Great Expectations

By David Ruben / July / August 1999
November 12th, 2007

A Short, stocky woman wearing a calf-length royal-blue dress is almost lost in the crowd. Her hair, a multihued tangle of whites, reds, and browns, is tied with a large bow that matches her dress - a girlish touch that seems at odds with her craggy, weathered, and almost pugnacious face. Her thick, calloused hands clutch a cellophane-wrapped rose and a set of keys. Standing halfway between University Hall and the Van Wickle gates on a hot Commencement morning, she leans over the cloth barricade, straining for a view of the procession as it makes its way down College Hill.

Behind her stands a man who, like her, is small, nutmeg-skinned, and clad in blue. His face is adorned with a gravity-defying salt-and-pepper moustache that juts out at right angles from his cheeks then trails off into space without a hint of droop or curl. He wears a pair of dark-brown cowboy boots and a gray Stetson, the front of which sports three United Farm Worker pins. He seems oblivious to the jostling around him; his hands, thick and labor-hewn like the woman's, are folded loosely in front of him. One of them holds a graduation program.


The woman peers intently past the crowd toward University Hall, squinting in the bright sun. As each reunion class strides by, she turns and speaks softly to her husband: "


Finally the class of '99 appears. The blue-clad woman becomes more agitated. Suddenly she finds the object of her search: an olive-skinned young woman with a mass of jet-black curls spilling out from under her mortarboard and down the back of her gown, a canary-colored sorority sash draped around her neck. The young woman's face is hard and stern, but as soon as the two women spot each other, their faces burst into wide smiles. The young woman breaks ranks to envelop her smaller mother in a fierce, quick hug. As they separate, the mother presses the rose into her daughter's hand and grazes her cheek with her fingers. Then she watches the young woman hurry to reclaim her spot and disappear into the tide of black. The father remains still, hands folded, his face impassive in the hot sun.

A few hours hours later, the students, joined by throngs of admiring relatives and friends, gather on the Green for the ritual conferring of degrees. When President E. Gordon Gee stands to address them from a stage bursting with such luminaries as Steven Speilberg, John Glenn, and Jordan's Queen Noor, his subject at first is family, and he singles out two seniors for recognition. One of them is Blanca Rojas, who, Gee says, came to Brown from a small town on the Texas-Mexico border, "rising from las colonias, where most of the children barely complete the ninth grade." Rojas, Gee asserts, "would undoubtedly agree that more than one name should go on her diploma." Referring to her parents "and their steadfast faith in her abilities," he concludes: "Maria and Antonio Rojas share Blanca's Commencement in the profoundest sense."

From her seat among the graduating seniors, Blanca Rojas, the young woman with the dark curls and yellow sash, listens with heart pounding. A brother and brother-in-law, perched on folding chairs in a patch of shade beside Sayles Hall, hear his words as well. But Maria and Antonio have left the Green. Their trip to witness their family's first-ever college graduation has taken them farther from home than either has ever been, farther even than their many thousand-mile treks north to pick cucumbers, strawberries, apples, and other crops harvested by migrant laborers; they are hot and tired after hours of waiting on the overcrowded, sun-drenched Green and have left early to sit under a tent in the courtyard of Giddings House, where Blanca will receive her diploma from the anthropology department this afternoon.

Later, when told of this singular moment, Maria Rojas simply shrugs. Perhaps she is determined that nothing mar this day. Perhaps in all the excitement, she cannot quite comprehend what has happened. Or perhaps being held up as an example by an Ivy League president strikes her as no more remarkable than the improbable journey that has taken her Blanca from the lower Rio Grande valley to Brown in the first place.

The Spanish word colonia means "community" or "neighborhood," but along the Texas-Mexico border over the last several decades, it has taken on a less bucolic definition: a primitive, unincorporated rural development whose residents, mostly Mexican-Americans, live in substandard housing, often without basic services such as running water, electricity, sewage systems, local schools, and paved roads.

