Immigrant faced tough choice: attend UTD and help his family or go to Harvard
KATHERINE LEAL UNMUTH Publication Date: January 3, 2010 Page: A01 Luis Duarte left El Salvador for the United States when he was seven years old, enrolling in school unable to speak English.
Against all odds, Luis graduated in June from Plano East Senior High School ranked ninth out of 1,338 students.
He also earned a diploma from the prestigious college prep International Baccalaureate program.
His achievements earned him a full scholarship to Harvard University, but he was hesitant about going.
He applied to only one other school, the University of Texas at Dallas, so that he could be close to his family, who has relied on Luis for help in almost every aspect of their lives.
Luis, 18, faced a crossroads. Should he choose loyalty to his family and stay close to home? Or should he strike out on his own and pursue his American dream?
"It's a tough decision because I don't know if my family can do it without me," he worried.
His parents can't make the decision easier. They want their son to have a better life. But they don't know if they can survive without Luis working to help support them - just as he has since he was a boy.
As a child, Luis lived in San Salvador, El Salvador's capital city. When he was 5, his father went to the United States to work, leaving his family behind.
About three years later, they reunited in West Orange, N.J.
Luis had learned a few English words in El Salvador, and his mother, Alcira, had taught him how to read and write at home.
On his first day of school in New Jersey, he complained to his mother about his teacher.
"She said 'water,' not 'guate,' " he told her.
"No, papi, tienes que aprender inglés," Alcira told him. Translation: "No, son, you have to learn English properly."
He played alone at recess, learning English by reading. His parents couldn't help with homework.
He disliked being pulled out of regular classes for lessons in ESL, or English as a second language. After a year and a half, he was mainstreamed into English.
A local newspaper highlighted his success in the fourth grade after he won an essay contest. Teacher Diana Bolivar said Luis was nervous when he first immigrated, but quickly excelled.
"At home, he helps out by teaching his parents and his little brother, who will enter kindergarten next year, how to speak English," the story said.
Working beside family By age 13, Luis joined his father repairing roofs. Soon after, the family moved to Plano. After spending his weekdays in high school, he worked beside his parents and younger brother at night cleaning offices and on weekends, landscaping. He worked on his prom night.
He translated documents. He managed immigration paperwork, making sure his family members kept their "Temporary Protected Status" so they could remain in the country legally. He paid bills.
He helped his younger brother, Oscar, 13, with homework. To earn his high grades, Luis often didn't finish his homework until 2 a.m.
Soft-spoken, he carefully crafts his sentences, which seem to come from someone much older than 18. Talking about the looming possibility of separation from his family is difficult.
"He is a very strong pillar for us," said his father, also named Luis. "He helps us."
"I want him to enjoy his life," added his mother, tearfully. "Y que no nos olvide. And I don't want him to forget about us."
They worry about how Luis will view them if he leaves. Luis said he'd attend community college if it would make all their bills and worries go away.
"They think I want this big, luxurious lifestyle," he said. "They think I'm not happy with where we are now."
Oscar cries when he talks about his brother.
"To my parents, he's the lifeline," he says. "He keeps us afloat."
On a humid spring Saturday, the Duarte family rises early to work on nine lawns.
They hop into a cherry-red Tacoma truck, leaving their East Plano ranch home to head north to McKinney. The heat, combined with a drizzling rain, makes for uncomfortable working conditions.
Everyone has a role. The sons mow; Alcira handles the leaf blower; Luis Sr. uses a weed-whacker. They work quickly, done in 15 minutes.
At one house, owner Julie Matteson is clearly shocked when she learns Luis has been accepted to Harvard.
"You'll have to find a new helper," she says, turning to his father, before asking the tuition.
"Forty-eight thousand," he responds. Harvard offers free tuition to students whose families earn less than $60,000 a year. Then he mentions the other option: UTD.
"He could finish early because he has a lot of credits," he adds.
