Ever since I was little, I knew that my future lay in nursing. One day when I was six, we visited my mama at her hospital. The sights, the sounds, and the smells all reached out to me. I told my papa on the way home that I wanted to be a nurse, and he chuckled softly. “Not too fast, pequeña, my little one. Don’t grow up too fast.”
My parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico before I was born. I am the eldest of four children. When I was two, my brother Pedro was born, followed by Jose. Last but not least was my little sister, Gabrielle.
Our life was always happy, even though we were not the richest of families. We always had food in the pantry, always could afford new clothes. My abuelita, or grandmother, came to live with us when I was seven. That was the happiest time of my childhood.
But that all changed when I turned eight. The hospital Mama worked at had to cut staff wages in half, and then half again. Papa lost his variety store and had to find work at a tiny auto-furnishing shop. We were forced to sell our big house in Phoenix, Arizona, and move to a tiny two-bedroom house in southern California. One bedroom went to Mama and Papa, and one went to Abuelita, though she highly objected. Papa stretched the budget to the limit and added another tiny bedroom and a small shed in the back. Gabrielle and I share the bedroom (we sleep in the same bed), and the boys sleep in the shed.
Often we could only afford to have two meals a day, and they were always scanty. I grew thin. Maybe it was a good thing, too, because all my clothes were getting too small; we couldn’t get new ones. There were no summer camps, no sports teams, no movie nights for us. We simply could not pay for it.
Another reason I hated our new home was our next-door neighbor. Mrs. Brewster was a mean, cantankerous, bossy old lady. She couldn’t stand it when we would accidentally run across her lawn, or a stray bouncy ball found its way into her petunias. She’d wave her walker at us, yelling croakily. In time, I learned to avoid her and taught my siblings the same. That was how I grew up.
* * *
Now I am a senior in high school. I am getting ready to go to college. I knew my major: Nursing! It had always been my dream. I knew that I was going to go to Cal State Long Beach. Everything was ready. Everything was set. Except…
Money. I had worked as hard as I could all my years of high school, raising money so I could go to college. I had earned scholarships. I had received money from more fortunate relatives. But every time Papa and I went through the list we always came up short.
“De nuevo, Mariana,” Papa said beseechingly. My head lay on my arms, which were resting on the kitchen table. “Let’s do it again.”
“What’s the use, Papa?” I asked. “We know the list, we’ve gone through it a million times…”
“Maybe we missed something,” Papa interrupted. “One more time? Por favor?”
I sighed but pulled the notebook that contained all my college notes toward me. Papa read the long column of writing. “Money from babysitting. Scholarship. Donation from Tio and Tia Rodriguez. Money from organizing crafts at school. Another scholarship. Money from Abuelo and Abuela. All that adds up to…” He frowned thoughtfully.
“What, Papa?” I asked, my voice cracking as I waited for the verdict that would, I thought, change my life forever.
He spread his hands out in defeat. “Lo siento, Mariana. I’m sorry. We just do not have enough.”
My heart split in two as my dreams were crushed. I couldn’t go to college. I couldn’t become a nurse. Tears blurring my eyes, I leapt up from the table and fled to my room.
Gabrielle looked up from her book, concern on her face. “What’s wrong, Mariana?”
“Leave me alone!” I screamed, throwing myself on the bed and letting the tears run fast and hard.
* * *
Breakfast the next morning was a sorry affair. I wouldn’t speak to anyone, and Papa kept sending me apologetic looks. As if his apologies would help anything.
Thirteen-year-old Jose looked up from the newspaper he was reading. “Mama, what’s heritage?”
“Heritage is a kind of balloon that when you sit on it, it farts.” Pedro cracked up at his own joke.
Mama shot him a warning look before answering, “It’s like your ancestry. Who your family was.”
“What are you reading?” Papa wanted to know.
Reciting from the newspaper, Jose said, “If you are of Mexican heritage or descent, you are immediately eligible to win a $20,000 scholarship to the college of your choice—hey!”
I had grabbed the newspaper from him. Feverishly reading the article, I nearly fainted.
“Read it, Mariana,” Papa commanded.
“If you are of Mexican heritage or descent, you are immediately eligible to win a $20,000 scholarship to the college of your choice. Write a short historical fiction story and submit it at the Los Angeles La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a Mexican-American museum and cultural center. Entries must be submitted before April 20.”
I looked up and saw Papa staring at me, surprise and delight showing on his face.
“This is the answer!” I cried. “I have to win this contest. If I did this I could go to college!”
“Then what are you waiting for?!” Mama cried. “You have barely twenty-four hours. Go write!”
I locked myself in my room, much to Gabrielle’s anger. Time ticked past as I feverishly scribbled on a paper, writing ideas and crossing them out. My pencil went from sharp to nearly flat. There: my first draft was written. Now to revise. Done.
These thoughts raced through my head as the hours did the same. I poured out my heart into that story. This wasn’t just any piece of writing. If I didn’t win this scholarship, my dream would be gone. Obliterated. Destroyed. I would never be a nurse. And to think that the thing that had ruined my long-standing hope was money.
Papa knocked on my door at about three o’clock. “Mariana?”
“I’m busy,” I growled, hunched over my notebook.
