By Edith Estrella-Ramos
Before the sunrise, before the
birds start chirping, before people go to work, before children
go to school, my mother woke up. She went through the six
floors of the building we lived in to collect industrial-sized
garbage bags. She swept and mopped every floor and took the
garbage bags to the curb so the trucks can pick them up.
She went back to our apartment, showered, got dressed, and
woke her three children for school. Then, she went to her
other two jobs as a nanny.
This is the story of a single
mother, a new immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She
left because she and my father divorced and she wanted to
provide a better life for her children. My siblings and I
migrated to Brooklyn when I was 7 years old to live with
her. We lived in the basement of the building, in a makeshift
apartment. The owners of the building let us live there because
the super was her friend and my mother worked odd jobs for
them in the building.
On weekends, my brother and
sister worked in the local supermarket while my Mom worked
in the building cleaning and even painting. She left me in
and would go down every hour to check on me. It was during those weekends that
discovered how much I loved to read. Every Friday, I took
out as many as 10 books at a time. My biggest fear was that
I would run out of books to read and would have to resort
to watching TV. The librarians were my best friends. I read
anything I could get my hands on and I finished the entire
psychology section of the school’s
would read any time and anywhere until my eyes couldn’t
stop reading, it was all I could think about and when I didn’t
have anything to read, I
would look up words in the dictionary.
I read on the train, on the
bus, and I would keep reading even as I walked home.
One day my mother saw me reading while crossing the street
and got so scared. "Mi
hija, you are going to get hit by a car!" Not so long
ago, my mother asked me to forgive her for leaving me alone
for so long on weekends. “My
poor baby! You had to read to keep yourself entertained.
I feel like I failed you in some way,” she told me.
All I said was, “Mom! I’m at Smith College, I
think you did more thank okay."
When I entered high school,
I finally admitted to myself that I was an "illegal alien."
We had overstayed our visa after a lawyer advised my mother
to do so, but he only stole her money. I also finally realized
what it meant to not have a Social Security
Number. I couldn’t get a driver’s license, open a bank account, sign
a lease on an
apartment, or get a job "on the books." I also avoided the college
counseling office, but during my senior year I was given a stack of applications
for colleges and scholarships because I did so well on my exit exams. I started
filling them out, until I reached the nine spaces I couldn’t. Sadly, those
applications ended in the garbage can. When I graduated, I got a job as a cashier
at a supermarket for $6 an hour. I tried to work as many shifts as I could and
if anyone called in sick, my boss would call me first. One of my coworkers went
on vacation once and I worked from opening until closing for almost two weeks.
My feet were swollen and I could barely stand up for too long after, and the
extra money I got didn’t even add up to $100. It was just not worth
I knew from an early age that
I wanted to go to college, but the closest college
experience I had were from the characters in the books I
read. I would go to college
with them, we would take tests together, get annoyed at our
roommate, miss our parents, and four years later we had a
college degree. One of my coworkers, Chari, went to Kingsborough
Community College and I always envied the stories she told
about her classes and professors. I even visited the admission
office and spoke to a counselor. I left with a packet in
my hands and tears in my eyes. As I walked past the cafeteria
and saw people studying and eating, I wished I could be sitting
there eating with them but without a Social Security Number,
I couldn’t apply for
much-needed financial aid.
I don’t know when the
story-telling started but my mother would come home from
work and tell me about something she heard in the news. I
remember one of those
stories. It was about a young man who was living in the subway
tunnels of New York. He was homeless and didn’t have
any family. He somehow made it to college. She would also
tell me that I had the "raw material" and all
I needed was an opportunity. Looking back now, I realize
that my mother had been telling me these stories and encouraging
me for a long time. She now tells me that she never wanted
me to lose hope of being able to go to college someday.
In 2005, after filling out countless
applications and spending A LOT of money, we were finally
able to apply and get an adjustment of status. We even had
to pay more
than once because the immigration office "lost" our
paperwork and we had to re-apply. But my "green card" was
approved a day before my 21st birthday! I applied to
Kingsborough Community College as soon as I had my Social
Security card in my hand. In the spring 2007 semester, I
was the first person in my family to attend college. I was
nervous that I wasn’t going to be smart enough but
my mother kept insisting that I could do anything with my
"raw material," just
like the people in the stories she told me. I also got a
job at an appliance store, "on the books" this
I treasured every moment I spent
in the classroom. I attended nights and weekends because
I was working full-time. After my second semester, I was
join the Phi Theta Kappa honors society. I tossed the papers
on my desk, not interested. My Mom saw these and asked me
what they were. I told her and also mentioned that there
was a $50 fee I didn’t want to pay. She looked me in
the eye and said, "I’m
going to give you $50, because you are
going to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your
way and you are going to graduate with every honor you can
obtain." I simply nodded because I had a lump in my throat.
I became very involved in the
honors society after I was laid off because they had
to cut some jobs. My mother told me not to worry and only focus on being a student;
she will take care of the rest. I still don’t know
how she scrapes money together to help me out. I became chapter
president, and recording secretary of the region of New York.
I was very active on campus; I attended conferences, gave
speeches, organized events and volunteer programs, and did
well in my classes. I went to Austria, Germany, and Costa
Rica on scholarship. And one day, I found out about the Ada
Comstock Scholars Program at Smith.
There are days when I’m
here and I think, "I can’t do it, the work is
too much, I’m
not smart enough," and I just have to hear my mother’s
voice reminding me that I can do anything with my "raw material."
If you go to my mother’s
house, she will probably offer you a cup of coffee as she
tells you a story. She will show you one by one all the diplomas,
plaques, and awards I have received. She will tell you that
her daughter is going to
graduate from Smith College this May and already has a job
lined up. Most
importantly, she will tell you that you can go to college,
too. She no longer needs to wait to hear stories in the news
because now I am her story.