The 19-year-old Dominican American tried to stop himself from fidgeting in his seat. He was incredibly nervous, but you couldn't tell by looking at him. Garcia has a habit of smiling through stress. Anyone could mistake that wide grin, revealing dimples, as an assertion of confidence.
Garcia had been through a lot to get to this point. He had faced eviction from his home, separation from his family, the foster care system, and had been forcibly removed from high school, all by the time he was 16 years old. But when he returned to Cardozo in 2008, his sole priority was school and making up the credits he had lost.
"It was difficult, spring semester had already started-I had a lot of assignments to make up, but I did it," he said.
Garcia had recently been reunited with his parents and six siblings in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Corona, Queens. At the time, they were living in Section 8 public housing. The one-bedroom apartment was miserably small, but he was ecstatic. It was the little things he had missed most, like the familiar sizzle of his mother making pork chops.
He didn't even mind that he had to sit out in the hallway to concentrate and to do his homework. He was home, he was back in school, and that's what mattered. His goal was to work as hard he could to get a coveted high school diploma. He had seen his brothers drop out of school one by one, but he wanted to be different. He envisioned himself and his classmates standing together in caps and gowns.
His counselor called him into the room. This was it.
"You're doing great," his counselor said. Her tone was optimistic. "In another year, you can graduate."
Another year? Garcia pictured his classmates moving on to college-without him.
"I didn't want to accept that at all-I didn't want to be left behind," he said. "I was disappointed. I had let myself down."
He wouldn't wait another year. Garcia dropped out of high school. He would find his own way.
This is the story of Garcia and others like him. It is a story of Latino families who crossed continents in search of opportunity and prosperity, of parents who believed that if they worked hard enough their children would have a better chance. But making it to the United States is only the beginning. For many, life abounds with poverty, language barriers, and misunderstandings. This is a story of entangled cultures, of the rift and reconciliation that families will face when torn between their roots and new American identities. Clashes are inevitable when customs and even languages are out of synch. Old wounds are traded for new wounds and old paths are given up for the possibility of forging new ones. There is no turning back, only pushing forward.
Decades of immigration and high birthrates have ushered a wave of Latinos to New York City. As of 2010, they compose nearly 29 percent of the city's total population, the second largest ethnic group after non-Hispanic whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau .
Latinos and Latino culture permeate the five boroughs: taco trucks and bodegas, churros and empanadas, fútbol, salsa, merengue, cumbia. New York City politics has seen the rise of local Latino politicians and the floundering Spanish speeches of Mayor Bloomberg. But despite the ample size and influence of this community, it has remained the least educated and the most impoverished. As of 2010, 37 percent of Latinos age 25 and older had not graduated high school, according to a study from the Center for Latin American, Caribbean & Latino Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. Only 15 percent had received a Bachelor's degree.
The Comeback Kid
La vida te da sorpresas, sorpresas te da la vida. – Ruben Blades
Life gives you surprises, surprises give you life.
Garcia hated leaving Cardozo. He thought it was ironic, considering how much he hated the school his freshman year. He had felt like he didn't fit in, like he didn't belong in a school like that. He was used to living in bad neighborhoods. Garcia's parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic during the 1980s and moved from one working class neighborhood to the next. He had spent some of his early childhood in Bushwick, Brooklyn and some in Jamaica, Queens before moving to Corona. His mother was unemployed and could barely speak English. His father was a truck driver, but did not make enough money to make ends meet and the family relied on public assistance and food stamps.
As of 2010, 29 percent of the Hispanic population in New York City was impoverished, according to a study from the Center for Latin American, Caribbean & Latino Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. The numbers are even more abysmal concerning childhood poverty rates-40 percent of Latino children 14 years of age and younger live in poverty.
Cardozo was nothing like Garcia's previous ventures in the New York City public school system.
"The junior high schools I went to were real nasty," he said. "The people were rude, some were in gangs, smoking at young ages." But that was the only crowd he knew. When he first entered high school, he naturally put up his usual defenses.
"I go to ‘Dozo and everyone's jolly and polite," he said with a laugh. "It made me feel weird. I didn't know how to react."
In the beginning, he would sit alone in the cafeteria. He wasn't interested in the first-day friendliness. He remembers three girls who would sit together and stare at him. Eventually, those girls came over and asked him to join their table.
He shrugged them off. "No thanks, I'm good," he said. But the trio kept at it for over three weeks. "Every single day, every single day they would come up to me. They would not give up."
By the end of the month, Garcia cracked. He let his guard down, picked up his tray and joined the girls. This marked a change in his high school experience-he was making friends and now had the drive to go to school. He became more involved, joined extracurricular activities and attended school events. Perhaps he could fit in at a place like this.
