Fourteen years ago, Julio Luevano traveled a rough, covert journey across the Mexican border to settle in a humble, rural Indiana town.
Today, his nights are spent repairing egg-packing machines at a plant nestled among cornfields. His days are filled with family, soccer and studying for a degree finally within his reach.
Even the chickens are sleeping as Julio Luevano pulls in.
Hours earlier, Midwest Poultry’s Hi-Grade plant closed the doors to its football field-sized barns to ensure the 2.2 million chickens inside will be properly rested when they begin laying 1.8 million eggs tomorrow morning. Unlike the chickens, though, Luevano finds it difficult to tell in these periods when his day ends and when it begins. He snuck in a two-hour nap this evening, then ran a mile. Now he’s pulling up to the Hi-Grade plant in his family’s silver minivan, the flood-lit facility illuminated in the lush Indiana farmland like a football stadium.
It’s 12:02 a.m. when he clocks in. The building is mostly silent and abandoned except for the cleaning crew, already deep into their work. Luevano smiles as he pulls his tool belt, stretched with Allen wrenches and screwdrivers, out of his locker. He has important work to do tonight: a laser sensor to repair on a packing machine, failing bearings to replace in a motor. It’s his responsibility alone to sniff out the problems and keep all the machines online so the plant will run efficiently tomorrow.
On his $14-an-hour job, Luevano knows the purpose of every roller in the washing unit, every sensor, every motor and every conveyor between the chickens and the trucks. He rattles off statistics for henhouse capacities and egg distribution as if he had written the company’s marketing materials. But Luevano’s dreams carry his thoughts beyond these nights.
Classes begin at Manchester University tomorrow. When his shift ends, he’ll drive to campus for class. That evening he’ll play defender for the Spartans, for whom he’s once again a captain, in an exhibition against a team of local Latino players that, nearly 14 years ago, he helped to found. In between school, soccer and work, he’ll devote what remains to his wife, Danielle, and his three children, Micaela, 11, Isabela, 8, and Cesar, 4. He might sleep two more hours.
Just two more years, he keeps telling himself.
Two more years until he completes this unlikely journey from Mexico to success as a student-athlete in Indiana. Two more years until Luevano holds his exercise and sport science degree with a minor in business administration and tells the world the story of how he became the first member of his family to graduate from college. Two more years until the picture in his mind becomes a reality, the picture in which his mother, wife, children and friends cheer and cry as they watch him complete what is, for so many like him, an impossible dream.
“When I came here, the label they put on us, I didn’t like it,” Luevano says. “The words and the things they said to me and the other guys, they weren’t good. I want to show them and the other guys that we’re here for good. We can do more than just hard work.”
The dream germinated from the Manchester sidelines, where Luevano used to watch Spartan scrimmages and see students scurrying to classes.
Immigrants like Luevano understand the power of education: The U.S. Department of Education estimates 23 percent of all undergraduates are immigrants or second-generation Americans. But those estimates are for immigrants who have permanent residence or arrived in the country legally. The path to education can feel like a perilous road for the 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants that the Pew Research Center estimates are in the United States, those for whom basic assistance such as financial aid is unavailable.
Before his life was filled with soccer and studies, Luevano arrived in this country as a member of that group. He knows many more whose tales began just like his.
They swap their stories in social situations – of bodies found along the sides of roads; of rumors of kidnappings for ransom money; of being shot at in the dark desert night; and, if all went as planned, of landing in a new home with unfamiliar surroundings and few friends who speak the same language. Their presence has been a political lightning rod in recent years, with talk of building fences on the border to stop migration set against discussions of reforming policies to provide more pathways to residency. Still they come, the potential for work and opportunity in America outweighing the risks at the border.
