My mother experienced a setback—a teen mom with no education above a high school diploma, she would seemingly be relegated to menial jobs.
But she wasn’t. She was swooped up by a law firm that wanted a beautiful, young girl to serve as its secretary. The pay wasn’t great, but it was steady and salaried. She wasn’t excited to go to work every day, but she wasn’t miserable. And she was still imbued with the values of the middle class: go to school, climb the social ladder. Since she didn’t get the opportunity, her daughter would.
It was a financial struggle, but she sent me to the best schools in our state—starting at age two. I went through private schools from pre-school through fifth grade. In the meantime, our family had grown. She had married for a short time and had a second daughter, almost six years younger than me. Not long after, she got divorced, then later married a young Mexican man who didn’t have even a high school education. In no time, they had two more girls, ten and eleven years younger than me.
Manuel, my stepfather, came to the U.S. when he was just 17 years old. He didn’t know more than “hello” when he got here, and even still today, though he is fluent in English, he can’t spell a thing to save his life. He learned English on the fly while he lived in Texas, but it was a struggle to gain respect from his peers. They were unkind to the Mexican boy that couldn’t speak English.
He became one of the nearly 45 percent of Hispanic students that do not graduate from high school. He is a quintessential example of the vulnerability of first-generation Hispanic immigrants.
I met Manuel when he was just twenty-one years old. Family dynamics and an illusory competition for my mother’s love, as well as a stiff resistance against each other’s cultures, tainted our relationship in the beginning. But as I have grown older and learned more about him and about the American system that he’s fought, I have nurtured a deep appreciation and respect for him.
This is a man who has worked hard for everything he has now. For years, his jobs have entailed waking up at four in the morning and working until sometimes eight at night. He works no less than six days a week—finding jobs on the weekend as a handy man for people with whom he has made connections.
Manuel may not have a college degree, or a high school diploma, but he is an extraordinarily intelligent man. He has developed fluency not only in two different languages but in two different cultures. He is well liked by everyone in his circles of Mexican friends, and he is well liked by everyone in his circles of white, middle-class friends.
Indeed, he has instilled within our family the value of working hard. That is the culture of Mexico that he and nearly 12 million other Mexican-born U.S. residents have brought to this country. It is a culture that should be celebrated, lifted up and encouraged. We should, for not only the benefit of the individual but of this country, show the value of education to students like Manuel while we have the chance.
There is a show on Disney called Handy Manny about a Hispanic man that works as a handy man. He carries his talking tools along with him to different jobs around the town. Everyone loves Handy Manny—he can fix absolutely anything. While this show is certainly cheery and rosy, it portrays a stereotypical image of a Hispanic man as a manual laborer. It teaches young Hispanic boys that their hard work and intelligence is best expended on fixing things around the house.
We should not be advocating that a portion of our population be automatically relegated to jobs entailing manual labor and paying the lowest wages. These people could be our next engineers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, business-owners, and beyond—jobs that increase their pay substantially, give them more time to spend with their families, and allow them to actuate their potential fully.
Immigrant populations from around the globe have, throughout our history, formed the backbone of this country. Without them, we would be utterly immobile, paralyzed as a nation and an economy. If our biggest complaint is that these people take advantage of welfare, don’t pay taxes, use up our resources (arguments that largely ignore reality and context), let’s give them educational opportunities that put them in a place so that they can rise above poverty.
We need people like my stepfather Manuel. We have lessons to learn from people like Arturo, Omar, Isabel—people I know that have come from poverty and given up everything back home so that they could come here and make lives for themselves and their families. Let us remember why these immigrants come: because they want their children to have better lives than the one they had back home. My littlest sisters, the daughters of Manuel, will grow up, get a good education, go to college and become anything they want to become.
That’s why he came.
We should never forget the value of these people, nor should we forget the depth and breadth of their potential.