Brother and sister work hard for ‘a better future, a better life’

Siblings from Guatemala aspire to big dreams in America

Yustin and Anyelin Vasquez Lopez graduated from Union High School after leaving a difficult life in Guatemala

Anyelin and Yustin Vasquez Lopez are well aware of the Guatemala they came from, the America they came to, and what it will take to succeed here.

It will take hard work, which is just what they put in to graduate from Union High School in May. They’re prepared to take on plenty more from here.

“We want a better future for all of us in our family,” said Anyelin, who came to Grand Rapids with her brother three years ago.

As the first in their family to graduate from high school, she and Yustin bear an added responsibility, she added: “I feel like I want to be better for them and for me.”

That’s why she worked about 35 hours a week packing car parts while pulling down A’s at Union and taking the certified nursing assistant program at the Kent Career Tech Center. It’s why Yustin worked as a full-time cook while also going to the Tech Center and taking honors courses at Union. Both are working full-time this summer, she at Controlled Plating Technologies, he at the Latin American restaurant Luna.

“I want a better future, a better life,” said Yustin, who plans to be an electrician and eventually start his own company. Anyelin is after a career as a pediatrician.

Both should attain their goals, given their work ethic and “a mindset in which they do not give up,” said Halima Ismail, who oversees the Union High Newcomers program for immigrant students. She’s seen them make great strides since arriving in 2016 with no English-speaking skills.

“I think they’re going to be very successful,” Ismail said. “They have learned how to interact and work within the American cultural system of education. Because they have a grit mindset, they will be lifelong learners.”

Yustin and Anyelin Vasquez Lopez celebrate graduation with their mother, Janaly Lopez

Leaving an ‘Unsafe’ Country

It was a dangerous life they left in Guatemala, where poverty, drug trafficking and gangs have prompted thousands of migrants to seek a better life in the United States. Their neighborhood in San Marcos was plagued daily by gang activity, they said.

“Every time in Guatemala when you go out, you feel unsafe,” Yustin said. “Sometimes you go to different places, but there are people (who) want to do something bad to you.”

Their mother, Janaly Lopez, unable to find work at home, had come to the U.S. eight years earlier. After living with their remarried father, they came to join her in the fall of 2016. Although she had a job when they arrived, she couldn’t work after a car accident last year left her badly injured. It was a hard time financially, Anyelin said, adding, “That’s why we started working.”

It was also hard to adjust to Grand Rapids without knowing English. Anyelin recalled being in line at a store when a woman asked her a question. When she was unable to respond, the woman yelled, “Why don’t you speak English?” Other times, she said, people would just ignore her.

“It was hard for us,” she said. “You came here to feel better, and you just feel even worse. You feel like you don’t fit in this country just because of the language.”

At first, they questioned whether they’d made the right move. Anyelin said she told her mother if things weren’t going to get better for her, “I want to go back.”

Anyelin created this poster, ‘The Power of Dreams,’ for a Latino youth conference

‘Intrinsically Motivated’

However, brother and sister applied themselves, studying English two hours a day in the library after school and learning academic foundations in the year-long Newcomers program. They showed tenacity and took ownership of their work, Ismail said, calling them “intrinsically motivated. They learned very quickly how and who to work with for support.”

They were also supported by their mother, who always attended parent-teacher conferences and came to special events celebrating their academic achievements, she added.

‘I want to help others, showing that everybody can do what they want if they put effort into it.’ – Anyelin Vasquez Lopez

In time, the English got better and the learning came easier as they entered the regular academic program at Union. Still, their schedules were grueling. This year, Anyelin sometimes rose at 3 a.m. to do quizzes and homework before school. Yustin squeezed in his homework third hour and worked after school until 10 p.m. or later.

Both participated in the Yo Puedo organization for Latino youths. Yustin won academic awards for English-language learners, and Anyelin this spring was named student of the year in the certified nursing assistant program at the Tech Center. An accomplished artist, she designed a poster for the Yo Puedo youth conference, titled “The Power of Dreams.”

She and her brother are powered by their dreams, as they go from their graduation ceremony at Calvin College toward Grand Rapids Community College this fall.

‘I think they’re going to be very successful. Because they have a grit mindset, they will be lifelong learners.’ — Halima Ismail, Union High School school improvement facilitator

Yustin will continue his studies to become an electrician, while Anyelin will pursue an associate degree in nursing with an eye to med school in the future. He wants to eventually employ family members with his own business. She wants to serve disadvantaged children as a doctor, both in the U.S. and, she hopes, one day in Guatemala.

“In many places, many people don’t have the money to pay for a doctor, and many children die because they don’t have the necessary treatment,” she said. “There is a lot of malnutrition and poverty.”

Hoping to Help Others

Both want to become U.S. citizens, but both are dismayed by the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants and push to expand the southern border wall. Anyelin calls it “pretty sad.”

“When some Americans talk about us like Donald Trump does, he’s saying everybody’s bad for this country,” she said. “That is not right. Many of us came here to do better things. I strongly disagree with the idea of taking us out of here.”

Both she and Yustin concede some of their countrymen “do bad stuff” in the U.S. But they say those people are far outweighed by others seeking to make life better – as they are.

“I want to help others, showing that everybody can do what they want if they put effort into it,” Anyelin said. “I want to be an inspiration for other Latino or Hispanic people who come to the United States.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles's full bio.

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