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The State

A Milestone, in Triplicate

September 01, 2003|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — Freshman Sonia Mireles answers the telephone at her Cal Berkeley dorm room. It's her father.

"Who's this?" he asks.

He's not kidding. For Abel Mireles, the voice could be 18-year-old daughter Sonia. Or 18-year-old daughter Erica. Or their 18-year-old sister Monica.

State officials believe the teens are the first triplets to attend a public four-year university in California. But for the Central Valley natives, the UC Berkeley admission marks a more personal milestone: They are among the first members of their tightly knit extended family ever to attend college.

It's a long-anticipated goal that they attained with the help of their parents. Even though neither Abel nor Emma Mireles ever attended college, they worked like tireless graduate students to see that their girls got to go.

Emma, a teachers aide, took on extra work as a restaurant cashier in the tiny town of Sanger, a suburb of Fresno. Abel, a car dealer sales manager who had done farm work as a boy, taught his daughters that family always comes first.

Another priority was school. Sharing the same second-hand computer, the girls all graduated at the top of their high school class with higher than 4.0 grade-point averages, thanks to extracurricular courses.

Abel and Emma, both 41, used vacation time to make family trips to scout potential colleges, eating packed lunches on the road and -- along with 14-year-old sister Amanda -- discussing the merits of each school as the miles passed by.

Now in college, a time when most young people search for their own identities, the Mireles sisters have their work cut out for them. Erica and Sonia are identical twins, and Monica is fraternal, with slightly different features.

Erica, the eldest by minutes, is called "Mother Hen" for the way she shepherds her sisters. Each time they leave their dorm room, she makes sure they carry sweaters and sharp pencils.

Monica, the middle sister, known as "Mony," is the cook of the family whose favorite pastime is collecting recipes from the Food Channel. And then there's Sonia, called "Kona" since she was young because her sisters couldn't pronounce "Sonia." She's a fanatic about her curly mane -- each time her father goes to hug her, he's greeted with "Dad, watch the hair."

As the sisters settled into the same dorm room last week, they were beset by stares and questions, in the library and cafeteria: "Are you guys, like, sisters?"

They tell most people they're just friends. To the truly persistent, they will acknowledge they're triplets.

For the Mireles girls, the reality of being three of a kind isn't the cutesy snapshot image of three sisters sporting identical outfits. Sonia insists her sisters wear different colored sweaters and tops. And she won't let them wear any of her clothes, for fear they might stretch or wrinkle them. "I don't like being called a triplet," she insists. "I want to be seen as an individual."

But old habits die hard. The sisters do everything together. All integrated-biology majors, one is rarely seen on campus without the other two in tow. They study as a team, pulling a desk into the middle of the dorm room to simulate the old dining room table back home.

Fights are rare and short-lived, as when one sister is playing the radio and another may want to study. Or when one even thinks of wearing the same color as Sonia. "For most college freshmen, their roommate is one of the big unknowns, but not for us," said Monica. "We know each others' likes and dislikes. And we know, no matter what we do, we'll always have each other."

For Abel Mireles, sending off three-fourths of his children at once is among the adventures of fathering triplets. He recalled the first time his wife left him alone with them, not long after their birth. He had their cribs arranged with bottles at the ready.

He spent a madcap few hours feeding each girl as she wailed. His wife returned to chaos.

"One was spitting up and another was crying away," he said. "It turns out I fed one girl twice and neglected to feed the third."

Even as they got older, Dad had trouble telling them apart. "When they walked out of the bathroom with a towel on their head and I couldn't see their hair, I really had no idea which one I was talking to."

The long-term goal was always college but Mom and Dad wanted the girls to stay close to home. But after the triplets attended summer programs at colleges in Davis and Santa Cruz, the Mireleses knew they would lose the triplets to some far-flung school in the big outside world.

The three set their sights on UC Berkeley, three long hours up Interstate 5. But even if all three got in, there was the problem for a working-class family of affording annual tuition totaling $60,000. Sharing their one overworked computer, the girls devised a schedule so that, one at a time, they finished homework and then surfed the Internet for scholarship opportunities, often not getting to bed until after 3 a.m.

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