Cynics have spoken of late about the death of the American dream. These days, it’s impossible to achieve, they complain. Nobody really wants to work for it, others say. Apparently, these naysayers haven’t met senior Hugo Alfaro.
When he was five years old, Alfaro immigrated to the United States from El Salvador with his mother and two older brothers. The family settled into the Adams Morgan section of Washington, D.C. to “look for a better life.” And years later, Alfaro has found just that.
“Poor, really poor”The United States has been good to the Alfaros, although it hasn’t always been easy. Alfaro had to spend four years working at Popeye’s to pay his tuition at the parochial John Carol High School.
“We were really poor, and I had to work,” Alfaro says. “We had luck, but I worked very hard through high school.”
Today Alfaro’s mother continues to work as a vendor in Adams Morgan, selling CDs, tapes and various products from El Salvador.
Alfaro was the captain of his high school soccer team for two years, and won the John Carol High School award for community service.
“I think that I have been really fortunate to be an immigrant to this country,” Alfaro says. “When I was back in my country, I barely had a pair of shoes or a pair of nice dress pants to wear to go to church. I had to wear my oldest brother’s clothes when he was done with them.
“And now here I am, at one of the best colleges in the United States,” Alfaro says. He is the first in his family to go to college.
Latinos for ProgressOnce situated in his Thurston Hall room at GW, Alfaro took the school by storm. “I felt that I basically didn’t belong here,” he remembers. “GW portrayed itself as a very international school, but I was very disappointed.”
So Alfaro decided to do something about it. Hoping to find out how to run programs and organize groups, he dropped in on campus meetings for international organizations.
Sophomore year, having learned the ropes of group activities, Alfaro founded Latinos For Progress. LFP began with seven original members; it now boasts more than 100.
“My main goal was to unite the Latinos at GW, and in a way to reach out to other minority groups on campus so we could try to work together,” he says.
LFP brought Hispanic Heritage Month to GW, and the group continues to hold political and social events in an attempt to spread information about Latin American culture.
In 1996, LFP held the first Latin American Culture Night in the Marvin Center Ballroom, and attracted 300 people. In cooperation with the College Democrats, LFP brought Loretta Sanchez to speak on campus. Sanchez became something of an icon for Latino progress when she triumphed over Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.) in a controversial 1996 election.
LFP also has drawn to GW members of national organizations like the Organization of American States and the National Council of the Raza, a Latino civil rights group.
Being Latino at GWAlfaro adds that part of LFP’s mission is to involve itself with other minority groups on campus. “If you try to outreach to other groups and minorities that exemplify diversity on campus, I think that you can succeed,” he says. “`Hey, you come to my events, I come to your events, we learn from each other.’ I think that’s positive.”
He says he believes that voluntary segregation can cause problems on campus. “Sometimes different minorities feel comfortable with their own group,” he says. “It’s a shame that that exists.”
Alfaro says he believes the problem is diminishing with the passing of years.
“As a leader on campus, every time I see something like that, I try to go and introduce myself, and be sociable with other minorities,” he says. “One of the reasons I started LFP was to promote diversity.” Alfaro notes that he has friends from every ethnic minority, including black, Asian and Middle Eastern.
“I think that it is imperative to always, always make friends,” he says. “To me, the color of skin doesn’t matter. What matters to me is personality. Like Martin Luther King said, `the content of their character.’ “
Juggling the soccer ballPlaying midfield on the GW men’s soccer team won Alfaro some grants, helping to relieve the financial stress of attending GW. But it hasn’t been easy for him to stay active on campus, handle his academics and travel and practice with the soccer team.
A political science major with minors in religion and Latin American studies, Alfaro had to polish his time management skills.
“It has strengthened me,” he explains. “And the coach and the teammates are excellent people. You really get to have that support for the team.”
Alfaro, who started about half the games his senior year, says he is thankful for the playing time he got. “I am really glad that I joined and was able to be a member of the team,” he says.
Reaching outAlfaro, through various community service projects, has spent his college career reaching out to local youth. He was D.C. Youth Outreach Coordinator for Stand For Children, a national organization that advocates equal rights for children in health care and education.
