Manuel Barbosa’s life is a rags-to-riches tale that exemplifies the American dream. It was a difficult journey, but one that has left him ready to help others and a firm believer in perseverance.
In 1948, when Barbosa was 2 months old, his parents crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico to Texas on a raft. At the age of 5, he started picking cotton with them to earn 1 cent per pound.
In 1998, he became the first Hispanic bankruptcy judge in the U.S. Northern District of Illinois. Now retired, he is dedicated to helping Hispanic youth in his community build faith in themselves.
When Barbosa began school, he couldn’t speak English. He had to figure it out on his own since his teachers had little help to offer. When he was 9 years old, he had learned enough English to step in as a mediator between an English-speaking farm boss and Spanish-speaking farmhands. They called him “The Lawyer,” a nickname he would later fulfill in a more literal sense.
In high school and college, he faced what he calls the “soft bigotry of lowered expectations.” His teachers and counselors didn’t encourage him in his dream of becoming a lawyer. But he doesn’t blame them. He wasn’t an outstanding student either; he improved his academic performance gradually.
“I’ve come to recognize [that] … perseverance and determination [are] more important than being born into privilege or even being born with great intellect,” Barbosa said.
Over the years, he has observed many people who have succeeded and many who have failed in their endeavors, and he has contemplated the differences between them. This has confirmed his own experience of the power of perseverance.
The American dream isn’t free and easy. When Barbosa speaks to students today, he tells them: “The bigger the dream, the bigger the price. But you can pay in installments.”
He is involved in a variety of community organizations, including the Club Guadalupano, which raises funds to provide Hispanic youth with scholarships. The students are awarded publicly, to serve as examples to the community.
“A lot of our Hispanic kids are doing excellent in school,” Barbosa said. One example he gave is that of a young man who has been accepted to an Ivy League college and has already picked out the law school he plans to attend.
“He’s way ahead of where I was at that age,” Barbosa said. This student’s mother doesn’t speak English, is a single mother, and works as a housecleaner. Barbosa sees many Hispanic youth flourish in America even though their parents have had a difficult time making a life for them.
Barbosa’s parents played a major role in helping him overcome the obstacles he faced on his path to becoming a lawyer, and eventually a judge.
“They simply had me believing that there were no obstacles, and I would be able to do whatever I wanted,” he said. They taught him to “take it one day at a time, do what you have to do, and ultimately if you keep putting forth an effort, you’ll reach your goals.”
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