'Too much of a load'
Classical music tapes line the walls in LaRell Bissett's English classroom at Plano East High.
Her small class is part of IB, a program reserved for some of the most gifted students in the school district.
These students face extreme stress their senior year, when they must write a lengthy essay and take a battery of tests to earn a diploma.
For his senior project, Luis wrote an essay in Spanish comparing Don Quixote's adventures to the pursuit of the American dream by immigrants.
Bissett keeps note cards in her room for students to write to her about their senior-year stress and drop in a box on Fridays. She responds with advice.
"I finally felt comfortable enough to reach out for help," Luis said. "She got me through some of my roughest times."
He was afraid he'd break down. With Bissett's advice, he sought counseling.
"I told him, 'You're trying to carry too much of a load by yourself,' " she said.
'A big opportunity'
Luis was driving in silence with his father one day. Usually they don't talk much. But his father asked about his decision.
Luis responded, "I know Harvard's a big opportunity, but UTD is going to offer a lot of money and a stipend that could help us. I could do a lot more if I'm here."
His father replied: "Follow what you think is right and don't worry about home."
Luis Sr. told his son about how his own dreams were cut short. While training to become an auto mechanic during the country's bloody civil war, "the only thing we learned was how to arm ourselves."
He returned to his home state of Chalatenango. Luis’ mother also dropped out of dental school, disappointing her family.
"I tell my sons I've worked hard all my life," Luis’ father said. "It's not easy. I say, 'I want you to be a person with a salary. Do you want to work hard and be poorly paid?' "
Luis didn't want to wonder about what could have been. He finally felt free to choose Harvard.
"The only thing I'll be missing when I go to Harvard is my family," he said. "But I have to step back in terms of my role. I don't want to regret anything."
At a graduation party in June, family members cried after watching a film that his relatives brought, in which his elementary school principal in El Salvador holds an assembly and tells students about Luis.
Perhaps one day they also could go to Harvard, the principal says. "His parents will be suffering quite a bit," said Reynaldo Aguilar, Luis’ uncle. "But they know it's for something great." First semester Luis and his mother flew together to Harvard in Massachusetts.
In his first semester, he took a class on human rights in Latin America and wrote a 16-page paper on El Salvador's war. He's helping translate interviews from Spanish to English for a student's thesis.
He received A's and B's in his first-semester courses. His favorite course was computer science, in which he and another student redesigned a university Web site dedicated to renting movies to students.
"It's been difficult work, but it's always been manageable," he said. "The IB program helped a lot. Having to go through two years where you're doing college-level work helps a lot."
He feels as though a weight has lifted. When he wants to read a book, he does. When he wants to watch a movie, he no longer feels as if he's letting his family down.
"I think there's less responsibility," he said. "I know for most kids when they go to college they get more responsibility. For me, it's the opposite."
He worries less about his parents, even though he knows his absence has been hard on them.
"It's been difficult," Alcira said. "I'm getting used to it. I'm training my other son how to help us. He has to be more responsible now. It's better now. At first, I suffered."
Alcira's goal for Luis was always that he would graduate from college, though she never did.
"It is my dream just like it is his dream," Alcira said. "At Harvard, I was remembering the time when I was studying."
As Luis starts his second semester at Harvard, he now looks ahead to another goal: gaining U.S. citizenship.
Luis carries an employment authorization card marked "not valid for re-entry to the United States."
If he leaves, he won't be let back in. Although Luis is in the country legally, his temporary status offers no path to permanent residency or citizenship.
Because his status as an immigrant from El Salvador is reviewed every 18 months, he doesn't know if he'll be able to remain in the country legally after graduation if Congress doesn't pass the Dream Act.
The legislation would offer a path to citizenship to immigrant college students who come to the U.S. as children.
But he believes in success against the odds.
"The American dream is the ability to move upward in the world as long as you work hard to get there," Luis said. "It's that ability to move forward. There are a lot of places in the world where people work hard and they can't move up."