But life in their new world can prove harder than anticipated. They’re confronted by off-color and racist anti-Latino jokes, driven by a perception that the immigrant community is one of separatists who refuse to assimilate. They pay taxes like U.S. citizens but have few rights to protect them. While experts say life in larger cities with extensive Latino populations provides insulation from the daily fears of being exposed, life for those in smaller, rural communities is often lived with one eye watching their backs. Advocates argue they are vulnerable to unfair – even unsafe – labor practices. But there is no national strategy for integration, and no easy pathway to residence. According to the Department of Homeland Security, fewer than 1 million immigrants last year were granted green cards – proof of their legal permanent residence. So the risky pursuit of opportunity that lured them comes with a self-imposed cap on their American dream.
“There’s a lot more pressure to hide and not come out,” says Martha Menchaca, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, who specializes in the culture of Latino immigrants. “There’s very little they can do to live in a stress-free life because of the anti-immigrant feeling here in the United States right now.”
Many of the immigrants Luevano knew when he came to the United States 14 years ago returned to Mexico because they found that life too hard. Many who stayed found satisfaction with what they could receive: better wages, a nice truck, a home. They huddled in insulated communities where they could speak Spanish comfortably and feel safe. And they approached opportunities for advancement cautiously, knowing that standing out opened the potential for exposure.
Luevano has already separated himself from that world. He has earned his residency and his citizenship, and soon will earn his college degree – each step a lengthy, intimidating process. He hopes his story can inspire fellow Latinos to see what they’re capable of accomplishing.
Yet to many of them, Luevano’s story is as terrifying as it is inspiring.
Temperatures were dipping toward freezing when Luevano stepped out of the hotel room in Nogales, Mexico, in April 2000. He wore his only possessions: two shirts and two pairs of jeans with $70 cash in his pocket, a sweatshirt and a gold Los Angeles Lakers jacket that quickly angered the men shuttling him through the desert who thought the bright color might be easily spotted.
“No, you’re not wearing that,” snipped one of the coyotes, the name given to guides leading immigrants through the desert. They preyed on the fears of the 24 immigrants who’d heard tales of being caught, shot or left behind. For two days they crammed the group into a small hotel room with one bed while waiting for a moonless night to cross the border.
Luevano tried to pretend he wasn’t smart, even as he tried to think ahead of them. Was anyone in this hotel room with him a rival coyote? Were some of them affiliated with the Mexican drug cartels? Would they rob or kill him? These were reasonable fears in a region known for its role in international human trafficking and drug trade. The U.S. State Department’s travel warnings list the region around Nogales as extremely dangerous; travelers are urged to use main roads and only during daylight hours. Those fears kept Luevano awake throughout that hotel stay. And the most dangerous part hadn’t even started yet.
A Mercury Grand Marquis pulled up. Luevano and seven others were told to jump quickly into the five-passenger vehicle as it entered the garage. “Don’t say anything,” a coyote ordered. “Stay still and shut your mouth.” The car sped into the chilly dusk and onto one of the many dirt roads traversing the hills outside Nogales, a border town straddling the Arizona line. The Mercury raced for 20 minutes through desert and forest.
Deep in the woods, the Mercury stopped and let out its cargo. The two dozen reunited immigrants lined up, a coyote in the front and back, and placed their hands on the hips of the person in front of them. It was 7 p.m. Darkness was settling in. They started walking.
To this day Luevano can’t explain exactly what brought him to this moment. He left behind in Aguascalientes all of his family, a hard-working group who’d found good work in a tough Mexican economy. His mother, Micaela, cleaned houses for a living, while his father, Juan Antonio, performed maintenance on carnival rides. Luevano’s two brothers started at entry-level jobs, scrubbing floors at a five-star hotel and selling tractor parts to farmers. Both worked their way up to manage their companies. Julio Luevano was no different: At 20, he held a steady job as a pharmaceutical salesman and dreamed of going to college and working toward a medical degree. But he felt paying for his schooling placed undue pressure on his mother, so he did the responsible thing and dropped out after one semester.
He was still dreaming of a return to school when a friend, Leobardo Chavarria, told Luevano of his plans to emigrate to America. Chavarria planned to join family members in Indiana who already had set him up with a job. Luevano heard Chavarria’s stories repeatedly as his departure kept getting delayed. Then one day, Luevano asked if he could join.
