“Jenny always wanted to go to school and graduate, but without money it was impossible. So one day he talked to his mother and said, ‘Mother, I am going to school at night.’ He was very young to take night classes; they were really only for adults; but he didn’t care about that. Jenny asked his mother to buy cloth so that he could make his pants and shirt by himself. And even though they didn’t have a sewing machine, Jenny made himself a uniform. It was not perfect, but he didn’t care; he only wanted to go to school. Then Jenny had pants and a shirt, but no shoes, and he said, ‘Mother, just buy me a notebook and pencil; you don’t have to worry about shoes. I can walk without them.’
Excerpt from A Boy Named Jenny”, by Oswaldo Rodriguez, 2012 Literacy Review
(full text at the end of this report)
by Emma Kilroy
As a young boy in Ecuador, Jenny Oswaldo Rodriguez wanted to go to school. So he made a way. Years later, he sits in a very different kind of classroom, miles from home, and recounts another time that he found a way to get to where he wanted to be—America.
It’s hard to get Oswaldo to open up at first. He is a writer; his stories usually come out of a pen, not his mouth. He answers some basic questions about himself: “I live in Brooklyn. I’m in training there to be a home health aide. The training is provided through the city, through LaGuardia Community College.” When his ESL teacher, Betty, extols his writing abilities, Oswaldo just hugs his binder to his chest and smiles a little. “I just want to hear more stories.” “Well, can you tell us any stories?” “Now?…Okay, I guess. . . this is the story of how I came to the US.” And just like that, we’re in Oswaldo’s world.
“I crossed the border from Mexico into Arizona, but it took three months to get to that point. I had to walk from Ecuador because I couldn’t get a visa—“ “Wait, you walked to Mexico?” “Yes, I walked through the mountains, through Guatemala and Honduras, with four other people.”
“Actually, we got very lost in the mountains. At one point, we were attacked by bees. We thought, ‘We’re going to die!’ When we were running from the bees, we lost two of our friends. So we were already lost, but then we got separated from them, so we were looking for them while at the same time trying to find help, but we were in the middle of nowhere in the mountains. We finally came across one lone house. As we approached it, a man on horseback came out of the woods with our two friends! The women in the house brewed coffee for us, and we spent the rest of the night pulling out the bees’ stingers.
“We were arrested twice—once in Guatemala and once in Honduras—for being illegal immigrants. The Guatemala jail was very bad. There were all kinds of dangerous people in the cell with us, and we were afraid so we stuck together. There was food in jail, but only if you paid for it. Eventually they let us go, and told us to go to the US, so we kept on walking to Mexico. Mexico was worse than Guatemala. We were supposed to meet a guy, Jose, who was going to help us get across the border to the U.S. When we found him, he took us to a house, where we stayed in the same room with ten other people, and we were given food and water.
“We were supposed to pay Jose up front, but I didn’t have any money. My sister was supposed to send it to me from Ecuador. Meanwhile, the other people must have paid their money, because they were all taken away. Only me and a Dominican . . . I can’t remember his name . . . only we were left in the house. We heard that Jose had been arrested for aiding illegal immigrants. He disappeared for weeks. We became scared that they were going to come find us in the house, and decided to try to escape. We couldn’t leave, though. The woman who ran the house kept us prisoner there, locked in that one room. So one day when she opened the door I fought her. Me and the Dominican—Nelson! His name was Nelson! Me and Nelson ran out of the house and found a bus. Now, I had one thousand dollars sewn into the waistband of my pants, but I didn’t want to use it yet. We started asking around on the bus if anyone knew somebody who could take us to the U.S. — everyone knows everything in Mexico — and we found a new guy. But we had to get to Mexico City, which was 15 hours away. We actually rode in the baggage compartment underneath a bus. It was very cramped. That was the worst part of the trip, I think, riding in the baggage compartment with Nelson, and Nelson, he’s even taller than me!
