Ever since the boys were very young, their mother had confided in them, talking about money and about the bills that just kept on coming. “All her stress became our stress,” Maradiaga said.
And then the burden shifted.
His brother had graduated from high school and was working full time in a restaurant; Maradiaga was juggling his two jobs and his studies. His senior year he and his brother took over the family’s finances completely, with Jeronimo wresting control from their increasingly debilitated mother. “That was one of the hardest things,” Maradiaga said, walking past a dark brick factory where his mother had once sewed clothing to support her sons.
While other college-bound students were earning spending money, the two brothers were keeping the household afloat. They pooled their earnings and paid the rent. “Whatever was left over, we’d manage to pay the electricity. Whatever was left after that was for food,” Maradiaga said.
The phone bill?
He laughed. “A luxury,” he said. “We rarely had a land line.”
But as he helped shoulder the family’s financial burden, as the lights were cut off and there were frequent arguments about money, Maradiaga was looking for a way out. “I was very unhappy,” he said. “I needed a break.”
While part of him concentrated on the sphere of his life in the Bronx, another part of Maradiaga had bigger plans, and his academic ability was making them happen. He won a scholarship to take a trip to Australia the summer before his senior year. And he was selected for a mentoring program called Minds Matter, for “troubled youth.” (“I love that description,” Maradiaga said, grinning and shaking his head.)
His mentor was Ian Rice, a 1999 Harvard graduate and vice president at J.P. Morgan
, the investment bank. Rice met Maradiaga his junior year and was immediately struck by his positive attitude, despite his burdens. “He really wanted to be there,” Rice said. “He wanted to learn, to expand his horizons. … He’s a kid with extraordinary strength of character and strength of will.”
With Rice at the bank and Goring at JFK High encouraging him, Maradiaga spent three Saturdays a month at Minds Matter, taking SAT prep courses, doing group work on subjects like conflict resolution. Senior year it was Tuesday-afternoon training at the Posse offices on Wall Street, at the far end of Manhattan from the Bronx. Some students saw this as a break from their routine. “I hated it,” Maradiaga said. “It just meant that day I had to work later.”
But it paid off.
Maradiaga emerged from the rounds of intensive interviews and evaluations as a Posse Scholar, giving him a full college scholarship. Oscar Maradiaga, out of school and working in a barbecue restaurant, gave him his blessing, said he would take care of the home front. But only when the selection process was over did Maradiaga tell his mother, who valued a high school degree as a prerequisite to a full-time job. Maradiaga spoke to her, as always, in Spanish. “I was already accepted into Colby when I told her,” he remembered. “I said, ‘Mom, I’m going away. To college.’ She was like, ‘What? Why?’”