As things were beginning to come together at school, they began to unravel at home. It is often said that the cornerstone of Latino culture is the family - la familia . For immigrants arriving to the United States, those bonds can be even greater. La familia equals stability. La familia can get you through long workdays in a foreign country. Family will always be there when times get tough.
But towards the end of his freshman year, Garcia's family could no longer pay the rent or avoid the landlord. They were evicted, with no place to fall back on. He was taken away from his parents and placed into foster care. He spent the first month in a group care facility in Manhattan.
"It felt like a prison," he said. "We were never allowed outside. I was depressed."
Garcia was briefly placed in a home in Brooklyn before being moved to his aunt's house in the neighborhood of Woodhaven, Queens. Freshman year was over, and Garcia's grades had dropped. He had lost all interest in school. He felt as if a black hole had opened inside him since the day he was forced to be away from his parents. He wanted them to be together again as a family.
In the meantime his aunt pushed him to transfer schools and to opt for the nearby John Adams High School in Rockaway. Maybe there he could get better grades. Without consulting him, she had him removed from the enrollment list at Cardozo.
Everything had been taken away from him: his home, his family, and now Cardozo. Garcia never showed up to John Adams.
"I didn't want to go to John Adams. That wasn't my decision," he said. "So I ended up not being in school at all for a while."
The summer and fall of 2007 are a blur. Garcia remembers sitting for hours alone in a park, it was the only place he could keep his head straight and he did not want to be around people, "I isolated myself from everyone."
Garcia was later removed from his aunt's house and placed with his grandmother in Corona. He pleaded with his grandmother to get him back into Cardozo. He was tired of doing nothing, he wanted to go back to school-his school-and turn things around. She understood, and after several talks with the school administration, they were able to readmit him.
Shortly afterwards, Garcia and his family were finally reunited in Corona. To help his parents financially, he found a job at his local library. His focus was on balancing work and school. He did not realize at the time that his recent past would put him in a place very familiar to most high school dropouts.
"With our population there's quite a few students that are overage and under-credited," said Danielle Guindo, Director of Youth Development Programs at the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, Inc. (CHCF). The older the student gets, the more discouraged they feel and the harder it is to keep them connected to the high school experience, she added.
There is also a stigma attached to being in high school for so long. You stay behind while younger students pass you by. Students who do not graduate on time are what Garcia calls "super-seniors."
Garcia had to choose between a rock and a hard place, he said. Stay in school and be ashamed, or drop out of school and still be ashamed.
"I would have been 100 times happier if I stayed in high school and got my diploma from Cardozo," he said. "But I didn't want to wait longer and start college so late, so I left."
Although Garcia was not able to walk away with an official high school diploma, he took the General Education Development test as soon as he could. When he received his GED diploma, he framed it and gave it to his guidance counselor at Cardozo. He wanted to prove that he too was now a high school graduate. He then made a promise to himself that he would do whatever it took to get a college diploma.
He is the only one of his brothers to have pursued a GED diploma and higher education.
"It's not like I'm mad at them or I hold a grudge against them, but they just gave up so easily," he said. "A lot of them get influenced early by the wrong crowd, the wrong type of friends, then they find a job and want to stick to that instead."
Garcia is far more hesitant when speaking about the role of his mother and father.
"Truthfully, my parents weren't always involved in my schooling, since they had their own million problems, and my brothers didn't have anybody to push them," he said. "But that's not an excuse. It should be my choice; I have to learn to make my own choices."
Garcia's tenacious loyalty to his parents is often fueled by his belief that he is self-reliant. He did not need his parents, or anyone else, to be involved. He was convinced that he could provide for himself if he just worked hard enough. School was his responsibility. Besides, how could he expect his parents to attend parent-teacher conferences when they had bills to pay and children to take care of?
In many immigrant families, parents face the difficulty of connecting the old world they left behind and the new world their children inhabit, said Dr. Patricia Gandara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles and professor of education at UCLA.
"If your parent doesn't have a high school education, it's very difficult for them to then navigate that system or possibly even explain to their children why it's important," she said.
Garcia lacked educational role models, but he had gumption. His belief in his own autonomy carried over into his work life, even though much of his paycheck served to meet family needs.
"Certainly in the Latino culture there is a very high premium placed on work," said Dr. Gandara. "It's highly rewarded by families if you go out and work and help support as a responsible member of the family."
When he became a community liaison at the library, his boss told him he would need to change his appearance. He could no longer rely on the library tee shirt and jeans he was accustomed to. He needed to look presentable. Garcia had never owned a pair of dress shoes before. So he took his next paycheck and bought himself one pair of shoes, one pair of slacks, and two button-down shirts-the few weapons in his arsenal for the working world. He felt proud, not only was he planning on going to college, but he was also employed.
The densely populated neighborhood of Corona, Queens is home to 109,931 people, according to the 2010 census . Of those, 81,093 (73.8 percent) are Latino. It is a neighborhood where, for many, English is optional. Amidst this population, one block away from the library where Garcia worked, lives the Cantoral family.
Minta Cantoral, 58, was born and raised in poverty in Jalapa-one of the 22 departments of Guatemala. She lived in a small, rural town well outside of the capital city of Jalapa on her parent's farm. She felt at peace amongst the lush, green mountains and the light veil of fog that often crept over her town. The air was much cleaner in Jalapa. But work was scarce, so she traveled over 2,000 miles to find employment in the United States. In 1981, she settled into a small house in Corona, where she has lived ever since.
Minta Cantoral (Source: Minta Cantoral)
"Living in Corona is acceptable...right now we're a little better-ten years ago there were a lot of drugs circling 103rd street, but at least on the block where I live things are calm," she said in Spanish. She is much more comfortable in her native language, although she can get by on limited English.
Cantoral is scrawny, gaunt almost, and at less than five feet tall seems to shrink into her clothing. She wears no makeup and her thick dark brown hair is usually pulled back into a ponytail. She always looks exhausted, and her moods are mercurial-she can bounce easily from hopeless to hopeful in a matter of minutes.
For all of her adult life, Cantoral has made money by cleaning houses. Her employers in New York City are all American. Up until a few years ago, she worked every day of the week-even weekends sometimes-but lately she is lucky if she can scrape by with a few days per week. The job is still physically demanding, but she is grateful that her schedule usually allows her to be home in the afternoon.
On workdays, Cantoral rushes home, quickly changes out of her uniform and dons her usual attire-an oversized white cotton tee shirt and baggy, light wash jeans. Then she waits, dutifully watching the clock until it strikes four p.m.-the time her 14-year-old daughter Samantha's school bus stops outside their house. Samantha is the youngest of her four children.
Samantha occupies the majority of her time and her thoughts. She was born with Down syndrome. About a year ago, she was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome. Minta knew she was very old to be having children when she became pregnant with Samantha, but she is very religious and there were no other options.
Sometimes, secretly, she dreams of going back to the family she left behind in the campo , the countryside. All of her ties are in Guatemala and most days she still calls her mother to ask her for advice. She wonders if the fresh air would be better for Samantha.
Minta admits that with most of her energy devoted to her job and taking care of Samantha, it has been hard for her to focus on her other children.
"In this country, all I have done is work, work, and work, and work..." she says, trailing off. Trabajar, trabajar, y trabajar, y trabajar...
Her only son, 20-year-old Gerardo, dropped out of high school over two years ago. She never expected Gerardo to fall behind. Her first two children, 24-year-old Kelly and 23-year-old Melissa, never had problems in school. They never cut class and they always planned on graduating. They studied and kept pushing forward. She thought Gerardo would do the same.
"I felt terrible...and sad...I tried by all means for him to graduate high school....but because I work and I have Samantha, between doctor's appointments, coordinating school meetings, trying to find after-school programs for her, and problems within the household...I couldn't focus solely on Gerardo," she said.
She did not know he was cutting class until the phone calls started. At the time Gerardo attended Long Island City High School, one mile away from the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing complex in the United States.
"His school would call me at work and ask, "‘Where is Gerardo? Is Gerardo with you?'" she said. "But Gerardo was out with his friends in the street."
There were mornings when Minta and Gerardo left the house together. She later discovered that Gerardo would wait until she was safely on the train to work before returning home.
"No one knew he was there," she said. "He waited until everyone else left, so no one would see him."
Evelyn Rodriguez, who coordinated the dropout prevention program at the CHCF from 2007-2011, said that parents living in poverty are forced to step back from their children's lives.
"The disconnect starts in high school when children seem more independent," said Rodriguez. "Unfortunately, they don't realize that's actually the most critical time to be in a young person's life."
For families in which basic economic subsistence is the main concern, it is often difficult for parents to engage in their children's academic lives. With no personal experience in the New York City public school system, many parents are left without knowledge of basic school regulations and requirements. Well-meaning parents find themselves hindered by language barriers and oppressive work schedules.
New York City's public school system serves over 1,000,000 children, according to the New York City Department of Education. With so many children and parents to deal with, communication between individual families and school administrators is often poor at best.
"There's a serious lack of outreach to parents," said Dr. Gandara. "Most schools aren't communicating effectively at all to the parents."
Even when schools have the best intentions, understaffing really takes a toll on the quality of communication between schools and families, said Rodriguez.
"I think people struggle a lot to get parents to come in, but what happens is they start to blame the parent as opposed to engaging the parent and finding out what works for them," said Rodriguez. "Most of the families want to be connected, they just don't know how to, and the fact that you're dealing with adolescents-who are going through their own developmental changes which affect their attitude and behavior-leaves parents overwhelmed."
Minta put it this way: "It was not possible to get help from that school when your child is doing badly." Even when Kelly and Melissa began looking at colleges, she felt confused and unable to help.
"I really had no idea which colleges were good or which were bad," she said. "I just knew if they did well, their chances of getting into a better college improved."
Both of her daughters went on to graduate from CUNY colleges and secure stable employment. Melissa was just promoted from her job as a bank teller to financial adviser, Minta said proudly.
When Gerardo told her that he wanted to get his GED diploma instead, she turned to those with experience, her employers.
"I spoke to American people, my employers, and they told me the GED diploma is not as important as the one from high school," she said. "Anyone could get a GED at any age, so I really pushed for him to stay in school."
But Gerardo had always felt out of place in school. He couldn't remember anything his teachers told him; he just couldn't focus. He would sit uncomfortably in classrooms listening to them lecture and within a few minutes his mind would wander.
"Oh man, yeeesh , it was hard to stay in school," he said. "I never felt connected to it. If you're doing well they'll help you, but if you're not doing well then you're by yourself."
To Gerardo, school was not the path to his goals. It was the obstacle. He had friends who had received GED diplomas. They moved on to find jobs and make money. He was still wasting time in classes he knew he would have to retake. Gerardo wanted to drop out by his third year of high school, but his mother refused to let him. Only during his fifth year, when Gerardo still could not pass his Regents Examinations, did she surrender.
"Finally, I accepted it," she said. Finalmente, lo acepté ...
In order to graduate, high school students in New York State must pass Regents Examinations in five subjects: English, mathematics, science, global history, and U.S. history and government. The yearly exams are intended to reflect the student's mastery of New York State Learning Standards, according to the New York City Department of Education.
Gerardo easily passed his GED test. Now, he attends Apex Technical School at 635 Avenue of the Americas. He attends classes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. every weekday. In September, he will graduate from the school's Electrical and Advanced Electrical Program.
"It will be his first graduation," said Minta.
Gerardo feels certain that a traditional four-year college was never the right place for him. When he works with his hands, he can't afford to doze off. It's as if he can ground his focus in the objects in front of him.
"I feel like in my school they teach you real life situations-these wires need to be connected. What do you do? And they literally give you the wires right there," he said. "Everything is hands on and in college it's fours years of like teaching English, stuff that to me is pointless and has nothing to do with a career I'd want."
Minta sees Gerardo's genuine interest in the program. He rereads his notes every night. The program has already taught him about air conditioners, microwaves, insulation, and now they are teaching him how to bend and weld pipes.
"They give you a lot of information in one day, it's not something you can just remember," said Gerardo. "It's something you've just got to go home and reread and reread and reread." It's not like math or English, though, this reading actually interests him, he adds.
"The most important thing is that now he is aware that he has to study and get a career," Minta said. "Sometimes he still says to me if you had let me get the GED early I would already be working now." She laughs.
The Native Sons
Inside Matthew Castellon's bedroom there is a black case that he has not touched in years. Tucked away and now covered in dust, the box contains a piece of his former life and his former passion. He had been so excited when he first put his hands on that sleek case, after the drive to Queens College where his instructor, Mr. Kronenberg, had arranged a meeting with a vendor of musical instruments.
Castellon's love of music began in his early childhood. His father, Lazaro, would often drop him off at his great-grandmother's apartment a few blocks away from his home in Sunnyside, Queens. Both Matthew and Lazaro were born in New York City, descendents of Cuban immigrants escaping Fidel Castro's Communist regime. His family had owned a large farm in Cuba, but it was seized by the government. Matthew's grandfather did not receive a formal education; he picked up a book and taught himself to read. Then he immigrated to the United States, established his own hardware store in Brooklyn and bought the house in Sunnyside where Matthew has lived his entire life.
Matthew, now 19 years old, never got the chance to meet his grandfather. He died in a shooting outside of his hardware store one night when Lazaro was 16. Matthew heard that his grandfather had a green thumb; he would plant flowers in their backyard. Now the yard is bare.
Matthew's great-grandmother often cared for him while his father worked as a manager at a Duane Reade. She would turn on the Public Broadcasting Service and together they would watch the Philharmonic play. Other days, she would turn on her old turntable record player-propped on a wooden table so high, the legs looked like stilts-and play songs in Spanish and English.
"She was a bit of a music buff," he said with a grin.
In grade school Matthew picked up a trumpet for the first time. It was the one thing he was sure he wanted to do. In the eighth grade he took a chance and applied to Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, a major arts high school in Astoria, Queens. Founded by Tony Bennett in 2001, the school offers studio programs in dance, drama, fine arts, film and media, instrumental music, and vocal. In 2007, Matthew passed his audition and was accepted to its Instrumental Studio Program.
That was the year when Mr. Kronenberg took him to Queens College to pick out the first and only musical instrument he would own. That was the year when his life began to revolve around music. He would play for three or four hours every day at home. In school, he played during jazz ensemble and even during his free periods. He worked as hard as he possibly could.
Matthew knew he lacked the resources some of his classmates enjoyed.
"I don't come from the richest background and good music lessons are really expensive," he said. "Not everybody can afford $150 or $200 lessons that are just a few hours."
So he kept practicing on his own. If he could just get to be first chair in his jazz ensemble, then maybe he would finally get recognition as an artist and get that solo he had been waiting for. Then he could meet real musicians, get to play with the best of the best. All he needed was to be noticed by someone important.
"I was not really focused on my education," he said. "I was really focused on the music and I let my grades slip."
Despite his efforts, Matthew felt he was not getting the recognition he deserved. He would eventually reach first chair, but be phased back again after two months.
"I think it's because I wasn't a strong enough personality," he said. "I've always been a timid person, not aggressive. It's a dog-eat-dog world and I didn't see that until I went to that school. I didn't really get to experience what it is to be competitive."
By his junior year there were days Matthew wouldn't even make it to school. He couldn't find the energy to attend his morning classes. Usually, he would pick up his trumpet instead. His father was not aware that he was cutting class. Lazaro's work schedule fluctuated between day shifts and night shifts. Matthew knew his father was frustrated. He saw younger employees make it to his position in no time, because they had college degrees. Lazaro was never able to finish college; his girlfriend became pregnant during his second year. Lazaro made the decision to leave school and find a job so that he could raise his only son.
Matthew hardly ever speaks of his mother. She left when he was seven years old. He has not heard from her in years.
"She sees me as my father's child," he said, shrugging. People tell him he looks just like his father-the pale skin, high cheekbones, and sandy brown hair. Most do not assume that he is of Latino descent.
At the end of his junior year, Matthew was missing several Regents Exams. It was only a few classes, so his father paid $3,000 for a summer program where students could make up their credits.
When he returned in his senior year the school administration informed him that due to his grades he was cut from the jazz ensemble. His seat had already been filled. He had lost the only thing he had worked to keep.
"After that, people looked at me different," he said. "In a school like that your art form is like your religion and if you go against your religion nobody regards you in the same light. They think you're a loser."
To many of his classmates, it didn't matter that he didn't abandon the program by choice. Matthew felt like an outcast. He felt shunned by his teachers as well. Was it because he was quiet and kept to himself? Was it because he didn't show up to class last year?
He knew he was a repeat offender. He had hung out with people who were also doing badly and saw the way the teachers treated them. He felt alone. Two months into his senior year, Matthew began cutting class again.
"Being in a music school and not graduating for music, is it worth it? I thought I should have just left at that point. I didn't get that final year because they cut me-so those three years that I worked my ass off meant nothing. I wasn't going to get the degree I deserved, a degree from the music program. In hindsight it means nothing, but at the time it did because I worked so hard and I felt like I needed-I deserved-something that said I learned about music and I could take that and put it in my portfolio and be proud of that. I can't even do that now," his voice cracks.
His father didn't understand. "I can't believe you're doing this," he would say. "Just go to class. You can't handle it?"
Although they were both born in the United States, Matthew and his father could not have been more different. For the children of immigrants, each new generation arguably becomes more Americanized, forming a complex cultural hybrid.
Matthew may still eat Cuban food at home, but there is a distinct "American" sensibility to him. From the American mythos flows the steadfast belief in individual choice and the self-made man. You can be and have what you want as long as you are willing to put in the effort. Matthew's stubborn pursuit of a career in music embodies that tradition. In the United States, emphasis is placed on the idea of choice and children are often encouraged to pursue more creative endeavors. Matthew found a passion and believed that hard work was a means to an end. In Latin America, children are often expected to pursue financially secure employment or provide for their families. Music may be your passion, but what matters is keeping food on the table. To work is a duty, a fact of life, not necessarily the pursuit of one's dreams.
Matthew's generation has no personal memories of the country where its parents, grandparents or great grandparents were born. What they have are stories recounted by family members, stories that are often incomprehensible. Matthew had heard of people who went to bed hungry, who were starving, but he had never remotely experienced such a life himself-neither had most of his friends.
Matthew's struggles were internal. The mental anguish he experienced was real, but he could never express it to his father. Even if he found the words, he knew his father would never understand.
"My family thinks that emotional factors mean nothing-that you should just do things," said Matthew. "That's all well and good, but in certain aspects of life those emotions do affect you."
In the United States, emotional well-being can be as important as the physical. Matthew's needs were at odds with Lazaro's upbringing. Numerous studies have shown that many Latinos stigmatize mental illness or distress. In a culture that values resilience, letting one's emotions get in the way is not an option. Seeking outside help is seen as a sign of weakness.
Lazaro witnessed the daily struggle of his family firsthand. Whether or not they suffered emotionally, they did what they had to do. His father came to New York City with nothing. When Castro's regime took his livelihood, he pushed forward and made a life for himself in America. He started his own business, made money and raised his children. Lazaro, in turn, had given his son food, shelter, and a chance at an education. How could he understand Matthew's emotional troubles? How could Matthew understand his father?
Eventually Matthew stopped attending class altogether. His father stopped reprimanding him. Neither of them knew what decision Matthew should make. Should he stay at Frank Sinatra or leave? Even if he stayed, he would not graduate on time.
"It's one of those situations where parental advice, making me do something is kind of important," he said. "Because growing up you don't know what's right or wrong, you're just learning. When a decision like this is being made-push me in a direction. I didn't really have a rock or a plan."
Matthew dropped out of high school before spring semester 2011. By then he had not touched his trumpet in months.
"Jazz is a very social thing; it loses meaning when I play for no reason," he said. "That's the whole point of it, the experience of just being in the moment of someone else's creation and expanding on that with everyone else. It's amazing. I can't describe it any other way. When you do something that you really want to do, you can't replace that feeling. But now, what would I be practicing for?"
When Evelyn Rodriguez was 4 years old, her family moved from the Dominican Republic to the Bronx. She has always gone to public schools and she has always been in the Bronx. The Bronx is where she and her siblings became honor students in middle school after taking bilingual classes until the third grade and where she was accepted into her junior high school's top program. She went on to attend Dewitt Clinton High School, one of the few schools in the borough that hasn't been phased out or closed down yet, she said.
When they first came to this country, Rodriguez' parents did not speak English.
"It was really challenging," she said. "Now they understand a little bit here and there, but during my early years it was always a matter of me being the one to translate, me being the one to navigate situations and try to understand the system."
Her father had never attended school. He had someone else teach him how to read and write. Her mother barely had a basic education.
"So for them, it was not just not understanding the educational system in the United States, it was not understanding education systems, period," she said.
"It's not like they could sit down and say let me see your homework," she said. When the children had their books out, the assumption was that homework was being done. But they couldn't look over her work or help her when she had questions.
Rodriguez said her saving grace was her parents' emphasis on education and their strict household. Rodriguez' parents always attended parent-teacher conferences, even with their limited English.
"Although they didn't speak the language, they didn't understand the system, the one thing that they did understand was that education was your only way out of the situation that we were in," she said. "Education comes first-you have to go to school, you have to get good grades. If you're struggling, then you need to figure out how you're going to get help from the school."
"Education comes first" became a personal mantra for Rodriguez. If I do well in school, she thought, I can make my parents proud. Education could be her ticket out of poverty.
"They struggled so much to give us this opportunity, how could I not take advantage of it?" she said. "I have a lot of family that is still in the Dominican Republic that will unfortunately never have what I'm able to have in this country."
Rodriguez went on to attend The State University of New York at Geneseo in Livingston County, New York. During college, she realized that she wanted to give back to the community that raised her. After graduating, she made her way back to the Bronx and studied social work at City University of New York Lehman College's Graduate Studies Program.
In 2007, she found a job as the coordinator of a dropout prevention program at Christopher Columbus High School, provided by the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families (CHCF). The committee, now in its 30th year, was created in 1982 as an advocacy group for Latino children in the child welfare system.
The dropout prevention program, then called Community Achievement Program in the Schools (CAPS), is funded mostly by the non-profit organization United Way of New York City.
"It was a way for the organization to have a scene on the ground in the schools, directly working with children and families," said Guindo. The program identifies at-risk students based on attendance records and the number of credits acquired. The intent is to approach the child holistically, providing counseling, individual assessments, family meetings, and incentives to motivate students to attend their classes.
Rodriguez said that in order to connect with the students in the program, she gave them a chance to take control of their own lives first.
"Adults don't always sit down with young people and say, what do you want, it's usually dictated to them-what you need," she said. "The way that I worked with my program was giving them a lot of buy-in. That way they could take on the program for themselves and make decisions for themselves. What's your incentive going to be? What do you want it to look like? What motivates you to be here?"
In addition, students who showed improvement were rewarded with excursions. Rodriguez let the students themselves select the locations and even when the trips would take place.
Carline Pedraza, a member of the CAPS program from 2007-2010, said that being involved with the trips was one of her favorite memories of the program.
"If you had close-to-perfect attendance or if you did your school work, you could go on trips and see things we don't usually see," she said. They could go to Six Flags, Broadway shows, museums, and sports events-it was up to the students. The outings motivated Pedraza to do better in school, providing her with tangible experiences and cheerful memories associated with school.
"You had to earn it," she smiles.
Pedraza is the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants. She currently lives with her mother, her aunt, and her autistic younger brother in Pelham Parkway, Bronx. They moved there in September 2011.
"The neighborhood that I'm in now is pretty good, it's quiet," she said. "It's not like my old neighborhood," she said, referring to her time living in Bronx Park East, which "was horrible: people selling drugs, drinking in the streets and getting into fights."
Rodriguez said that many of the students she worked with lived in impoverished and often dangerous neighborhoods.
"They're living in areas where they don't feel safe leaving their own homes," she said. Often schools in such areas require heightened security. This created a culture of fear where students were also being policed within their own school, causing many students to skip class. Columbus High School was assigned to the committee's dropout prevention program in the first place because of its overall poor attendance records.
Pedraza dreaded going to school for her first three years.
"I was picked on and I didn't want to go to school," she said, looking down as she discusses the bullying. She has always been shy, she said-an easy target. Pedraza dressed differently from most of her classmates. She wore her hair long and straight and wore black hoodies and Converse sneakers. While others listened to rap and hip-hop, she listened to rock and punk. Pedraza and her friends were shunned for being different.
"That was really big for her," said Rodriguez. "When I met her in her sophomore year, she had already gone through a whole year of being bullied. There was this whole subgroup of young people who were not included at that school because they just did not fit the school culture."
To escape, Pedraza consistently cut class and kept to herself. For a while it was easy to keep this from her family. After her parents separated, the family's financial burden fell solely on her mother, who works two jobs. By day she is a school crossing guard, by night she works at a Laundromat to support Carline and her younger brother.
"Me and my mom used to have so many problems," she said. "We'd bicker at each other to the point where I didn't want to be home either. I didn't want to be at school or at home."
"We did a lot of family work," Rodriguez said. The program was short staffed and Rodriguez was one of only two people providing counseling for the children and their parents. "I had a lot to do, but I would always try to find the time to have a parent meeting, because the reality is that communication between the children and the parent was really the issue."
Pedraza's mother worked six days a week and was hardly ever home. When she was home, she was exhausted. What Pedraza wanted was her mom's attention, but her mom couldn't give her that because she was too busy trying to make ends meet. They had always struggled to even pay the rent. From her mother's perspective, Carline did not appreciate her hard work.
"That's what I saw with most of the young people," said Rodriguez. "The parents fill themselves with work and they feel that by providing material things, they're doing as much as possible, but the young person isn't feeling the emotional connection and seeks it elsewhere. That's where a lot them get caught up in the wrong crowd and in relationships that are more damaging than supportive."
At CAPS, Pedraza felt like she had a support group. She could come to them whenever she needed help-with school or personal issues. She had been looking for a way to do better in school.
"In my head I was like I can't really talk to my mom about what's going on, this is an opportunity to get help," she said. "I didn't want to keep struggling like that." Her grades and attendance quickly improved.
"When junior year hit I told myself if I really want to graduate, go to college and get a career I have to change my ways," she said. Her relationship with her mother improved as well after a series of counseling sessions with Rodriguez.
"She now understood my struggles, and that in a way when I wouldn't listen to her or when I would go off and do my own thing, I was asking for help," Pedraza said.
Pedraza will graduate just as Columbus High School permanently closes its doors, due to poor performance. She currently attends the Young Adult Borough Center program at Columbus, where she is finishing her remaining credits. In the meantime, she is waiting for responses to her college applications.
Rodriguez said that at times she felt like a surrogate mother or an older sister to her students. If they needed a confidante, she was there, providing a safe and confidential environment for them. When Pedraza was being bullied, she could always come to the CAPS office for help or for someone to listen. Instead of skipping school, she could face her problems through counseling sessions.
Rodriguez said, "Sometimes they would say to me, you know me better than anyone knows me." In order to help them, she had to get to know them as people first, not just as struggling students. But when they needed a push, she would be there, encouraging them to go to class and reminding them of their goals. Building relationships and trust with them was key to their academic improvement. Without that, there could be no real chance.
"They know when you're there for a paycheck and when you're there because you truly care," she said.
The program came with its own limitations, however. The grant for Columbus High School ended in 2010 and CAPS had to leave its students behind. Rodriguez laments having to leave.
"You don't want to be another person that has walked away from them, another loss," she said.
Throughout the course of the program, Rodriguez encouraged her students to form bonds with one another. The CAPS office was a safe haven where they could all vent and motivate each other to stay in school. They were even allowed to bring friends from outside the program. Through student group sessions, many realized they all faced similar problems. Pedraza brought a friend, Vincent Perez, who later joined the program himself. Now, instead of cutting class together, the students became accountable to one another. They would keep track of each other's attendance records and offer help to those who still struggled.
"It's peer pressure, in a positive way," said Rodriguez. They created their own support system, built friendships and stayed in contact after the program was gone.
Vincent Perez, Evelyn Rodriguez, and Carline Pedraza at the CHCF office in Manhattan
Rodriguez went on to coordinate the new program at Kingsbridge International High School in 2010. She currently coordinates the committee's Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program at Grace Dodge High School, also in the Bronx.
All of these students have such great potential, she said. But family, friends, and peers have damaged them over time. Her job was to help them see that, and rebuild from there. Many students struggle with self-worth after years of being put down, she added.
So many times, she heard students say, "I could never go to college." Others said, "I could never get a better grade in this class."
"To know that even teachers are telling them that that is disgusting," she said. "A young person hears that and thinks, ‘why would I even want to try?' It's damaging to who they are and all that they are capable of becoming."
Helping young people has been incredible, she said. She is humbled by the thought that she has impacted the lives of others at the age of 29.
"You can see a transformation in young people in a matter of months, it's amazing, if you give them that support," she added. "They still struggle, of course. But we all do."
Carline and Vincent still seek her out and have even visited her in the committee's Manhattan office.
She smiles. "They're focusing on college now. They stayed on track even though life through them some curve balls."
Ni el pasado ha muerto, ni está el mañana-ni el ayer-escrito. - Antonio Machado
Neither is the past dead, nor is tomorrow-or yesterday-written.
Tucked away in a tiny corner at 55 Broadway in Manhattan is a FedEx Office Ship Center, where Steven Garcia now works.
He says, "I'm an inteLife gives you surprises, surprises give you life.rnational shipping specialist."
Garcia works weekdays with shifts as long as eight hours, but he doesn't complain.
"That's life. I have to keep working hard to get to where I want to be," he said. "No choice in that."
Garcia is in his third semester at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). He applied and was accepted shortly after receiving his GED diploma. Although he wishes things were different, Garcia is no longer ashamed of his decision to leave Cardozo. Instead of giving up, he made his own path. It may not have been the path he originally wanted, but it was the path that got him to college.
He took a tragic situation and made the most of it, he said. "I feel more at peace and more relaxed with my life."
Garcia plans to attend Queens College after his two years at BMCC are completed, or attend the Police Academy of New York City. If he does go to Queens College, he wants to study psychology and maybe help kids like himself who need guidance. He is torn between continuing his education on his own, or joining his family in law enforcement. He sort of has a family legacy in the NYPD and his father wants him to be a part of it, he said.
"I've gotta make up my mind," he said. "I mean, c'mon, I'm about to be 21."
Minta Cantoral still rushes home to Corona on the 7 train after a long day of cleaning houses, her mind focused on the bus that awaits her at 4 p.m. Every day she thanks God for her family and the little things that keep her going. She is happiest at home-cooking Samantha her favorite meal of chicken and garlic, listening to the flip of pages as Gerardo rereads his notes. There will be two graduations in her future. Samantha will graduate from her Special Education program at the end of next year and Gerardo will graduate from Apex Technical School in September.
Although she hopes he will one day pursue a traditional college education, she said, "It's time for him to get a job and keep pushing forward."
As for Gerardo, he is relieved that he and his mother no longer clash about his education.
"She supports me, just as long as I'm doing something with my life," he said. He too looks forward to joining the workforce.
Minta said, with an air of confidence, "For Gerardo, and for Kelly and Melissa as well, I want a career-or at least a job-where they can support themselves in the future and not depend on anybody."
In between Apex Technical School and BMCC, at 240 2nd Avenue, Matthew Castellon attended Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day School until April 2012.
"I can't say I'm happier now, but the days are going by until I can get that degree and finally say I have a high school diploma," he said.
But things do not always work out as planned. Finishing his remaining credits was taking longer than he had hoped, so Matthew has turned to the GED instead.
"I'm not going to keep wasting my time," he said. "Besides, I already got accepted to LaGuardia Community College. All I have to do is give them proof of my GED and I can start in the fall." He smiles.
Looking back on his decision to leave Frank Sinatra, he said, "It's ignorance. What's played a large role in most of the things that happened to me is my own ignorance. The things I've done were because I didn't know how bad they were or what it could lead to. I hadn't seen it experienced and it hadn't been experienced in my family."
Regardless, he is moving on from his experience and eager to start college. Who knows? He may even pick up his trumpet again.