The first colonias began to spring up along the border in the 1950s, as developers (commonly preceded by the adjective "unscrupulous" when described today) bought up cheap, isolated, arid land tracts then subdivided them for sale to poor families, who typically agreed to pay the developer little or nothing down and a monthly payment of $50 or $100 in a shady system known as "contract for deed." In this practice the buyer receives no deed, equity, or security until the entire loan is paid off. The new "landowners" then set about building their own houses, often out of whatever discarded materials they could find. Municipal codes and services were nonexistent, since there was no municipality to provide them.

More recently, as irrigation-nurtured agriculture and NAFTA-fueled commerce have boomed along the border, so have las colonias. Today, an estimated 400,000 Texans live in about 1,500 colonias between El Paso and Brownsville. Despite pledges of government assistance, many thousands of colonia residents still cannot flush a toilet, drink water from a tap, or take a shower. They suffer higher-than-normal rates of hepatitis, dysentery, tuberculosis, and cholera. Incomes are low, and dropout rates high.

Nearly half of Texas's colonias are clustered near the state's extreme southern tip, in Hidalgo county, whose broad, irrigated fields of cotton, sorghum, sugarcane, and citrus, all nourished by irrigation from the Rio Grande, have made it the most agriculturally productive county in Texas, as well as a magnet for farm workers and their families. About a thousand of them live in Monte Alto, which sits on Highway 88 midway between the booming cities of McAllen and Harlingen.

A few of Monte Alto's houses, with their trim construction, carports, and front-yard satellite dishes, could pass for modest dwellings in any lower-middle-class American suburb, but the house occupied by Maria and Antonio Rojas is not one of them. Framed with discarded palettes and other scrap lumber, sheathed in faded plywood, trimmed with ill-fitting windows and sloping doors, it is a cramped jury-rigged structure fashioned from sweat, ingenuity, and a hodgepodge of scavenged materials. Until last year, the house had no running hot water. The toilet is a precarious-looking outhouse, constructed of gaping boards, corrugated metal, and an old louvered door.

The house sits on a corner lot, surrounded by a dirt yard that is equal parts tropical forest, wildlife sanctuary, and junkyard. On one side, a brace of peacocks preens in a sprawling coop; beyond them, in the vacant lot next door, three horses graze in the tangled brush. On the other side grows - explodes might be a better word - what Maria affectionately calls her jungle: a riot of hibiscus, roses, lilacs, palms, mesquite trees, chile plants, and other varieties of flora whose thickly intertwined leaves and flowers form a cool oasis from the searing south-Texas sun. Scattered everywhere is an inventory of goods that could put even the most committed recycler to shame: broken-down shopping carts, plastic toys, ancient tools, oil drums, car batteries, old doors, concrete blocks, and milk crates, almost all of it serving some purpose. The front seat of an automobile, for example, is Maria's jungle chaise; a toilet bowl is her cactus planter. Dogs skulk and chickens scurry among the debris, until Maria shoos them away with a sharp Spanish command and a clap of the hands.

Blanca Rojas was born in 1976, the last of eight Rojas children (four others died as infants). Living in the small dirt-floor house at that time were three sisters, two brothers, four nieces and nephews, a brother-in-law, and Blanca's parents. Water came from an outdoor spigot and hose. Despite the conditions, Blanca says, she never remembers going hungry, although, she adds, "We ate a lot of beans."


Like most of their neighbors, the family scraped by on field work supplemented, when jobs were scarce, with food stamps and occasional welfare checks. In winter they picked local crops such as oranges, grapefruits, cabbages, sugarcane, and cotton. When summer arrived, the family drove "up states," as Maria calls it, to Indiana or Michigan, where they joined other migrant workers picking strawberries and cucumbers. Sometimes they stayed through the fall for the apple harvest.

