As children, they roamed their Mexican village, selling produce and chickens they slaughtered with bare hands, struggling after their father died and their mother abandoned them and their six other siblings.
"I remember a lot about being hungry. I do not remember family meals. We only ate rotten food — fruits that didn't sell — junk food or candy," said Sophy Amel Peralta, now 30. "We went to school a few hours a day. But it was hard when your stomach was empty."
"I used to wonder if we would ever be normal students" with clean clothes to wear and parents to help with homework, reflected her brother, Allen Amel Peralta, 28. "If I didn't have Sophy, who knows what would have happened?"
The deprived years spent in Chicoloapan de Juarez, near the country's capital, forced them to flee to the U.S. in 1999 at ages 15 and 13. An older sister living in New York paid a "coyote" to take the two across the border from Tijuana, to Calexico, Calif., then Brooklyn. There, they labored alongside other undocumented workers in menial jobs.
The two returned to California in 2003, after a good Samaritan, whose mother was from the same Mexican village as Sophy and Allen, offered to help them learn English and guide their education. Their years of hard work had finally paid off. On Saturday, Sophy graduated from Cal State L.A. and Allen from
"They've been through things we see in the news and at the movies, but they survived, keeping their beautiful spirit," said Anita Casavantes Bradford, professor of history and Chicano/Latino studies at UC Irvine. "Even if they're a part of a vulnerable community, they believe sharing their story will give those who are isolated a sense that others care."
Bradford mentors Allen, who earned scholarships to attend the university where he worked at the Student Outreach and Retention Center. His job involved overseeing programs for "dreamers," undocumented youths who were brought to the United States by their parents or someone else.
She described Allen as a "gifted leader" with "rare empathy for the suffering and a commitment to justice for the undocumented and the poor." She also commended him for his "deep love for his sister. Theirs is a bond so pure, so strong."
After the siblings' cancer-stricken father died a few years before they fled to the U.S., their mother walked away and left the older children to fend for the younger ones, Sophy said. They never saw her again.
"We were orphans, and the adults in the area didn't want anything to do with us," said Sophy, whose six other siblings remain scattered across the U.S. and Mexico. "That's why I cannot say no to a child needing help. That is my calling."
Sophy, whose degree is in child development, worked as a peer mentor and advisor at the university's EOP/Dreamers Resource Center.
At some point, Sophy realized that "'Oh, what happened in my past is because of social circumstances; it's not anything that I caused. But I can use that experience to understand and comfort others,'" said Leonor Vazquez, a professor in the child and family studies department on campus.
Sophy and Allen said they plan to work for a year to save money for graduate school, before pursuing master's degrees in social work and the medical field.
The siblings credit their education to benefactor Brian Roge Fonteyn. He welcomed them to his home in Pomona after they left New York, home-schooling them so they could hone their English language skills that he considered essential to a better economic future. "When you can't speak the language, you can't get anything done or defend yourself," he told them.
After nine months of daily homework, Fonteyn allowed them to enroll at Mt. San Antonio College in 2004. Their classes included anatomy, horticulture, welding and martial arts.
"They were the exploring years," Sophy said. "We wanted to be familiar with all the ways of the new language, so we took every class that could introduce us to new terms."
Sophy and Allen later transferred to Cal State L.A. and UC Irvine. "You do what you need to for an education," Allen said. "We are grateful for every day, grateful to have a father," referring to Fonteyn.
"I wanted to offer them what they never had: opportunities," said Fonteyn, a print shop steward who heard about the siblings' plight from his mother in Mexico because they used to clean her house. "I don't ask for anything from them — except for them to help the next generation along their way."
Allen said he and his sister promised to make him proud.
"It still hasn't hit me that we're done with this step. I still think I'm going back to school next week," Allen said after getting his diploma and celebrating at a party with friends. "Our journey has been hard, but a blessing and a lesson. Our goal is to keep up with our education to make our dad happy."