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.