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Published in Print: October 1, 2005, as Penalty Shot

Penalty Shot

An immigrant student in North Carolina discovers that becoming the first in his family to attend college is no easy goal.

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On a Saturday afternoon, with graduation a week away, Smithfield-Selma High School senior Eusebio Montoya was playing midfield center for the Triangle Futbol Club in the state championship semifinals. It costs nearly $2,000 in fees and expenses to play on the club soccer team, but Eusebio—“Sabs” to most everyone he knows in his adopted home of Johnston County, North Carolina—had scraped the money together to broaden his exposure to college-level coaches scouting for talent.

Known as
Known as "Sabs," Eusebio Montoya came to Smithfield, North Carolina, as a 4th grader speaking no English. A high school and club sport soccer standout, his collegiate aspirations were threatened by his undocumented status.
—Sara D. Davis

Sabs looked confident as he darted from one end of the field to another that Saturday in late May, deftly maneuvering the ball. At 5 feet 6 inches tall and 130 pounds, he’s small compared with other players, and at first glance coaches worry that taller kids will overpower him. But he compensates with speed, a keen ability to read the field, and a knack for dodging situations where bigger players can push him off the ball. “I’m actually stronger than I look,” Sabs said later. “I know how to use my body.”

Hoping to become the first in his family to get a college degree, Sabs also knew that this particular game was pivotal. Two coaches from Campbell University, a nearby Division I school, and an assistant coach from a Division II school in Florida were watching him play. Also on the sidelines was Chris Embler, his friend, mentor, and high school soccer coach, who’d driven nearly two hours to provide ad hoc encouragement.

“C’mon, Sabs!” he shouted. “It’s important that you work right now!”

Embler is one of a handful of “Triple S” teachers devoted to helping immigrant kids in this rural part of North Carolina. Drawn by jobs ranging from tobacco farming to home building, an unprecedented number of immigrants—as many as 750,000, most from Mexico and Central America—have made their homes in the state. Many settle in urban areas with long-established ESL programs, but rural schools have had to start from scratch, scrambling to find personnel—bilingual teachers, counselors, even receptionists—and put a system in place.

For Embler, this means taking a personal interest in kids like Sabs, whose undocumented status threatened to bring his college ambitions to a halt. Embler had spent endless hours trying to find a school that would accept him without charging too high a price—a problem not only for Sabs but also for the 1.7 million undocumented immigrant children nationwide who find themselves, at the end of 12 years of free schooling, largely shut out of colleges and universities. “Why build them from kindergarten up and then say, ‘Here’s the stopping point for you?’ ” Embler asked.

But others question why higher education should be subsidized for those not legally entitled to it. Caught in the crossfire are students like Sabs, trying to make the best of the situation they’ve been handed.


Two Shakespeare posters adorn a far corner of Embler’s 9th grade English classroom. While they serve as an appropriate backdrop for teaching Romeo and Juliet, they’re much less prominent than the numerous photographs he’s posted next to the blackboard and along the length of one wall.

There are pictures of Puno, the Peruvian village where the lanky 33-year-old teacher lived for several months in 1996; the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu; and a road sign that says “Wilmington, N.C.—2,554 miles.” That picture, as well as a shot of the Alamo, were taken during a trip to Mexico last summer with a colleague.

Another prominent feature in Embler’s classroom is the clock, and when second period started promptly at 9:15 a.m. one day, students began answering rapid-fire questions: “What was Shakespeare’s theater called?” “Give me three unique facts about William Shakespeare.” “What is dramatic irony?” Each correct answer earned a shot at Embler’s version of a basketball hoop—a trash can propped on a chair in front of the room.

Throughout the 90-minute class, Embler interspersed quips about delay violations and corner shots with periodic digressions in Spanish. He likes to take advantage of such opportunities to help bridge the gap between the three Hispanics and their 26 classmates.

“Every Shakespearian tragedy ends in something bad,” Embler said after returning to Romeo and Juliet later in the day. As he explained the difference between Verona, where the bulk of the play takes place, and Mantua, where Romeo is banished for killing Tybalt, he compared Verona to Smithfield. Mantua, he said, is “like Selma. It’s close by.”

