I traveled 477 miles from New York City to Lawrence, Massachusetts, and back, to revisit Northern Essex Community College (NECC) last week. This time I was visiting the Bridge Program, a free primer for entering students to help them acclimate to college. These students, all Latino and mostly Dominicano, remind me of who I was over thirty years ago: a poor kid from the U.S.-Mexico border with no clue at Harvard. Coincidentally, this was the same week when my wife Laura and I dropped off our son Aaron at Yale, for the start of his freshman year.
One of the issues that stuck in my mind at NECC was this: how do we identify and help those poor kids who are driven to move up, who are ready to sacrifice for themselves and their families, and who are pulling themselves up by their boot straps, awkwardly, tentatively, but with an undeniable hunger? Because that’s how I was.
In the United States, we spend so much effort militarizing the border, throwing money at the border security industrial complex, and giving air-time to fear-mongers only too eager to bash poor people and their neighborhoods. Imagine if we spent the same billions of dollars on identifying those children of undocumented workers with stellar school records, with the right family values to succeed, with the framework to be the best of citizens. Imagine if we helped these young people become productive college graduates and taxpayers.
Imagine if we made the effort to know poor Mexicano neighborhoods like Ysleta, where I grew up, to understand which families had disciplined parents, which families refused food stamps, like my own family, because the parents thought it was shameful. Instead of vilifying poor families as the parasites of society, instead of attacking these convenient and awful abstractions in pseudo ‘arguments,’ imagine making careful distinctions. Imagine doing the hard work of practical thinking, and implementing this as policy.
In class at NECC, we discussed my novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust, and then I went to lunch with the students, administrators, and teachers of the Bridge Program. I spoke to one young woman who made an impression on me. Kiara was focused and intelligent, she wanted to be a radiologist, her father was a taxi driver, and her sister had already graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, after attending NECC. I had a long conversation with Kiara, and I could tell she was going places.
I had made that leap too, from being poor to the middle class, with loving but tough Mexicano parents who taught me to work beyond exhaustion and avoid the drugs and gangs of our neighborhood. I went from being marginalized in society, ignored, and even laughed at (sometimes by other Mexicanos and Chicanos full of envidia, jealousy), to self-education through cultural sacrifice, financial savings through pain, and learning-on-the-fly through fear. I saw a younger version of myself in Kiara. Will others take the time to see this potential in individuals like Kiara? I always have that hope.
This same week I told my son Aaron, as we moved him into Yale’s Old Campus, that if he saw a poor student looking shell-shocked, as if Yale were a different planet from, say, the Chihuahuan Desert, to help that person, to give him or her advice, to be friendly. “Aaron, I was that freshman, I didn’t even know what the Ivy League was, I was too quiet in class, I ate alone in the dining hall, at least at the beginning, I wasn’t sure I belonged at Harvard. I thought they had made a mistake.”
Our son Aaron is a New York City kid, savvy beyond his years. Before this week, he had visited Yale often, as the head of the Model United Nations group at his high school. I would have been intimidated by a freshman like Aaron. I would have marveled at the ease with which he navigated this strange world of the Ivy League. I know Aaron will take my advice to heart and seek out those who need help and who want to help themselves but may not know how. For two years in New York, Aaron volunteered to tutor poor students who could not afford to pay for expensive private tutors. We are proud of both Aaron and Isaac, not only for their intellectual prowess, but also for the good citizens they have become.
What Laura and I have always taught our kids is that we are connected to each other. Even if we struggled and succeeded, that does not mean we should only look after ourselves. We should help those coming up, who want what we have achieved, who have that same drive and discipline to achieve it, who deserve a chance. By helping los de abajo, you improve your entire community. By seeing and understanding those different from you, you remember who you were, you sharpen your empathy, you decide to find out for yourself (and not accept what you are told). By seeking out that ‘other,’ whoever that other may be, you will learn from them too.