March 23, 2005: Perspective
world away from home
By Jesús Lemus ’01
Jesús Lemus ’01 is on a leave from medical school while he pursues an M.B.A. at Emory University. He is writing a book about his experience at Princeton.
I remember the day I held my dream in my hands.
I rushed into the kitchen after work, where my job as “cleanup boy” at a local auto-parts store left me with macerated hands but great ambition. My mother, Edubina, or Amá, was in the kitchen by the table, which was supported by a chip of wood under one leg. Amá had set the table for supper with freshly made tortillas.
In my hands was my one-way plane ticket to Princeton, to which I had received nearly a full scholarship. The University was 3,000 miles away from my home in Brawley, Calif., a desert town of 20,000 people two hours east of San Diego. For my family of 12, they were 3,000 long miles.
When I showed Amá my ticket — evidence that my college education was two weeks away — she was not happy.
“Son, I don’t understand!” Amá began. “Why do you want to go so far away?”
“Amá, this is a good school. You know how hard I’ve worked for this.” My two older siblings were high school dropouts. I had just graduated as president of the student body and valedictorian of Brawley Union High School.
“Jesús, you know you don’t have to go far, don’t you?”
“Mom, this is a great opportunity. Please trust me.”
She did not. Soon, my mother was crying, and I was staring at the floor. “I don’t believe you, son,” Amá sobbed. “I feel you want to get away from us, your family, as much as possible. Are you tired of being poor, son? I feel that’s what it is. You just want to move away, so far away, and forget about us, tu familia.”
Seven years later, I hear Amá’s sobs as though the conversation took place yesterday. How could I possibly have convinced Amá about my college choice? She completed only first grade in her village of 200 people, in the mountains of Zacatecas, Mexico. She spent her childhood traveling long distances with her family, barefoot, in search of work that would stop her stomach from growling, even if only for a short time. My father had attended school through third grade. They crossed illegally into the United States, and in California’s Imperial Valley, my father picked crops: onions, tomatoes, lemons, grapefruits, oranges, watermelons — whatever was in season. My parents wanted their 10 children to learn English so that we could use our language, and hands, to find better jobs. It was never my parents’ goal to send their children to college.
The day I showed Amá my one-way ticket was the first time I had really challenged my mother. She insisted that I was still immature and that college would destroy my ambitions; she had heard of a distant relative who had studied too much and became delusional. I did not believe Amá’s words.
Until high school graduation, I felt invincible. Yes, I knew I was poor. I had grown up collecting aluminum cans and picking trash from dumpsters in South Central Los Angeles. In 1989, my family lived in a Brawley public park out of our 1978 Dodge van for a couple of weeks, before moving to housing provided by the Salvation Army. We ate ham sandwiches for days and used the park’s restroom for bathing. But I also had an innate feeling that education was my way out of poverty. I never imagined the challenges a Princeton education would bring.
In July 1997, a couple of weeks into the Summers Scholars Institute at Princeton, an enrichment program for incoming first-year students, I was approached by a University public-safety officer who insisted I was homeless and that I had made the Wu Hall student lounge my home; a friend intervened and the harassment stopped. I worked several jobs. I became a library cataloger at Firestone Library and also searched for “lost books” in the library’s collection. I worked at Tiger Patrol, a branch of Public Safety. I was a dishwasher at the Princeton University Dining Services. Often working 30-hour weeks as a premedical student, I was earning more money than my parents did together. Most of my money went home to help pay bills: $200 for an overdue phone bill, $500 for Amá to visit my sick grandparents in Mexico. I sent cash to buy my grandparents their first new refrigerator, cash to help my oldest brother buy a car so that he could make it to work, and more cash to buy my younger siblings a computer and printer so that they did not have to use the old mechanical typewriter. I sent money to buy them books, including the precious SAT books I had only dreamed of when I was “preparing” for college, and others that might give them an edge in school. I mailed clothing with Princeton’s logo for my family to wear to school or to the onion fields.
Academically, I also struggled. My public school — with an average total SAT score in the high 800s — had not prepared me well. My biochemistry professor insisted he could not help me because he did not speak Spanish, and simply suggested that I buy Spanish books to understand the material better.
But for every unwelcoming gesture, I received support and motivation. There was Professor Ihor R. Lemischka, my thesis adviser and counselor of sorts, who lent me money when I needed it most. At the end of my senior year, Janet Smith Dickerson, the University’s vice president for campus life, worked with others to bring my parents from California to Princeton to see me graduate. Suddenly, they came to know my Princeton. They toured the campus, met my friends and advisers, and were in awe from beginning to end. Apá said that he had always doubted I could finish, but he stood with pride as he watched me walk through FitzRandolph Gate. Amá was silent, but her eyes had tears.
My parents still do not understand the significance of my years at Princeton, but they are grateful for it, as I am. When Amá converses with her friends as she picks onions or packages asparagus or washes dishes at a restaurant, she tells them to keep their children in school so that they may someday pursue their own American dreams — even though she may not relate to mine. Some things have not changed. When I can, I visit my parents at our rented home in Brawley, often sleeping on the couch or on the floor. I am, of course, part of the family.