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Southern California's Young Faces : Cover Story

An Immigrant Dream

Alex Martinez Is Fulfilling HIs Parents' Wish to 'Do Better Than We Have Done.'

April 22, 2001|PHILIP REED | Novelist Philip Reed last wrote for the magazine about being an undercovercar salesman. His latest thriller is "The Marquis de Fraud" (Epic Press)

What's it like to come of age in a place defined by outsiders and their cliches: surf, gang turf, Hollywood, Vine, the land of milk and honey? Do our children grow up too soon? Is Southern California the great springboard to a life of opportunity? On the following pages you'll find 17 children who are moving toward adulthood. Their stories are not the stuff of headlines or extremes: young criminals, star athletes, child movie stars. Rather, we went in search of "typical" kids. We talked to teachers, parents, tutors, coaches, counselors and school officials. Scores of names tumbled out. We then asked a dozen writers to spend time with these kids, and to try to find the small slice of each one that said something about their lives in Southern California. It is, we hope, a telling collage.


At the awards banquet, Alex Martinez starts getting a sinking feeling: There's no way I'm going to win any medals this year. I'm going to let my team down--big time. He looks around at his teammates from Los Angeles' Belmont High School. Just because he took a silver medal last year, did he really think he had a chance for a gold, or even a silver again?

OK, so we're not talking about the Olympics here. The awards are for the California Academic Decathlon. At Alex's school, they call it "the sport of nerds," the Aca-dork-a Decathlon.

But it got him a varsity jacket last year. Just like the jocks'. And when he wore it to school, the other kids were, like, how'd you get that? So Alex figures, I guess I'm not going to win. He untucks his shirt. He doesn't even know why he does it. An act of rebellion maybe. As if he doesn't really care.

The ceremony churns on as Alex, 18, recalls how hard his team worked. Every day after school they broke into groups and studied until 7:30 p.m. Then he had that long ride home on a city bus to his little blue-and-white frame house in the quiet neighborhood near Normandie and Melrose. Next day, he's a walking zombie at school.

It isn't only his teammates who are counting on him. Alex's parents, both born in Mexico, want their son and daughter, Cynthia, 13, to surpass them. His mom, Raquel, cleaned houses until she broke her ankle last fall. She had seen how smart Alex was even in kindergarten. But she also kept him from being bused to accelerated classes in magnet schools. Stay in the neighborhood, she had told him.

Alex has stayed in the neighborhood--and he intends to return to it after medical school. His dream is to set up a practice near where he was raised. He wants to help the people who live there. He has been accepted to UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz for the fall, but hasn't decided. Besides, college is possible only if he gets the right mixture of financial aid.

His father, Alejandro, works as a plumber, and sometimes it's hard to make ends meet on his pay. Alex could have learned his father's trade and worked with him on weekends for extra cash for his family. But his parents said no. "If he begins touching money, he won't want to go to school," his mother says. "He has to go to college. We want him to do better than we have done." It's what most immigrants want, Alex says, for their children to surpass them in the new country.

So the family does what they can with what they have. Sometimes they get a lucky break. Two years ago they won a new Kia Sportage in a grocery store raffle. "It's kind of a cool car for a teenager." But they can't afford the insurance for Alex to get behind the wheel. So it sits in their garage, with just 1,500 miles. Sometimes Alex gets $5 from his parents for the entire week. Sometimes $10. On Friday he might have to choose: see a movie or get a pizza? Or maybe he'll get a chicken sandwich from Gus's Drive-In, on 3rd Street, the hangout for students from Belmont High.

But Alex doesn't really need a lot of money. He devours Stephen King novels, for fun, and classics such as "Hamlet," for school. At night, the phone line is tied up as he e-mails his friends--mainly the members of his Academic Decathlon team, the same friends who are gathered around him now, still hoping they'll take a medal. But they're running out of categories. Does he still have a chance?

His name appears on the screen behind the stage: Alejandro Martinez. He is a gold medal winner in the essay category. His teammates are cheering, hugging him. He walks up to get his award--shirt untucked. Another gold medal follows, in the interview category, where he answered questions on different subjects.

Later, the team, which finished 15th in the city, drives to the Santa Monica Pier to celebrate. They bring along the centerpiece from the banquet--eight helium balloons. Standing at the end of the pier, they each make a short speech, then release a balloon. They rise and eventually disappear into the night sky.

When friends come to Alex's house to visit, they are shown the medals by his father. He handles them reverently, filled with pride for his son.

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