Luevano’s father cautioned him. “Just take care of yourself,” Juan Antonio told his son before he left, “because crossing the border is a flip. Either you win or you lose. There’s nothing else.”
As they marched through the woods, Luevano couldn’t tell where he was or even where his next step would land. If he lost his grip on the person in front of him, he would be instantly lost. His mind raced in the darkness: Were the coyotes really taking them across the border? Or would they just shoot them all in the desert?
They walked for hours. One of the coyotes finally called out, “We’re on the other side.” Fences and farms emerged. They laid down in the dirt and crawled under barbed-wire fences. But even in the darkness, the coyotes knew every path and every danger.
“Wait!” one called out as they approached one familiar fence. “This one has electricity. Just wait.” The coyote pulled out a wire and tossed it at the fence. Sparks burst when it connected. “We just go around this one,” the coyote said.
The group traced the property line. Then dogs started barking.
“Don’t run,” someone in the group said. “Those aren’t going to come out. Just don’t run.” Luevano’s heart raced. Blackness surrounded him. He couldn’t tell where the danger might come from, or where he could escape.
Then, shots rang out. “OK, run!”
They burst like wild stallions. A coyote ordered them not to stop, but for all the fear charging his legs, Luevano didn’t feel like he could go fast enough. He felt like he was running, but he didn’t feel like he was going anywhere, like somebody was holding him. He heard people falling around him. Others bolted through bushes.
Luevano heard a wheezing sound shoot past his ear, felt the ping against his cheek of the wind the object broke.
A bullet had just missed. “Just don’t let me die here,” Luevano prayed, still running. “I’ll just go back to Mexico, and it’s all good.”
They kept moving until 3 a.m. Exhausted and scared, the group arrived at a dry river bed where they were told they could rest for three hours. Luevano dug a hole in the desert earth, where the exposed dirt retained some of the heat from the day. He lay in it to warm himself, but he knew the truck wouldn’t issue a wake-up call when it arrived at 6 a.m. In anticipation, Luevano couldn’t sleep.
The pickup arrived as dawn broke. The coyotes barked clear orders: It would stop for five seconds. Don’t miss it.
Luevano lined up with his group on the side of the road. The truck stopped, and the migrants shoved Luevano back as they desperately leaped for the bed. Panicked, Luevano clawed his way back onto the truck and threw himself on top of the other immigrants’ bodies. They sped off, the cold wind biting as the truck transported Luevano to his new life.
Icons of rural Midwestern life abound in North Manchester, Indiana: Ample farmland stretches its legs on either side of the town of 6,000 residents; rows of corn and other crops swallow farmhouses, barns and grain elevators. Locals head to Mr. Dave’s restaurant for a classic Hoosier breaded pork tenderloin, or watch the Manchester baseball team make a run in the Division III championship. With Indianapolis two hours to the south and the nearest major city, Fort Wayne, 45 minutes east, life in North Manchester stays slow and comfortable from dawn to dusk.
In some ways it fit the images of America that Luevano had carried in his mind since childhood, when he watched the 1980s series “Knight Rider” with friends. They marveled at the talking Trans Am that aided David Hasselhoff in his quest for justice against tycoons preying on the weak. America was a land of wonders.
But for a new immigrant from Mexico, North Manchester was also lonely and intimidating.
The 2010 census counted only 232 Hispanics among the town’s population. The community was 95 percent white, which meant Luevano could have a conversation with less than 4 percent of the town’s residents. It was like being born all over again, emerging into a world where he didn’t know anyone and nobody could understand him.
“Are you the new hire?” his supervisor at Hi-Grade asked when Luevano started work the day after arriving in North Manchester. Luevano heard only gibberish, so he made some physical movements that looked agreeable. It seemed to work. The supervisor led Luevano to his station in the egg-packing area and gave some simple instructions. More gibberish. So Luevano watched other workers and copied what they were doing.
