If you want to know why Rose and Ray Chavez did it--why they struggled and saved and scraped to send their five children to Harvard--you should know the story of the sewer plant in the backyard.
When Rose was young, her family lived in a wooden house with no electricity or running water. “The Anglos lived in fancy houses. We lived on the other side of the tracks,” she says.
But then the family--mother, father, eight brothers and sisters--managed to move to a nicer place, with running water. They were happy.
Until the city put a sewer plant in their backyard.
There was a huge tank, Rose recalls, engulfing the view from their kitchen. When the plant started up, the house shook. The smells were awful.
“We had to put up with it,” Rose says. “We were all poor, so they didn’t pay any attention to us.”
Her kids will tell you that the sewer plant loomed over their childhoods as well. “We heard the story again and again as we grew up,” says Marty, the eldest at 37.
The lesson was this:
You come from poor circumstances. You live in a world where little is expected of Latinos and nothing is given them. But you can and you will overcome it.
“I could do anything that the Anglos could do,” Marty recalls being told by his parents. “I just had to work twice as hard.”
And so the Chavez kids did.
Pushed and prodded by their parents, they excelled in music, in scholastic journalism, in their schoolwork. And one after another, they were admitted to America’s most prominent university--first Marty, then Rick, then Tom and Andrea. Finally Elena, who graduates June 7.
University officials say larger groups of siblings have attended Harvard in its 365-year history. But it is hard to imagine a family that worked harder or sacrificed more to do it.
Even the Chavez kids wonder how to credit their success, in school and beyond.
“It is one of those questions,” says Marty. “Which came first? That we were talented, or that our parents made an implacable stand that we would have great lives and we would do interesting things and we would contribute to society?”
He knows one thing: “My mother’s willpower is not subject to the laws of nature.”
Rosario Marquez’s parents didn’t speak English. Her mother came from Spain. Her father, an immigrant from Zacatecas, Mexico, worked days making railroad ties and nights as a watchman. When Rose was little, he fell ill and retired on a small pension.
Rose was the only one in the family to graduate from high school, but college was never an option. She took a job as a secretary for the Air Force and turned her pay over to her parents.
In 1960 she went to a dance at a base. A band, the Duke City Brass, played tunes in the style of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass; Raymond Chavez was there to hang out with his friend the drummer.
“We danced, and from that time on, boy . . . ,” says Ray.
“We knew we were made for each other,” says Rose, giggling.
Rose was 20; Ray was 26. Son of an old New Mexico family--he can trace his forebears back more than 300 years to one of the original settlers of Santa Fe, Don Pedro Duran y Chavez--he had grown up east of Albuquerque in “genteel rural poverty,” Marty says.
He too had a high school diploma. He had served in the Navy, had acquired a technical illustrator certificate in California and had returned to Albuquerque to take a job as a draftsman at Sandia National Laboratories.
There is a family legend that as a teenager, Rose announced that she was either going to be a nun or have 10 children and send them all to Harvard. She did want a big family and had given some thought to the convent--but Harvard, she says, was never on her agenda.
After each of her first three children was born, Rose quit her Air Force job. Finally she quit for good and typed court transcripts at home.
She would type until 4 a.m., sleep two or three hours “and then get up and cook and clean and do mom stuff,” says Andrea.
Life at home, she says, was “very, very regimented. There was not a lot of room for messing up and messing around.”
Rose doesn’t remember ever sitting down with Ray and talking about how they were going to raise their kids. They just knew that their children would be educated.
With the help of phonics records, she taught her children to read before kindergarten. “If you know how to read when you go to school, you never fall behind,” Ray says. And with the help of something called Cycle Teacher--printed disks that rotate to ask and answer questions--they were drilled on history and science and other subjects.
Opinions on the Cycle Teacher differ.
“I was a nut for that,” says Marty.
“Oh God, that brings back such bad memories,” says Andrea.
The television was rarely on. “Somehow we managed to convince our parents that ‘Star Trek’ was educational,” Marty says, but that was an exception. Only Mom turned on the set.
“I literally missed out on 20 years of pop culture,” says Elena. “I don’t know movies. I don’t know TV. I don’t know actors. I don’t knowmusic.”
Says Andrea: “We didn’t have social lives, we didn’t have friends, we didn’t have dates. I don’t feel deprived or anything. That’s the way it was.”
“You wake up, you go to school, come home, practice [music], do homework,” Tom says.
Tom believes his parents had the right idea. Not everybody, even in his extended family, understood. He adopts a thick accent to imitate a relative who often belittled his educational accomplishments at family gatherings.
“Tommy,” he says. “Chu no got no car. Chu no got no woman. . . .”
Nationally, nearly 62% of Latinos ages 18 to 24 had high school diplomas in 1997, compared with 83% of non-Latino whites. Many Latinos are hindered by difficulties with the English language or by poverty, but few families of any sort have the expectations of the Chavez family, whose grade alphabet began and ended with “A.”
Rose “believes that you can send any child to her school of child rearing and that child will have a great life,” Marty says. “She says, ‘I’m a dummy. I don’t know how I had all these smart kids.’ Don’t believe it. It’s just that neither of my parents had the kind of advantages we had when they grew up.”
When you walk into Rose and Ray’s ranch-style home, the firstthing you notice is a black and shiny Steinway piano that takes up a third of the living room-dining room area.
How, you ask, did that get here?
Well, they say, the kids were just so musical. They all sang in the Spanish choir at church. Ricky played the classical guitar; Andrea, the violin; Marty, Tom and Elena, the piano.
So when Rose left the Air Force, they took the money out of her retirement account and bought aused Steinway for $10,000.
