A Winner from Birth

Ten-year-old Shalom hadn’t been to the United States in almost seven years. And for most of that time, she had been separated from her mom.

She stepped off the plane at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, scared but mostly numb. Shalom walked down the stairs to where her mom, Margarita, was waiting to give her a hug.

“But I didn’t hug her back,” Shalom said. “I felt nothing. I guess I was going through so much.”

She said she felt so distant from her, like they didn’t understand each other’s experiences.

“Fue un momento cuando sabía que necesitábamos ayuda,” Margarita said.
It was a moment when I knew we needed help.

A photo of the day Shalom left Mexico to reunite with her mother when she was 10 years old, lies next to a stack of college financial aid papers. Photo contributed by Alissa Alba

A photo of the day Shalom left Mexico to reunite with her mother when she was 10 years old, lies next to a stack of college financial aid papers. Photo contributed by Alissa Alba

Shalom Hernandez is now 17 years old. A senior high school student at the Durham School of the Arts public magnet school, she has been accepted to nine colleges and is deliberating where she’ll spend the next four years.

She has taken six Advanced Placement classes, spends her time volunteering and serves as president of the Art Society, a member of her school’s National Honors Society and member of its Spanish Society. And although she is acing Advanced Placement English IV now, only seven years ago, she barely spoke a word of English.

But much of her life has also included taking care of her younger brother, Martin Emilio, who is now five years old. Her mother and stepfather work early mornings, so Shalom’s responsibilities included taking care of him before and after school. As a middle school student, she was the English-speaking contact for his child care.

“If he needs help with his homework, I help him,” she said. “If they need a translator, I am the translator. His teachers communicate through me.”

In fact, she’s been the family translator for years.

Shalom was 13 when her mom suddenly woke up with extreme stomach pain in the middle of the night. On the way to the emergency room, she was vomiting from the pain, and Shalom knew responsibility for helping her mother would fall on her.

At the time, she had been in the United States for less than three years.

“The hospital didn’t have a translator, so I had to stay with my mom and translate all the tests and everything,” she said. “At six in the morning, the doctor told us she needed surgery.”

Such responsibility at a young age was a challenge, but Shalom said it shaped her into the young woman she is today. And Margarita said she is proud of her daughter for all she has done for their family.

Shalom looks at a Google Maps image of the house where she spent most of her childhood in Mexico, with her maternal grandparents. Photo contributed by Alissa Alba

Shalom looks at a Google Maps image of the house where she spent most of her childhood in Mexico, with her maternal grandparents. Photo contributed by Alissa Alba

But now, Shalom’s greatest responsibility centers on her own future. She is currently entangled in the process of obtaining financial aid, so she can attend college in the fall.

Being accepted isn’t the issue — it’s the finances, specifically filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and other scholarship forms.

“Unfortunately, because my parents don’t understand the language; they are unable to help me,” she said. “And so most of the work falls on me.”

She explained that while she is a U.S. citizen, her mother’s status affects her.

“My mom is not a legal citizen, and because of that, she cannot sign the FAFSA online. You have to print it, and then you have to mail it, which is very different from someone whose parents are citizens. It makes it a lot harder.”

She has been working to fill out forms. But the forms are complicated for adults, and even more complicated for a 17-year-old. She said she’s currently dealing with physical copies of her financial aid paperwork not reaching their intended destinations.

She said she is continuously receiving emails saying there is information missing, and on top of that, she is working on scholarship applications to receive as much aid as possible. She’s confident she will succeed in getting to the right school for her.

Shalom said she only wishes the government would make it easier for students doing it all on their own.

“It’s an ongoing process,” she said. “If they only knew that kids like me, who are born in the U.S. but their parents are not from here, these differences create chaos.”

Shalom now lives in Durham with her mother, younger brother and step-dad. Photo contributed by Alissa Alba

Shalom now lives in Durham with her mother, younger brother and step-dad. Photo contributed by Alissa Alba

When Margarita opened the door, her face broke into a huge smile. She offered a firm embrace, a warm welcome into her family’s home in Durham.

“Bienvenidos.”
Welcome.

We started briefly talking about her life and experiences. As an immigrant from Mexico, she has a story of her own. But the majority of what she had to say was about Shalom.

“Una vencedora de la vida desde que estaba en la panza”
A winner from birth.

She explained.

“Ella es una luchadora, de ella yo iba a tener dos, pero perdí un embrión, ella es una vencedora desde mi panza”
She is a fighter. I was going to have twins, but I lost one baby. She was the winner from my belly.

Margarita explained she went into premature labor when she was pregnant with Shalom and her twin. While the other baby was born too early, the doctors were able to postpone Shalom’s birth, and she survived. Margarita said that’s when she knew her daughter’s strength and her ability to persevere through challenging circumstances.

Shalom applies to a private scholarship offered by Univision. Photo contributed by Alissa Alba

Shalom applies to a private scholarship offered by Univision. Photo contributed by Alissa Alba

Shalom was born in Harlingen, Texas, but at the age of 3, her family returned to Mexico, her parents’ native country, to reunite with family. She explained her parents divorced soon after the move, and her father became an alcoholic. As the only provider, her mother then left Shalom in Mexico with extended family and went to the U.S. for work. Shalom spent the next seven years in Mexico without her mom.

The family environment in Mexico was not safe and healthy for her, and Margarita made the decision it was best for Shalom to live with her in Durham.

Shalom recalled the night family members passed her off at the Mexico-U.S. border to family friends in Texas, friends who put her on a flight to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Margarita didn’t want to send her daughter on the flight alone, but there was no other choice.

