Immigrant reaps benefits of hard work
CHAMPAIGN – The journey that brought Cristobal Gonzalez to a stage in Krannert Center for the Performing Arts last month, accepting his high school diploma along with nearly 300 classmates, began a world away.
Gonzalez grew up in a small, rural village in the mountains of Guatemala, a place with no electricity, no running water, no means of transportation except for walking or horses. Parents and children worked together on coffee and sugar plantations to put food on the table.
Like many immigrants, Gonzalez's father came to the U.S. to find a better way to support his family. Gonzalez was just 5 years old when his father left.
He started school at age 7, when he was old enough to walk the two miles through the mountainous area to reach the school. He spoke only Mayan, but his teacher spoke Spanish, so he had to learn that language.
Eventually, his mother joined his father in the U.S., and Gonzalez followed a year later, at age 13. He describes his first exposure to this country as changing the television channel from a documentary on a third-world country to an American show.
"Everybody worked with their bare hands, grew corn with their bare hands" in Guatemala, Gonzalez said. "Then I'm driving on the highway (here) and people are working with tractors.
"The first day I came here, my dad bought me a bike. How long did I wish for a bike in Guatemala?" he said. "It's easier to get things" in the U.S.
Gonzalez was lonely when he started sixth grade at Edison Middle School – he spoke no English and had no friends here. But he worked hard to learn the language and get involved. He started playing soccer, his favorite sport, for a park district team and later in high school. He joined the band, and he was recruited for the Central wrestling team – a sport he knew nothing about – and became one of its top wrestlers.
"He's one of the greatest working kids I've ever been around," said his wrestling coach, Jeff Scott. "He's got a great spirit, a great heart, and he's not afraid to do anything."
Gonzalez said his life in Guatemala and his parents instilled in him his work ethic, especially his mother, who raised him while her husband was working in the U.S.
"She was my dad and my mom at the same time," Gonzalez said. "She made sure I learned to do the right things. I learned to be responsible and grow up as a normal child. She made me go to school and work hard to get better grades."
His father has a third-grade education and his mother attended only kindergarten. Gonzalez said they gave him the choice to work or go to school.
"I chose to go to school, where I have more opportunity," he said. "That choice is still in front of me. I choose to have an education. My parents grew up without an education. They had nothing. They were able to give us a good life, but I'd like to give something better to my family."
Gonzalez, now 20, said he wants a career and wants to help support his parents when they are older.
"I don't want to go back to what my grandfather and father did when I was a child," he said.
Scott said education was extremely important to Gonzalez from the day he met him. Gonzalez is the first in his family to graduate from high school.
"He always wanted to graduate from school," Scott said. "School's not easy for him. He's got to work pretty hard at it, with the language barrier. I think he's a kid that's overcome a ton. He's going to be one of those kids who's going to make it, because he'll force himself to work as hard as he can. He's not going to quit until he gets done what he wants to do."
Gonzalez said the encouragement Scott gave him was important. He described their bond as similar to a father-son relationship.
"He opened a new way for me with a new sport," Gonzalez said. "We built a relationship, built trust. We talked about my life. He'd tell me if I keep working hard, someday I'll be someone special and my life will be better than what my mom and dad have. He encouraged me to work hard. He gave me more courage to get better at the sport and better in life as well."
Gonzalez auditioned and was chosen to be one of the speakers at Central's graduation ceremony.
"I thought it would be cool to go up in front of the audience and say something before I graduate," he said. "I felt comfortable up there because that's my story, that's how I grew up. I wanted people to know about it."
Watching Gonzalez speak was one of Scott's proudest moments as a teacher, he said. The speech brought the audience to a standing ovation, many in tears. It also brought Gonzalez offers of help from two anonymous benefactors, who have pledged support to help him pay for college and for a place to live.
"It's a big help. It's a big weight off my shoulders," Gonzalez said of the promised support. "I don't have a way to thank them except get good grades and keep working hard, showing them their money is going to someone who will use it right and keep working hard. Now I can keep my head up and concentrate on school more."
Gonzalez' parents returned to Guatemala last year, and he's been living with a friend's family.
"I just wasn't ready to go back yet," he said.
He finished his high school credits a semester early and he took courses at Parkland College in automotive technology this spring. He wants to get a college degree and hopes to own his own business someday.
He also wants to become a U.S. citizen.
"That's the hope I have. I'll have more opportunity to use my talent in this country," Gonzalez said. "I just keep looking to the future. I never look back. I know I already have a lot of success and I want to keep continuing. I know I don't want my life in the future to be the same as I grew up. I want something better."