Jeronimo Maradiaga\'s Journey

Jeronimo Maradiaga's Journey

There were competing notions of success in Jeronimo Maradiaga's life: a high school diploma, a job, and a paycheck to help support his family versus years of college and professional school to achieve personal and intellectual goals

By Gerry Boyle '78 | Photos by Nick Cardillicchio

Jeronimo Maradiaga '09J, in Bronx, N.Y., at the enterance to John F. Kennedy School, which he attended.
Jeronimo Maradiaga '09J, in Bronx, N.Y., at the entrance to John F. Kennedy School, which he attended.
Maradiaga’s Bronx neighborhood, East Tremont, is, like much of New York City, a filled-to-the-brim melting pot of ethnicities and races, the cacophonous home to thousands of people jockeying to get by, to get ahead. Some parts are homey (Arthur Avenue’s Little Italy), while others are tattered. At times the place can be dangerous. Maradiaga liked his junior high school, J.H.S. 45, he said as he walked past the big brick building flush on Lorillard Place, though students were sometimes kept late because gang wars had broken out at nearby Roosevelt High. “They would tell us not to wear red or not to wear blue,” he said, “just because it would cause problems.”

Yes, he and his brother were held up at knife-point by older kids, he said, but he cautioned that robberies were the exception, not the rule, and not to “read too much into the tale.” Street crime, he said, “is an urban problem, not a Bronx problem.”

Rosa Alicia Aleman, his mother, wasn’t taking any chances.

Dark-haired and slight, Aleman was raised in the Honduran industrial city of San Pedro Sula. In her late 20s, she set out alone for the United States, leaving Maradiaga’s two half brothers behind with family. She first settled in Los Angeles, then moved to New York City, where Jeronimo and Oscar Maradiaga were born. Their father left the family when they were 5 and 6, and Aleman was left to provide for her two children alone—and to keep them safe. “She wanted us to be in the house,” Maradiaga recalled. “She was always working. She worked in factories, she waitressed. Two jobs, sometimes three.”

Often it wasn’t enough. The single mom and her two latchkey kids began what Maradiaga calls “our migration around the Bronx.” Money was tight at best, and when it ran out, evictions followed. The family would live with friends and even spent a few nights on the subway. They would move to a new apartment with the help of friends, everyone lugging belongings down the street. Maradiaga remembers a basement apartment that flooded every time it rained. “My mom hated that place,” he said. “She was very unhappy.”

And then, when Maradiaga was a sophomore at JFK High (dubbed by the students “Jail For Kids”), his mom became very sick. She had no health insurance and no income. In an abrupt role reversal, her two sons took over. Oscar worked in restaurants. Jeronimo worked at the zoo and the store. Then an uninspired student, his jobs taught him something: that he disliked manual labor. “I hated lifting things,” he said. “I was like, this is going to be my life.”

At first his studies were a diversion, a refuge from waiting on tourists and stocking shelves. Then it dawned on him that school could be more than a respite. It could be his ticket. “My junior year I started thinking, way in the back of my head, maybe this could be my way out.”

Maradiaga describes his high school life as “work and study, work and study.” He didn’t hang out, kept to himself. Maradiaga was smart, inquisitive, self-aware. And junior year, someone finally noticed.

It was in an Advanced Placement history class. Teacher Jessica Goring said her department head came into the class to talk about Fed Challenge, an economics competition. “He pulled out a five-dollar bill and he said, ‘I can give this five dollars to whoever can tell me the current chairman of the Federal Reserve.’ Jeronimo immediately says, ‘Alan Greenspan’ and takes the money. My boss was shocked.”

Goring said she learned then that Maradiaga was not only smart, but paying attention to the world around him. Over time she learned much more. Once he asked her how to proceed after getting an eviction notice. Later it emerged that he and his brother were “taking care of the household, acting as adults,” Goring said.

Now assistant principal of the Bronx School of Law and Finance, a small school within Kennedy High, Goring remembers Maradiaga coming to school three days out of five. But in a high school where one of three students graduated, he did his work—and well. His academic prowess and quiet leadership won him the respect of other students, Goring said. Maradiaga was president of National Honor Society and the Red Cross Club. Senior year he was tapped as a Posse Scholar, a highly competitive program, and before withdrawing to accept the Posse offer he was a finalist for a prestigious New York Times scholarship “for people who have overcome hardship,” as Maradiaga puts it.

But while there were accolades at school, at home the hardship was unrelenting, the stress overwhelming.
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  • On July 13, 2009, Maggie Goodes wrote:
    I have had the pleasure of meeting Jeronimo, through Chris and Rebecca, but never knew his story. He is an inspiration to us all. And the people around him, who supported him when things were tough, also inspire me. I wish Jeronimo all the best in his quest to collect the stories of others and look forward to reading them. I also wish him the best in his future studies. What an amazing doctor he will be.