Proximity aside, Smithfield and Selma have little in common with their Italian Renaissance counterparts. Johnston County is better known as the birthplace of film legend Ava Gardner and the decongestant Vicks VapoRub. The region also distinguished itself in the early 1900s with its vocal resistance to prohibition, and then with moonshining. Farming has traditionally been the mainstay of the economy, one formerly reliant on two kings, cotton and tobacco.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, farming lost ground to manufacturing plants and a service industry catering to traffic on a recently completed Interstate 95. Two decades later, North Carolina employers desperate for workerswere advertising in Mexico and the southwestern United States. And that, according to demographer Jim Johnson, is when the immigrant flow accelerated. They initially came as migrant workers, stopping long enough to do seasonal work, but in recent years, they’ve been drawn to permanent jobs in the service industry and a booming construction trade. “We’ve reached a threshold where the ‘friends and neighbors’ effect is kicking in,” says Johnson, a business professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The immigrants who’ve increasingly chosen to call Johnson County home, he explains, “have connections.”

One such connection is First Baptist Church in downtown Smithfield, where Anselmo Hernandez conducts a Spanish language service every Sunday. Another is two blocks away, at La Parrilla, a Mexican restaurant. Immigrants have also made inroads at the local outlet mall, where Tommy Hilfiger advertises its sales in Spanish and English.

Then there’s the Smithfield Police Department, where Chief Steve Gilliken was once a beacon of resistance to the immigrant community. Gilliken readily admits that he was intolerant of such behaviors as 10 to 15 family members living under one roof. But a recent trip to Mexico, under the auspices of a group called the Center for International Understanding, changed his point of view. “There’s been a realization that instead of taking jobs, they’re filling a void,” he explains.

After the state's influx of immigrants intensified in the '90s, Smithfield-Selma High School English teacher Chris Embler made it his calling to bring students like Sabs in from the
After the state's influx of immigrants intensified in the '90s, Smithfield-Selma High School English teacher Chris Embler made it his calling to bring students like Sabs in from the "edge of society."
—Sara D. Davis

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state’s Hispanic population grew by nearly 600 percent, reaching half a million, between 1990 and 2003. Johnson believes the figure is closer to 750,000 and predicts that Hispanics will drive population growth across the country for several decades. “Whether they’re ready or not,” he says, “that’s the reality.”

That reality has hit hard at Triple S, a sprawling, 20-acre campus. Of its roughly 1,400 students, 50 percent are white, 35 percent are black, and 13 percent are Hispanic, mostly recent immigrants whose first language is Spanish; about half are undocumented, school officials say. To meet their needs, principal Phil Lee does the best he can with the school’s ESL staff, which consists of two teachers and an assistant; a Spanish-speaking counselor, lured away from a neighboring county; and a small cadre of teachers like Embler who volunteer to work with English- language learners.

Embler, who’s been at Triple S for three years, is also one of the few teachers eager to take on special education students, and, as a result, he ends up with ESL and special ed kids sharing classes. “At first, it was a nightmare,” he recalled. But he soon discovered that ESL kids participate more readily in his class because they’re less likely to face ridicule from special ed students, who know what it’s like to lag behind. And the special ed kids benefit from their newfound status as English-language experts.

“Their confidence level,” Embler said, “all of a sudden goes from bottom of the echelon to saying, ‘Hey, I could be a leader in here.’ ”


Embler lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment in downtown Smithfield; his wife, Rachel, moved in following their wedding in March. Nearly a month later, the apartment was still in disarray, but amid the chaos was one prominent fixture—a bilingual Bible. It belongs to Rachel, a Triple S Spanish teacher who’s spent eight summers doing missionary work in Mexico, but it’s symbolic of a faith the couple shares in both God and the Hispanic population they’re committed to serving.

“I think we all have a gift,” Embler said as he pulled his car up to Sabs’ home—a trailer he visits so often he could, no doubt, get there blindfolded. “And I think mine is working with people of Latin culture, to stand up for them and not keep them on the edge of society.”

Walking into the trailer, one of the first things that catches the eye is an almost-life-size image of the Virgin Mary looking down from a cloth hanging on one wall; another is the prominent display of soccer awards and the framed full-page article featuring Sabs that appeared in the local paper.But down the hall, in the bathroom, is the most striking detail of all, a cup containing 10 toothbrushes. Ten people—including Sabs’ parents, four brothers, sister, sister-in-law, and nephew—live in the three-bedroom trailer.

