Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 2011 Issue »

    Youth Voices: Alien in an Unknown World

    HER Fall 2011 SmI remember that ever since I was a child, I knew the difference between a home and a house. These two words have a different meaning to me. A home is where a person grows and where the best memories belong. I left my home when I was seven years old. I left everything I knew. I would not see my cousins, aunts, uncles, and everyone else I knew. I left my home with only one foolish motivation—knowing that my dad would buy me video games! After two years, my mom, my brother, and I followed my dad to the other side.

    I have a very vivid image of the day we left the place I loved so much. Before getting on the bus, my Tia Lupe, my favorite aunt, hugged me hard while she wept. My mother and my tia locked eyes and hugged. I was so little that I did not understand the value the hug held. When I waved my hand to say good-bye, I saw my tia running after the bus, yelling at my mother not to leave her. I still get a knot in my throat from remembering it.

    We took the bus to Agua Prieta, a city next to the border. We stayed in some noisy apartments where people stayed the day before their attempt to cross the border. The next day I remember seeing the beautiful desert. I thought we would walk to another bus that would take us to the U.S. to see my father. I was wrong. We walked for an entire night, only to get caught by la migra the next day. It wasn’t until the sixth attempt in the second month that we made it. Our bodies had cuts and bruises from the brutal walks. On one occasion, I was so tired I was walking while I rested my eyes. My mom noticed, and she prayed to la Virgen de Guadalupe to protect me. She wanted to bear all my suffering. It was as if I was walking on clouds, but my mom ended up falling on a barrel cactus.

    It was not until I was in the U.S. that I realized how much I missed and loved my family in Mexico. I left my family to reunite with my dad. But I saw my dad as a stranger. I had not seen him in two long years. I worried he would pull over and drop me on the sidewalk. I mistrusted him and thought he did not care enough about me. Because I feared getting abandoned on the street, I counted how many streets we passed. I counted the number of streets we passed so I could walk the same number back. That was a useless strategy when we got on the freeway or made turns.

    My feelings for my father were a source of conflict for me. I saw him as a stranger, but I had missed him. I had gone two years without seeing him, crying while holding his pictures and singing songs. My situation was not as harsh as others’. In my class in Mexico there was a girl who started crying at her desk. I remember she had dark hair and was around six. She held her face in her hands and, crying, told the class that she hadn’t seen her father for five years. There was a dead silence in the classroom. I never mentioned it to anyone, but I cried inside too. Her pain was the same as mine.

    The first semester in third grade was torture. I arrived at my school, Cesar E. Chavez Elementary, feeling like a stranger. I knew nothing about what this place was like. I came from a school with chalkboards and no air conditioning. This new school had white boards, and the desks were very nice compared to the ones at my old schools. But something was missing. Other kids bullied me, knowing I could not tell the teacher. After other students told the teacher something and pointed at me, I felt low and stupid when the teacher tried to talk to me. I went home many days crying to my mom. I told her I wanted to go back to my home. She looked at me with sad eyes, and I knew that it would not happen. I only made one friend that year, and sometimes I felt like even he betrayed me. I felt that there wasn’t any loyalty between kids, at least not the way it was in Mexico. I missed that and thought it didn’t exist in America.

    One day, after the first couple months, I found my mom waiting for me after school with a smile on her face. She had bought Ingles Sin Barreras, an English-language DVD course. I remember being so happy when my parents bought the course. I craved reading even though I knew little English. I was the only student the librarian trusted with more than three books at a time. I would sit alone on the bench to read books.

    At the time, I remember struggling with the homework at my new school. The homework was in English, and I had no idea how to do it. I knew no English, and neither did my Tia Silvia, who came from Mexico to visit us. She sat next to me and together we finished my homework to the best of our efforts. The next morning when we went over the homework in class, I got all of questions wrong. I had the biggest laugh in weeks when I told my tia. We had spent hours only to get them all wrong.

