Providence, Mi Ciudad: a view from the schools

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Celia Cabrera likes to do her homework in her bedroom, where she curls up on a shiny purple bedspread. She's a typical 15-year old in many ways, with braces and boyfriend drama. Sometimes, she admits, she neglects her school work.

"I try my best not to slack, but it's kind of hard cause sometimes I say I don't want to do it, I want to let it go," she says. "I'll copy tomorrow. But then I go Nah. Let me do it. Cause if I copy I'm not going to understand, and then the one that's losing is me.'"

Cabrera is going to have to work hard, if she wants to realize her dream, which is to go to Brown University and become a doctor. Both of her parents are factory workers, and Cabrera says she wants more than the attic apartment she now shares with her mother and two younger sisters.

"I tell my mom, you know I love you mom," she says. "I know you work hard to give us the best, but I don't want an apartment. I don't want to live in housing. I want a house. Something I can call mine. I want to become something. Not that girl that works at Burger King. Not that girl that works at the pharmacy. I want to be a doctor. I want to be recognized."

Cabrera's mother, Jeanette Corcuera, grew up in Peru and came to the United States when she was 15 - the same age her daughter is now. She never made it to college.

"I say Celia, You have everything,'" she says. "'You are a citizen. You speak both languages. You speak English and you speak Spanish. God blesses you all the time. Use it.'"

A federal survey found an estimated 70 percent of Providence's Hispanic community has no college education, and more than 40% never finished high school. That's part of the challenge for students like Cabrera, says her English teacher Pete Breen.

"I had a mother who spoke English," he says. "I had sisters and brothers who spoke English who had all been through the same sorts of educational experiences that I had been through. And that's not the case necessarily for a student like Celia Cabrera, who literally moves from one culture, one world, into another between 3 and 4 o'clock."

And then there are financial challenges. Just before Christmas, Cabrera's mom was laid off, and the family had to move. Breen says disruptions like this take a toll on students, and they're all too common at Cabrera's school E-Cubed Academy, in the Northern part of Providence.

"You're a teacher, you have phone numbers to call, and a lot of time those numbers are not good for very long," Breen says. "And it's not like parents want to be displacing their families. They're forced to through economic circumstances. They're forced to. That's what they're going through."

Cabrera spends three to four evenings a week at a pentacostal church in the city's southside where she helps lead a youth group and attends regular services. It helps her stay focused on school and off the streets. Sometimes classmates make fun of her, but Cabrera says doesn't let it get to her.

"They crack on me all the time, they're like You're the Christian girl,'" she says. "I'm like Yeah? And what?' They're like Oh, this is a feisty Christian girl.'"

That humor and feistiness are just what Cabrera's family and friends hope will help her, as she strives to do what the children of immigrants in the United States have done for generations: make it to college and maybe even medical school.

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