Melissa Palafox with one of the books that helped her learn English.
I make a sharp left on Azalea, leaving the barrio/hood of Vista’s South Santa Fe Avenue behind. The road takes me steeply upward on a long hill into a blue-collar-striving neighborhood. The homes are modest and kept up with workingman trucks out front.
In a figurative sense, I’m also traveling upward along a road of human aspiration. The family I’m to visit “up here” lived “down there” just a few years ago, but they were determined not to stay. Hard labor, family-first discipline and love of children were the motivation by which blisters and calluses lifted them out.
Melissa Palafox meets me at the door. She’s a San Marcos High School senior of 17 and daughter of Mexican immigrants of 25 years ago. She is a motivated, smart kid who would be a high-achiever in a Del Mar or La Jolla high school. I am here to ask how.
I enter the house to find her parents and younger sister Elizabeth lined up to welcome me to their well-tended home. The centerpiece of a polished table is a book with “Biblia” on the cover. Melissa’s father, Estaban, is a landscaper; her mother, Petra, is a house cleaner. Both speak English haltingly, and almost never at home.
When the two of us are alone, Melissa tells me her story. In a long monologue, her eyes often tear up and her voice quivers, revealing the tension that goes with overcoming self-doubt and climbing out of the box of low expectations.
I mention how pleasant the change is up where she lives compared with Santa Fe Avenue only a few blocks away. My comment triggers the return of a pushed-away memory and causes emotion to flow over her voice and face.
“I lived in the apartments down on that street for the first 10 years of my life because my parents couldn’t afford anywhere else. I grew up around the homeboys and the girlfriends of gangbangers. There would be shootings there. There were always cops.”
Melissa survived that beginning to become an American success story. I use that threadbare cliché because it depicts her exactly. She is an excellent student, a productive citizen and someone who cares for other Latino youths.
That sounds like puffery, but it’s true. That’s why I’m telling you about her.
A measure of this teen’s maturity is that she doesn’t think she knows more than her parents. To her they are wise and loving paragons.
Estaban is a slight man of silence who lets a smile speak for him. Petra is an old-fashioned mother of apron and tuck-in values.
“My parents are really selfless. They give us the best they can. We always have dinner on the table. When my sister and I come home, we all sit down and we talk. They ask me, ‘How was your day? How was school?’ That is the thing I look forward to.
“I remember in elementary and middle school, my mom would always meet the bus, and no one else’s mom would be there.
“They are several reasons why I push myself in school: to make them proud to make myself proud, and also make my heritage proud.”
A guiding tenet of the Palafox household is that, for immigrants, English-language education is the pathway to success. And that turned out to be a problem. For the first decade of her life, Melissa lived in a Spanish-language bubble.
During her first four grades, she says her instruction was almost exclusively in Spanish. Consequently, when she transferred to San Marcos schools from Vista in the sixth grade, she was poorly equipped for English instruction and was headed for a remedial class. In response, she and her mother decided to do for her what her prior teachers had not — help her learn English. Her mother bought an English-Spanish dictionary as a start.
For weeks, they crash-coursed the public library. Melissa started with children’s books in the sit-on-the-floor section of the library. For hours, she studied primers normally used by first graders. They would obtain Spanish films with English subtitles and learn words that way. When she was prepared to tackle them, she read all the “Harry Potter” books in a week.
Voilà! After all that, Melissa aced the English test and today speaks with a wide vocabulary and no trace of an accent.
I ask what happens to ill-prepared students who can’t pass the English test.
“I guess they just fail. They end up taking support classes and they probably continue to take support classes. Basically, they’re always behind. They have what’s called a shelter class. I feel like that keeps kids in their little spheres, you know? It’s like the classes are all Mexican.
“I would call it an educational ... no.” She hesitates. “I wouldn’t call it a ghetto ...” She again reconsiders. “No, actually I would: It’s kind of an educational ghetto. It suppresses people. It doesn’t let them move forward.”
The shock of what she observed as a child on Santa Fe Avenue has left her with a desire to help elevate other Latinos, but also a restless anger at those she believes tear them down.
“You go down on the street, you see the Mexicans down there — gangsters and drugs and all that stuff. It’s really sad that people throw away their lives like that.”
Of underachieving Latinos, she thinks: “It’s basically about race. Because of their dark skin, brown eyes and black hair, they’ve been led to believe they can’t do anything better for themselves, better than what their parents had, and I feel like that’s really dumb. I’d like to help change that.
“People in middle school used to make fun of me because I would try. I actually did my homework. I paid attention in class. I always participated. I was the little geek. That’s what people would call me. They’d say that I wasn’t keeping true to who I am, to my heritage, that I was trying to become ‘whitewashed.’ ”
Melissa has overcome the deflation that self-doubt and the feeling of being an ethnic outlier can inflict on anyone, especially a teenager. She is an “A” student taking demanding classes. Her ambition is to attend Stanford University and study engineering.
A seminal moment came when she won a Simon Family Foundation scholarship. To her, that prized award nailed down her belief that American society recognized her worth and was on her side.
Meantime, she is active in academic, church, community-service projects and especially in AVID, an organization that promotes college awareness among youths underexposed to that possibility.
“I’ve been volunteering at my church for five years. I recently was given my own little kindergarten class. Every single Saturday, I try to teach them about God. It’s the place where I find myself.”
I’ve never liked the statement, “She (or he) is a credit to her race.” It implies that such “credit” is unexpected, rare or sort of hyphenated, either to her or the race. It’s the type of mentality that plays into themes of both the race-baiters and race-hustlers. Melissa is a credit to herself.
Though she is respectful toward her parents’ roots and her own heritage, Melissa has been to Mexico only once, when she was 2 years old.
This is as Americanized a girl as any cheerleader in Iowa.
The credit in this story belongs to a society that has delivered on its promise to help Melissa grow tall; to Estaban who gets down on his knees to pull weeds for her; to Petra who cleans others’ toilets for her; but mainly to the girl herself who has brushed aside the grasping hands of defeatism, and by hard work has cultivated a field where promise can flower.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]