The New York Times
By David Gonzalez
Greatness surrounds Melissa Cabrera when she attends classes at Bronx Community College. That should not be surprising, because the campus is home to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, where busts of scientists, scholars and statesmen, among others, line a grand colonnade that wraps around Gould Memorial Library, an architectural treasure designed by Stanford White.
Classical tributes are fine, but the greatness of which Ms. Cabrera speaks was found sitting alongside her in a children’s literature class she took at night, when her fellow students came straight from work, still dressed in the uniforms of nurses, fast-food workers or security guards. A few brought their children, because money for child care was scarce. English was often their second language, and most were the first in their immigrant family to go to college.
They struggle to get an education so they can provide for their families. They do so despite a political climate in which immigrants have become a target of nativist attacks. And in this class, they each wrote a book for children or young adults, drawing upon their lives to offer a point of view often lacking in those literary genres.
(Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, next year will publish “Islandborn,” an illustrated children’s book that is the fulfillment of a promise he made to his two goddaughters, who asked him to write a book that reflects their lives as girls from the Caribbean living in New York.)
“Our professor encouraged us to use the significance of our own experiences and apply it to our writing so that, hopefully, others can relate to us,” said Ms. Cabrera, who was born in New York to parents from the Dominican Republic. “We don’t have much of anything to relate to as Dominicans. There aren’t enough Dominican writers, and we need more.”
Ms. Cabrera’s classmates could relate, even if they came from Africa, Asia or Latin America, said Katherine Arnoldi, who finished teaching the writing-intensive class last week. They are older and have day jobs and children, yet still come to class despite the unending daily challenges of New York life.
“They are very proud of themselves for being in college,” Ms. Arnoldi said. “Sometimes it’s hard because they may be the first in the family to go to college, and their parents don’t understand why they can’t stay home and take care of children or take a relative to the hospital. They are caught between their family and trying to make decisions for themselves.”
The single mothers she has taught at Bronx Community College and other campuses in the City University of New York system have especially impressed her, for very personal reasons. In the early 1970s, as a teenager, she became a single parent when her daughter, Stacie, was born. Through detours and setbacks, she stayed focused on her goals and finished college.
In 1998, she chronicled her journey in “The Amazing ‘True’ Story of a Teenage Single Mom,” a graphic novel that she used to give to young women at schools and community groups, where she would give talks encouraging them to continue their education.
She, in turn, draws inspiration from her students, whose final story projects reflected their immigrant journeys, sometimes in very ordinary ways. Umar Bukhari, who felt books about his native Pakistan relied on stereotypes, wrote a tale about a Pakistani child who wanted to win a race. Jeton T. Sylaj wrote about two Albanian-American brothers, one of whom uses a wheelchair, who go to the park and learn how people overcome physical limitations. AnnDenise Acquah wrote about two Ghanaian boys — one rich, the other a servant — whose friendship is shattered when the rich boy betrays his friend.
Ms. Cabrera’s story is called “Antonio’s Journey,” about a parrot who lives on a Dominican beach but flies north when a drought hits the island. He lands in New York, where, he was told, fruits are plentiful and fall from the sky, free for the taking. Instead, he finds himself in the cold, competing against pigeons for scraps of garbage. His fortunes change when he meets Emma, a shy pigeon who persuades him to take her to the Dominican Republic, where they open a mango stand.
“The idea came from my mother’s life,” said Ms. Cabrera, 26, who works as a medical receptionist. “You come here thinking the streets are made of gold and you will live the American dream. But it’s just that — a dream. You have to work hard.”
Her dream is to get a political science degree and, in time, to go to the Dominican Republic to offer her time and talent to uplift the land of her parents. She might even write another children’s book, given how deeply the class affected her.
“People think because you’re an immigrant your future is predestined,” she said. “But we have morals, values and aspirations. I believe we have made a difference for the better in American culture. We made America great. We’re not here to cause trouble. Everyone wants to be great. If we didn’t have those aspirations, we wouldn’t be here to begin with.”