Augustin Lopez wanted to be an architect, but for now he's a
He's the oldest of six children of Mexican immigrants and says that after he graduated from high school, his mother asked him to start earning money to help the family. So the 21-year-old drives other laborers to work sites and helps them with tasks such as building fish ponds or trimming trees.
Asked about future plans, the quiet young man with a mustache and goatee drew a blank.
"I have no idea," he said, and shook his head. "I have no idea what I want to do in my life."
Lopez's parents have legal immigration status and he is a U.S. citizen born in Texas.
President Barack Obama drew widespread attention this month when he announced that his administration would allow many young people living in this country without legal permission to apply for work permits.
The policy will likely change thousands of lives. But it may overshadow the fact that people born here are U.S. citizens, and citizens make up more than 90 percent of Hispanics under 18, according to the Population Reference Bureau, an institute that analyzes Census data.
Lopez's situation illustrates the obstacles that stop many young Hispanics from immigrant families from completing college, even if they are citizens.
Money is an issue for many students, and some have shaky academic preparation.
The college application and financial aid process can intimidate even educated adults who speak English, and many children of immigrants lack family members who completed college themselves and can provide guidance.
An increasing number of organizations in Memphis and around the nation see low college attainment among Hispanics as a challenge for the future economic and social health of America.
Hispanics already represent nearly one in four people under 18 in the United States, but only about 21 percent of Hispanics nationwide hold at least an associate's degree, compared to 30 percent of African-Americans and 44 percent of whites, according to Excelencia in Education, a national group that aims to improve outcomes.
Over the next several years Memphis will be the site of a major intervention to boost college completion rates among the region's new Hispanic minority.
The effort is backed by a big coalition of groups, including the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton has taken a strong interest in the project and was one of the key organizers of an April conference on the topic that Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell also attended.
It's easy to find successful children of Mexican immigrants, such as Irene Hernandez, this year's valedictorian at Immaculate Conception High School. She's headed to elite Brown University.
But it's also easy to find others like Lopez who haven't gone to college, but wanted to.
View from the truck
When he feels restless, Lopez gets into his dark-green Ford pickup and drives in big circles around the Binghamton neighborhood where he lives in a house with his parents and five younger siblings.
He says his family members are often out working or socializing, leaving the house empty.
He doesn't like to be there alone, so he gets in the truck. A girl he knows joked that he drives around so often that he's the neighborhood security guard.
He spends time with his girlfriend but says he stopped hanging out with a circle of friends who got into arguments at nightclubs.
"I'm always alone now. That way I don't have any problems with anybody." He said this matter-of-factly, without apparent regret.
On a recent Saturday, Lopez brought a reporter along as he drove his normal route.
He pointed out the spot near Harvard Avenue and Merton Street where robbers shot and killed his uncles Candelario and Marcelino in July 2005. The robbers also shot Augustin's father.
His father's name sounds like his, though it's spelled differently - Agustin.
Emergency workers brought the wounded man to the Regional Medical Center at Memphis, where he lay unconscious for days.
He had taken seven bullets, and the outlook was bleak. His wife, Patricia Lopez, now 45, said she was told that if he lived, he might remain in a vegetative state. Speaking in Spanish, she recalled talking with her husband while he lay in intensive care.
"If you can hear me in your unconsciousness, ask God to heal you. Ask God to heal you because we need you. You have six children who need you."
Days passed. She says that one day she was praying at his bedside when she had a vision: a light that approached from afar and bathed her in its brightness. "I felt that I was in the middle of this light."
From that day on, her husband began to recover and soon left the hospital, she said. She took it as a miracle. He eventually went back to construction work.
Back in the truck, the younger Augustin Lopez points out houses where relatives live.
The neighborhood is full of his aunts, uncles and cousins, many of whom hail from Durango state in Mexico.
The scorpion is a symbol of the state, and one of Augustin's uncles used silver wire to make a model of one of the creatures. It hangs from the truck's rearview mirror.
Though surrounded by relatives, Augustin had few people who could help him pursue an education.
His mother said her education ended in the fifth grade and that her husband didn't go much further. They speak limited English. Augustin said none of his relatives went to college.