Alfaro now co-chairs the Youth Latino Civil Task Force Committee, a national Latino civil rights advocacy group. Alfaro seeks volunteers willing to speak about the importance of education in high schools.
“The Latino education rate in the U.S. is really low, so we try to promote education,” he explains. “A lot of people also come to us when they feel that their rights have been violated.” Lawyers at his office assist people who cite instances of rights violations.
For three years, Alfaro was student ambassador for the Multicultural Student Service Center at GW. The Center sends students to D.C. area schools to encourage inner-city students to finish high school and attend college.
Alfaro’s community service work has not gone unnoticed – this year, he became the first Latino to receive GW’s Martin Luther King Jr. Medal for Human Rights. The award goes to the individual who exemplifies the human values embodied in King’s work, including commitment to multiculturalism, peace, nonviolence, personal integrity and ethical and religious reflection.
“The award goes to a student who has made contributions to the University and its community,” Alfaro explains. “It was an honor for me because I was the first Latino to get it in GW history.”
The futureAlfaro says he will continue to struggle for Latino civil rights after he graduates in May. He will be working at the Washington Office on Latin America, which promotes human rights in Latin American countries. He will travel in and out of Central America and Cuba.
But Jim Graham, D.C. City Council member, recently asked Alfaro to run his re-election campaign.
“He wants me because he knows I am known around the Latino community, and he wants to get Latinos out to vote,” Alfaro explains.
Alfaro met Graham at a police meeting during which questions were raised about whether a young Latino, who was beaten by a police officer, had his civil rights violated. “Graham was there, he gave me his card, and he told me, `I want you to run my campaign,’ ” Alfaro says.
The GW senior has not responded to Graham’s offer about working on the campaign. After another year, however, he does know that he will be applying to law school. “And GW is my first choice,” Alfaro said.
Appreciating GW”One of the things that I love about GW is that if I didn’t like something I have been able to change it,” Alfaro says. “I have been able to beat the system. If you try hard enough, you can change some things.”
He says he appreciates the education he found here, but that a darker side to the University exists. “I think it is too expensive, and I think in a way, the administration overall ignores students’ needs and wants,” he says.
Alfaro cites his time spent on the Student Leadership Team. He says that, most noticeably with regards to the tuition hike issue, the administration said, “This is what we had planned, anything you said doesn’t matter.” Luckily, Alfaro says, the admin
istration compromised better this year about the tuition increase.
Alfaro advises incoming students to remain active in college. “You learn so much, and you can become a leader,” he says. “And being a leader is a great thing. If you are a leader in college, you are a leader in the real world, and people are now looking for strong leaders.
“And you should always put your academics first. But after that, you should be active on campus as a student,” he says. “I feel that has helped me a lot. To find who I am, and to mature.”
Appreciating the United States”The United States is a great country. I am really lucky that I am here, and I really appreciate that I am here,” Alfaro says.
But he does see problems with the country, particularly in the way it handles its immigrant population. “A lot of people come to the U.S. because they have no other way to support their families,” he explains.
“It is a crime to treat them as illegal aliens, because they just came to look for a better life. There are people who are starving down there (in South America), who are so poor. But there should be limits, not everyone should be able to come here.”
He added that the Unites States should cease support of corrupt South American governments that do nothing to decrease the tremendous social disparity in their nations.
Goals, not dreams”I probably see myself practicing international law,” Alfaro says when asked about the future. “And I do want to go back to my country and use my education as a tool to help with the inequalities.
“One of my dreams is actually becoming president of El Salvador. That’s my biggest goal. It’s not a dream, but a goal,” he said. “And I usually achieve my goals. It’s going to take time, but I can see myself in less than 40 years as president.”
But the would-be president says he will always look up to one person.
“My mother taught me great morals, she really supported everything I did. She is pleased to see her son succeed, especially since I am the first one in the family,” Alfaro says. “She has worked so hard for me and my brothers. I hope I can continue on and one day provide for her, after the amount that she has suffered.”
This article appeared in the April 23, 1998 issue of the Hatchet.