first day I went into the middle school. We went into the office and, with the help of a teacher who spoke Spanish, my parents told the principal that I wanted to be in school. So the principal sent my parents to get me vaccinated, and I came back that same day and started.
It was April so sixth grade was almost over. That summer my uncle had a friend who taught me English so, by the time I came back in the fall, I was able to read the textbooks and understand a little bit. I stayed after school every night for about two hours and my ESL teacher would sit with me and help me figure out my homework. He taught me a lot. I don’t know what I would have done without him, because my parents couldn’t help me, and there were some nights when I just sat and stared at a book that I couldn’t understand at all.
Gallacher: There must have been days when you felt strange.
Emmanuel: Yeah, there were days when I couldn’t wait to get home to a space where I felt comfortable, with my family. I remember one day, when I was in seventh grade, there was an after-school event and parents were invited. My parents were working so they couldn’t come. The event was over at 6:30 and I waited outside for them until 8 o’clock.
I didn’t know English and didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have cell phones then. I was thinking that my parents had gotten lost somewhere and couldn’t find the school.
Gallacher: Those first years must have been a difficult time for your whole family.
Emmanuel: I think it was hardest for my mom. My dad had visited before, but it was the first time for her. She left everything behind – relatives, a whole life out the window.
My parents were always working. They wouldn’t get home until 6:30 or 7. We would see them for a couple of hours a day. They had to work weekends. We hung out with my dad on Saturdays, but my mom worked Saturdays and Sundays. We always went to church as a family in Mexico, but that tradition was replaced by work. Our custom of “family Sundays” wasn’t there anymore.
Gallacher: How did your family hold it together? You’re talking about the dissolution of traditions, which can be a dangerous thing.
Emmanuel: I think we all understood that we were adapting to a new life and that everything was going to be completely different now. We understood that my parents were here to work and we were here to study. It was a really straight up life: we go to school, parents work.
I was the oldest so I realized that I had to pave the trail for my sisters. I knew that whatever I was going to do with my life my sisters were going to follow. I thought that if I dropped out they would drop out. I felt that there were a lot of responsibilities on me, but I think knowing that helped me push on through the hard times and do it for my sisters, as well as my parents.
Gallacher: Do you remember a particularly hard time.
Emmanuel: I remember, during that first year, getting angry with my mom and telling her she was working too much. I was young, and I was thinking that she wasn’t taking care of her family. She let me vent and didn’t say much back. She just kept telling me that she had to work hard. It wasn’t until I was a junior in high school that I really understood why she had to work so hard for us.
Gallacher: What was your role in helping the family adapt to this new life?
Emmanuel: It was mainly as translator. I remember going to the pharmacy and asking for the family’s prescriptions. If my parents had a question about a bill, I would call the company and get the information. I was doing this when I was 12 years old, so it really helped me learn a lot because I was doing things that adults do.
I really tried to keep my parents involved in what I was doing in school and teach them about the culture here. I tried to help them understand what was going on. In high school, I was always involved in sports and community things, so I was able to take the things that I learned back to my house and teach my parents.
We came from a completely different culture. The way of life as immigrants in the U.S. is completely different than life in Mexico. Immigrants come here knowing that they have to work a lot. They don’t look back, and they don’t look around. They miss out on a lot of things that are going on in the outside world because they are so focused on working.
Gallacher: You have been an exceptional student throughout high school and college. What was your motivation?
Emmanuel: It was definitely my family. My family was there for me and helped me get through the rough times. Even in college, taking hard tests, I would be studying for days and days and days, and I would be thinking, “I have to do this for my family and no one else”. They depend on what I do, from now on. I can’t just give up and go out and find a job that doesn’t pay well, because I need to find a way to help my parents.
My parents came here to give us a better life, and I feel the need to repay them somehow, repay them for their sacrifice – leaving a whole life behind. I need to give back to them as they grow older and are less able to work. I need to do something with my life because my sisters are looking up to me. Every step I take is for my family.
Immigrant Stories run Mondays in the Post Independent. To read other Immigrant Stories go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
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