Rosales Sisters | Provided photo
| PERSONAL ESSAY
By Olga Rosales Salinas
It was spring break of ’89 in Watsonville, and we, the Rosales sisters, were just mocosas — rugrats: too young to decide how we’d spend two weeks off from school, but not young enough to opt out of the hard labor our father had planned for us.
In our backyard was an old camper RV where our parents had let friends, whom they called los primos, live for the better part of a year. The camper was about 15-by-10 feet and had everything a recently immigrated couple needed: a refrigerator, a dual burner stovetop, a full bath, and a queen-sized bed. It had linoleum flooring and faux wood paneling that was covered in some places by rainforest-patterned wallpaper.
I remember every detail of that camper — The Aspen Trail — because, for those two weeks, my four sisters and I were tasked with taking it apart, vinyl siding and all.
The family labor force varied from 9 to 15 years old, with the most senior, Elizabeth, a sophomore in high school, and myself in fifth grade. Too young for demolition work? Maybe. But not to our father, Abel Rosales, who tasked us with a strict completion deadline: we had until school started again to finish.
Every morning for two weeks, before we headed to the backyard, our mother made refried bean burritos with homemade flour tortillas — the memories of which still make me hungry to this day. Up too late to sit down for breakfast (per Abel), we would eat with one hand and organize our workspace with the other until we were energized enough to work — and work we did.
Each of us had a job that our father appointed to us based on our ages: my sister Veronica and I, the youngest, were in charge of sorting the scrap metal, organizing it by destination to either the recycling plant or for the general dump in town. Elizabeth, Adriana and Nancy took sledgehammers to cabinets, pulled apart faucets, and took the hardware off of drawers. Veronica and I sorted anything that could be resold or melted down for cash.
Much of the 14 days we spent grunting, crying and complaining and, in turn our father scolded, preached lessons of life and otherwise yelled in some form or fashion. But we worked, and we finished, begrudgingly, just in time.
The genuinely remarkable aspect of this story didn’t dawn on me until I became a parent myself; Abel Rosales did not bribe us into submission or hoax us with promises of future vacations or time to ourselves. Our father was a dictator, and a mean one at that. But lazy? No. He took no breaks, ate while he worked and expected us to do the same. He showed us what exhaustion was and what respecting a hard day’s work is like.
I remember the sweat, the labor, the grit and the pain, but I also remember a hard lesson I learned when I returned to school after our “vacation.” The first-in-class writing assignment was to write about what we did with our families over our time off. I lied, writing about time spent at a distant family ranch. I also remember being marked down for not reading a book and completing a book report during those two weeks. I remember the shame and embarrassment of it and how othered I had felt. My parents hadn’t even asked if we had homework to complete during the break. Why would we have a reading assignment during our vacation?
Why did I write all of this? Not to point fingers at our father — my memory of him is one that I’ll always honor. I write this to recognize that when I work on or engage in anything that I genuinely care about, I commit. I hustle and turn into a workhorse, amplified; it was my father that taught me that. That was a lesson learned in two weeks.
I’ve written this to point out the juxtaposition of American society’s values and those of an immigrant family, like our family’s experience. While I’m proud that I learned how to work hard as a kid, I failed to connect hard work — labor — and school work — education. My sisters and I agree that this distinction, and its connections, are a vital part of success as first-generation students.
Immigrant parents like ours have a different value system than the one honored in American public education. It’s not a wrong one, just a different one. That said, one of the reasons that I’m sure a college education was not in my parents’ purview for us was the cost. It was entirely out of reach for them — and so, it was just a dream for us.
I went back to school to finish a degree later in life after many hard lessons as an adult about being too underqualified to even apply for positions I wanted. I learned that in this society, in 2021, having a degree still matters — and it probably always will.
My sisters and I hope that every kid who attends high school with immigrant parents like ours doesn’t miss the connections between their worlds. The work ethic you’ve learned from your parents can help get you through college. Most of all, we hope that money isn’t the reason that your parents — your immigrant parents — aren’t talking to you about higher education.
We started our scholarship to help kids like us fulfill their dreams in a society that values college above all else. The Rosales Sisters’ Scholarship would like to help you get to college.
If you would like to join us in this effort, please donate to our fund directly. If you would like to donate to PVUSD directly, please do so and add the Rosales Sisters’ Scholarship and Aptos High School in the note section of your contribution.
Thank you so much for helping us make a difference in the lives of first-generation and immigrant students from the Central Coast.
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