My grandparents, uncles, aunts and parents came to the United States in the 80s so they could escape the civil war and poverty in El Salvador. They had worked in the fields and still barely made ends meet and wanted to be able to provide a better education and life for their kids.
They settled in Los Angeles because most of their family was here. A few years later, I was born. Since school was free here, unlike in El Salvador where my mom dropped out because her family didn’t have enough money for both food and school supplies, they believed that the most important ingredient for success was for me to be motivated.
Even at the age of 5 my dad pushed me, which meant pressuring a 5-year-old to learn the alphabet perfectly. He always sat at the table helping me with my homework—mainly math because he didn’t need to know English to help me.
Around fourth grade I learned why my dad cared so much about my education. One day as he watched me finish an assignment, he said he wished he could have done homework like I was doing. Instead, he and his brothers had to work in my grandpa’s sugarcane fields once they were old enough to handle a machete. So around age 9 he dropped out of school to help support his family.
I felt sorry for him that he wasn’t able to go to school. I was young, but I realized that it was important not to let him down. Whenever he told me his stories about growing up and not having the chance to go to school, I’d tell him that when I became a doctor or lawyer (his dream jobs) that I would buy him a car and a mansion.
My dad bragged about my grades to his friends. His excitement was so contagious that whenever we went to the 99¢ Only store I would immediately ask him to buy paper, markers and pens.
My mom, though, rarely asked what I was learning. She was always busy doing housework or running errands. I was OK with that since my dad was always eager to help.
But once I got to middle school my dad couldn’t help me because he didn’t know English. “Oh how I wish I could help you like when you were little, but I can’t,” he would say in Spanish. “So just stay focused and I’ll watch.” It hurt that he couldn’t help me because he had been forced to drop out of school. And knowing that his dreams were half-fulfilled through me, I felt more pressure not to let him down.
I was determined not to drop out like my sister
When I was in seventh grade, one of my older sisters, who was in 11th grade, dropped out of school and moved in with her boyfriend. Soon she got pregnant. My mom and dad were upset. I felt like I had to do even better in school to make up for my sister and three older cousins who had all dropped out. It was like I had to go to school for my entire family.
One day my dad told me why my mom never got excited about how I did in school. She thought that by the time I reached high school, I would drop out like my sister had. But when my sister dropped out, I got mad at her for not valuing her education. I didn’t care much about what my mom thought, because if my dad believed in me, then why shouldn’t I believe in myself?
I made it through middle school and decided that someday I would go to UCLA, since that was one of the only schools I’d heard of. In ninth grade I kept doing all my assignments, memorizing facts for tests and getting straight As. When I came home, my dad would ask if I had homework and remind me to eat, set up a table for me to study at and tell me to turn off the TV and radio. Then he would go outside so I could “have some space.” He figured that if I got good grades I would automatically get into UCLA. Neither of us had any idea that it took more than good grades to get into a college like UCLA.
In 10th grade I met a teacher who showed me what it would take to make my dad’s expectations and my college dreams come true. My English teacher, Ms. Coffey, told us that colleges want students who can do more than just repeat information they had memorized. Colleges want students who are involved in extra-curricular activities and their communities and who can become leaders.
I learned to think for myself
Ms. Coffey taught us about the injustices around us and how to identify racism and sexism. Instead of just memorizing facts, dates and equations, I started questioning things. We read a magazine article that said misogynistic (hatred towards women) lyrics in popular music like rap have led to an increase in domestic violence. After that, I noticed that most of the music videos I saw showed women as objects. They’re dressed in revealing clothes and a lot of the songs talk about sex.
Before this I didn’t really care about what I was learning in my classes as long as I got good grades. But now I saw how the things I was learning connected to what I saw and did every day. Instead of being the girl who got good grades and was always quiet, I debated my classmates about whether juveniles should be tried as adults. School used to just mean getting good grades, but now I felt like I was getting smarter.
