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 the semiconductor plant, leaving for work after putting them to bed and arriving back home in time to get them to school. But after her accident, she’d been forced to quit, and with little else but her disability checks to depend on, she and her two youngest children had ended up at Metrocrest. Depressed, Bea spent days crying in her bedroom with the lights off. She contemplated suicide—it’d be as simple, she told herself, as swallowing all the Vicodin tablets on her bedside table—and her children worried about leaving their mother on her own when they went to school.
At the apartment complex, almost all of Bea’s neighbors were immigrant families from Mexico or Central America. The typical family living there had an income of between $7,000 and $9,000, and that was with both parents working as housekeepers, janitors, yard workers, or dishwashers. The kids went to a neighborhood school, but they had little idea what their teachers were saying. Most afternoons when they got home, they sat alone, in their dimly lit apartments, watching television shows they didn’t understand, not opening their textbooks, which made no sense to them. The parents, of course, couldn’t provide much help: Some of them were not just unable to speak English, they were also illiterate in Spanish.
One afternoon in the summer, Bea made the rare decision to leave her apartment to take out a bag of trash. Inside the dumpster she saw a small, barefoot boy, maybe five years old. He had found a moldy piece of bread and was about to eat it. When Bea grabbed the bread out of the boy’s hand, he began to cry. She led him back to her apartment, where she fixed him a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.
The boy stared at her, saying nothing while he ate, then left. Ten minutes later, there was a knock on Bea’s door. The boy and at least five other children were standing there. “Is it true you’re giving away food?” one of them asked.
Bea had just bought a loaf of bread, and she invited them all inside. The next day, they came back—this time with more friends. “Don’t do it, Mom,” said Bea’s youngest daughter, Bel, who was then a high school student. “You feed them once, they’ll never leave.”
But Bea kept making sandwiches. Within a week, there were thirteen kids, none of them older than ten, sitting in her living room every day, many crammed on her sagging green sofa, the rest sprawled on her floor. To give them something to do, she played the one movie she owned, The Little Mermaid , over and over. She showed them how to play Monopoly, using an old game board with half the pieces missing. She stuck a drawing of the United States flag on the wall, had the kids stand up, and taught them to say the Pledge of Allegiance. “Here we kneel for God and stand for our country,” Bea told them.
“Mom, what are you doing?” asked Bel. “These children are practically living here.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Bea said. “But they make me feel better.”
One day, she counted sixty or so children coming through her apartment. She played “beauty shop” and “barbershop” with some of them to teach them how to wash and comb their hair. Hobbling on a cane, she led them outside to the courtyard and had them run relay races. She took them back inside and read them books her own children had read as toddlers, first using English and then translating. She would read them the books again and again. Then she’d make them peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
She assured her own children that her little babysitting project would be over by the end of the summer. The kids would be returning to school, she said, where they’d be part of the free-lunch program.