Luevano found that, as long as he didn’t know English, agreeing with whatever was said in those uncomfortable situations was the easiest way out of any interaction. But as he picked up small pieces of English, he began to realize the language barrier had exposed him to petty taunts. Passers-by would lob insults and laugh with friends as Luevano walked down the street with other Latinos: “Run! Run! Immigration is coming!”
When Luevano took a job at a foundry in North Manchester, an employee approached Luevano at the start of each shift with the same question. “Are you tired?” he would ask.
“Yeah,” Luevano would reply, sticking to his strategy of agreeing to any question. He had no idea what the question meant, but his co-worker would always turn and laugh with his friends afterward.
Luevano eventually asked a friend who spoke English to translate the remark. It made no sense to him. Why would this person ask if he was tired? Did he think Luevano was weak?
“No, I’m not tired,” Luevano said the next time he was asked. “Why?”
“Because you swam a lot to get here,” the co-worker punched back.
His early days in the United States contained many of those sorts of challenges. Racist jokes. People taking advantage of his lack of language skills. While returning from a movie in Huntington one night, he was pulled over for speeding and arrested for driving without a license – something unauthorized immigrants can’t obtain. With no money for a lawyer and no ability to defend himself given his rough English skills, he accepted the judge’s plea offer and spent four nights in jail. The lack of respect and willingness of others to take advantage of him frustrated Luevano. He urged other immigrants to stand up for themselves. But many kept their heads low, not wanting to start trouble for fear of losing their positions.
The stress got to him. A month into his American journey, while Luevano was trying to learn to drive a forklift at the Hi-Grade plant, his machine slipped on a wet spot, slid into a wall and crushed his foot against a pallet. He could see skin through his torn sneaker; he was certain it was broken. When he got home that night, he had to hop up to his trailer on one leg. Chavarria offered to fetch pain medicine and ice, but he never returned. Luevano sat on the floor, with no bed to sleep on, no couch or even a table, and started to cry.
“What the heck am I doing here?” he asked himself.
Dave Good and soccer have been interwoven in North Manchester for more than 30 years. He played the game while growing up in Nigeria before returning to the United States and becoming an All-America midfielder at Elizabethtown College, a player-coach for an amateur team in Pennsylvania and, eventually, Manchester’s head men’s coach. He has remained in the post for 34 years and worked to support the sport in the community, coordinating the youth soccer league he founded in 1982. He doubles as the university’s grounds coordinator, and his Manchester bio lists one of his interests as “doing what he can each day to make this world a prettier and better place.”
In other words, Good was the perfect person for Luevano and several other Latinos to befriend shortly after arriving in the U.S. None spoke English particularly well, but Good patiently worked out an agreement for the group to use Manchester’s practice field so they could form a local soccer club.
The sport provided Luevano an escape from the stress of adapting to American life. He displayed promising talent as a teenager in Mexico while competing for a neighborhood club team. It instilled a sense of loyalty and responsibility when his youth teammates quit the team; Luevano felt a duty to the club’s organizer, who had provided equipment for the local kids. And it fueled a dream when the club’s owner thought highly enough of Luevano to pay the 10,000 peso fee to sponsor his tryout with a local professional club. But Luevano’s sense of responsibility overwhelmed that dream, and he quickly decided the game offered no viable future.
Still, he loved soccer so much that he watched North Manchester practices from afar just to be close to it. He studied Good as he worked with his players and became familiar with their style. Over time, Luevano emerged as a central leader of the North Manchester club playing on the university’s field against other local clubs dotting the area. Good could see there was talent in the town’s small Latino community, but their clubs were erratically organized. Some were led by coaches; others managed a patchwork roster. Clubs often wouldn’t know who would be playing until the team arrived.
But Luevano was a constant.
Soon he had his team playing an annual scrimmage against Manchester, and sometimes the club team could challenge the college team, among the best in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference at the time. Good, a three-time coach of the year, saw potential in Luevano: He was physically strong with good ball control and a strong sense of what was happening around him.
One day after watching a Manchester practice, Luevano waited around until only Good remained as the coach closed down the field. He had a question that would sound naive to an American.