After noticing how often stereotypes appear in pop culture, I began to criticize them. My dad likes to watch a game show on a Spanish-language channel that has female dancers wearing bikinis who never talk. The hosts also repeat stereotypes that Mexicans wear sombreros and are ignorant.
I’d say to him, “Can’t you watch something else? This is really sexist. And they make jokes that make fun of Latino culture. Why are you watching something that makes fun of you?” He’d respond by saying, “Yeah you’re right,” but would never change the channel.
Just the fact that my dad admitted I was right made me feel powerful and that education had the potential to change things. Even though he still watched those shows, he didn’t laugh at the jokes if I was around. If I was learning things like this now, I could only imagine what I’d be able to learn once I got to college.
My mother saw me questioning things as a sign that I was growing. She would always take my side in arguments about gender roles, like whether women should always be the ones cooking and cleaning the house.
One day this spring my dad was upset because none of his pants were ironed. As he took the iron out he complained that my mom was always too busy to iron his clothes. She helps my sisters and my cousins by taking care of their kids. I told him that he should iron them for her once in a while. It wasn’t fair for her to do everything. I told him he was being sexist and he said that as his daughter I should be ironing for him. I got annoyed and told him that I would never iron clothes for a man just because I’m a girl. I would do it as a favor, not as my duty.
My mom joked that he could iron her clothes right now. She then started talking about how in El Salvador, poor girls are taught that women are to follow a man’s orders. It angered me that such old-fashioned behavior still exists in El Salvador. I was glad that I didn’t have to obey any man like that. In the end, my dad ironed his pants as he scowled and said under his breath that we should be doing this for him.
My mom started getting excited about me going to college. She saw how hard I had worked and started boasting to the family about how proud she was of me. At family parties she would list the colleges I was considering and she constantly asked me about all the mail I got from colleges. I wished that my mom hadn’t taken so long to realize I was serious about my education, but I was happy that she supported me now.
Even though sometimes my dad and I disagree about gender politics, my dad has started to appreciate my ideas more. One night when we were eating dinner my parents said that kids in our community are raised as gangbangers and that’s why they don’t go to college.
I told them that students of color, which are all the students in my community of South Los Angeles, go to schools where way less money is spent on them than white students who live in rich neighborhoods. I’ve heard guys in school say that it’s better to drop out and get a job now rather than stay in school, because they’d be doing the same type of job after they graduate anyway. If our schools had more resources, I told my parents, students would be more interested in getting good grades and going to college.
“Tienes razón, te voy entendiendo,” my dad said. (That makes sense, I see what you’re getting at.) I felt proud that my parents respected my ideas. I saw how my education doesn’t help only me, but could help my family and my community.
By the end of March I would come home every day hoping to see any envelope with a college’s name on it. I got my first one from Humboldt State but I didn’t immediately tell my parents. I was afraid. I didn’t want to disappoint them if it was a rejection letter. I took it into my room, closed the door and when I read the first word, “Congratulations!” I was so happy.
With each acceptance, my parents got more excited
I translated the letter for my parents. They had huge smiles on their faces and started asking me questions. “Where is this college?” “Would you want to really study there?” They were concerned about the distance, but I reassured them that it wasn’t too far and that I’d never forget that this was my home. This happened over and over again as the acceptance letters kept coming in.
I was no longer afraid to open the letters in front of my parents since I had gotten into other schools. My mom and dad kept telling me, “We know how much work you have put into this. Do whatever you think is best.” I tried my hardest not to cry when they said this, but my eyes did get watery.
I could see how happy they were and I knew that I was on my way to making their dreams come true, while achieving my goals too. I’m at Wellesley College in Massachusetts now. I want to be a veterinarian, which makes my dad happy because his dad loves animals. But whatever I do, the most important thing for me is that I make them proud.
Other stories by this writer:
Picturing myself at college. Visiting schools made 16-year-old Yesenia’s dream seem more real. (October 2010)
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in our October 2012 issue. It’s been included in this issue on our website because it was one of our four stories that we published in 2012 that won L.A. Youth a runner-up award in the 2013 Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism.