Since the link posted yesterday to The Dallas Morning News' Viewpoints page didn't seem to be working for everyone, I decided to post the entire essay written by my friend and co-worker, Daisy Rivera.
The essay appeared in Saturday's edition of the paper (7 May 2005).
Daisy's story is amazing. I believe it will inspire you as it does me.
Mothers and role models
Growing up as a poor Latina in inner-city Dallas, I was expected by many to take one of two paths. The first involved getting a boyfriend and becoming pregnant by about age 16, then dropping out of school to care for the baby while my parents supported me. The other commonly assumed path for young, poor Latinas – and Latinos – is to begin skipping school in junior high to get high with friends, then eventually drop out.
I chose neither path. As an 18-year-old enrolled part-time in college and working full-time as the main breadwinner for myself, my mother and my sisters, you could say I prevailed against the tide that has swept many of my Latina friends into adult lives of poverty, single motherhood and lack of education. Rates of poverty for single Latinas are very high in Dallas, and dropout rates are the highest among Latinos, compared to blacks and whites.
But my choice not to go down a destructive path did not happen on my own. Without several key mentors and the support of an East Dallas social justice organization, I might have easily made the wrong choice. It would have been very easy.
As a 12-year-old, I lived with my family in extreme poverty, which explains how I ended up working as a dishwasher to help Mom make the rent. Poverty makes it tough to get bills paid and food on the table – and it magnifies the usual family problems by 10. The difficulties that my mom had with our stepfathers quickly spread into the lives of my sisters and me, with violence that no children – let alone my mother – should ever have to endure.
Watching severe alcoholism and physical abuse happen in front of your face, and trying to stop it, matures a kid fast. I recall at the age of 7 caring for my three sisters by changing diapers, making bottles and teaching them right from wrong.
It was after our home burned down that my mother, sisters and I went to Central Dallas Ministries, a community development and social justice organization in East Dallas. We went for clothes and food. We came away with enough compassion and concern to pull us through our tough times.
One CDM volunteer who became my mentor found out that I was washing dishes and, when I turned 15, offered me a part-time job at the CDM food pantry, making more money and learning computer skills. The pantry director was flexible on my hours so I could work around my school schedule to earn the money my family and I needed.
Several strong Hispanic and black women on the CDM staff were role models to me. Besides showing me that women who looked like me could be professional and respected, they asked me about my future school and career plans in a way that made me want to succeed. It wasn't "If you graduate from high school and go to college." It was "When you graduate from high school and go to college."
While working at the pantry throughout high school, I excelled in school, earning good grades, becoming a leader in Junior ROTC and being voted into student council.
I graduated last year and attend El Centro Community College while still working full-time at the pantry. I enjoy reaching out to people who remind me of myself and my mother when we came to the organization.
I have an apartment, where my mother and sister also live, and I am proud to be able to support them. I even manage to save a little, which will help me when I attend a four-year college next year.
Some of my savings are going toward a special gift for Mother's Day, which we Latinos will celebrate Tuesday. My mother's "dream" has been to have a large, framed photo of me at last year's graduation.
I cannot wait to give her that special gift. To her, it is a symbol of me finding the right path. And I have no doubt that one day, if I have children, they will, too – because I did.
But it might have been impossible without the right help. That's easy for people who don't understand where I come from to forget.
[Eighteen-year-old college student Daisy Rivera works at the Central Dallas Ministries food pantry and resource center. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. ]