It’s cramped, at times uncomfortable, but the Montoyas are much better off than they were before Sabs’ father, Esteban, came to the United States 12 years ago. The rest of the family followed gradually. Sabs’ grandfather, who started the Montoya migration north 25 years ago, works on a hog farm. Esteban and one of his older brothers are bricklayers; the other is a carpenter.

In Mexico, Sabs was known as “Beto,” short for his middle name, Alberto. Now, except by his family, he’s called “Sabs,” an Americanized abbreviation of Eusebio. The transformation took place gradually, starting when he initially set foot on U.S. soil nine years ago as a 4th grader. “At first, I was lost,” he recalled. But he learned English quickly and placed out of ESL within two years. Over time, he became more fluent in English than in Spanish, ultimately speaking his second language with a Southern accent.

His mother, Juana, served heaping platefuls of rice, beans, tortillas, and steak to family and friends as they trickled into the living room and sat down, slowly filling the sofas lining three of the four walls. She and her husband have high hopes for Sabs,the first in the family to show promise both in the classroom and on the soccer field. “I’m very proud of him,” his father acknowledged.

Sabs ended the school year unsure of his college plans, but he was awarded a soccer scholarship to a Florida school in late July.
Sabs ended the school year unsure of his college plans, but he was awarded a soccer scholarship to a Florida school in late July.
—Sara D. Davis

Sabs was about to graduate with a 3.5 grade-point average, which had risen to as high as 3.8 at the end of junior year. But he’d gone through a two-month senior slump. As classmates submitted college applications for the upcoming school year, a couple of his own prospects fell through. He’d pinned his hopes on getting an athletic scholarship, but state universities were shying away from the expense. As an illegal immigrant, he has to pay out-of-state tuition, which in North Carolina typically runs four to five times the cost of in-state fees. So for the price of Sabs, college athletics programs can bring in a handful of other in-state players.

“I got discouraged,” he said. “I’d worked so hard for nothing.”

So he gave up, albeit briefly, and Embler pleaded with him to stick it out. “I promise,” Embler told him, “if you finish, the doors will open for you.” By the end of winter break, Sabs had decided Embler was right. He resumed his classes with renewed enthusiasm, signing up for honors chemistry and AP calculus.


As spring arrived, most of Sabs’ classmates had already received acceptance letters. With Embler’s help, he was still working feverishly to earn a scholarship. Soccer coaches from New York to Florida had heard good things, and some had talked about scholarships—if not for the fall, then for the following year. But nothing definite had come through.

Meanwhile, less than 30 miles away in the state capital, lawmakers were debating a proposal designed to help undocumented students in the same predicament. In general, they’re not eligible for federal financial assistance, and in all but 11 states, they must pay out-of-state tuition, according to Melissa Lazarin, an education policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza. A bipartisan group of North Carolina legislators had introduced a bill in April that would allow many illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition.

But opposition, led by two groups arguing that they would take the place of legal residents in state schools, was swift. “For every illegal that would get in, ... one North Carolinian would be disenfranchised,”said Ron Woodard, director of NC Listen, one of several nonprofit immigrant reform groups that have popped up across the country. Within two weeks, 11 lawmakers had withdrawn their support, and by late May, it had become clear that the bill would not make it out of committee.

Embler equated the ongoing struggle to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “I can understand if you want to hold parents accountable,” he said. “But how can you punish a child who has done all the right things? It’s just a different form of discrimination.

“Sabs,” Embler added, “represents a lot of people”—and if such a bill is ever approved, “he’s a classic case of how it would work.”

In the meantime, the senior’s best hope still rested on his cleat-covered feet. That Saturday in May, as the soccer game came to an end, Sabs had conflicting emotions. He’d contributed to his team’s 5-1 victory by scoring one goal and assisting in another, but he felt he could have done better. Still, he walked off the field confident that he would be a college freshman in the fall.

By midsummer, though, Sabs’ college plans looked bleak. His hope of going to nearby Campbell University fell through in early July. His 18th birthday came and went later that month. Then, as July drew to a close—just two weeks before the start of preseason soccer practice—a Florida university offered him a $15,000 scholarship. He’d still have to find an additional $7,000 to cover the full tuition, but Embler, who wishes better options were available closer to home, didn’t think that would be a problem, knowing that those familiar with Sabs’ plight would eagerly respond to fund-raising efforts, including a planned barbecue.

“We’ll have a pig pickin’ and sell plates,” he said, “and people will donate money.”

Vol. 17, Issue 02, Pages 28-31

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