Sister Act

These girls go to the head of the class.

They're the good girls, the inseparable sisters who separate only to sit quietly in their middle school classrooms, completing assignments without complaint, smiling shyly, working diligently while others chatter and tease. Esperanza and Estephania Chavez: the quiet ones.

Until you get to know them.

Then they bubble up like a couple of shaken soda-pop bottles.

"I never used to talk to anyone," says Esperanza. "But now I just talk and talk, and no one can stop me. My sister talks, too, but mostly to her friends. She's weird. Me, I'm crazy. I talk all the time."

Esperanza and Estephania. Estephania and Esperanza. Chavez and Chavez. Exemplary students. Community foot soldiers. Rising stars.

"I'll tell you what: I look up to them," says Eldred Pate, a program coordinator at YouthBiz, a teenage job program. "They're my inspiration."

Esperanza and Estephania, ages fourteen and thirteen, were born in Denver and Zacatecas, Mexico, respectively, the oldest daughters in a family of five children. Their father, Leoncio, 35, owns a tire shop. Their mother, Maria del Consuelo, age 30, is a full-time mom. The Chavezes had split their time between the United States and Mexico before finally settling for good in the Cole neighborhood two years ago.

That transition was tough.

Esperanza attended first grade and part of second in Denver, speaking Spanish at home but using English at school. When the Chavezes returned to their family ranch in Zacatecas, where they stayed for five years, she was teased mercilessly.

"The only thing I could write in Spanish was my name," she recalls. "Everybody used to laugh at me because I said my r's funny.'"

When she moved back to Denver, the heckling started anew.

"By then I had learned to read and write in Spanish, but when we got back here I had forgotten all of my English," she says. "They put me in a bilingual core, but I didn't even know what bilingual meant. I thought it was a ballet or something to do with dancing. I was speaking Spanglish. The first test I took in English, I got an F."

It wasn't much easier for Estephania.

So the sisters studied.

And studied.

And studied.

They had to, they say. Their parents demanded it. Their father had dropped out of school to find work; their mother had dropped out to care for her younger brothers and sisters. As a result, Leoncio and Maria now constantly emphasize the importance of education.

"They're always saying, 'We don't want you to be like us,'" Esperanza says. "'We want you to graduate and go to college. You guys have the opportunities. That's something we never had.'"

Although they cannot read English very well, Leoncio and Maria check their children's homework and then sign the pages.

"We can't fool my mom, either, because she'll call the teacher," Esperanza says.

Each morning, Leoncio drives his children to school and waits outside until the bell rings. Each afternoon, Maria walks them home.

"My dad is always on me to do well," Esperanza says. "When I got a C, he said, 'Esperanza, this disappoints me. I know you can do better. If you need help, just tell me.'"

Their parents are like that, the sisters say. No matter how many hours Leoncio logs at his tire shop, no matter how busy Maria is with the housework, they always make time to help.

"Last week, I dissected a frog, and I thought it was all gross, but my dad kept asking, 'So what did you learn from it?'" Esperanza says. "He kept asking me questions about frogs! I was like, 'Dang!'"

Leoncio and Maria make time for each other, too.

"My mom and dad are really close," Esperanza says. "Some parents are close, but after a while they just stop doing things together. Not my mom and dad. On Sundays he'll drop us off at my aunt's and say, 'Today, she's my wife.' I think that's cool."

Like other teens, the sisters visit the park and the mall. But their parents keep a strict eye on them.

"My dad told me if he ever sees my grades fall from A's to F's, he's going to send me back to the ranch in Mexico to work with horses and cows," Esperanza says. "I told him, 'You don't even have any horses or cows.' He said, 'Call your grandma.' So I called my grandma and she said, 'Yes, he does have horses and cows.' Then I was like, 'Oh, my God!'"

Their mother, meanwhile, monitors their junk-food intake, watches out for them when they're outside and limits their TV time on school nights to one Mexican soap opera.

"My mom is always giving me advice," Esperanza says. "She gives me choices on the good and the bad: 'Here we have one girl who has all these friends, but she's pregnant. And here we have another girl who doesn't have friends but has good grades. Who would you rather be?' I go and think about it a while, then tell her I'd rather be like the good one. Because I don't like babies; they cry too much."

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