“Can I play with you guys?” he asked.
Good smiled, mildly amused. He knew college sports was a concept uncommon in Mexico. “This is completely different than what you’ve been used to,” Good told him. “In order to participate in college here, at our level, you have to be a full-time student, enrolled in the university.”
Luevano looked at the soccer field then the way a child might look to the night sky and picture himself as an astronaut. Luevano imagined himself on that field, running up the sidelines to make a play in front of a cheering crowd. He pictured himself in a gold jersey, Manchester printed across the front. The concept of college soccer, only seconds old, felt welcoming.
“One of these days,” he told Good, “I’d really like to go to college.”
The blond girl was pretty, but Luevano wouldn’t talk to her.
Luevano and his friend Saul Soto had just finished soccer practice and stopped at Huck’s Food and Fuel to buy Gatorade when Danielle and her friend, Soto’s girlfriend, pulled in.
“My girlfriend’s friend wants to meet you,” Soto said, excited. “The one in the car.”
Luevano looked to the car but immediately closed off any chance of a conversation. He had been in America for only a year, and his English was still sparse. “She’s pretty, but no thanks,” he said.
“I don’t know English,” Luevano said emphatically. “You go. I’ll stay here.”
Soto started pulling Luevano by the arm. “You need to come,” he said. Luevano knew Danielle could see the exchange. She might think he was a jerk. “Before we go,” he said, “are you going to translate for me?”
But Soto and his girlfriend took off, laughing. Danielle and Luevano stood looking at each other.
“Hi,” Danielle said.
“Hi,” Luevano replied.
It was a humble beginning to a relationship. But with Danielle, Luevano for the first time started feeling comfortable in the U.S. During his breaks at the foundry, where searing heat from the molten metal made the environment uncomfortable on all but the coldest days of winter, Danielle brought bottled water to cool him. As they got to know each other, the ability to communicate with Danielle motivated Luevano to learn English. She helped him with vocabulary and the meanings of phrases. How do you say this? What does this mean? Is it a good word? Can I use it here, or not? Luevano made notes and carried them in his pocket, practicing each makeshift lesson until his English improved in pieces.
Meeting Danielle changed Luevano’s life. They married a year after they met – two years to the day after Luevano crossed the border – and welcomed a daughter, Micaela, a year after that. But with each addition to his life, Luevano had more to lose by being an undocumented resident of the country that was beginning to feel like home. Other friends who had earned their green cards told Luevano he needed only to travel to Indianapolis and pay a fine. Luevano and his wife were nervous. Initiating that process meant exposing Luevano: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would know his name and his address – something unauthorized immigrants feared most. Even when a local Catholic parish in North Manchester attempted to obtain contact information for its members, a large number of Latinos declined to participate out of fear immigration officials would end up with the information. Now Luevano was contemplating volunteering those details to an agency with power to deport him.
In March 2003, after retaining an immigration attorney, Luevano submitted his application for residency. Soon the couple received a letter instructing them to wait for further notice.
Luevano kept playing for the town soccer team, kept reminding Good of his future plan. “Don’t forget – I’ll be there,” he’d say each year. “Save me a spot.” Danielle became pregnant with their second daughter, Isabela.
Nearly three years later, they were still waiting.
Unknown to the family, the procedures for applying for residency changed two years before they submitted their application. The process was no longer as simple as a two-hour trip to Indianapolis and a $1,000 fine. The new law required an unauthorized immigrant to return to his or her home country while the application for legal residency was processed.
So Luevano and his wife were surprised when, in 2006, they received the notification of their appointment with an immigration officer at the American consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso, Texas. The town is no vacation destination: Its murder rate is among the highest in Mexico. The American consulate, built like a fortress and secured with barred windows and an iron fence, restricts its government employees’ travel to the area immediately surrounding the compound.
The Luevanos figured this was still a standard procedure. So they booked round-trip tickets along with Danielle’s mom and step-dad, Charlie and Jeanette Allen. Luevano’s mom, Micaela, traveled to Juarez with his brother Victor Hugo to see her son for the first time in six years and to meet her granddaughter and daughter-in-law for the first time. The reunion started joyously.