“We made it to the Arizona border, and we stayed in a construction house with a dirt floor for one night and one day, with other people who were trying to cross. We had to jump the big fence in the middle of the night. There were women with us who didn’t know how to climb, so we had to go back and help them! But we made it over into the desert and just started walking. There was a gringo waiting on the road with a truck that we all piled into. He would drive us for a little, then yell that the officials were coming, and make us jump out and run far away and lie on our stomachs! Then he would call us back and we’d get in the truck again and keep driving, and this happened about every 20 minutes.
“Eventually I was able to take a Greyhound bus to New York City, where I found my sister who lived in Queens. . . ” Here Oswaldo stops as though it’s the end of his story.
A classmate raises her hand. “So was it all worth it?” Oswaldo laughs a little. “We were trying to come here to get away from our problems. Now, we didn’t really think about the new problems we would find here. But it’s better. I’m not a citizen yet, but I am legal. I have a job and I get to write.”
“He’s won the writing prize too many times, he’s not allowed to participate in the contest anymore!” Betty pipes up again. “If you want to read his writing now, you’ll have to pay for his stories!” I make sure to capture the story that just ended, that still hangs in the air, and I feel a just little bit richer.
A Gallatin Writing Program Publication NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study 1 Washington Place, New York, NY 10003
A Gallatin Writing Program Publication
The Literacy review
An annual journal of writing by adult students in English for Speakers of Other Languages, Basic Education and General Development Programs in New York City
A Boy Named Jenny
I remember Jenny, a nine-year-old boy with dark skin, big eyes and straight hair. He was very shy. He didn’t like to talk with anybody, and his big eyes always reflected worry and sadness. He had eight sisters. The five eldest left the
house because of his father. Jenny was born into a complicated family. His father was a typical “macho man,” the only one who was allowed to talk at home. Nobody could do anything without Jenny’s father’s permission.
Jenny was nine when his mother left his father, and took the children with her. Jenny’s life became even more difficult because he had to look after his three youngest sisters while his mother worked as a food vendor on the street. He had to cook and clean and also be the babysitter. His mother was a hard-working woman, but the money was not enough to support Jenny’s ambitions.
Jenny and his mother were very connected to each other. When he looked into his mother’s watery eyes, he understood that he had to go to bed without food. Jenny always wanted to go to school and graduate, but without money it was impossible. So one day he talked to his mother and said, “Mother, I am going to school at night.” He was very young to take night classes; they were really only for adults; but he didn’t care about that. Jenny asked his mother to buy cloth so that he could make his pants and shirt by himself. And even though they didn’t have a sewing machine, Jenny made himself a uniform. It was not perfect, but he didn’t care; he only wanted to go to school. Then Jenny had pants and a shirt, but no shoes, and he said, “Mother, just buy me a notebook and pencil; you don’t have to worry about shoes. I can walk without them.”
Everybody was surprised because he was the youngest in the class, but he thought that everybody was looking at him because he wasn’t wearing shoes. The teacher started to call the list of students, and when he called “Jenny,” everybody laughed, because “Jenny” is a girl’s name. Jenny looked around the classroom, saw everybody laughing, and he laughed, too.
He understood that it was not a malicious laugh; it was just unexpected and funny. Jenny had to walk one hour to get to school, and he never missed even one class. He didn’t get any presents for Christmas Day or even for his birthday, but he was so happy with his mother and sisters. The most important thing was that he went to school, and he finished it.
Now Jenny is 47. His mother died one year ago. He lives in New York City. I know because I am Jenny.
A student of literature in Ecuador, Oswaldo Rodriguez has lived in New York City for 17 years. He previously attended the UTM (Universidad Técnica de Machala) in Ecuador and now studies at the Consortium for Worker Education’s Workers United Education Program. He thanks instructor Jackie Bain for encouraging him to improve his English. He likes to write poetry and enjoys reading classic writers.