“I got the usual looks from people fresh out of bars or parties, either because of the stench of a hard night’s work on my clothes or because I was muttering to myself while feverishly flipping flashcards.”
—Mark Isai Garcia
“No more broken plates, you understand?”
I could make little sense of the broken English that spat from his mouth but his scrunched-up face spoke a universal language. It was a Friday night in Little Tokyo, and while families were eating five-star meals in the front dining room, a 14-year-old boy was in the back washing their dishes.
Wash the plates by hand, dump them into the sanitizer, place the plates into the machine, dry the plates off, return the plates to their designated spot and repeat — hopefully without damaging any. On this night though, a porcelain plate slipped through my soapy fingers and shattered onto the floor in five pieces. My face flushed even as I tried to keep my composure, but inside I was screaming, “Why me!?” as if my scream would make the plate whole again.
The shattered plate was only one of the many worries fighting relentlessly inside my head for attention — there was the Advanced Placement United States history midterm, a low grade in calculus, the eviction notice, a little brother getting into trouble and a dozen other smaller but pressing concerns.
For me, there was no calling in sick to clear my head, getting some much needed rest or carving out study time before an upcoming exam. I had to contribute to the necessities. I shut up, got back to work and pushed with all the energy I had left. I knew all too well the symptoms of bottling up my emotions — the bitter taste of salt in each drop of sweat, losing myself in the background music and the muscle aches were nothing new to me.
It was 12 a.m. when my shift finally ended. I boarded the bus home and took out my notes to study. I got the usual looks from people fresh out of bars or parties, either because of the stench of a hard night’s work on my clothes or because I was muttering to myself while feverishly flipping flashcards on a bus in the middle of the night.
Their stares didn’t bother me at all. I was used to those too, and they were nothing more than another set of speed bumps in the way of achieving my goals. I was tired of seeing childhood friends flashing gang signs, relatives glued to the beer bottle or my dad coming home late at night with burn scars from work.
Something had to change and I knew it fell to me to initiate that change.
Fortunately, I also knew I had dedication, desire and grit in my blood. My grandfather was part of the first wave of Mexican immigrants that settled in Los Angeles. He returned home to a small village in rural Oaxaca, with his savings and tales of the land of opportunity.
Both of my parents left Oaxaca in their early teenage years and began working long hours in Los Angeles, as a cook and a maid. The work ethic was passed down generations; from the cornfields in Oaxaca, to the restaurants in Los Angeles, to the classroom, which helped me thrive both in school and work.
On this particular night, as I walked through the front door at home, I saw an uplifting surprise: My mother had fallen asleep waiting up for me despite her own long day. I tucked the cash tips I made that night into her purse and turned off the TV.
I peered into our bedroom where my brothers and cousins were lost in their blissful dreams. Watching my siblings snore and breathe slowly sparked a yawn that cued the rest of my body’s delayed exhaustion.
However, it would be a while before I could join them in sleep. I had an essay due early the next morning, and Ms. DePaolo doesn’t accept late work.