When Blanca was three, her mother was badly injured by a truck that broadsided the car she was riding in. Maria was forced to retire from field work, and the family ended their summer sojourns north. (Blanca, Maria laughs, is her only child to have been denied the "honor" of working as a migrant farmhand.) To comprehend how Blanca Rojas went from a Rio Grande colonia to a College Hill sorority, you must first understand Maria. While Blanca was growing up, her father, Antonio, was often away on picking jobs, so his influence has been less. Left alone with her children for months at a time, Maria, ever resourceful, became a one-woman cottage industry, peddling Tupperware and Avon products and making everything from crocheting and embroidery to candied apples for the kids to sell in the neighborhood. She's picked oranges to sell door-to-door and collected scrap metal. "When I go walking," she says, "I pick up all the cans."

As if caring for her large family weren't enough, Maria in recent years has also become a local activist pushing for better housing and services in Monte Alto. Most recently, she has been helping spearhead the transformation of a nearby crumbling old store into a youth center. She also serves on the board of the Rio Grande Valley Empowerment Zone Corporation, a federal community-development initiative that provides loans and grants for job training, housing, and education. Last year, her work took her to Washington, D.C., where she attended an Empowerment Zone conference and met President Clinton and Vice President Gore.

Maria is also known in Monte Alto for dispensing advice and medical wisdom. Well-versed in the ways of traditional healing, she was the family doctor and dentist when her children were growing up, treating everything from ear infections to stomach ailments and toothaches with homegrown herbs and plants. Blanca, who grew up playing with and helping to care for a gaggle of nieces and nephews (most of her siblings are much older than she), absorbed her mother's medicinal talents, mixing remedies and even pulling teeth. The experience - and a rare, memorable childhood visit to a mainstream practitioner when she cut herself badly while playing on a pipe - convinced her early on that she wanted to be a doctor.

Maria, who had her first child at thirteen, was also a potent example of what not to do. "I've been after my kids since the day they were born," she says. " 'Don't make the same mistakes I did.' 'Go to school,' I always told them. 'Stay in school.' 'Don't have kids early. I had no teenage years - my toys and my dolls were you kids.'"

The Rojas children heeded their mother's advice. Several graduated from high school; two went on to vocational school; and one, twenty-six-year-old Tony, attended the University of Michigan for a time. But none took her words to heart as fiercely as Blanca. "I have always been really into academics," Blanca says. "And I think it's because of my mother. She always said that an education could take me wherever I wanted in life. She was my motivation and inspiration to really really give it my all."

Blanca was valedictorian of her eighth-grade class, and after what she calls "kind of slacking off" during her freshman year at Edcouch-Elsa High School, she picked up the pace with straight A's and a full plate of extracurricular activities, including basketball, tennis, and cheerleading. Clearly college would follow, but which one? At the end of her freshman year, Blanca heard an older student mention Brown.

"I was like, 'What is that?' " she recalls with a smile. "He said, 'Oh, it's a school in Rhode Island.' I went to the library and found a pamphlet on it. It looked so nice. So I said, 'You know what? I'm going to Brown.' "

It was a capricious, even dubious, choice. Luckily for Blanca, however, a young, energetic English teacher named Frank Guajardo, himself an Edcouch-Elsa graduate, had set up an ambitious program to encourage the school's top students to apply to Ivy League colleges. Guajardo's approach combined intensive academic preparation, help with college applications and taking tests, and even a Northeastern tour to experience the distant campuses firsthand.

"Blanca walked into my classroom one day," Guajardo recalls, "and said, 'Mr. Guajardo, I'm interested in Brown University.' Just like that." Guajardo was blunt: Blanca, who was enrolled in courses one step below the top gifted-and-talented track, would have to quickly accelerate her academic program to warp speed. "I said, 'Okay, Blanca, if you want to go to that kind of school, you have to transfer to gifted-and-talented classes right away. You have to get into my English class. You have to start preparing for courses like calculus. You can do it. But you have a lot of work ahead of you.' " Within a few days Blanca had switched her entire schedule.