But from the moment Luevano crossed back into Mexico, the signs pointed against him. The consulate guards initially denied Danielle entrance even though she was pregnant with Isabela. Luevano waited four hours to hear his name called. When his turn finally arrived, the questions came like a criminal interrogation.
“You have any problems with the law?” the man at the counter asked.
“No,” Luevano responded.
“You sure?” the man asked, examining Luevano’s thick packet of paperwork. “What did you go to jail for?” “Because I was driving without a license,” Luevano said, recalling the plea deal he accepted years before. An uneasy feeling started settling in.
“Why would they put you in jail for driving without a license?” the man said suggestively.
The questions proceeded aggressively.
“How did you cross?”
“Walking,” Luevano replied.
“What’s the coyote’s name?” the man pressed. Luevano’s attorney advised him to avoid that detail.
“I didn’t use no coyotes,” Luevano replied.
“Yeah, right. That’s what all of you guys say.”
Luevano could tell they viewed him as a criminal. He provided proof that he had paid taxes while in the United States. He argued for hardship by obtaining a notarized statement that Danielle couldn’t work while she was pregnant. Yet when it was finished, the answer was cold.
“You have to stay in Mexico for four to six months,” the man said.
Luevano could feel the horror flashing across his face. Then he saw tears streaming down Danielle’s cheeks and watched as 2-year-old Micaela, confused, tried to understand why everyone was upset. He felt sickness cut through his gut when they left for a plane to Indiana while he got in a car headed in the opposite direction, back to Aguascalientes.
Luevano arrived at his family’s home the next morning, already restless. He stepped into the streets two hours later, wandering, desperate. Danielle returned to Indiana and spent large portions of time with her mom and stepdad as she headed into a difficult pregnancy. Both were trying to simply wait out time. But they knew Luevano’s return wasn’t guaranteed. Despite their marriage, Luevano had to convince immigration officials that his absence constituted an extreme hardship for his family. Only then could he get his green card.
Five months passed, and the anticipated call came: Isabela had arrived healthy. Luevano heard her first cries over the phone. Another month passed, and finally another piece of expected news arrived: Luevano had a follow-up appointment at the consulate. He wanted to feel excited but held back. Immigration officials could still make him wait longer or reject his application.
So Luevano drove the 800 miles to Juarez cautiously. The same immigration agent handed him a thick packet with a visa and offered few instructions. Luevano checked the information repeatedly, refusing to leave until he was sure every letter and number was printed correctly. Then he stepped onto the streets of Juarez and hopped in a cab that took him to the Rio Grande and, for the second time in his life, a fearful, win-or-lose trip across the border. But this time he wasn’t terrified of murder or kidnapping, but of a clerical error.
As he crossed, a woman asked if he was traveling to Texas for shopping.
“No,” Luevano said. And the thought struck him: No! They gave me the wrong visa!
“Oh, wait a minute,” the woman corrected herself. “You’re a new resident. Congratulations. Welcome to the U.S.”
Within days of Arturo Yáñez’s arrival in North Manchester, he discovered Luevano’s local Latino soccer club. He had come with his family to take a position as a Spanish professor at the university. He was in his early 50s, older than most players on the team, but Yáñez still enjoyed the competition and camaraderie.
He also enjoyed the company of the Latino community. Yáñez had taught in Venezuela for the previous 26 years but left the country because of concerns about the socialist government taking root. He’d spent a frustrating time negotiating the American immigration process, arguing for the need for his profession and the significance of his academic papers. His arrival at Manchester University was just the start of still more nerve-wracking work toward permanent residency.
It provided a natural connection point with Luevano, one of the more gregarious members of the team. Luevano had been back in America for two years when they met and was a year away from citizenship. But Luevano’s dreams extended beyond that next step, and as the two talked, Yáñez’s role at the university came up in conversation.