    When I was in fourth grade, my dad and I went to meet my teacher, Mr. Goodman, before the school year started. When I saw him, I thought to myself, This white guy is tall and looks very mean. It was partly true, because he was strict. But Mr. Goodman supported me during the years when all I wanted to do was return to my country. He was the teacher who did not allow me to drop my effort, and he pushed me to improve my skills more than any other teacher. I was always on my best behavior with him and improved my writing and reading skills. I knew very little vocabulary, and I asked what every word meant. Once, I raised my hand to ask what “snow” was, and my classmates laughed. Mr. Goodman saw I was serious, and he answered my question. He showed me true support that helped me stay in school.

    My life changed when I moved to America, but my character changed when I started middle school. I had been constantly insulted by my classmates, and at the time I wanted to get revenge. I had been ostracized since I arrived in America. When I stood in line, I would get pushed to the ground. I never fought back. I was afraid I would not be able to say what happened and end up getting in trouble. I was sick of living that way, and I started looking for the wrong type of friends. I lived in a neighborhood filled with many bad influences. The kids I befriended encouraged me to get in fights. I remember punching a kid who had recently come from Mexico. He was struggling as much as I once had and without anyone to help him. That was the worst thing I had ever done—I punched him in the stomach and knocked the wind out of him. The kids around me laughed, but I didn’t. I understood what I had done, and that horrible image of his face wet with tears is still in my head.

    Only my Hispanic math teacher, Mr. Rodríguez, noticed my behavior. He said he never expected that of me and that he thought I was better educated than that. What made me feel the worst was when he said that most Hispanics turn their backs on their own people, and I was one of them. I was disappointing all the people I loved and respected. Most importantly, I was forgetting where I had come from and the people who needed as much help as I once did. Mr. Rodríguez’s words pained me because I understood them better than he knew. Yet, in spite of his words, I did not want to stop hanging out with these friends.

    My mom has always said that I have to be the best I can be and that she will not accept any excuses. Educationally, no one has challenged me more than my mother. We used to sit down to talk about what was going on in my life. That was before coming to America. One afternoon, I arrived home with a suspension note. She went to her room and closed the door. I knew she was crying. I knocked on the door and pleaded for her to open it. She did, and we walked outside and stayed there talking until midnight. Both of us cried the whole time. She said she did not spend as much time with me because she had to work a lot more in the United States. She said she loved me and all her work was for my brothers and me.

    Mr. Rodríguez and my mother helped me in the darkest times. I changed for my mother, because what I was doing was like slapping her in the face. I was being disrespectful of all her hard work. Mr. Rodríguez became one of my favorite teachers, and I was probably his favorite student. We talked about all the opportunities that were available here in the United States and the differences between Mexico and America. These experiences made me more mature. I began to be more aware of my choices and thought about the consequences. I knew which friends I should surround myself with. I became aware that I no longer wanted to return to Mexico. I had found new hope and, most importantly, a new home.

    I never believed that actions could speak louder than words. My mom had educated me through her words and patience. On the other hand, my father barely spoke to me about school and what was going on in my life. He came from work tired and wanted to rest. In Mexico, my dad was a businessman; when he came to the United States, he worked in a restaurant. When the recession started, he was forced to take jobs that he would never have thought about taking in Mexico. This is when I started admiring my dad more than ever. He never complained about jobs he worked. He came back from work with his back burned and large cuts in his arms. He took any job—from construction worker to cleaning houses. When he started construction, he would hit his fingers with a hammer. I admire the fact that my dad keeps moving forward and gives us hope even when he has backbreaking jobs.

    I feel the pain of the humiliations my parents have suffered through. They loathed their bosses, but they kept their mouths closed because they needed to put food on the table. One of my mom’s bosses took money out of her paycheck when she made a mistake in an order. My parents do not want me to suffer and be humiliated as they have. They agreed to remain in the U.S. to allow my siblings and me to receive the finest education available. I have learned that my parents are willing to do anything to make their children’s lives better, and getting an education is the most important opportunity life offers.

