A Seat at the Table

 

“Come in. Sit.”

The screen door slammed behind me, old paint falling from the door frame. The smell of fresh caldo dancing in my nostrils. I’m 1,000 miles from home, but for just a moment I am there. I am home. I sit.


The boy looked down. “No one in my family has ever made it this far. I’ll be the first.”


“It’s so great to meet you, Julian. I’m Ms. Varela. Are you ready for your big day?”
The boy nodded. The niño on his lap hummed. I smiled.
“Are you excited? Nervous? Both?”
“Both, I guess. I’m excited to finally be in high school,” he joked.
“What makes you nervous?”
The boy looked down. “No one in my family has ever made it this far. I’ll be the first.”

I’ll be the first — the words echo in my ears. I’ll be the first.

Courtesy: India K

Courtesy: India K

After two years of teaching in underserved communities of Los Angeles, I decided to make a bold move to Denver -— a choice still filled with uncertainty. It has been four weeks since I unpacked my bags, but it has only been two hours since I realized why I actually came. I came here to love. I came here to teach. I came here for Julian.

Within moments of sitting, a steaming bowl of caldo is placed before me by hands that have seen more work and love than these eyes could ever tell. She sits.

“Eat, Maestra. We’re happy you’re here.”           
I roll my tortilla. I lean in. I take a bite.
“This is my mother’s soup. She says it is fit to serve a king. When you said that you were coming, I wanted to feed you well.”
“I am undeserving, Señora Vargas, but thank you!” I fumble. My words fail me. They usually do.
Maestra Varela, why are you here? Why do you want to teach here of all places?” his mamá probed. She asked. She waited.

Señora Vargas, I came here because I am quickly falling in love with this city. I love this place, and yet, I believe that this community is being robbed of the opportunity and hope it deserves. I came here to listen and learn from you, and I came here to do everything in my power to make sure that Julian takes his rightful place in this world if he so chooses.”

“I want to go to college,” Julian blurted out, his countenance shocked as if his mouth had betrayed him. “I want to go to college. I want to be an engineer. I don’t want my mom to have to work to death every day. I want her to sleep in a house that we own.” Julieta put down her spoon. The niño squirmed in his arms. I broke.


I am humbled, and I am afraid, and I am trying to learn what it means to honor this community and this family and these brown eyes that look so much like mine. 


Thirteen years ago, the Vargas family fled from the violence and poverty that invaded their beloved home in Mexico. Julian was one year old at the time. His brothers were toddlers. They were desperate. Benito, Julian’s father, took up a job as a mechanic at a shop here in Denver where he made far below minimum wage. Julieta cleaned tables and houses and raised her young boys. Together, they worked night and day. Thirteen years later, not much had changed.

Maestra, Julian is our last hope. His brothers didn’t make it. They struggled in school, and we needed them to work. They both got jobs as mechanics, but they don’t make much. Javier married young; that’s how we got Juan Carlos.” Julieta motioned toward the niño. He smiled as our heads turned toward him. Julian squeezed him tighter. “We work hard if you give us a chance.”

“Señora Vargas, I’m not an expert. I don’t have the answers. I have much to learn from you. I will, however, make you a promise. If Julian comes to school every day with the same love and work ethic as the family from which he comes, he will graduate in four years and have what it takes to go to college. You have my word.” Julieta’s eyes turned red. Juan Carlos kicked. Julian stared down at his soup.

And I’ll be honest, I’ve never been more scared of failing. At 23 years old, I am entrusted with a life, with a future, with the hope of the final son, and I am absolutely terrified. I am humbled, and I am afraid, and I am trying to learn what it means to honor this community and this family and these brown eyes that look so much like mine. At 23 years old, I’m still trying to figure out what this all means. At 23 years old, I still have much to learn.

“Miss, can I make you a promise too?”
Julian looks back up at me. A tear ripples into his soup. The room stands still.

“Here, at our house,” he whispered, “you’ll always have a seat at the table.”