Graduating from high school marks the beginning of a new era for any teenager, but for Marcos Muñoz, the diploma is renewed hope for him and his family.
Muñoz, a San Diego, California, resident, was just 14-years-old when his parents were deported to Mexico, abruptly forcing him to take on the role as father to his little sister.
“Our lives changed in a second. My older sister and I had to learn how to run the house and take care of our 10-year-old sister,” he said.
Muñoz’s priorities changed in a flash. Somewhere along the line, schoolyard drama and popular girls were no match to newfound concerns over economic stresses in his efforts to help his older sister bring money home.
“My parents were hardly making any money in Tijuana, Mexico, and we had to pay the mortgage, electricity, buy food, everything,” he said.
Muñoz made the decision to transfer to a charter school, where he was be able to study on his own time and allowed him to work as much as he wanted to.
And since Muñoz, who wasn't even 16-years-old and therefore not particularly attractive to potential employers, would take any job.
“I started working on a taco shop close to my house. The hours were the worst and I would do all sorts of things, but on top of that I was only making a couple hundred dollars, so it wasn’t enough,” he said.
Tired of not making ends meet, Muñoz got a full time job at a tennis store. His days were long, he would get up at dawn to catch the bus at 6 a.m. to the trolley, and arrive to school two hours later. Already tired, he would continue to his afternoon duties, which included more buses and trains to be able to get to work.
“If you don’t work hard, you’re nobody in this country,” said Muñoz, whose will power would keep him going until midnight, the only time he had to do his homework.
The thought of quitting never crossed Munoz's mind, however, and not working was never an option for him, so dropping-out of school became more and more enticing.
“I wasn’t eating or sleeping well and still my sister and I couldn’t pay the bills. I felt all my hard work was in vain," Muñoz said.
But Muñoz refused to let himself down, and most importantly, he didn’t want to disappoint his parents, who are his biggest motivation.
“They came to the U.S. for the only purpose of providing us a better education, and that’s what I was determined to do,” he said.
His determination and hard work paid off this past June when Muñoz was able to finish high school in just two years with a 3.5 grade point average.
“We are very proud of our son and we know he’ll do bigger things,” said Abel and Zulma Muñoz, who weren’t able to attend their son’s graduation because of their immigration status, but celebrated their son’s accomplishment with the whole family at their home in Tijuana.
Thirty-three percent of all Latinos and Latinas drop out of school in the United States without graduating. Muñoz says many of his friends are in the same boat.
“They are making a big mistake because in this country you are nobody if you don’t go to school," he said. "You can’t even work at McDonald’s if you don’t finish high school.”
But this strong-minded 17-year-old has a bigger dream in mind: he wants to become an odontologist. And he’s in the process of applying for as many scholarships as he can to be able to attend community college in the fall and, in the future, transfer to San Diego State University.
Beyond his education aspirations, Muñoz wants to inspire other Latinos to finish high school and get a college degree. If he can do it, he humbly says, anyone can.
“I want to be an example to other young Latinos, who like me have to work and go to school at the same time," Muñoz said. "And I know they must feel discouraged, but I want to tell them, you can do it!”
And if you ask him who his mentor and most admired role model is, there’s only one name.
“My sister Leslie," he said. "She taught me never to give up and always fight for what you want.”
The drive to success must run in the Muñoz‘s blood. Just like her brother, Leslie, 21, graduated from high school three years ago and currently has two jobs. Additionally, she attends Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California, where she's studying to become an immigration lawyer.
“My parents taught me to always value what you have and never give up in your dreams, to always work hard because later in life it will pay off,” said Marcos.
Still, the family has hurdles to clear. Although, Muñoz works full time at a parking lot in San Ysidro, California, they were evicted from his home just last month.
Tough times lie ahead, indeed. But he says he’s ready for any challenge.
“For my parents and for myself," the teen said, "I will fight for a better future.”
Tania Luviano is a freelance contributor for Fox News Latino.
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