Head of the Class

With his grades and high school activities, Pablo is an ideal candidate for college, except for one hitch: He's illegal.

One morning, Pablo and Blanca and I were having pancakes with strawberry topping and whipped cream at the Denver Diner, not far from where Pablo lives. Pablo was talking about his decision to testify before the Colorado Legislature on a matter of deep importance to him. It took me a while to realize that every time I looked down to write in my notebook, he was flicking spitballs into Blanca's right ear.

Pablo, Blanca and various members of the posse liked to perform in plays. As sophomores, they'd won a national competition for the best History Day skit in the American public school system for an original script about the Sand Creek massacre. This year, they'd decided to perform a scene from Two Gentlemen of Verona in the school district's annual Shakespeare Festival. On the day of the performance, Blanca looked radiant in a pink frilly gown, while Pablo looked faintly ridiculous in a floppy woman's hat, a gold-embroidered vest, green velvet bloomers, black dress socks and black dress shoes. It was impossible to understand the inaudible comic asides that Andrew and Sergio made to the audience, but Pablo enunciated his lines clearly as he knelt before Blanca and spent himself in an impassioned plea for her affection. Blanca responded with a fiery diatribe about how lacking she found his suit. "Hie you home to bed!" she ordered, full of disdain. Off-stage, however, Blanca could be just as fiery in expressing her admiration for Pablo. She cited his talent on the stage as proof that he wasn't just another unlettered peasant, that he didn't fit the stereotypical image of an illegal alien. "He's not just somebody who's ignorant!" she fumed.

Blanca was a fervent student activist with leftist leanings who viewed the Junior ROTC as an insidious arm of the military-industrial complex. Pablo, on the other hand, viewed Junior ROTC as a vehicle through which he could learn important skills such as leadership. By his junior year, he was serving as commander of a company of other students, mostly fractious freshmen and sophomores. "Stop flirting!" he instructed members of his unruly company one afternoon in the ROTC building. "Flirt after class!" After leading the group in the Pledge of Allegiance, Pablo pulled a yellow pencil from behind his ear and took roll call. As he called out the names of various cadets, one after another responded, "Here, captain!" Pablo loved the Junior ROTC program and spent all of his spare time in the building. Less patriotic students enjoyed ridiculing those who wore the dress greens. "They call us Œpickles,'" Pablo confessed. He shrugged off the slur; in the chaos of a large public school like West, he found the ROTC program to be an oasis of discipline.

Pablo is a much-decorated leader in West High's 
ROTC program.
James Glader
Pablo is a much-decorated leader in West High's ROTC program.
Teacher's pet: Jennifer Portillo says Pablo is a great 
student, no matter his legal status.
James Glader
Teacher's pet: Jennifer Portillo says Pablo is a great student, no matter his legal status.

Sergeant Damon was laired up in a tiny cave of an office at the back of the building. He had served 23 years and eleven months in the U.S. Army before joining the faculty at West and had a manner that was equal parts drill sergeant and mother hen. His tour of the facility included a wall-sized display of the chain of command, topped by a grinning, amiable photograph of President George W. Bush. The Junior ROTC motto was painted on another wall: "To motivate young people to become better citizens."

Sergeant Damon said that the staff had known about Pablo's immigration status when they'd picked him to be part of the color guard -- because Pablo himself had volunteered the information. When they asked him to carry the American flag, Pablo reminded them that he wasn't a legal resident, wanting to make sure it was really okay for somebody like him to be the flag-bearer. Sergeant Damon thought it was. "We understand that this country is built on immigrants," he said, "so I have no hangups, so to speak."

Inside the walls of Pablo's school, this accepting attitude was typical. Outside of school, things were different. Pablo's family lived in a cramped brick house that was painted a dull red. A chain-link fence outlined the tiny front yard, which consisted of neatly swept dirt. The first time I visited, Pablo seemed too big a character to fit into such diminished surroundings. Pablo's father, a short, barrel-chested man with a thick mop of black hair, was sitting in the tidy living room before the television set, which was tuned to the Discovery Channel. Pablo's two-year-old brother, who was born in this country (making the family partly legal and partly illegal), kept appearing and disappearing from other rooms. When Pablo's mother arrived home, she just waved and retreated into the kitchen.

The reason for my visit was to discuss with Pablo's parents how I would identify their son; because of virulent anti-immigrant sentiments around the state, my story could put the whole family at risk. Pablo's father looked at his son and said only, "Que t quieres." He left the decision up to his sixteen-year-old.

It seemed extraordinary that this close-mouthed man and his almost invisible wife had produced a son as socially adept as Pablo. About two months later, however, when I returned with a friend from Mexico City, I realized that I'd misread nearly everything about Pablo's family. In the company of my Mexican-born friend, Pablo's parents proved to be completely different people: His mother was an opinionated woman who had completed high school, unlike most undocumented immigrants; his father was an animated man who made wry jokes all the time. Pablo's father was the risk-taker in the family, and it was from him that Pablo had obtained his keen sense of social justice. Pablo looked just like his mother, though. She had given him her pale skin, her long nose and her wavy hair, as well as her aptitude for school. She was also the reason he dressed so smartly -- she was always telling him to tuck in his shirt or to change his pants.

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