In the fall of Blanca's senior year, Guajardo chose the eight students who would fly north with him for the Ivy League tour. Blanca wasn't first on his list - although she ranked fourth in her class, her SAT scores were mediocre - but he says her "intangibles" were compelling: "Blanca had gotten a late start with the accelerated program, but her desire was so clear, her progress so good, her expectations of herself so strong, that she essentially selected herself."

The trip, a whirlwind tour of seven universities in three cities (Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.) reinforced Blanca's early infatuation with Brown. Princeton and Harvard struck her as too snobby, MIT too forbidding, and Columbia and George Washington were too urban. At Yale she was almost mugged. "Brown seemed small, quiet, and peaceful," she says. "The campus was beautiful. The people I met were so nice and welcoming. As soon as I got there, I was like, 'This is where I want to be. This is where I'm going to be.' "

Brown was the only school outside Texas to which Blanca applied. When she received her acceptance letter (along with two other classmates, Geno Rodriguez and Ernesto Ayala, who also graduated this spring), she was ecstatic. "I was jumping up and down," she says, laughing at the memory. "If I could have, I probably would have done cartwheels down our school hallway. I was just hugging my mother for a long time." She pauses. "Then we said, 'So how are we going to get the money?'" Brown had offered Blanca a three-quarters scholarship, and work-study jobs and loans would cover most of the balance of her tuition. But that still left close to $900, a trifling sum for many Brown families, but a near-insurmountable hurdle for the Rojases.


So they turned to their community. That summer Blanca and her family sponsored bake sales, raffles, Tupperware bingos, chicken-plate dinners - just about any scheme they could devise to raise the needed cash. "Every time people saw me, they'd be like, 'Uh oh, here she comes again,'" Blanca recalls. "But they were joking; everybody in Monte Alto really pulled together to help."

By the end of July the family had managed to raise the needed funds. Now they had to get to Providence. A travel agent inexplicably booked Blanca, Geno, and Ernie a flight to Baltimore, with the balance of the journey to be made by train - a nearly all-day, all-night odyssey. Finally, exhausted from her sleepless night, bruised and sore from lugging her duffle bag, two suitcases, and a backpack through airports and train stations, Blanca arrived at Everett House. She vaguely remembers someone helping carry her bags to her fourth-floor room. Her roommate had not yet arrived. She lay down on a bed and immediately fell into a deep sleep.

She was at Brown.

The trip north turned out to be the easy part. Blanca had a dismal freshman year. Homesick, she missed her mother terribly. She became depressed and distracted by a series of crises in Monte Alto - her mother fell ill, a niece got pregnant and ran away from home. She got along badly with her New England private-school roommate, whose party-hearty style clashed with Blanca's more conservative Catholic sensibility. ("The first question I asked Blanca when she got up there to Brown was, 'Did you find a church?' " Maria says. "When she told me she'd found one near the school, I said to myself, 'Well, Lord, thank you. I think I guided her straight.' ")

Blanca was particularly appalled when one day she heard her roommate angrily cursing at her parents over the phone. "I just couldn't believe someone could treat their parents with so little respect," she says. In fact, Blanca found much of Brown's predominant culture new and confusing. Didn't anyone listen to Tejano music up here? Were those people actually talking about going to Bermuda for the weekend? What about this custom of boys and girls publicly greeting each other with hugs and kisses, a casual intimacy in Providence that would raise eyebrows back in the Valley?

Associate Dean of the College Armando Bengochea, whose duties include liaison to Brown's 300 Latino undergraduates, says that despite the University's efforts to help ease the transition for students such as Blanca, a rough beginning is inevitable. "How does someone like Blanca arrive from a place that might as well be on the other side of the world and make a campus like this her own?" he asks. "Everything, from the colonial buildings to the fast pace, is foreign. Most of your unitmates are relatively privileged; they arrive already knowing how to negotiate this kind of environment. It's like everyone else has a head start, and you feel like you're starting at square one."