“Decía ‘tienes que poder,’” Margarita said.
She had to do it.

After being apart for seven years, their relationship was poor. Her mother had not physically been present for most of her childhood. And adjusting to a new culture and language would challenge their relationship even more.

Her mom had sent as much money as she could back to Mexico so Shalom could attend a private school that taught English classes. But Shalom said the little English she had learned didn’t prepare her for entering fifth grade at E.K. Powe Elementary School in Durham.

Although she was enrolled in English as a Second Language classes, she learned the language almost completely on her own.

“After school, I would carry two extra bags with books, and I would read them,” she said. “I would also stare at people’s mouths, so I would see how they moved their tongue. And when I got home I would practice.”

Shalom explained she had always loved to draw, and an interpreter who helped her mother recommended the Durham School of the Arts, so Margarita, with help from the interpreter, submitted an application for her daughter. She was accepted for sixth through 12th grade.

“Middle school was tough,” Shalom said. “At the time DSA did not have interpreters, so that was hard. In seventh grade, I was still taking ESL, but I was also taking Honors English.”

She didn’t know it at the time then, but one of the most important influences in her life would come in a few years.

In her financial aid essays, Shalom writes about her history and her identity as a Latina woman. Photo contributed by Alissa Alba

In her financial aid essays, Shalom writes about her history and her identity as a Latina woman. Photo contributed by Alissa Alba

Her sophomore year, a school counselor, recognizing her potential and the progress she had made, pulled her into her office and encouraged her to enroll to the Emily K Center. She had briefly been in the program before in early middle school but had left because she didn’t understand the resources it provided. It wasn’t until high school that she recognized the opportunity.

The Emily K Center is a non-profit organization in Durham with a mission of inspiring young people and developing student leaders who achieve in school, gain entry to and graduate from college, with the end goal of reducing poverty in local families.

“After that, things started changing,” Shalom said. “It’s like a second home. Like a family. They don’t only help me with my academic work.”

At the end of her sophomore year, she earned the Dream To Achieve award through the center for her leadership and drive, and she won a summer camp experience at Mount Holy Oak, a summer leadership experience for young women.

“I learned a lot from that camp. I learned about self-confidence, and I also learned to be around girls from different backgrounds,” she said. “When I spent time with the different girls from other cultures, it just opened my eyes to a different world.”

And while much of her college decision depends on financial aid, Shalom said if she could pick any school, it would probably be Hollins University, an all-girls private university in Virginia. Two of her role models at the Emily K Center are alumnae.

“Because of my experience at Mount Holy Oak and being around girls, I think it would be so cool to just be yourself,” she said.

When Shalom's mother noticed her daughter's love for drawing, she applied for Shalom to attend Durham School of the Arts. Shalom was accepted, and will be graduating from the school in May. On the left is Shalom's self-portrait, and on the right is a portrait Shalom made of her mother. Photo contributed by Alissa Alba

When Shalom’s mother noticed her daughter’s love for drawing, she applied for Shalom to attend Durham School of the Arts. Shalom was accepted, and will be graduating from the school in May. On the left is Shalom’s self-portrait, and on the right is a portrait Shalom made of her mother. Photo contributed by Alissa Alba

As Shalom speaks, it’s clear she’s a caregiver, making sure her mother is understood and understands what is being said during the conversation. Even as she tells her own story, the flick of her eyes and her body language give away her constant concern for others.

She strives to help others in the community who don’t know English, she says, because she knows how hard it is to interact in a society that doesn’t speak your native language. Whether it’s at the grocery store or her brother’s elementary school, she uses her bilingualism as a tool to give back.

“Now knowing English, I try to help those who don’t know the language,” she said. “I try to help them because I know what they are going through. The language is not easy. I make it sound like it was fast to learn, but it’s not.”

When talking about the chapter ahead of her, she initially looked nervous, but ultimately, her face broke into smile.

“This is my chance to prove myself, and hopefully, I will graduate and have a career,” she said. “I’m excited to be a first generation (college student). Hopefully, I can be a role model for my brother.”

When he was younger, Shalom's younger brother Martin Emilio would draw all over her pictures. "At least it's not my paintings. I'd be so mad if it was my paintings." Photo contributed by Alissa Alba

When he was younger, Shalom’s younger brother Martin Emilio would draw all over her pictures. “At least it’s not my paintings. I’d be so mad if it was my paintings.” Photo contributed by Alissa Alba

When asked if there was anything else she would like to say about her daughter, Margarita beamed.

“Tengo muchisimo.”
I have so much to say.

She looked lovingly at her daughter. Her eyes give off the pride she has had Shalom’s entire life.

“No te vas a tener que levantarte a las 3:10 o 3:15 como yo. Tú enfoca tu vida a otro estilo.”
You will not have to get up at 3:10 or 3:15 in the morning like me. You can make a different life for yourself.

While Shalom considers herself a success story for Latina women, she wants people to know she isn’t representative of all Hispanic students in similar situations. For a lot of people, college isn’t an option.

“I want to be an example for others, especially girls,” Shalom said. “I want to show them that it doesn’t matter your gender, it doesn’t matter how pretty or ugly, or tall or skinny you are, you can make it if you really try. You can make it.”

While it’s still early in her academic journey, Shalom said she could see herself as a storyteller. Her best subjects are English, history and art, and she might consider combining her interests into a journalism degree, so she can allow others to inspire.

As education has the ability to enlighten, she said stories have the ability to empower.