Constable: How two Waukegan brothers went from 'undocumented' to the Ivy League
As Ivy League graduates with the “golden tickets” of great jobs, unlimited potential and the passion to help others, Waukegan brothers Irvin and Topiltzin Gomez say they recognize how “privileged” they are.
As outspoken immigrants who provide the “undocumented perspective,” Dartmouth College alum Irvin, 27, and Topiltzin, 23, who earned his diploma at Yale University, also remember the help they got from the Schuler Scholar Program and others along the way.
The path to Ivy League degrees for the Gomez brothers began Aug. 1, 2002, on a road outside the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta, where they said goodbye to their parents.
“We met up with coyotes and then we split up,” remembers Irvin, who was 10 years old when his parents paid those smugglers $6,000 to sneak him and his brother into the United States.
“This is the person who will take you to the border while your parents would walk through the desert around a security checkpoint,” Irvin remembers being told as he, his brother, and the young daughter of a family friend followed the stranger.
“We got put into a car. We were told to be asleep in the back,” says Irvin, who faked slumber while U.S. Border Patrol agents checked the driver's paperwork at the border. “Then we just drove through.”
The children ended up with a collection of other immigrants for the night at a house in Tucson, Arizona.
“Where are my parents?” Topiltzin, who was just 5 years old, remembers thinking. An American breakfast put him at ease.
“I had bacon for the first time the morning before my parents arrived,” he says, explaining how his childish memories of that precarious pilgrimage focus on foods such as that bacon, grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken nuggets. “I was just there for the ride.”
Reunited with their parents, the Gomez family's odyssey wasn't over.
“We had a three-day drive in a van without seats and 10 or 12 people,” Irvin says. The van dropped off undocumented immigrants in Utah and Minnesota before delivering the Gomez family to the boys' uncle's home in Waukegan, where 11 people shared a one-bedroom apartment.
Their father, who had spent the previous year working as a busboy at a suburban Old Country Buffet before returning to Mexico to fetch his family, had a good-luck charm of the Virgen de Juquila, whose saintly life fuels a holiday in their homeland of Oaxaca, Mexico.
“My dad gave it to me when I went off to Dartmouth,” says Irvin, who graduated in 2014 from the prestigious school in Hanover, New Hampshire. Irvin also saved the decorative throw pillow he used while sleeping on the floor after his arrival in the U.S. Those stories now fuel his essays on applications to graduate schools such as Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, MIT and Northwestern, as he pursues his MBA. Irvin's example inspired Topiltzin, who graduated in 2018 from Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, with a degree in ethics, politics and economics, and is working on programs to curb poverty. It wasn't until college that he understood poverty.
“Hey, that's us,” he remembers thinking, recalling how his father worked at a doughnut shop, a pizza place, Toys R Us, Old Country Buffet, and a warehouse to support his family while their mom ran the household.
“He had to drop out in third grade because there was only enough money for one of the five siblings to go to school,” Irvin says of his dad.
“He saw the possibility of something better,” says Topiltzin, whose friends often call him T.P.
“I know from talking to both of them, they are committed to working hard and giving back to their parents, who sacrificed so much for them,” says Gayle Meyers, director of college and alumni programs at the Schuler Scholar Program, which helped both of them earn scholarships to pay for college and plays a key role in the brothers' success. The not-for-profit agency was founded and funded by Lake Bluff entrepreneur Jack Schuler, former president and chief operating officer of Abbott Laboratories, and his daughter, Tanya Schuler Sharman, with the goal of helping students of color, low-income families and first-generation college-bound students from local high schools get on the path to college degrees.
“I think of it as opening doors to students who have the ability, but might not have the opportunity,” Meyers says. The program, which began in 2001 with Waukegan High School, now links students from 15 local high schools to more than 80 colleges and universities. It boasts 304 students in college now and another 450 alums, Meyers says. The kids go to summer camp in Wisconsin, attend plays, visit museums and national parks, and take trips to see colleges.
“I was the beneficiary of a ton of support. I was the most-privileged underprivileged kid,” Topiltzin says, crediting Schuler for providing him the background to chime in when a Yale classmate talked about seeing the opera “Carmen.”
Always academically driven, Irvin says he still needed to learn how to work within the system.
“Everyone knew how to play the game, and I was watching from the sidelines. You were meant to be a player, but you're watching from the stands,” Irvin remembers.
The brothers, who have Mexican passports and never leave the U.S., both have permits to work legally in the U.S.
After working in banking in Boston, Irvin is manager of sales operations and enablement for Catalant Technologies, a startup software company in Boston. Irvin holds the mortgage on the house he bought his parents and says he wants to be “the safety net” for his family. Topiltzin works for Pittsburgh-based Honeycomb Credit, which uses creative community financing to support small businesses.
“Giving back. That's why we're here,” says Irvin, who serves as a mentor and inspiration to students who don't have the advantages he now has. Both brothers remain involved in Waukegan, Schuler and other programs aiming to help the less fortunate, including their parents.
“My dad sees his kids doing something cool, and now he wants to do something cool,” says Topiltzin, who is working with his father to discover “what his entrepreneurial venture might be.”
In the meantime, the father remains proud of the journey his sons have taken.
“He wears either a Dartmouth hat or a Yale hat to work every day,” Irvin says. “He must have 15 or 20 hats.”