When conquistador Pedro de Alvarado landed in Guatemala in 1524, he probably saw at least one bronze-skin, short, raven-haired young Maya woman.
The genes of that progenitor have traveled half a millennium and 2,000 miles to Poway in the person of Catarina Agustin, a 17-year-old senior at Poway High School.
Catarina is a happy kid — except at the moment she is grieving for the sad plight of a friend named Joe.
She came here with her family five years ago from a country where the wounds of civil war still seep blood 20 years after peace was supposedly rediscovered. The violence of that war had been harshly visited on the Indian population.
The immigration of the Agustin family was typical. The laborer father came first, made a place and then brought the family. Catarina thinks her parents might return to Guatemala in a few years after her father retires. Her mother is eager to go.
Catarina, however, does not share her mother’s longing for the “old country.” She is proud of her green card and eager to gain U.S. citizenship. This is home.
She is the youngest of five children and the only one left at home. She early on learned how sad life can be with the death (by cancer) of a brother of 15.
Catarina and her parents live in one room attached to a garage in rural Poway. “My parents have their own bed, and we have a little kitchen, and a little stove. We have a bathroom and a shower and everything. My bed” — a pallet, actually — “is above the bathroom. It’s not that big at all.
“I love where I live, even though I don’t have that much stuff. I love how my parents treat me and how they love me and try to give me everything I need. They help me and support me.”
She makes no complaints. She’s not the type. However, when I dig a little ...
Don’t you wish you had a house like the kids at school?
“I do. I do, but I’m happy that I have a school.”
Tears form in her eyes.
Why does that make you sad?
“I don’t know. It’s just what it is.”
My look probably says there’s more to it than that.
She wipes her eyes and the smile returns. “Yeah, I wish I had a big house and I would get my own room, but, I don’t. I’m OK with it.
“I’m OK with what my parents have and they don’t have. I’m OK with everything because I love studying and I have my own education. That’s why I love to go to school, because I haven’t been absent since I came here. I never missed a day, even though sometimes I feel lazy, and sometimes I don’t want to go to school, but I’m still going.”
She is proud of her “B” average and looks forward to college. English is her third language, after Spanish and a Mayan tongue.
Her conversational English has traveled a good distance down a long road. Learning our twisty language is not for those cowed by frustration.
Catarina dreams of attending a university to study business, but knows community college is probably the first step. When that time comes, she’ll need transportation, probably a junker, but that’s a year from now.
She says her most pressing need is for a laptop computer on which to write her senior project in the coming year. She now uses a tablet, which she proudly says she bought with her own money. However, it’s inadequate for her upcoming needs.
It’s not easy being a teenager, or any other age. However, the skin is never thinner than at that time. Catarina’s main touchiness is being occasionally teased because she’s only 4 feet 8. (Oops! Scratch that “only.”)
“I’ve heard, ‘Oh, you’re so short,’ and like they say ‘shorty’ because I’m short. I used to get offended before, but I don’t care anymore. I mean, it doesn’t matter. I mean, the tall doesn’t make you a bit different. However tall you are, even though you’re so short, you can still be a better person.”
Do you have a lot of friends?
“Yes, I do. Yeah.”
Almost all Hispanics?
“Not really. Some Hispanic, some Asian people and some American people, white people. They’re so nice. My dad doesn’t let me go out and hang out with friends, but when I’m in school I’m still talking with them, hanging out with them.”
Catarina is comfortable living within the strictures of an imported culture. But as we know, each generation pulls more away and into mainstream culture. For Catarina, it has fashioned a rule-abiding young woman of respect and old-school values. Tough to argue with that.
Catarina initially caught my eye at the county fair in Del Mar because I was intrigued by her relationship with a pudgy youngster of more than 230 pounds named Joe, with whom she has a love interest.
Alas, the relationship will soon come to a tragic end, especially from Joe’s perspective.
Joe is a Hampshire-cross barrow. Joe is a pig. I will not call him a swine because it might hurt Catarina’s feelings. You try to be sensitive.
Joe has shared the past four months with Catarina as her FFA project. She comes from an agriculture family, so it was a smooth move to join FFA and get into the pork business. She borrowed $500 to buy Joe and supply the feed to fatten him for four months at the rate of 2 pounds a day. The boy can eat.
She showed him at the fair, but he wasn’t a winner, except to her. She hopes for a better showing at the Ramona fair in August. Either way, he’s then going to market, where she anticipates earning a profit on the $500.
“I think I will make money, but it depends on how much people want to pay for him.”
That’s business-ed lesson number one, Catarina.
However, this talk about cashing in on Joe turns her face sad and her voice thicker.
She pays homage to her fattened friend. “He’s sweet and funny, and he knows me. He’s the best friend I’m going to have, and I really liked spending time with him, and I don’t want him to go, but that’s how it is.
“He’s part of my life and he will have a space in my heart to remember him. He will be the best-ever animal that ever happened to me. I will love him forever, even though he’s not going to be with me.”
How about you? What have you learned about you?
“About becoming adult and becoming more mature, thinking about the future, planning. I’m still a teenager and when we are teenagers, we make mistakes. From the mistakes that happen, I have learned a lot, and the advice that my dad have given me. With those advice, I will keep them forever and will have them in my mind.
“I just want to study. I just want to be in school. I just want to have a career and share that experience with my family. My parents have helped me and supported me with everything. They give me an education. They give me good advice. They’re so supportive with me. That’s what I love about my family. They give you advice when you make mistakes. They give you everything.”
Rising out of poverty is nothing new. It first happened back when one burly Neanderthal had the driest corner of the cave and the others had to shiver in dampness. However, some went out and found their own dry cave.
Poverty has sticky fingers, but the grip can be broken.
Nineteenth century American-dream successes used to be called Horatio Alger stories after the novelist who thrilled young people with can-do tales. Catarina’s got the gumption to write her own Horatio Alger story. And it wouldn’t be fiction.
Joe’s problem is he has nothing to offer but pork chops. Pigs are said to be among the smartest of animals, but he’s never worried about why all the free Purina has been put on his plate.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, Joe.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]