Miguel Alcantar takes his seat in the Tennessee State House gallery. He has a notebook of facts with him and a friend or two. He has a mustache and something to say: The title loan sharks are feeding on his community. There are 100 predatory lenders in his East Nashville neighborhood. He knows because he has counted.
But what will the elected officials pay attention to during his testimony? To the facts or to his accent? To his age of 17, or to the fact that he will not be getting a letter from the U.S. military on his next birthday?
When he was 10 he emigrated from Mexico City to Nashville. He thought the long walk through the desert was fun. He joined his mother, who had already been in Tennessee for a year. He went to school and understood nothing. He got F’s and an occasional C. But soon he began to understand a little. He made friends. Teachers liked him. This one was bright. In a world where every other measuring post relegated him to the bottom, his brain was his privilege.
Now a senior at Brunswick High School, he maintains a 3.9 GPA while balancing his time volunteering in the community and working in his uncle’s shop, welding handrails and fixing trucks. Last summer he lived on campus at Tennessee State University for a month participating in a competitive pre-college program.
He accepts his success, even if he cannot understand it. He knows that his story is rare when he considers that most of the kids he knew when he moved here have dropped out of school to join gangs or have babies. He describes the stereotype of the young Mexican-American man with ease. The gangs, the tattoos, the countenance at once macho and ducking, the low expectations.
Having never known his father and unable to name a male role model in his life has not kept him from forming ideas about what he should be. A History Channel junkie, he does not hesitate to name his heroes. “Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson, MLK, Malcolm X,” he says, “They saw an injustice and they stood up and did all this stuff to help their people.”
From history he has constructed the positive image of man; from his community, the negative. As a volunteer for the Oasis Center, he goes around town talking to older people about ways to protect themselves from predatory lenders. He goes to them as an educator, but the roles always seem to reverse, with him receiving an education. For some reason, he says, “people just start telling you all of their mistakes.”
As he embarks on adulthood, college and possibility, he says that being a man will mean “being financially stable, having a house, being able to pay it off so my family wont have to worry about that, going to college, and getting into something that is gonna help someone. A man should be able to take care of his family. Be able to work. To support them physically and mentally. To be reasonable, and to be able to admit you’re wrong.”
Still, to have arrived at this age still believing that his future is his to decide is not the norm for kids with his background. He remembers