But it was in her schoolwork, where she had always shined, that Blanca felt most deficient. Even the fastest track at Edcouch-Elsa hadn't equipped her for the rigors of an Ivy League curriculum - particularly the punishing pre-med program - or for the competition with students from the nation's elite public and private schools. "I knew coming in that I wasn't going to be fully prepared academically," Blanca says. "But I didn't know I was going to be that badly prepared, especially in the sciences. No matter how much I studied - and I studied a lot - I just couldn't keep up. I'd think to myself, 'Why are you here? You can't even do this simple problem. Maybe you're just a minority they needed to fill a quota. You don't belong here!'"

Compounding the problem was Blanca's determination to tough it out on her own. Associate Director of Admissions Mercedes Domenich, who has been recruiting at high schools in the Rio Grande Valley for more than ten years, says such a response is common among students like Blanca. "In some ways it's a cultural issue," Domenich explains. "Latino students from poor backgrounds often ask for very little help, even when they need it. They feel they don't want to be a bother or a burden - as opposed to the more privileged middle-class kids, who tend to come in with a sense of entitlement and say, in effect, 'Okay, I'm here - what are you going to do for me?' "

The result for Blanca was social isolation and academic failure. Only last-minute intervention by Dean Bengochea prevented her from being forced to take a year off by Brown's Committee on Academic Standing - an action Blanca believes would have permanently snuffed out her dream. "I knew deep down," she says, "that once I returned to my family and community, I wouldn't go back."

Blanca returned for her sophomore year - and blossomed. Though she continued to take some science courses, she changed her concentration from pre-med to anthropology. She checked in regularly with Dean Bengochea, ensuring that support would be there when she needed it. Despite her thirty-hour-a-week work-study job, she took on extra courses to make up for those she had failed. She carved a social niche, cofounding Sigma Lambda Sigma Hermandad Latina, a public-service-oriented Latina sorority (members tutor Latino high-school students from Providence on Saturday mornings). "I think the sorority played a big role in helping Blanca gain her footing both academically and socially," says Kim Hemond '99, a red-haired classmate from Rhode Island who has known Blanca since they lived on the same hall freshman year.

Blanca worked even harder than ever. "I was feeling, 'I can't give up, I can't give up,' " she says. " 'I don't care what I have to do; I don't care if I don't sleep for days. Somehow, I have to pass.' " "Blanca never looked back after that freshman year," says an admiring Bengochea. "She really turned it around. It took enormous will. And it's an enormous accomplishment."

Maria Rojas says she always knew that her daughter who "wanted the sky" would return to her roots. And she did, returning to Monte Alto this summer, living with her parents, and continuing the Monte Alto community-organizing projects she began during breaks from Brown. But will she stay?

Blanca says she'd like to teach for a few years, to help kids from places like Monte Alto set their sights on college. She'd even like to take over the Ivy League program pioneered by Frank Guajardo. But good jobs, even for an Ivy League graduate, are few around Monte Alto. Blanca suffered a setback this summer when a hoped-for teaching job at her old high school fell through. She headed back to Providence at least temporarily. She still expects eventually to attend graduate school of some kind: maybe in education, maybe in anthropology. If she can stomach a few more science courses first, she says, she might even try medical school. And, oh, yes, she would like to earn enough money to build her parents a new house: "A real house," she says, "with real walls, a real floor, and a real bathroom."

Meanwhile, she may have her hands full just keeping up with her mother. Maria is about to collect her General Equivalency Diploma - she has only to pass the math test - and is thinking about enrolling at the University of Texas, Pan-American, in nearby Edinburg.

"I don't know," Maria exclaims, "I think I might just go for it."

It's the Rojas way.

David Ruben is a contributing editor of Parenting magazine.

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