Every year, at the A Better Chance of Westport “Dream Event” fundraising gala, the graduating seniors speak. These remarkable young men are always eloquent, passionate and inspiring.
Earlier this month at Birchwood Country Club, it was Christopher Morales’ turn. He motioned to his parents, Enrique and Maria, sitting proudly a few feet away.
“After all of the hardships they faced,” he said, “they are here tonight to watch me deliver this speech.” He noted that they came to America illegally.
To Donald Trump’s dismay, Christopher added, “these Mexicans are nothing but good people.”
The large crowd erupted in supportive applause. Christopher beamed. His parents had tears in their eyes.
After his speech — a wonderful, powerful one — several Latino waiters shook his parents’ hands. And his.
“I didn’t realize I’d be a symbol, or make a difference in their lives,” he says.
For 4 years, he’s made a difference in Westport’s life. Now — like so many other ABC graduates – he’s poised to do so on a larger stage.
The Morales family’s American story began in 1985. Enrique — in his early 20s — left Mexico City. He crossed from Tijuana to San Diego, where he found work cutting fabric. He had documents for US residency, and sent most of his money back to his family.
On a visit home, his brother introduced him to Maria. When Enrique was back in the States, they wrote each other often. In 1990 they married, in Mexico.
They wanted a better life — one they thought they could find in the US. Maria did not have proper documents. So although her new husband did, he crossed illegally with her. They wanted to be together. (They eventually gained US citizenship, and are now proud Americans.)
They lived in Los Angeles, sharing a tiny house with 6 others. Eventually, Enrique and Maria got a small apartment — 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom, a living room and kitchen — in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood.
Juliana was born in 1992. Six years later, Christopher arrived. The family has lived there since.
Juliana attends community college in LA. Christopher’s half-brother is about to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is, however, terminally ill with kidney disease.
“My parents never imagined they’d sit in a country club in Westport, hearing their son display Latino pride,” Christopher says.
“I don’t know what hopes my parents had for me, when I was born. But every day they taught me love and humility.”
In 6th grade, they found a charter school for him. It was all the way across the city. But it was a bit better than LA’s public schools. He traveled there every day. He made great friends. His teachers challenged him.
He still visits, whenever he is home. “I want to inspire others,” Christopher explains. Then, quoting Dave Sochol — who, with his ABC board member wife Lori, spoke at the gala — Christopher adds, “If you can change 1 person, you can change the world.”
In the fall of 9th grade, Christopher flew across the country to join the ABC program. Staples High School was enormous. He (with the other program scholars) was a minority.
He was welcomed by many students. Some were less open.
“They grew up together. They didn’t feel the need to welcome newcomers. I understand that,” Christopher says.
But he did not want to be “just another kid in the hallways.” Most days, he wears a tie. He broadcast soccer games, and hosted a bilingual music show, on WWPT radio. He joined Staples Players and the French club. He plays recreation soccer, wrote for Eileen Ogintz’s Taking the Kids website, and studied acting and voice through Music Theatre of Connecticut.
He has never been a political person. But as the campaign rhetoric has heated up — and as fervent debates take place in his Government class — he’s paid attention.
“We have to welcome everyone — not separate people by their ethnicities,” Christopher says. “We do need smart immigration policy. But it can’t be unrealistic. Politics is not a game.”
That’s one reason he introduced his parents at the ABC gala — and mentioned their illegal immigrant status pointedly.
“My parents sacrificed so much,” he says. “I have a responsibility to make use of my opportunities. Talking about this is a good reminder of my roots.”
He was buoyed by the reaction to his comments at the ABC gala. “The audience respects my values,” Christopher says. “Westport is a great community. I can’t share in the wealth that’s here. But by speaking out, with one simple sentence, I may do some good.”
Like many other Staples seniors, Christopher is waiting to hear from colleges. Unlike many, he will be the first in his family to attend a private institution.
He hopes to major in communications. He’s been mentored by Staples’ Mike Zito — and inspired by Jorge Ramos. He’s studied the Univision news anchor — the main source of news for many immigrants — and hopes one day to make a similar difference.
Wherever he goes, and whatever he does, the Westporters who know Christopher are sure he’ll reach that goal.
When he does, we’ll be proud.
But nowhere near as proud as his parents, Enrique and Maria Morales.