  • On July 14, 2009, Cleveland Johnson, Director, TJW Fellowship wrote:
    We at the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship are proud to number Jeronimo among our 209/10 fellowship class. As this article expresses with such excellent nuance, the Watson Fellowship invests in people, not projects. We also funded this year a student whose difficult childhood forced her to scavenge for recyclables after school to help her family make ends meet. The focus of her year is "The Faces Behind Informal Waste Management" in Egypt, Australia, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Brazil. Our other 38 fellows of this year can be read about at: As with all our Fellows, we firmly believe that Jeronimo's year, rather than being a detour from his life goals, will be broadening and transformative. Just imagine the global perspective, empathy, and understanding he will be able to bring into his future medical career (or into any other career or advocacy work he chooses to pursue)! Already now, after his first weeks of Watson-funded independence in Mumbai, India, Jeronimo is beginning to answer the questions he brought along from his own personal experiences, while learning to ask a completely new set of questions he may never previously have thought to ask. Thank you for telling Jeronimo's "story." If nothing else, it gives powerful testimony why working for socio-economic diversity in the student bodies of small colleges is so important! For all of your alumni and readers, I do hope you will follow up with him after his return.

  • On July 15, 2009, Lady Bug wrote:
    Jeronimo, you continue to inspire us in so many ways. You made my Colby experience something worthwhile and memorable. I will always remember our Biology study sessions- good times. I have no doubt that you will continue to live your life to the fullest. Te queremos muchacho!

  • On July 15, 2009, R. Wilson wrote:
    J is a good friend and clearly one of the coolest people around...Good luck in Mumbai bro!

  • On July 16, 2009, Kate Williams wrote:
    I knew you could do it Jeronimo. My family had the wonderful experience of hosting Jeronimo in 2002 on his trip to Australia. We knew he was special and he has gone on to prove it. Our love and sincerest congratulations are with you now and always. Best of luck and happy times. What a wonderful family you have-worth everything you have worked for. Love, your Aussie family.

  • On July 16, 2009, Kathy Quimby Johnson (Colby '79) wrote:
    Jeronimo, what you have accomplished and what you are doing with your Watson Fellowship is so very important, because socio-economic class continues to divide the world and young people with backgrounds similar to yours need to know that it is possible for them to achieve their dreams. They also need to know that there is pain involved in learning to navigate a different culture. Thank you for sharing your story! I look forward to reading the stories you find on your travels. Thanks to Colby magazine for sharing this story--it's one of the best I've ever read in the thirty years since I graduated.

  • On July 22, 2009, Chidozie Alozie wrote:
    Jeronimo was one of the students who convinced me that I should become a teacher. We traveled to Australia together, and shared a host family. He is remembered fondly in his host community, and by his former group leader. Jeronimo, do you remember what Russel told us at Jumbum? Everyone has their own personal Uluru against which we struggle. Know that you have made the right decisions ... although I don't need to tell you that. I was with Kate in Carrieton this past weekend, and she showed me this article ... we'd all love to claim some of your success, but not for credit for helping you along the way, not that. We would love to have the strength, the conviction to deal with our own personal Uluru's, as you have. I was once the teacher ... but now I'm gonna watch, and learn.

  • On August 4, 2009, Allison Straw wrote:
    Thanks for sharing. Sharing about your life takes guts- especially when you know that not everyone will be able to relate or understand.

  • On August 27, 2009, S.K.B. wrote:
    Jeronimo your story is an insipiration. I am also a graduate of John F. Kennedy High School and I still live in the Bronx. I am trying to accomplish my dreams as well, I can relate to you in so many ways. The Bronx is pretty much the same way you left it, the only time you see changes being made is when elections are here, thats when every politician wants to make a difference. Someday though, I will accomplish my goals and change the Bronx for the better. Someday.

  • On September 24, 2009, Mike Wolk wrote:
    I read this article by accident after filling out a survey. It is the best article I've ever read in this magazine since my graduation in 1975 and was moved beyond belief. I'm forwarding it to my daughter and her husband at Penn State as inspiration while they struggle through their own academic and life difficulties.

  • On September 24, 2009, Georgia Fisher Kearney (Colby '52) wrote:
    Jeronimo what an inspiring story. I wish you the best and give your mother kudos for inspiring her sons. My husbalnd was raised in a tenement in Scotland and his mother inspired her three children to get an education and succeed in life

  • On September 26, 2009, Andrew O-S wrote:
    Jeronimo, the wealth of strength, will, power, high-standards and imagination you have found in yourself are owned, sadly, by very few. It is privilege to know you. You inspire me to have the strength to reach my full potential. Thank you. Just a reminder though, be a little slower on those turns in the kayak.

  • On November 19, 2009, Lee Anna Stirling wrote:
    Jeronimo's presence gives tremendously to the Colby community or any community. Buena suerte, Jeronimo! I look forward to reading your blog with people's varied views of success.

  • On December 3, 2009, Thando wrote:
    to people like me who still have the dream of learning in life to become a lawyer this article is like a sharp carve i learn a lot to it now i know the time for me to let up in life is when my soul depart in may flesh and realize that "we as woman we are like tea bags we see our strength when we are in hot water" i will always think of you man when i face challenges in my path