"Everything that had to do with school and college, everything from high school and up, I just did on my own," Augustin said.
Augustin says he had trouble at Kingsbury Middle School.
"I guess I stopped caring for a while and started hanging out with the wrong people who didn't care about school," he said.
He failed eighth grade, and the shooting came the following summer.
"I couldn't believe that something like that could happen. Not to our family."
When he repeated the eighth grade at Memphis Catholic, the school referred him to a counselor. "Actually, Memphis Catholic did try to help me out a lot. But since I was just a little upset, I just didn't care."
He went on to Central High School and said teachers treated him well. He took carpentry and loved it.
He had begun helping his father with drywall work on construction sites when he was a child, and says he liked the idea of becoming an architect, someone who would shape the project rather than labor at the bottom. "I just wanted to be someone more on top."
A counselor at Central gave him information about scholarships.
"I wanted to go to college. I really did. I was planning on either going to maybe a community college or University of Memphis."
But his grades and test scores lagged. He says he took the ACT test in the 11th grade and made a 16, lower than the national average of 21.
Students often do better if they take the test more than once, but Augustin didn't persist.
"I got mad at myself, upset. I was hoping to get higher. I didn't want to try anymore after that."
The timing of his graduation from Central in 2010 was bad, too. The recession had hit the construction industry hard, and his father was going through long stretches of unemployment while his mother worked cleaning houses.
"My mom, she was the one who told me to take a break, at least a year, to help them out."
For a time he labored as a roofer every day. "I didn't know what the date was. What month we were in. I didn't care if it was a holiday or not, because we still had to get up the next day and work."
Now he earns $10 per hour as a landscaper and gives $100 per week to his parents.
He drives the truck past Kingsbury High School, a test site for the Lumina Foundation project.
The foundation is paying for a mentor who will work with the school's Hispanic youth and their families for four years.
A similar mentor will work at Southwest Tennessee Community College, and the foundation will use the results of the experiment in Memphis and other sites to guide policy nationwide.
Augustin Lopez says hiring mentors is a good idea.
"It's hard to go to college, get everything done, do everything you need to do.
A different outlook
Though some Mexican immigrant families press children to go to work, others encourage them to study. One example is 18-year-old Miguel Angel Lopez, who recently graduated from Southwind High School.
Though he shares the same family name as Augustin Lopez, they're not related, and their outlooks are different, too. Miguel Angel Lopez plans to enroll this fall at Southwest Tennessee Community College, and sees it as the first step toward becoming a neurosurgeon.
"Well, not just a neurosurgeon. I want to become the best neurosurgeon."
He says a dissection class sparked his interest, and that teachers supported him.
"They would push me beyond what I thought I could go. Told me I could do stuff that I didn't think I could do it."
He came to this country at age 10 without knowing any English. His father, Luis Alfonso Lopez, says everyone in the family has legal immigration status.
Both parents studied accounting in Mexico, though they work in less prestigious jobs in Memphis - the father is a forklift driver in a warehouse and the mother cooks in a restaurant.
Miguel Angel Lopez says he went through periods where he didn't study hard, and that his ACT score and GPA were too low to qualify for Tennessee's lottery-funded Hope scholarship. But he says he plans to work part-time to finance his studies, and that his parents are willing to help.
"They told me that it doesn't matter if they have to get two jobs to pay for it."
Find a way
Back in Binghamton, Augustin's mother, Patricia Lopez, says the construction business has rebounded somewhat, but money is still tight. Her husband is now 50 and hampered on the job by an old bullet wound in his shoulder.
"There are days when he's in a lot of pain," she said.
They've turned to government help for health insurance and food.
"We're really not people who like to depend on the government," she said. "We don't like it. But the economic situation made us ask for help because with six children it's not easy."
Augustin Lopez says his girlfriend is urging him to go back to school. He's not sure.
"Just like everybody, I'm just scared I won't do good," he said. "And also if I go to school, I won't be able to work like I am now. It will be less money for my family."
His mother said she wants Augustin and her younger children to find a way to study.
"What I told them is that they should try to find out if there's some way that they could get a scholarship. Because otherwise it's not possible."
She holds out hope that it will happen. Porque es bien importante , she says in Spanish.
Because it's very important.
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