“I wish I could make it to college,” Luevano said.
“Julio, you make your own destiny,” Yáñez replied. “I dream a lot, too. Julio, you have to start dreaming about what you want to do.”
“I’m doing that,” Luevano told him.
“Well, you need to start making that happen.”
Yáñez shared more in common with Luevano than most. When he earned a scholarship to the University of Toronto for graduate school, Yáñez arrived in Canada with $200 and no place to sleep. He shared the frustrations of navigating the immigration system. And he understood that Luevano could achieve more.
So Yáñez approached the Learn More Center in North Manchester, an arm of the town parks department that helps adults develop reading, writing, math and computer skills, and ultimately progress toward more advanced education. He offered to work with local Latinos and teach a GED class in Spanish.
He started with a handful of students, including Luevano, meeting two days a week. Each week, a couple dropped out. Within a few weeks, Yáñez came to class and saw only Luevano. The others kept saying the class was too difficult, Luevano told Yáñez. “Julio, when things get tough, you have to work harder,” Yáñez said.
Luevano’s drive to succeed encouraged Yáñez. He wasn’t just the only student in the group who stayed; he was the only student who showed a particular interest in where it would lead him. He followed instructions. He was dependable.
So they continued on together. Sometimes, Yáñez would ask Luevano to hold class in his office. Could he be there in 10 minutes? Luevano always arrived on time.
The learning process took time. At first, they conversed entirely in Spanish. But over the months, they worked to speak only in English. They focused on language skills, along with math.
The more Luevano studied, the more distanced he felt from the local Latino community. In this culture that was hidden in plain sight, Luevano started to stand out. He had his residency. Full citizenship inched closer. His English was getting better and better. After two years of working with Yáñez, Luevano earned his GED. Levels of education that only a couple of years earlier seemed like an unobtainable dream, closed within sight.
For the first time Luevano felt different from his peers. He anticipated resentment. “You have to accept that some of them do not accept the idea that you’re moving up the ladder,” Yáñez told him.
Luevano kept playing in his club team’s scrimmages against Manchester, kept telling coach Good: “Save me a spot.” Good even mentioned to one of his players, Corey Brueggeman, that one of the community club players might soon join the team. But as each fall of Brueggeman’s career passed, Luevano didn’t apply for admission.
Then, two weeks before the spring semester was to start, the machines at Hi-Grade started failing in a cascade – a single-day fiasco. Luevano’s supervisors started pressuring him to get them back online immediately. Luevano knew he needed help, but a second maintenance worker hadn’t come in that day. Luevano wrangled through the repairs and sharp words. He left with bitter thoughts of the situation and a single deduction crystallizing in his mind.
He needed to do something for his future.
David McFadden, the president of Manchester University, was vice president for enrollment when he offered Luevano a courtesy meeting in his office in January 2013. Good had appealed for McFadden to meet Luevano; even the vice president’s son, a former Manchester soccer player, had scrimmaged against the community team and spoke highly of its members.
Luevano’s success at Manchester seemed like the longest of long shots, McFadden thought. He listened to Luevano explain his desires, but the situation was so unusual for a campus with few nontraditional students. Luevano had a wife, three kids, a full-time job – college challenges full-time students without those extra responsibilities. They discussed attending part-time. Luevano mentioned the possibility of playing soccer.
Soccer? On top of everything else he was looking to take on? It didn’t seem possible, and McFadden didn’t want to see a student set himself up for failure. Still, Luevano’s persistence impressed McFadden.
What happened next, McFadden says, is a somewhat standard procedure to help new Manchester students through the admissions process. But Luevano relays the story as if he experienced it in a dream. When he first came to the U.S., Luevano had to help himself. He had to watch out for his own welfare crossing the border. He had to believe in himself. Now he had family, friends, coaches, professors and even administrators believing in him and helping him across another border. And now, McFadden was leading Luevano across the university quad and into the admissions office, speaking words that still make Luevano glow.
“Do whatever you can to help him.”
