Drugs, violence, stealing, and prostitution were the everyday realities of Cristian Cruz's upbringing in Acapulco, Mexico.
“The neighborhood where I grew up, there was a lot of violence, a lot of stealing, a lot of killing each other for territory, prostitution,” said Cruz, wearing a Chicago Bulls cap and striped Polo T-shirt.
He's been living in America for nearly 13 years now, but it wasn’t always stars and stripes for Cruz.
He arrived on Sept. 11, 2001. Besides a brief period in Los Angeles, Philadelphia has been his home since. Cruz spoke no English then and struggled to adapt to the United States, parachuting in and out of Philadelphia’s public school system.
At the age of 7, Cruz and his mother, Dominga, began their hopeful search for the American dream, crossing the barren stretches of desert that link Mexico with Arizona.
Their journey began with a flight to Sonara, a Mexican city near the border. Cruz's mother hired a guide, who escorted them and about a dozen other people through the desert. The mother and son were deprived of food and water as they endured 90-degree desert temperatures.
“[We’d] walk for miles sometimes,” recalled Cruz. “It was hot. And it all came down to where, if you got caught, you had to do it all over again.”
The border patrol intercepted Cruz and his mother five times before they crossed into Arizona undetected. The trip took three days.
Adapting to the United States was an equally shocking experience, particularly learning English and attending Philadelphia's public schools. Summer became a reprieve from that stress, but also contributed to his academic troubles.
Summer slide hits immigrants and English language learners like Cruz harder than U.S. students, especially in language learning. Many immigrant families don’t speak English in their household.
“It was very difficult for me to keep up with the English language, because my peers around me, they talk Spanish, and my English wasn’t good. So it was a hard thing to keep up with what they taught me, because during the summer there’s no help for kids for ELL,” he explained.
By the time he returned to school in fall, he was further behind than when he left in June.
“I was back on the same base -- knowing nothing, forgetting words,” said Cruz. “It was hard to go through the summer and not having the help or at least a book to read to help me staying where I’m at.”
On top of this, Cruz was embedded in a school system that lacked the resources to properly cater to struggling English language-learning students. He attended Kirkbride Elementary School and later Furness High School in South Philadelphia.
Cruz’s father made it to the United States shortly after he and his mother arrived. For a time, things were somewhat stable. In 2010, however, Cruz’s father was deported to Mexico. Cruz dropped out of Furness and began working at butcher shops and restaurants to support himself and his mother.
“My crying came from seeing my mother struggle. That’s when I got hungry and I said, 'You know what? I got to do it.' It was hard watching my mom struggle, and not have a father figure coming up,” said Cruz.
When, after the loss of federal stimulus money, Gov. Corbett made decisions that resulted in $1 billion in lost funding for public schools, Philadelphia was the hardest-hit district in the state. Many ELL teachers and bilingual counseling assistants lost their jobs. According to School District officials, however, in the last two years, there haven’t been cuts to ELL programming and funding has steadily been increasing from $35 million in 2013 to $37 million for 2015.
The District enrolled 11,879 English language learner students in 2013 who speak more than 50 languages. For the coming school year, the District will employ 293 ELL teachers.
After his father's deportation, summer slide was the least of Cruz’s worries. But now he says that if he had found support then outside school to help him stay academically on track in the summer, he might not have fallen so far behind or dropped out of school at all.
The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, Migrant Education Program, Nationalities Service Center, New Sanctuary, Puentes De Salud, Mighty Writers, Asian Americans United, Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, Boat People SOS, Coalition of African Communities - Philadelphia, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society are just a sampling of the local organizations that offer a wide range of different support services and learning opportunities to different populations of immigrants. Still, many immigrant families manage to slip through the cracks. Many are unaware that such programs exist or have difficulty accessing them.
In January 2014, Cruz's immigration lawyer told him about La Puerta Abierta, a nonprofit organization in North Philadelphia that provides support services to the city’s newly arrived Latino immigrant community. The organization’s name translates to “The Open Door.”
“We use creative ways of teaching and instructing and helping them feel good about their skills,” said Cathi Tillman, who founded La Puerta Abierta in Philadelphia in 2010.
La Puerta Abierta infuses art, culture, gardening, cooking, math, science, and language learning into its summer programming, which wrapped up last week.
“We need for these kids to remain engaged in learning during the summer months,” she said.
Tillman is familiar with summer learning loss. But in terms of the children that La Puerta Abierta assists, she says, “years are lost.” She cited the emotional baggage that many immigrants bring with them and the minimal support that the English-language-learning community has in accessing high-quality education all year round, even if they are in school.
“There has been an influx of Latino youth that have come in here without their families so they don’t have that support system that some of the other populations have," Tillman said. "That creates a whole other layer of challenges.”
A study by Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project estimates there were 11.7 million immigrants living in the United States in 2013. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol reported that about 40,000 undocumented youth entered the country last year without their parents. That number is expected to rise this year.
La Puerta Abierta serves 75-100 youth annually from countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Honduras. They entered the country illegally, and most are in different stages of achieving U.S. documentation status. Some are in removal or deportation processes, and others are completely off the grid.
In the nine months that Cruz has been visiting the organization, he has undergone a complete transformation. With Tillman’s help, Cruz recently got his work visa sorted out and enrolled in a GED program at JEVS Human Services. He hopes to earn his high school diploma by 2015.
“When I met him, it was very clear he had so many goals for himself and he really wanted to be somebody,” said Tillman. “By engaging in an educational program and realizing that he actually has skills and he doesn’t have to work in a restaurant his whole life, he’s started to have some dreams for himself.”
This summer, Cruz helped mentor Central American immigrant children attending La Puerta Abierta, started looking into nursing and mechanical engineering programs at the Community College of Philadelphia, and began boxing routinely.
Cruz relates his newfound hobby to his struggle in the United States — a metaphor for his out-of-the-frying-pan, into-the-fire lifestyle.
“I find boxing a way out of the problems I’m going through. It’s my own little world. In boxing, they knock you down, but you always have to get back up and fight," he said. "There were hard hits to my life … but somehow I managed to get back up.”
Cruz’s story is a positive one compared to the shattered hopes of countless other immigrants like him.
“I went through that. I made it and I didn’t let everything that was going on around me beat me or put me down. I fought through that and I’m here. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it,” he said.