Let’s begin with a few facts and figures. In the past twenty years, the number of Latinos under age eighteen living in the United States has doubled, to 16 million. By 2035 they will account for one third of all American children. Many of these kids are members of first- or second-generation immigrant families, and they are raised in low-income neighborhoods. Because of language barriers and cultural differences, they struggle to get through school. Today, only 55 percent of Latino youths who get to the ninth grade finish high school with a regular diploma, compared with about 76 percent of Anglo students. Those who do graduate often have significantly lower reading and math skills.
For decades, there has been intense debate over how to help more of these kids flourish in school and ultimately succeed in society. The debate is especially intense in Texas, where Latinos are poised to become the state’s biggest ethnic group by 2020 and where Latino children currently number about three million. Many of them are raised by parents who speak only Spanish and attend schools without the resources to help them. The odds are high that they’ll remain in socially and economically isolated neighborhoods, working dead-end jobs. The American dream almost certainly will elude them.
Now let’s meet Bea Salazar, a small, young-looking 65-year-old with tinted red hair. Because of an accident she suffered in 1983 while working nights on the assembly line at a semiconductor plant—she fractured her pelvis, requiring two surgeries—she is in constant pain. She often grimaces when she walks. Sometimes the pain is so intense she cannot take a bath, and she rarely sleeps through the night.
In the spring of 1990, Bea was living on a small disability stipend in Metrocrest Village, a run-down apartment complex in the Dallas suburb of Carrollton. A native of Eagle Pass, in South Texas, Bea had dropped out of high school at age sixteen and married young, but after moving to Carrollton—where her husband worked as a forklift operator—and having five children, she and her husband divorced. Bea had managed to support herself and the children with her job at