Or­phaned Amer­i­can dream­ers

Aban­doned in Mexico, sib­lings tri­umph in grad­u­at­ing from South­land univer­si­ties

Los Angeles Times - - THE STATE - By Anh Do anh.do@latimes.com

As chil­dren, they roamed their Mex­i­can vil­lage, selling pro­duce and chick­ens they slaugh­tered with bare hands, strug­gling af­ter their fa­ther died and their mother aban­doned them and their six other sib­lings.

“I re­mem­ber a lot about be­ing hun­gry. I do not re­mem­ber fam­ily meals. We only ate rot­ten food — fruits that didn’t sell — junk food or candy,” said So­phy Amel Peralta, now 30. “We went to school a few hours a day. But it was hard when your stom­ach was empty.”

“I used to won­der if we would ever be nor­mal stu­dents” with clean clothes to wear and par­ents to help with home­work, re­flected her brother, Allen Amel Peralta, 28. “If I didn’t have So­phy, who knows what would have hap­pened?”

The de­prived years spent in Chi­coloa­pan de Juarez, near the coun­try’s cap­i­tal, forced them to f lee to the U.S. in 1999 at ages 15 and 13. An older sis­ter liv­ing in New York paid a “coy­ote” to take the two across the bor­der from Ti­juana, to Calex­ico, Calif., then Brook­lyn. There, they la­bored along­side other un­doc­u­mented work­ers in me­nial jobs.

The two re­turned to Cal­i­for­nia in 2003, af­ter a good Sa­mar­i­tan, whose mother was from the same Mex­i­can vil­lage as So­phy and Allen, of­fered to help them learn English and guide their edu- cation. Their years of hard work had fi­nally paid off. On Satur­day, So­phy grad­u­ated from Cal State L.A. and Allen from UC Irvine.

“They’ve been through things we see in the news and at the movies, but they sur­vived, keep­ing their beau­ti­ful spirit,” said Anita Casa­vantes Brad­ford, pro­fes­sor of history and Chi- cano/Latino stud­ies at UC Irvine. “Even if they’re a part of a vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­nity, they be­lieve shar­ing their story will give those who are iso­lated a sense that oth­ers care.”

Brad­ford men­tors Allen, who earned schol­ar­ships to at­tend the univer­sity where he worked at the Stu­dent Out­reach and Re­ten­tion Cen­ter. His job in­volved over­see­ing pro­grams for “dream­ers,” un­doc­u­mented youths who were brought to the United States by their par­ents or some­one else.

She de­scribed Allen as a “gifted leader” with “rare em­pa­thy for the suf­fer­ing and a com­mit­ment to jus­tice for the un­doc­u­mented and the poor.” She also com­mended him for his “deep love for his sis­ter. Theirs is a bond so pure, so strong.”

Af­ter the sib­lings’ can­cer­stricken fa­ther died a few years be­fore they f led to the U.S., their mother walked away and left the older chil­dren to fend for the younger ones, So­phy said. They never saw her again.

“We were or­phans, and the adults in the area didn’t want any­thing to do with us,” said So­phy, whose six other sib­lings re­main scat­tered across the U.S. and Mexico. “That’s why I can­not say no to a child need­ing help. That is my call­ing.”

So­phy, whose de­gree is in child de­vel­op­ment, worked as a peer men­tor and ad­vi­sor at the univer­sity’s EOP/ Dream­ers Re­source Cen­ter.

At some point, So­phy re­al­ized that “‘Oh, what hap­pened in my past is be­cause of so­cial cir­cum­stances; it’s not any­thing that I caused. But I can use that ex­pe­ri­ence to un­der­stand and com­fort oth­ers,’ ” said Leonor Vazquez, a pro­fes­sor in the child and fam­ily stud­ies depart­ment on cam­pus.

So­phy and Allen said they plan to work for a year to save money for grad­u­ate school, be­fore pur­su­ing master’s de­grees in so­cial work and the med­i­cal field.

The sib­lings credit their ed­u­ca­tion to bene­fac­tor Brian Roge Fonteyn. He wel­comed them to his home in Pomona af­ter they left New York, home-school­ing them so they could hone their English lan­guage skills that he con­sid­ered es­sen­tial to a bet­ter eco­nomic fu­ture. “When you can’t speak the lan­guage, you can’t get any­thing done or de­fend your­self,” he told them.

Af­ter nine months of daily home­work, Fonteyn al­lowed them to en­roll at Mt. San An­to­nio Col­lege in 2004. Their classes in­cluded anatomy, hor­ti­cul­ture, weld­ing and mar­tial arts.

“They were the ex­plor­ing years,” So­phy said. “We wanted to be fa­mil­iar with all the ways of the new lan­guage, so we took ev­ery class that could in­tro­duce us to new terms.”

So­phy and Allen later trans­ferred to Cal State L.A. and UC Irvine. “You do what you need to for an ed­u­ca­tion,” Allen said. “We are grate­ful for ev­ery day, grate­ful to have a fa­ther,” re­fer­ring to Fonteyn.

“I wanted to of­fer them what they never had: op­por­tu­ni­ties,” said Fonteyn, a print shop stew­ard who heard about the sib­lings’ plight from his mother in Mexico be­cause they used to clean her house. “I don’t ask for any­thing from them — ex­cept for them to help the next gen­er­a­tion along their way.”

Allen said he and his sis­ter promised to make him proud.

“It still hasn’t hit me that we’re done with this step. I still think I’m go­ing back to school next week,” Allen said af­ter get­ting his diploma and cel­e­brat­ing with friends.

“Our jour­ney has been hard, but a bless­ing and a les­son. Our goal is to keep up with our ed­u­ca­tion to make our dad happy.”

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

SO­PHY AMEL PERALTA and her brother Allen Amel Peralta, left, grad­u­ated from UC Irvine and Cal State L.A. on Satur­day. Brian Fonteyn, cen­ter, had home-schooled them so they could hone their English skills.

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