Luevano waited more than a decade for this call. And when it came, he missed it. He saw the voice mail, listened to it, then passed the phone to Danielle to confirm what he’d heard.
It was certainly a standard message to the man leaving it. But what is typical to one person can be life-altering to another. To Luevano, this call was confirmation of the belief he had in himself; justification of the effort others invested; a relief that the unknown was now brick-and-mortar reality. He could form new dreams with endless possibilities. Luevano and his wife listened to the message repeatedly.
“This is Adam from Manchester,” the voice said. “We went through your stuff, and congratulations! You’ve been accepted.”
Luevano blends in with the other students crossing Manchester’s quad, wearing a gold Spartans T-shirt and carrying a Nike backpack. It’s late August, and the buzz of the first day of classes charges through campus. What was Luevano’s dream is now his routine. Other students wave hello and give him fist bumps as they walk past. McFadden waves as he walks to his car. The man who once endured racist taunts, who learned his first words of English in order to defend himself from those who would take advantage of him, now calls himself a college student.
“Sometimes, I can’t believe that I’m really here,” Luevano says.
But he wants it more than many of those around him, his coaches and teammates say. That much was apparent from Luevano’s first day at Manchester. He barely slept the night before, restlessly pondering how he would answer his professor if called upon. When it happened, the professor asked each student why they were at Manchester. Some said their parents had sent them. Others said they liked playing their sport. “I came here because I want to be somebody,” Luevano answered.
It’s that attitude that prompted Good and Brueggeman, now an assistant coach, to offer Luevano an honor rarely bestowed on a freshman. In the days leading up to their season opener last fall, they pulled Luevano aside and asked him to be a captain. They could see his maturity and natural leadership abilities. And skill on the field? Well, nobody questioned it after Luevano’s first scrimmage the previous spring when, with his teammates still looking at him questioningly, Luevano took a cross pass from Brueggeman, popped it straight up off his chest, turned his back to the goal and flipped, sticking the bicycle kick into the net while his teammates stood frozen. The women’s soccer coaches on the adjacent field applauded.
“Everyone was like, ‘You’re doing that next year, right?’” says teammate Loic Youth. “It put some expectations on his shoulders. And he responded to the expectations well.”
The days get long: Classes in the morning, practice in the afternoon, homework in the evening, time with his family squeezed in between, and a 48-hour work week occupying his nights. His children are too young to understand what their father is doing. In the moments they have together at their three-bedroom home, a half-mile from the place Luevano and his wife met, Isabela asks if her dad will take gym shoes and a snack to his school. Micaela shares her dream of becoming a veterinarian. Luevano hopes his example helps her hold onto that dream.
He could make his life easier and not play soccer. After all, at a Division III school, soccer isn’t paying for his degree. He could cut the hours of practice, games and workouts, allow himself some sleep, provide more time for his family. But he remembers those days when he watched Manchester practice from afar, and the feeling of respect he and his immigrant teammates had for those players.
Finally he, too, feels that respect.
And he knows he will feel it, too, when graduation day comes. He has pictured it in his mind. He’ll fly his mom from Mexico to see her son receive the degree that proves his journey was worthwhile. And, of course, there will be Danielle and his children, who supported him through sleepless nights and work-heavy days. But the list could easily get out of hand from there: friends, teammates, coaches, professors. They’ll celebrate together.
Through teary eyes, they can already picture the moment.
Luevano will need a new dream after that day.
For now, he’s still digging the dust from the overheating laser sensor at Hi-Grade, his shift barely an hour old. The day was long, with a morning practice in 94 percent humidity and temperatures climbing into the high 80s. As he brushes out the sensor, he looks to what lies ahead – to the possibility of a bigger home, a new career, more security for his family.
One thought lingers off in the distance. It might not be feasible, but neither was the idea of an immigrant who came to the country illegally going to college.
“How long are you going to be here?” Luevano asked Good recently.
Good smiled good-naturedly. “What, are you trying to replace me?”
Luevano laughs while recalling the story as more dust leaves the sensor. It’s only an immigrant’s dream, after all.