The startling sound of my alarm jolted me awake. I opened one of my eyes and saw my mom throwing on her faded red Gap sweater.
She gathered her spray bottles and her ripped-up cleaning towels, bundling them all together in her bag to use later for scrubbing floors and wiping windows. She looked at me and playfully said, “¡Levántate flojo! Ya son las cinco de la mañana. ¡Nos vamos a perder el bus!”
I sprung up the moment I heard it was 5 a.m. There was no way my mom and I were going to wait an extra half-hour for our bus in teeth-chattering 40-degree weather. I walked over to our shared closet and put on my Element hoodie – a hand-me-down from my cousin – some khaki shorts and my ripped-up Vans, which I used as work shoes.
Before leaving, I always made sure to lock the door to the tiny room we called home, which was about the size of a classic double in a UCLA residence hall. A short balding man with a peach-fuzz mustache was renting it out to us, and he had a history of walking in and looking through our stuff. We knew we couldn’t trust him – but since moving somewhere else wasn’t an option, we started locking the door.
The bus stop was about a mile away from where we lived. I used to complain about waking up before the sunrise, but I gradually learned to enjoy the quiet of those 5 a.m. walks with my mom. We walked by Troys Donuts and Burgers to grab our favorite breakfast: fresh glazed doughnut holes and a warm latte, which we shared on our three-hour bus ride.
The trip to her Friday client’s house consisted of three different buses and a 2-mile walk up a hill. As we began our steep climb, I wondered why my mom insisted I help her clean houses every time school wasn’t in session.
“I want you to be better! I don’t want you to suffer when you’re older like how we’ve suffered,” she said. “I know you’re only 13 right now, and you may not understand, but I know you will be incredibly successful one day. I know that you will be accepted into college and become a professional in whatever you choose. I know that you will give yourself and your future family a much better lifestyle than the one I’ve been able to give you.”
Achieving a more comfortable life for myself means the world to my mother, who immigrated to El Monte, California, from Acapulco, a seaport city in Guerrero, Mexico. She arrived in the early 1990s as an ambitious 20-year-old, ready to dive into the pool of opportunities that weren’t available in her poverty-stricken and dangerous hometown. Unfortunately, she struggled to find a career and her savings quickly ran low, so she had to clean houses to survive.
I was too young at the time to understand what success or a comfortable life meant, but I was old enough to understand what suffering was, and I wanted to avoid it when I grew up.
The small room we lived in at the time was the most stable home I had had in more than four years. Before miraculously finding that room for $550 a month, we lived in my mom’s friend’s living room in Duarte, California.
All our belongings were stuffed into the corner of the living room, and every night, my mom tucked me into her friend’s comfy couch and kissed me good night, promising to make things better. I could never fall asleep because I was always eavesdropping on their conversations in the kitchen. I was worried about my mother and how she was dealing with her recent breakup from an emotionally abusive relationship. I would often hear her crying, which would make me cry as well, remembering the last words her boyfriend had said before kicking us out of his house and ending things with my mom.
“Listen!” He exclaimed in a voicemail he had left for her. “I don’t care how you do it, but you have until tonight to pack your things, grab your son and get the hell out of my house!”
My mom seemed so hopeless in that moment. “Mo–,” my voice broke as I started sobbing, “Mom, listen to me. He doesn’t want us anymore. We’ll figure out where we’re going to sleep later, but for now, we have to pack up our things and leave. We will get through this. I know we will.”
Remembering those difficult times as we carried our cleaning supplies up the steep hill brought my mom and me great pain. However, those same moments filled us with a powerful motivation to climb our way out of poverty and improve our circumstances. We didn’t know how we were going to succeed, given our recent hardships – all we knew was that we were going to succeed. For us, success meant me becoming the first in our family to attend a four-year university.
But I chose to goof off and not pay attention in class, and I barely passed my freshman year of high school with a 2.7 GPA. I had to repeat Algebra II that summer.
“Do you really want to end up like me?!” my mom said. “Do you really want to wake up at 5 in the morning, go on a three-hour bus ride and clean some rich person’s house? Or do you want to live comfortably enough to the point where you don’t have to worry month-to-month about the rent, food and clothes?”
I had to start making academic changes and focusing on the one goal my mom and I were determined to accomplish together: getting into college.
After-school tutoring at the school library became a part of my daily routine. I stopped doodling and started studying late into the night. I still found time to joke around with friends, but I paid full attention to my teacher once class started. My GPA improved from a 2.7 to a 3.5 during my sophomore year. I earned above a 4.0 GPA every semester from that point onward, and ended high school with a 3.9 overall. My school counselor recommended I apply for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund’s Youth Leadership Institute, a three-day college preparatory camp at UC Davis that took place the summer before my senior year.
I had never been on a college campus before, and I had never been surrounded by so many students with similar backgrounds and dreams. Hispanic CEOs, lawyers and doctors all came to this program to share their experiences. Most of them were first-generation college students who, with hard work, had achieved what my mom and I dreamed that I would accomplish. On the long bus ride back to LA, I remember thinking to myself, “A four-year university isn’t enough. It has to be a top four-year. I know I am capable of it and I know I will accomplish it. I can do this.”
The first admission letter I received was from California State University, Long Beach. Being accepted to my first four-year university was incredibly exciting and I felt grateful that I was going to college, no matter what the next two months of decision letters would bring. Four acceptances followed and every single one brought incredible joy to my mother. However, we were still waiting to hear from UCLA.
It was a Friday. I was sitting in my AP English Literature and Composition class and all the students were talking about receiving UCLA decision letters later that day. After school, I went over to a friend’s house and took an hourlong nap. I woke up at 6 p.m., grabbed my phone, and immediately logged in to my application portal.
“CONGRATULATIONS! You’re #UCLAbound!”
I couldn’t believe it. I quickly read through the entire letter just to verify whether it was true or not. It was true. I had been accepted to the most applied-to school in the nation. I fell to my knees and started crying. As I was crying, I immediately called my mom.
“Mom! I got accepted to UCLA! We did it! I can’t believe this!”
To my mom, getting accepted to any college was a huge accomplishment. I had to explain to her the significance of what UCLA meant. She couldn’t hold back the tears.
“I’m so incredibly proud of you! With this, I can forget about all the suffering and pain we went through together. With this, I know that it was all worth it.”
Not one day at UCLA goes by when I don’t think about my mom.
I enjoy running around UCLA’s perimeter twice a week, and I always notice the gated houses with beautiful front gardens on Hilgard Avenue. As I run by these elegant houses with chandeliers visible through the windows – similar to the ones my mom used to clean – I think to myself, “Wow. I really am here. This isn’t just a dream anymore.”
Other times, when I’m studying, I look at a picture in my dorm of my mom and me from my high school graduation, and I start daydreaming about graduating from UCLA and being able to hug my mom and whisper in her ear, “Everything we went through. Everything we had to deal with. All the hardships that came our way. And we still made it here? Thank you for always believing in me. I love you so much.”
My story started out as a dream an immigrant parent had for her only child. I now get to live that dream every day, and I will never forget the sacrifices made and the tears shed throughout this journey.
Gracias mamá por todo. Te quiero mucho.