Daughter Of Immigrants Defies Odds, Stereotypes

Angelica Alfaro, 23, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was the first member of her family to earn a college degree. She says she couldn't have done it without her family's support, but it was a struggle. She had to break with their stubborn views about the proper role of a young Latina.

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Last year, 23-year old Angelica Alfaro did something she once could never have imagined. She graduated from college. Angelica is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, the first in her family to go to college. As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, she didn't just defy the odds growing up poor in Chicago's barrios, she defied her family and the worn stereotypes many people still hold of young Latinas.

SANCHEZ: Angelica Alfaro was supposed to meet me at her parents' house tonight, but something's come up. She calls and tells me to start without her. Her parents won't mind.

Anacletto(ph) and Amalia(ph) Alfaro are reserved, friendly people. Their home is neat, uncluttered except for the walls, which are filled with family pictures. Angelica's the baby in the photos and as far as her parents are concerned, always will be even though she's now 23 with a degree in psychology from the University of Illinois, Champaign. Angelica is back in Chicago these days working as alumni coordinator at a high school that I was visiting for a story. It was Angelica's story, though, that intrigued me. Her parents were born in Zacatecas, Mexico.

ANACLETTO ALFARO: (Through Translator) It wasn't easy for us because we didn't get very far in our education. Maybe I could've finished elementary school, but anything beyond that is very difficult in Mexico.

SANCHEZ: A man of few words, Mr. Alfaro says in this country, his children's education came first.

ALFARO: (Through Translator) It was the most important thing, my children's education.

SANCHEZ: And yet when Angelica first told her parents she'd been accepted at the University of Illinois, just two hours away, there were no hugs or tears of joy. Her mother says she didn't know what to say to Angelica except...

AMALIA ALFARO: (Through Translator) Why don't you stay in Chicago? The separation was the hardest part, and the fact that she wouldn't have any of us there with her.

ALFARO: (Through Translator) I didn't like the idea of her leaving. I told her, all you really want is freedom.

SANCHEZ: It upset Anacletto that his youngest daughter wanted to flee from her parents. He says he took it personally. After all, when Angelica was a little girl, he tutored her in Spanish at home so she would grow up bilingual. He rode the bus with her to school to make sure bullies wouldn't pick on her. And he always made sure he knew her teachers. And now she wanted to leave? The room grows quiet. It's late. Angelica hasn't arrived. So I turn to her sister, Maria Alfaro Sanchez, four years her senior. She's come by to pick up her two young daughters and joins us at the dining room table. Maria says having Angelica graduate from college was a huge accomplishment. Everyone is proud of her.

MARIA ALFARO SANCHEZ: But - I'm not going to lie.

SANCHEZ: Maria leans forward and says in a hushed tone...

ALFARO SANCHEZ: She's the only one that doesn't have kids and that's not married. The rest of us already at that age had kids, were married.

SANCHEZ: We've given our parents 10 grandchildren, and we're all successful, says Maria. She's a bilingual bank manager. It's really late now, and Angelica finally gets home. But I have to leave. I'm worried that she wasn't part of tonight's discussion, although I think about the conversation I had with her the day before. She had volunteered to drive me to her old high school, but first she had a warning.

ANGELICA ALFARO: I do not know downtown. And I tell you why I don't know downtown. My father was very strict and did not let me go anywhere when I was in high school. Very strict parents.

SANCHEZ: Angelica is a tall, attractive young woman, almost giddy with self-confidence. And though she's defied her parents in many ways, she says she'll always be grateful for the sacrifices they've made for her.

ALFARO: And it almost sounds cliche to say that, you know, they came here for a better opportunity for us. You just don't cross the border and it's a piece of cake. It was a sacrifice to come here. That's my drive.

SANCHEZ: Her parents pushed her to do well in school, but Angelica says college didn't become a priority until her freshman year at Noble Street High, a charter school with a remarkable track record for getting immigrant students into college. Angelica says her teachers there helped cement her determination to go to college and then gave her the courage to face her parents once she decided to leave home.

ALFARO: I made it very simple for my parents. I said, you left Mexico. You came all the way to the United States to make a better life. I'm just going two hours away, and I'll be back. They didn't get it. I left for freedom, and that's it.

SANCHEZ: So her father was right. But Anacletto Alfaro has come around. Now he has nothing but praise for his daughter's work at Noble Street High. There, Angelica says, she's fulfilling one of her dreams: counseling young women torn by the prospect of a college education and family.

ALFARO: Every student has a different story, and some students relate to me. So to be able to serve that population, to serve it in a place where I believe in so much, it gives me goose bumps just to think about that.

SANCHEZ: Someday, Angelica says, she'll run her own school. And as far as marriage and kids, on this, too, her father has mellowed.

ALFARO: (Spanish spoken)

SANCHEZ: She should wait for the right moment, her father says. He pauses. Nothing wrong with that, he adds. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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