Marian Edelman: Welcome to the Land of Opportunity

Marian Wright Edelman | 2/16/2017, midnight

Washington, D.C.--“My mother always said, ‘Learn what you can learn for yourself, and then share your knowledge with others.’ My goal now is to advocate for equality and help others in need. Perhaps I have this opportunity because the purpose of my life has been to open the door for others.”

At a time when the national conversation is focused on building walls and closing doors against immigrants, Carlos is an immigrant with another goal. He’s setting an example of what’s possible when hardworking smart young people come to America determined to beat the odds and make a difference. Carlos was born in the mountains of Guatemala. As a young child he was fascinated by nature and remembers climbing every tree he could to get a better glimpse of the birds and animals around him – but that kind of freedom didn’t last long. At an age when American preschoolers get ready to start kindergarten, Carlos went to work.

At first he did what he could to help his mother as she cleaned houses. He never knew his father, and his mother couldn’t afford any of the fees for the uniforms or pens and pencils and other supplies required for Carlos to attend school. After a few years Carlos earned money by chopping wood or doing small carpentry jobs. He started leaving home where work was scarce to work in other parts of his country. He was away working when a boss called him over to tell Carlos his mother had died. Carlos was 15 and completely on his own.

The musical cultural sensation Hamilton famously retells the story of the founding father who started off in similar circumstances: abandoned by his father, forced to work at a young age, and suddenly orphaned, poor, and all alone. Carlos, too, realized his hope for survival lay with starting over in America – still the land of opportunity in his eyes where even an “orphan immigrant” could have a chance. For Carlos this meant an arduous 2,000 mile journey – most of it walking – figuring out his way as he went. He arrived in the United States with an empty stomach and swollen, bruised feet. His relief at making it to America as an unaccompanied minor was matched by his astonishment when he moved to Washington, D.C. with his sponsors, and for the first time in his life was allowed to go to school.

Carlos was now 17 and determined to make the most of this American dream. As his sponsor and guardian Yolanda Alcorta says, “He was just so thrilled to go to school, that he just took it all in. He wanted to know more, faster. Within two months of school, he was helping other students with their math. He’s the why person, the question asker.” Carlos arrived speaking very little English. Everything about life in the United States was a new experience to him: the height of the buildings, the shopping malls, the size of his public high school, snow.