At the age of five I had my very own encyclopedia. I couldn’t pronounce the word much less know what it was. I stared at the golden pages of the beautifully bound, burgundy leather books.
“And what is it for?” I asked my dad.
“So you can go to college,” he replied.
I still remember what the glossy pages smelled and felt like. My dad paid for them in installments. They still sit in his office.
My father was an immigrant from Mexico with a sixth-grade education who spoke broken English. Contrary to what Mr. Trump believes, he wasn’t a rapist or on government assistance. He worked a factory job, which he used to pay for my private school education.
I would feel horrible getting a bad grade, knowing my dad worked hard to send me to this school which, as he said, was “the best investment he could have made.”
“Ten years from now, the color of your hair, your shoes, and clothes—none of it will matter. Only your education will, you will take that with you everywhere you go.”
He was right.
He read me books or told me stories every night. He handed me the Spanish newspaper and had me read it out loud to ensure I could not only speak Spanish, but also read, write and understand it.
Being a single father, he did the best he could to give me the best life possible. At times I could even sense that he might have felt a little guilty because my mother wasn’t in the picture; she left when I was a kid, taking my only sibling, my little brother, with her.
When it came to anything related to school or education, he would go out of his way to provide it. Dial-up AOL soon replaced my encyclopedias. I had a desktop computer with no desk. I did my homework by sitting on the floor with the computer propped up on a coffee table.
I took a bus, two trains and a shuttle to get to my private all-girls high school in a nice neighborhood. I never felt like I fit in. I wasn’t cool, I didn’t drive a Mercedes and my dad was not a doctor. I was the girl from South Central; rumors circulated that I sold drugs out of my bedroom window. At home, I was the rich girl with AOL who went to private school. I lived in these two very different worlds, without belonging to either.
A classmate’s car window was broken and I was questioned. “You know she lives in the ghetto, it was probably her.” I felt singled out by teachers; I was already labeled. I advocated for myself constantly and it became exhausting. I got in a fight and was expelled.
My dad met with the principal and they agreed to let me finish out the semester. Imagine going to a private school that doesn’t want you there. I hated it.
Being expelled meant public school. No private school was going to take me having that expulsion on my record. Public schools are based on the area you live in. We lied and used someone else’s address to avoid my going to the local high school. At first, it wasn’t much better.
My first day of school I went to all of my classes and was in disbelief. It was 10th grade English and we were learning basic grammar. I went to the principal’s office and asked to change my classes. He said he would do so if I earned straight A’s. That accomplished, I was switched to AP and honors classes. We had so many resources—computers in the classroom, books to take home, small class numbers and the teachers were amazing. I was in student government and Key Club.
Then I got pregnant.
Soon, I began to hear whispers about me. I tried to hide my pregnancy, but they knew. Teachers gave me judgmental looks and made comments under their breath. When I asked for college information, the counselor replied, “For what? You’re not going to go, so why do you want it for?”
My father did not judge me or turn his back on me; he was there for me more than ever before. Despite his disappointment, he made my future a priority as he always did. I graduated high school with honors and a giant belly. I went to East Los Angeles College, a community college, made the dean’s list and graduated with honors.
The day I received an acceptance letter to California State University, Northridge, it meant that the cycle was broken and a college education would now be a given, no longer a question.
If it was not for the foundation my father built, with his support and guidance, I may not have gone to college. All he taught me, all he sacrificed and worked for led to what we long wanted.
Now I ask my daughter, “Celeste, what college are you going to?”
She replies, “Yale, Mom. I want to go to Yale.”
This was my immigrant father’s dream. For me, for her.
Photo of Lily Gonzalez and Father Greg of Homeboy Industries. This post originally appeared on Education Post.
She is a recent cancer survivor and through some years of adversity has risen above all her recent challenges. Lily is a Homeboy Industries graduate and full-time student at California State University, Northridge. She has continued to live her life in South Los Angeles with her two children. She works to show her children that anything can be done with hard work, determination and perseverance even in the face of unimaginable challenges. Her daughter is in a Charter School and she is working to find the right Preschool program for her youngest child.
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