What are the dreams of our immigrant students? Why is it important for us to hear them? As Andrea Antonellis prepares for her graduation from Hofstra University, she aims upward to help others also climb the educational ladder. Revisiting her roots, her story calls to all of us to help others to dream.
Meeting Me Halfway
As the festive Monday sun shines, here I am, on the terrace of my green and white, seven-story shared community house, washing my old overused school uniform for Tuesday’s class. I can hear the kids playing out in the streets, my neighbors blasting music. I can smell the barbecue that the neighbor is having. I can feel the soap in my hands and the cold water dripping down my shirt. I feel happy even though all this around me becomes uncertain, unknown and a hard reality after I hear my aunt and grandmother arguing about our financial situation.
Out of the nowhere, my aunt comes near me, bends down, pushes my hair off my ear, and whispers, “Why are you washing your school uniform? I hate to break it to you, but from tomorrow on, you’re beginning to work for this family in the plaza selling fruit salads. You need to start contributing to this family’s financial needs.”
At that moment, my heart dropped and feelings of sadness, madness, desperation and anger overcame me. Full of despondency, I looked at her, with my eyes watering. I asked her, “Why?”
Her answer was cold and to the point: “Leidy, we do not have any money for food, rent, utilities, or your school. Your grandmother is too sick to work, and the money I make washing cars at night is not enough. Leidy, you are a 9-, almost-10-year-old girl, all kids at your age, in this situation, in this neighborhood, in this country, have to start working to help their families out, and you are not going to be an exception.”
After this short talk, she walked away. I went back to washing my school uniform that from there on was going to be put in a box or thrown away and never used again.
I questioned many things. I was angry and sad. In fact, this news hurt much more than the physical abuse I have gone through all these years—from being thrown to the wall, to being hit with a chair, to being left out in the raining night for not doing the house chores and playing with my friends instead, to being hit with a broomstick. In my head, I said to myself, “I prefer to be hit, hurt physically and mentally for the rest of my life, than being taken out of school to start working.”
As I see the water and soap run down the washer, a ridged block made out of stone, beads of sweat begin to come out of my forehead. I break down and cry. I ask myself: “How am I going to be the one family member of the Reyes to go beyond third grade? How can a soon-to-be-10-year old uneducated Colombian girl, whose mother and father left when she was 4 years old, have the courage, the motivation, the passion to pursue a different life than from what’s already been made for her? How can I be that one family member that breaks the chain of a family whose legacy has been about living and dying in poverty and without any education? How am I going to have the courage to leave this family for the good of myself and for my younger brother to have a different life…?”
I couldn’t understand everything in my head, the only thing I knew was that these questions had to have an answer, a way out. I didn’t know who to talk to, who to go to for help. This news was all there was. All I knew was how it shook me profoundly, because not going to school meant I had to give up on my dreams and on myself. I couldn’t let this happen. No! I had to find these answers alone, or run the risk of leaving my family one more time.
I pour the last drops of water, full of nostalgia. I hang up the school uniform, soon to be a memory, soon to be a wish I was not able to fulfill, a dream that never had a happy ending, a hope that just vanished from one day to the next. But little do I know, that this news is going to make me push my limits into a new world I did not know.