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December 15, 2002


From: Sarasota Herald-Tribune, FL - 15 Dec 2002

A fleeting childhood gives way to a world of adult responsibilities


MANATEE COUNTY -- Several nights a week Estanislao Garcia escapes his family to study the large paperback book filled with images of hands and fingers.

Bent digits and twisted wrists symbolize words like "house," "dog" or "cat."

Estanislao, 12, already knows English and Spanish, but now he must learn a third language -- American Sign. He teaches himself the hand symbols so he can communicate with his younger sister Celén, who is deaf.

Estanislao, who's learning language arts and fractions in his fifth-grade class, is also a teacher. As soon as he absorbs the motions from the book, he teaches them to his mother, Elena, explaining to her what each gesture means in Spanish, the only language she knows.

Elena, who is raising her children alone for now, can't read or write in her native tongue. So she relies on Estanislao to read the mail, pay the bills and fill out forms, tasks her husband used to perform before the Immigration and Naturalization Service arrested him.

While Estanislao's tasks seem overwhelming for a 12-year-old, there are thousands of other children who also cross the line between childhood and adult responsibilities. More than 4,000 Hispanic children in Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties live in poverty.

Educators say children of immigrants are often forced to grow up too fast -- taking care of their family's needs -- and that their school work often suffers.

Every day as Estanislao and his brothers and sisters step on their yellow school bus, they are fighting the overwhelming odds that they'll end up as adults living in poverty. Poor Hispanic children in this tri-county region are twice as likely to drop out of school than to earn their high school diploma, according to Census figures.

Like many children who have non-English speaking parents, Estanislao serves as a translator, working to make sure that the family has basic necessities -- water, electricity, food.

When the phone rings, Estanislao answers it. When the mail comes, he opens it and reads it. When the kids bring home school forms, he explains them to his mom.

He often writes excuse notes for his brothers and sisters when they miss school.

Candi Fleet, a specialist with the Manatee County school district, works with children whose first language isn't English. She said a lot of children in the English Spoken as Other Language program may have low grades but "unbelievable" functioning skills.

"They know about the bank, making appointments," Fleet said. "It's amazing what these kids can do. But as a result they miss a lot of fun opportunities of being a kid."

These adult responsibilities "drastically" affect their education, Fleet said.

"They're kept out of school because they're out helping their parents survive every day," she said.

Estanislao, a fifth-grader at Braden River Elementary, is mostly stoic about his responsibilities. He doesn't complain. He's the man of the family now that his dad is in INS custody -- even though he still doesn't feel like a man.

Last summer, Estanislao and his siblings watched as federal agents arrested their father, José. His dad is in an INS jail in Houston, awaiting deportation to Mexico.

Estanislao's only communication with his dad is an occasional phone call and the letters he writes for his mother.

Elena never realized how much of a struggle it is for her son now that his father is not around. She didn't know that he cries himself to sleep almost every night, praying that his father will return to them.

"I ask (God) to bring him back, and for him to be the same person," Estanislao said, tears collecting on the rims of his gold-wire glasses.

He said he doesn't tell his mom how he feels. "I ask him, but he says 'No,'" Elena said.

She knows he's burdened. "He was worried when papa left about who would buy chicken or tortillas."

Estanislao, the oldest of six children living in the United States, was born on the Fourth of July in Potosín, Mexico, meaning he's not an American citizen. He crossed the border into Texas in his uncle's car when he was just 4 years old.

All of his younger siblings were born here and are citizens.

Even though he's not a citizen, Estanislao is guaranteed an education through high school.

He came here to be with his father, José, who worked the fields picking tomatoes, strawberries and cabbage. Off season, he'd work construction.

José lived in the States for five years before he ventured back to Mexico to get the rest of his family seven years ago.

Estanislao has always taken on responsibilities most children his age couldn't manage. When he was 4 he'd help out around the house sweeping floors, washing dishes and making the beds.

As he grew older, he began cooking. When Elena came home, weary from her job cleaning houses, Estanislao would ask her if she wanted him to make quesadillas.

"I've been doing it since I was a little kid," Estanislao said of the chores he expects his siblings to share. "They're old enough now, they can do it."

Estanislao wants to learn as much as he can. He wants to make a better life for his family.

He gets away from the poverty every day he leaves the litter-choked sidewalks and dingy duplexes of his Pride Park neighborhood and rides his school bus past east county's rows of manicured, emerald lawns and two-story mini-mansions.

He takes language arts, science and math at the elementary school along with his class for students who speak English as a second language.

He tries not to bring too much school work home at night. His siblings' shrill screams and trampling feet make it hard to study in the apartment they share with another family.

"Sometimes when it's hard work, I just go into my room and close the door," he said. But the solitude doesn't last long: He shares the room with three brothers.

He also spends his evenings helping his 8-year-old sister Celén communicate with their mother. Celén, who was born deaf, wears hearing aides and can hear her name when it's shouted, but she doesn't talk much and communicating with her is difficult.

She attends a class for hearing-impaired students at Bayshore Elementary where she learns American Sign Language. Estanislao began studying Celen's books, learning her language so his sister wouldn't feel isolated at home.

"I didn't usually talk to her because she doesn't talk," Estanislao said one night as he watched Manatee's boat parade on television.

Now the two sign about games, Christmas and birthdays.

Jan Alvarez, Celen's home school liaison, brought a birthday cake to the Garcia home Wednesday evening for the girl's 8th birthday. Celén was surprised as Alvarez handed her a teddy bear.

Estanislao worked to keep controlled chaos in the house, carrying a toddler and keeping watch over the kitchen as Celén celebrated.

Later, as Celén forked the white icing, Estanislao waved to get her attention. He signed to her, asking if she liked the cake. He wanted to make sure she was happy.

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