The path to higher education is gruelling. Not noted on a student’s GPA is a laundry list of unseen efforts — the late nights devoted to study sessions, the sacrifice of a social life, living up to expectations and so much more.
No one knows this truth more than Eladio Gonzalez Cabrera.
The SMC grad is headed to UC Riverside to major in Spanish, a dream for the Salvadoran DREAMer. His journey there, however, wasn’t solely about studying, balancing work and a social life — it was about survival.
Before his journey to a UC, before his journey at SMC, before education was a thought in his mind, Cabrera first journeyed to America.
“It’s an experience that’s still hard to talk about,” Cabrera said. He has only recently been able to talk about his immigration story without breaking down. “I was just 5 when we it all happened.”
Cabrera recalls some elements of that trip; the harshness of the elements and the other would-be immigrants braving them, the cold of the mountains and the rain relentlessly beating down on his family and others, daring them to continue.
The border-crossing journey still occasionally echoes around in Cabrera’s mind, a light peering in through a door Cabrera tries to keep shut. He had night terrors growing up, episodes his mother would calm with milk and cookies.
While he distanced himself from those memories, he says the aftermath of his family’s immigration was far more terrifying.
“The hardest part was crossing and then it’s not, ‘You’re here, great!’ As an undocumented person, it meant being a kid, thinking, ‘Is my mom going to be home when I come back from school? Will my family be deported? Did we do the right thing?’,” he said.
Cabrera would see immigration raids on TV, but his religious mother wouldn’t worry about these things, easing Eladio by telling him, “God loves us and put us here for a reason. He’s watching over us.”
While God may have assuaged Cabrera’s existential fears, the man upstairs couldn’t help Cabrera with something at school — his noticeable accent.
“I was bullied for a lot of things,” he said. “I was a lonely, nerdish child — a lot of kids didn’t like that — but I was bullied a lot for my thick accent, from elementary through high school. I got called, you know, bad names here and there, but I wanted to learn, get better with my English.”
Cabrera worked hard to acclimate and fit in, burying himself in books and American media to improve his speech and cultural references.
“I wanted to learn English so bad, I wanted to be as American as I could be,” he said.
Throughout high school he made friends, kids that liked the same books and shows he did. He also eventually applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status and made the honor roll throughout high school.
All was going well, it seemed, until college came around.
Unfortunately, the commute didn’t work — Cabrera was and is car-less in LA, making his commute from South Central to CSUN a whopping three hours long.
After conferring with his counselor and parents and then a friend, he decided to go to SMC based on word-of-mouth.
The school was more effective in helping him than CSUN, he says, offering him information for undocumented students and scholarships for being the first in his family to attend college.
It was at SMC, however, that Cabrera realized his own resilience, both mentally and in work ethic.
Cabrera was taking 19 units a semester, attempting to fast-track his transfer to a bigger institution. Amidst those 19 units, he worked several jobs, which led to a quick burn out for Cabrera. Aside from being exhausted, he was emotionally taxed.
“It was go to school and work then sleep and do it all over again the next day,” he said. “My only personal time was on the train, listening to music.”
Cabrera says his parents — who had been supportive and hands-on with his education since Day One — added pressure to succeed. They wanted more for their son and he began mirroring the work ethic he saw in his seamstress mother and gardener father.
“My parents taught me to never give up,” he said. “I constantly saw them work their labor-intensive jobs. They can’t, ‘Oh, I’m tired, I don’t feel like going to work today.’ They’ve always been strong and made sacrifices when they had to, whether they liked it or not. I just wanted to do the same and make them proud.”
A trip to SMC’s Wellness Center helped Cabrera decompress and give priority to someone that hadn’t gotten a break in a while — himself.
“I was tested and gained from it,” Cabrera said. “As much as I want to give 120%, humans need rest, self care, moments to rest and cry. Drop some responsibilities and take care, your community is there to support you. Especially the Latino community — we have a tendency to say ‘I’m fine’ but inside you’re stressing out. I never had those conversations until then.”
Cabrera was revitalized and got his affairs in order — he finished with a strong GPA and applied to several schools, getting into UC Riverside. This time, tuition and housing would be covered.
Cabrera starts UC Riverside in the fall and will major in Spanish, a decision to pay tribute to his heritage he previously attempted to hide.
“Going to SMC on the bus or train, people would ask, ‘Do you speak Spanish, mijo?’ And it made me feel at home, reminded me of my parents who I don’t see as much as I want and it reminds me of El Salvador,” he said. “I wanted to major in [Spanish] to show the beauty of that language to others.”
Cabrera doesn’t fear much these days as the wait for college begins; he’s rid himself of his stressors and anxieties. He still gets worried about him and his family being undocumented, especially in today’s political climate, but he doesn’t let the fear consume him as it once did when he was a child. He can now talk about it and tell you, it’s just part of the journey.
“I’ve learned to see what I’ve been through as a beautiful thing,” he said. “I have found meaning in all this. If I can make something out of nothing, anyone can.”