Central Falls, R.I. __ At his high school graduation, Juan Pena stood out. He was one of those talented students who shined a little more brightly in the already shining moment of secondary education.
“I had like three little strings on me [honor cords], and they only had two,” Pena says of his classmates, “And I wasn’t gonna be able to go to my dream school.”
The high-school senior was about to graduate Central Falls High School with a track record that gleamed with achievement. He was in the top five students accepted to Rhode Island School of Design for the upcoming fall. He had received a Gold Key award for his portfolio. He was a member of the National Honor Society and the National Art Honor Society. All these accomplishments proved disheartening rather than empowering, however, when he was the only NHS member in his class who wouldn’t be attending his school of choice.
“I felt kinda cheated,” says Pena, a short 22 year-old with flippy hair that sticks out from underneath his hat.
The standard myth of contemporary education in the United States is that if one works hard enough, the system will inevitably reward them. This very common and very beloved legend of the meritocracy crumbles when exposed to reality, especially for undocumented students who have spent their lifetimes being educated in America. The undocumented Pena found that, despite all his success, the system cared more about his immigration papers than his vibrant artwork.
So, Pena applied to RISD as an international student. His attendance would mean paying the full tuition, a not-so-tiny sum of about $54,000.1 His parents could only do so much: they offered to raise money, but realized it would be a tiring and consuming task to raise $54k a year. There was “nobody to help me out,” he says.
Pena then opted to return to his native Colombia. He wasn’t going to RISD, or any school in Rhode Island. Deterred by the mammoth price of a college education in the States, he took flight to his homeland to study art. He found dissatisfaction there, too.
“I already did this in high school,” said Pena, unsatisfied with the quality of art schools in Colombia.
Not wanting to retread the familiar, Pena decided to study music. For three years, he studied singing and piano. The college he attends charges a stomachable $2,500 for tuition.
“And that’s expensive in Colombia,” he says. Once finishing his one remaining semester in Colombia this December, Pena wants to do graduate work in the US, hopefully at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
In Colombia, success has found Pena even without his striving. A modeling agent approached him while he was walking in the street, complimenting his “beautiful face.” This led to a contract signed with “the biggest [modeling] agency in Colombia,” says Pena. (He says if he gets a “big contract” for his modeling, he’ll likely stay in Colombia.)
Now temporarily back in the States, Pena muses that if he had attended RISD, he would be a senior now. “I was really disappointed, but whatever,” he says, “I used to dream so big.”
The aptly-named DREAM Act hopes to sustain and validate the dreams of undocumented students: it would provide them permanent residency, if they arrived in the US as minors and graduate from a US high school.
Pena says, “If that had been out, I would have been in college.”2 But DREAM has lingered in a legislative limbo for the past 12 years, unable to provide students an escape route from a system which seems hell-bent on halting their progress. In high school, Pena mulled over his own wishes to escape, thinking, “I’m gonna be the one. I’m gonna make it out of Central Falls.”
“I’m still gonna make it out of Central Falls,” he says, “Something’s gonna come up.”
Juan Pena has just finished reciting his life story of the past few years when the waiter comes to collect our empty plates. We’re sitting in La Casona, a Colombian restaurant in Central Falls. Twenty feet away sits the city’s mayor -- a friend and fellow Square Mile resident of Pena-- as he browses the menu. A muted television plays a silent music video. Outside, it’s miserably hot -- over 100 degrees -- and Pena’s former classmate (and LPI employee) Theresa Agonia remarks that some people don’t have air conditioning in this heat.
Then, with a sense of conviction that is audible and formidable, Pena says, “My mind has always been that I’m gonna make it. I’m gonna be somebody.” There was a time when that dream was deferred, seemingly lost in a labyrinth of educational policy that offered no exit. Pena refused to be marooned and discovered that, for the undocumented Latino American, one’s own bootstraps may be the only road to fulfillment.
“I’ll be an inspiration,” Pena says, “to those kids who don’t have AC.”
Alex Castro, RWU ’14
1: RISD tuition on its own is about $42,000 for an undergraduate. Room and board, books and other expenses bring the total to the more frightening sum of $61,000, according to the school’s website. The figure of $54,000 is based on my interview with Juan and reflects his personal situation in 2010.
2: Had DREAM been passed, Pena would be a legal US resident and thus eligible for financial aid for a higher institution. Since 2010, Pena has acquired all his documents and is now a dual citizen of both the US and Colombia.