Had it ever occurred to them that some people might not plow that kind of windfall into a piano?
“They were so good. They deserved a Steinway. That’s the way I thought,” Rose says.
The same reasoning applied when they bought the World Book encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, and all their yearbooks--year after year after year.
And the same reasoning applied when Marty finished fourth grade at his parochial school. It was clear that their eldest was brilliant; when he was 10, his father lugged a teletype home from the lab so he could connect with ARPAnet, the forerunner of the Internet.
There is a remarkable private school in Albuquerque--the Academy. Its campus, on 312 acres, inspires comparisons with Stanford University’s; its endowment is $200 million.
Marty would go to the Academy “because it’s the best school in town, and he was a smart kid,” Rose says. Of course, they were all smart kids. All would go to the Academy. And all eventually went to Harvard.
And it all cost a fortune.
In the years the Chavezes went to the Academy, tuition was as high as $7,600 a year; in the years they attended Harvard, the price soared from $9,117 to $33,110.
Financial aid helped, and by the time the kids got to Harvard, there would be work study and summer jobs too. But even with help, it was “just barely possible,” says Marty.
The family house--purchased for $25,000 in 1968--was mortgaged again and again. Money was taken out of 401(K) plans, despite penalties. There were no vacation trips. The rich kids drove their cars to the Academy; the Chavez kids took the bus.
Ray cut the kids’ hair. He knew only one style--short on the sides, combed over on top--and Andrea was no exception. In her overalls, she looked like a boy.
Each night, Andrea recalls, her mother would call the bank to see if checks had cleared.
“It was a huge and oppressive financial sacrifice. Any financial planner would look at it and say ‘Oh my God,’ ” Tom says.
His parents made it clear: We will make this sacrifice. Your responsibility is to excel.
When it came time to apply for college, Marty considered Stanford, the traditional magnet for top students in the West, but a teacher told him, “Everybody goes to Stanford.”
Marty had been to New York to attend a high school journalism convention (all of the Chavez kids joined the Academy newspaper, and four served as editor). He liked the East Coast.
So in the fall of 1981, Marty arrived in Cambridge, Mass., the only Harvard freshman from New Mexico that year. His father accompanied him, made sure he was settled, shook his hand and gave him a $20 bill--to cover his expenses for a month.
Dutifully, Marty went across the street to put the money in the bank.
At Harvard, Marty asked what was the most difficult major. Biomedical sciences, he was told. So that’s what he took. Harry Lewis, now the dean of Harvard College, was one of his teachers.
“I’ve seen a lot of really smart people in my classes,” he says, among them the eventual Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates. “But Marty is one of the 10 smartest people I’ve seen in this place. It’s a combination of intellectual and mental power and an unbelievable energy level.”
Rick followed Marty to Harvard; he studied politics and government. Tom chose computer science; he went to Harvard, he says, because he wanted to be like his big brothers.
Andrea tried to swim against the tide: “I was like, I’m not going to Harvard. My brothers did that.” But on the eve of her decision, she got a call from Harry Lewis, who spent two hours explaining why she was making a mistake.
She crumbled. “If this guy cares enough to talk to me about Harvard, the least I can do is go to the school,” she thought.
Elena too considered going elsewhere, but discovered that she really wanted Harvard after all. But would she get in?
On decision day, she couldn’t wait. She called Harvard’s admissions office from the Academy.
“Welcome to the Class of 2001,” they said.
“I went nuts,” she says.
Her siblings are older and had graduated years before. Marty went on to Stanford for a combined PhD/MD program and is now the founder and CEO of Kiodex, a company that offers financial risk-management software.
Rick lives in Boston and has run two established companies and three start-ups, most recently Lobby7, a wireless software provider. Tom got his doctorate from Stanford and is founder and CEO of Rapt, a San Francisco-based company that provides technology to help companies manage pricing, inventory and supply.
Andrea went to Stanford and got a law degree--as well as a master’s in computer science. She is vice president for business development at Mediabolic, a company that has developed ways for TVs, stereos, PCs and digital devices to exchange entertainment media around the home.
Ray and Rose had pushed them toward science and math, convinced the jobs were there. So it’s no coincidence all are in high-tech or, Andrea says, that they are all engaged in start-ups.
“I think what my parents did is basically very entrepreneurial. Without any money and without any premeditation or support, they basically made a bootstrap effort to send five kids to Harvard,” she says.
“We’re all conditioned to take the risk and make the investment. If you work hard enough and think hard enough, it cannot fail.”
Elena has no interest in high-tech; she wants to go into public policy. She dropped science and math in favor of romance languages in her sophomore year (but not before Tom called and promised to “have every successful person I know call you in the next 24 hours and tell you that you are making the worst decision you have ever made in your entire life”).
Elena can envision moving back to Albuquerque to be close to her folks. Ray is 67 and semiretired, working part time for a Honda dealership; Rose is 61, an administrative staff associate at Sandia labs. She will not retire until she can afford it, and considering all the money that went to the Academy and Harvard--Rose says she’s never toted it up--she may not retire for some time.
Her children have been told that “this was their inheritance. We have nothing more to give,” Rose says. “If we have anything left over, we’re going to give it to charity, to the church.”
Of course, as Rose says, “they don’t need anything anyway.” They’re well set--they have rewarding careers, bundles of degrees and a work ethic that could power entire cities.
“I’m so appreciative of all the things they’ve done,” Elena says. “There are not a lot of things I can do for them. I can’t buy them a car. . . . “
Besides, it has already been done. Rose and Ray tool around Albuquerque in a shiny black Volkswagen beetle, a gift of Andrea Chavez, Harvard class of 1993.
You can guess which school’s crimson decal is in the rear window.