“In Mexico the family seems to be a centripetal force; in the US it is a centrifugal force.”
—Carolo and Marcelo Suárez Orozco, Transformations: Immigration, family life, and achievement motivation among Latino adolescents, Stanford UP 1995
“And for those of you who don’t know what Barnard is,” says LaTonya into the microphone, hands on hips, “let me tell you: it’s Ivy League, aright?” Everyone laughs. She’s earned that swagger, along with the scholarship that promises to put her all the way through graduate school before she’s even started her freshman year. Now there are hundreds of grown women in the hotel ballroom, eating salmon to celebrate her and her GirlSource sisters.
GirlSource hires 150 poor girls a year, aged 14 to 18, mostly from the Mission, Bayview, Hunters’ Point. They’re trained–and paid–to run a chatty health information website, by girls, for girls. They design, research, write, and code the whole thing, picking up skills they can sell. “We’re not from the kind of communities where we all got the internet at home,” one explains. As part of the program, they also get tutoring, help with college applications and scholarship research, and a safe place to hang out with other girls.
“Can you imagine that I used to be so shy I didn’t want to open my mouth to strangers?” Marisa says gleefully to 600 strangers. ” I’m Filipina-American. We’re raised to obey authority, but not to have high self-esteem. That turned me into a hater. I didn’t know how to appreciate my own qualities, so I hated on other girls to make myself feel better. Girls do that. They hate on people until that person’s confidence is totally destroyed, and that makes them powerful. But when I’d hate on people and bring them down, I’d still feel empty inside. GirlSource taught me to flip the script. When I met the other girls in the program, I was de-fen-sive, wondering what they were thinking about me. Now I look at these beautiful girls, and all they can do, and I feel sooooo proud to be a GirlSource girl.”
In America, just 4% of Hispanic 12th-graders can read at their grade level. For African-American students, it’s even worse. But in spite of poverty, pregnancies, family problems, and sometimes even homelessness, 96% of GirlSource girls graduate from high school. 80% get to college–and most are the first in their families to do so. The organization directors believe that the best way to change a community is to pick a small number of individuals and stick with them. In their turn, the girls tend to stick with the program.
18-year-old Cristina tells how she’s worked to help support her family since she was thirteen. How she took BART for an hour and a half each way to get to school, and worked after school, and made time for GirlSource, and still kept up a 4.2 grade-point-average.
“There was this one class where I got a B. But it was AP so it counts as an A, right?” She had always dreamed of going to New York City. The hardest moment, she said, was one night when her father was sick and she brought him something to eat in his bedroom and he cried that he was so lonely, that things were so hard in the United States. How could she think about leaving home when her father would miss her so much? And then she remembered what she had learned at GirlSource, about standing up for herself, honoring her own needs, using her new confidence to set boundaries. It made it easier for her to make the choice that was right for her. That’s why, she said–with a delivery Steve Jobs might envy–she was going to Columbia in the fall.
There were whistles.
I clapped too. How can you not clap a girl from Richmond who gets herself to Columbia University?
“It’s crazy, right?” she says, eyes shining. “I mean, they’re gonna pay for my tuition, my housing, my books–I’m even gonna get my own psychologist.”
I walk around the Mission a lot, sharing the streets with Norteño gang kids, Salvadoran toddlers, junkies, vendors selling brain and cheek tacos, tattooed hipster gringos, Sixties acid casualties, street preachers, broken hookers, and slumped day laborers hoping to get hired on Cesar Chavez Street.
In the Mission, fruit and vegetables are cheap, and the buses are studded with nuts. Mariachis strut from restaurant to restaurant in white cowboy hats. Full-throated ranchero songs float out from the bars, but when you peep in, there might be only a few old guys on the barstools. On Sunday mornings, dressed-up families walk to church, the stocky kids exact half-scale copies of their parents. Once in a while I follow a little Mexican or Peruvian family a block or two, enjoying kids who are so sure of themselves that they don’t need to come up with snot-nosed demands just to prove they still exist. I like that these families seem to like each others’ company.
(My friend Alex is principal of a bilingual charter school in Silicon Valley. Though it’s in one of the richest towns in the country, 97% of his students live below the poverty line. Their parents clean houses and mow lawns for the engineers and Biz Dev Directors. “Americans think poor people don’t care about their kids’ education,” he says, “but no one wants their kid to read as much as a parent who can’t.”)
Last Thursday night, in a week when hundreds of thousands of my fellow immigrants had marched for respect in cities across the country, a shy young guy invited me to stop for tamales outside a storefront church at the bottom of my hill.
“De puerco o de queso?” said the old woman with the mantilla, almost hidden behind her styrofoam cooler.
“Meat or cheese?” he said, trying to help me out. He was from the Yucatán. I asked if he missed it. “Claro que sí” he said.”Pero hay que ir adelante.”
Hay que ir adelante. You’ve got to move forward. I suppose that’s what drove our forebears out of the primordial ooze, onwards and upwards towards seven-fifty an hour. It’s what pushes Cristina from Richmond to New York City, armed with a precocious biography of self-esteem and boundaries. But still, I’m uneasy for her. Her story is too neat, too Oprahfied. I don’t know how it will serve her when she’s surrounded by slick, expensively-trained classmates at Columbia. What will it be like when she’s three thousand miles from the family who so wanted her to have a better life–and who needed her?
Cristina’s not leaving a village in the Yucatán. She’s already just a BART ride away from one of the best-loved cities in America, and from Stanford and Berkeley. Choosing Columbia means that she’s grasped the California mantra of personal choice, and so her decision brings you-go-girl cheers: distance equals independence equals strength. But I want more for her, and from her. I want her to show Americans how to include love and family in success.
Maybe she still can. Her own Oprahisms are as sincere as they are canned. She’s of a generation that knows how to try on and package identities, and this one is wrapped up for the convenience of the busy women in the hotel ballroom. We’re looking to feel good about throwing a few hundred bucks to young women fifteen years or twenty years behind us, and it works. I believe in GirlSource enough to set up the direct deposit donation, to read through their essays and wonder if I could tutor, or hire some of these girls as interns. (They’d find out what the snacks are like in an innovation consultancy, and we’d learn more than we’d teach.)
But even as I write the checks, and cheer Cristina and her friends, I think, oh baby, you’re going to need that Columbia shrink…