    I have always hated, and will always hate, failing. Sometimes I think I cannot accomplish all of the things people expect from me. For example, my eighth-grade math teacher, Mr. Ives, saw me as a leader. I thought he was wrong, that I could not be a leader. Late in the year, though, I noticed my classmates sometimes worked if they saw me working or if I just told them to work. When I played basketball, I urged my teammates to play defense, and even if I wasn’t the captain, they would listen. Mr. Ives challenged me to understand myself and who I was. Mr. Ives was a new teacher, and he had trouble keeping control in the class. One day he held me after class and asked me for help. He asked how he could make the class put out more effort. This was unexpected. I do not think I helped him, but I know he helped me understand how some classmates looked up to me.

    I do not know God’s will for me on Earth, but I started to wonder about it in eighth grade. I wanted to be an engineer, either nuclear or mechanical, and had to start my journey there. My opportunities are limited by my immigration status, but I will pursue my goal no matter what the barriers are. I decided that year that I did not want to attend a school that would not challenge me. I wanted to remain with my friends and go to a public school with them, but I did not want to attend a high school where I would be at a risk of failing to reach my goals. I felt that if I was offered drugs, I would not be strong enough to resist them. It was the first time I feared failing and losing all I had gained in my life. I did not want the home I had built to fall apart.

    God supports me in ways that I do not understand. When I feel hopeless, and I go to Mass, all my worries go away. It is a powerful peace that flows in me. That is how I discovered where I should lead my life. The Savior will always be with me during the worst or best of times. I have prayed in hard times and found hope. I have always received help from other people when I needed, and I believe God makes that happen. I can depend on God to help me find the answers when I do not know how to go on. My mom read me a poem about a man who in easy times saw two pairs of footprints. During the harsh times he only saw one pair, and it was because God held him in his arms.

    My parents left Mexico, their family, and home to chase their dreams. For the second time in my life, I did the same—left a home I had found and loved in order to pursue my dreams. I knew the beginning of my journey would start at a new school, a Jesuit high school. None of my friends were coming to this school with me. The majority of students would be white and most likely racist, so I had to be prepared to defend myself. I did not care if I had to use words to defend myself, but I wanted the challenge only this school could give me. It felt like third grade all over again.

    At my new school I noticed immediately that I was going to be an average student again for a long time. The students here were as smart as or smarter than me. I felt like I did not belong there. I was accepted into a program to help me make the transition easier. In that class I made friends, but none were true friends like the ones I had found in middle school. I was patient and worked hard to get good grades. When I finished the first semester, I was surprised by how much my new community has given me. I found remarkable teachers who are always willing to help. They teach more than subjects; they teach me how to be a man for others. The staff is concerned about how the students do in and out of school. Students are open to growth, and I meet new people almost every day. I have committed myself to social justice. I donate what I have, even though my mom complains that we should be receiving the help. I do not know how long it will take, but I know I will find a new home at my school.

    My journey will not end at this school, and I will continue my experiences as an immigrant. I define an immigrant as a person who leaves the home he loves to pursue his dreams and happiness. That is who I am and who I am proud to be.

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    Fall 2011 Issue


    Immigration, Youth, and Education
    Editors’ Introduction
    Soojin S. Oh and North Cooc
    The Power of Context
    State-Level Policies and Politics and the Educational Performance of the Children of Immigrants in the United States
    Alexandra Filindra, David Blanding, and Cynthia Garcia Coll
    Growing Up in the Shadows
    The Developmental Implications of Unauthorized Status
    Carola Suárez-Orozco, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Robert T. Teranishi, and Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco
    “Because We Feel the Pressure and We Also Feel the Support”
    Examining the Educational Success of Undocumented Immigrant Latina/o Students
    Things I’ll Never Say
    Stories of Growing Up Undocumented in the United States
    Undocumented to Hyperdocumented
    A Jornada of Protection, Papers, and PhD Status
    Whose Deficit Is This Anyhow?
    Exploring Counter-Stories of Somali Bantu Refugees’ Experiences in “Doing School”
    Toward a Pedagogy of Acompañamiento
    Mexican Migrant Youth Writing from the Underside of Modernity
    Elementary Forms of Cosmopolitanism
    Blood, Birth, and Bodies in Immigrant New York City
    Maria Kromidas

    Book Notes

    Immigrants Raising Citizens
    Hirokazu Yoshikawa

    Balancing Acts
    Natasha K. Warikoo

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