Finally, around five o’clock, I emerged from my room, exhausted. I had used every ounce of my being to write a story, and I knew that it was worth the effort. Papa looked up from the kitchen table, where a pile of bills with red warning labels lay. He covered them with his hand so I couldn’t see them. “Finalmente, Mariana. Done?”
“Si, Papa. May I go bring it to the museum?”
With his consent, I left the house and started through the streets. An address had been under the article in the newspaper, so I knew we weren’t that far from La Plaza de Cultura y Artes.
“What do you think you’re doing, Mariana?” It was Mrs. Brewster.
I realized I was walking on her lawn. “Sorry, Mrs. Brewster.”
“You’d better be sorry. When I tell your father you were on my lawn again…” She trailed off, apparently relishing the thought. I rolled my eyes but continued on.
When I finally reached the place, I saw a large red banner with a table underneath. The banner bore the words “Mexican-American Scholarship Literature Contest.” There was a young man lounging in a chair at the table, and I boldly walked up to him.
He gazed at me sleepily, then said, “Submitting a story for the scholarship?”
He drawled, “Fill out this form and leave your writing in that box over there.” A registration form was pushed toward me, and as I bent over to fill it out, I caught a glimpse of the box he was talking about. It was already partway full. I gulped. There were dozens of people trying to get this scholarship. And there was only one winner.
But no. I had to win. I pushed those thoughts out of my mind and concentrated on writing my name, birthdate, place of birth, parents’ place of birth…
I handed the now completed paper back to the man, who put it on a stack of papers, then leaned back and closed his eyes. Not wanting to disturb him, I dropped my story in the box and fled from the scene.
For the next few days I scoured the newspapers, looking for any shred of talk of the scholarship contest. My nails were bitten down until they were nothing. I pushed my food around at meals. I was so worked up about the contest I thought about nothing else. If I didn’t win, I couldn’t go to college. My life would be ruined.
Until finally, at breakfast, I saw it. “WINNER OF SCHOLARSHIP CONTEST ANNOUNCED,” the huge title said. I grabbed the newspaper and read the article so fast I wasn’t registering it. Then I saw the name. I covered my eyes and burst into tears. I could feel Papa looking at me, hoping against hope that it was my name typed there.
I looked at the name again, my heart too full to speak.
And the winner was… Diego Lopez.
The tears came rushing harder and harder. I didn’t know who Diego Lopez was, and I didn’t care. All I knew was that my dreams were torn, too broken to be salvaged.
Mama grabbed me and pulled me into her embrace.
“What’s wrong?” Gabrielle asked innocently.
I didn’t answer and neither did Mama. She was stroking my hair. “Mi pobre bebe, my poor baby. Lo siento mucho, I’m so sorry.”
Then she began to sing a Mexican lullaby.
“De Colores, De Colores se visten los campos en la primavera,
De Colores, De Colores son los pajaritos que vienen de afuera…”
Listening to her sing, my heart couldn’t take it anymore. I broke away and ran from the house. I ran, not knowing where to, but somewhere.
“Mariana Enriquez! STOP!”
I turned and saw Mrs. Brewster hobbling along the walk to me. “This is the last straw, girl! I don’t care what excuses you make, I will not have you walking on my lawn! Do you…” She stopped, seeing my woebegone face. In a soft voice I didn’t think possible from her, she said, “Good heavens, Mariana, what’s the matter?”
In a choked voice I told her.
Frowning, she motioned me to her house. “I think you’d better come inside.”
* * *
Half an hour later, I was sitting with tea and cookies, and finishing pouring out my dilemma to not-socranky Mrs. Brewster.
Her forehead was in two creased lines. “You want to go to college but can’t because of money?”
“How much do you need per year?”
I did the math in my head. “About $15,000, ma’am.”
Mrs. Brewster stood up, shaking the crumbs off her skirt. She smiled a little sadly and said, “Well, that’s no problem. I’ve spent years saving up for the children I no longer have, and I might as well spend the money on you.”
I sat in stunned silence. My hope for the future, which only a few minutes earlier had been lying in pieces on the ground, slowly picked itself up and started healing.
“You mean… you’ll pay my way for college?”
She nodded, looking a little anxious about my reaction.
I smiled. Suddenly I jumped up and hugged her, dancing and singing with delight. I was going to college! My dreams were going to be fulfilled! I would become a nurse. My heart, which a moment ago felt like a deserted cavern, empty and dark, was shouting for joy at the generous gift of the elder lady next to me.
After a little while, I quieted down. “Why are you doing this for me?” I asked Mrs. Brewster. “I mean… I always thought you hated us.”
Mrs. Brewster laughed softly. “No, Mariana. Not hate. Annoyed beyond belief, maybe, but never hate.” Her gaze became distant. “You know, I was once an immigrant from Ireland. I had dreams, too. Dreams to get a good education, raise a family…” Her voice was sad. “Much like you, I couldn’t afford to go to college. Only I never went. And then much later, both of my children died. I… I want you to have the chance that I never did.
“Go to college, Mariana. Get a degree. Get a good job. Support your family. I want you to make the most out of your life. Will you do that for me?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
She put a hand on my shoulder. “Let’s go tell your family that you are indeed going to be a nurse!”
I got up, my heart so full that I thought it would burst. “Let’s,” I said.