At the PLUS ME Project, a major part of what we do is serve as Guest Speakers at schools across Los Angeles. We share personal stories with students in an effort to connect with and inspire them. It's wonderful when those students who have experienced our PLUS ME program see the value in our work and want to contribute by sharing their own stories. Jose is one of those students. He has a powerful story to share and is passionate about instilling hope into the lives of young people in this community.
Here is Jose's story:
Born to Salvadorian parents, my first language was Spanish so simply learning to read words like “apple” or “cat” in English while in kindergarten was a challenge for me. I remember my teacher would give us homework to practice reading words aloud and as much as I would try, I still struggled. Each time I would fail to get the word right my father would punish me by hitting me with a belt while my mother watched helplessly in fear that the abuse would turn on her. To protect myself and my mother from my father’s abuse I became a very hardworking and studious child. Despite my efforts to protect us, the abuse didn’t stop. My father eventually got arrested one night after beating my mother over not having dinner ready for him. After he went to jail, my mother became the breadwinner working minimum wage jobs and I became a man of the house at age 6. I was watched by babysitters until 8th grade and would barely see my mom for 4 hours a day if I was lucky. As a result of my abusive and unstable childhood, I became quiet throughout elementary and middle school and my understanding of relationships was that they were unnecessary and dangerous.
I went to Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights. I worked hard to excel in academics by taking college classes and AP courses. Managing my academics was difficult for me and in my junior year I ended up in the hospital after experiencing sharp pain in my chest. At first, I thought it had something to do with my heart, but the doctor told me the result was due to stress. When the doctor asked what I was stressed about, I mentioned all of my schoolwork and he advised me to exercise more.
When I got back to school and told my friends about it, one of them suggested that I join Students Run LA. The first day I ran 3 miles with them, but by the first mile I felt nauseated and ended up being the last one to finish running. It was an embarrassing moment for me. I didn’t back down from the challenge though and after 2 weeks of training I completed my first 6-mile race! Soon the marathon was around the corner. The trail was all throughout Los Angeles starting at Dodger Stadium and ending in Santa Monica. Once the marathon began I learned to finally pace myself and not care if people passed me. I was doing great until it was mile 7. Once I hit that mark, I began to feel a sharp pain on my right knee. My teacher caught up to me and asked if I wanted to stop running the marathon due to my pain. My immediate answer was no because I had worked too hard to give up now. With a swollen knee, I finished my first marathon with an 8-hour time. I received a huge medal and a sweater that said “Marathon Finisher” which I wore very proudly to school the next day.
Because of what happened to me when I was 6, I always did my best to maintain excellent grades in school. My mom always told me, “If you don’t go to college, you might end up like me.” She sacrificed and came to this country to provide me with opportunities that she did not have and I did not want to let her down. At the beginning of my senior year, it was time to apply for college. Although I was nervous, I submitted applications to eight schools and was surprised to find out I got accepted to a majority of them. My mom wanted me to go to California State University, Los Angeles to stay home with her, but I knew I wanted to grow and in order to do that I needed to get away.
Today I am a pre-law student at University of California, Merced. There is a prejudice that students who attend this school are not be likely to get into graduate school, medical school, or law school solely for the fact that it is a new campus. However, my legacy is to break this mentality by attending law school and assuring the students at UC Merced that it is possible to strive for graduate school after college. My hope is to inspire students in my community and share with them that the hardships we face do not define what we are capable of doing and who we can become. As a first generation Latino child who grew up in a single parent, low-income household, I faced many moments in my life where I doubted my potential. My belief is that education is the key to helping break that cycle, but I hope that anyone who faces these injustices will use them to power their ambition instead of bringing them down. I know that by completing my education and pursuing a college degree, I have the tools I need to help the community and future generations. One day after I graduate from UC Merced, I will pursue a graduate degree in law to fight for human rights so children will be protected better than I was from abuses of power.
I am extremely grateful for the PLUS ME Project because they helped me realize that I had a story and that it can be used to inspire others. I was extremely moved by Richard's story when I heard him speak at a Southern California College Access Network event. He walked our cohort through a storytelling experience that I will never forget. It was in that moment when I realized I had a story that I wanted to share with students across Los Angeles and I am grateful to have this opportunity. I am proud to share that I will be an intern for PLUS ME in the Spring and will share my story with hundreds of students in 2019!