By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"My parents are only Spanish-speaking. My mom worked on a production line. My father worked for a rubber company. They never became citizens of the United States, but they did become legal residents.
"I've lived in Oak Cliff since I was five, in the same small house where I live now. All of my family lives in Oak Cliff, except my parents. My dad is 59. My mom is 58. They moved back to Mexico because they weren't really succeeding with the American dream. They were working too hard and not going anywhere. My dad is a farmer now. He has land, and they live off it."
When she talks, she looks around every once in a while at the people walking by in the bank plaza with briefcases. Some of her story is sad, but her voice is never sad. Her eyes are always sure and direct. She's smart, funny, and confident.
"My parents are very, very old-fashioned. They felt I was really wasting my time going to a university. They just didn't believe it could be done. They said I was never going to succeed. They said I would never make it. It was just something they couldn't imagine. They thought I was never going to graduate.
"They said to me, 'Why are you wasting your time going to school, when you can start working now and make money?'"
The amount of money she was told it would cost her to complete a bachelor's degree at UT was heart-stopping. "It was $50,000 total," she said. In fact, the cost was so frightening that she didn't really make up her mind to go until the very last minute.
She had already been accepted into the university. She had received a $10,000 scholarship from a group called the Adamson Foundation, which has an endowment fund dating back to the old Anglo days of Oak Cliff in the 1940s. A man from the Adamson Foundation, Joe Rymal, had called her and invited her to lunch. Rymal and his wife told her to call them if she needed anything. But she still didn't get up the nerve to go to Austin until the very last moment. When she did finally throw her bags in her friend's car and head off to UT, she had made no arrangements at all in advance. She had no idea what to expect.
"I had never visited the university. I just went. I took my chances and just took off."
She pauses, and for the first time there is a tiny crack in her confident veneer. "I remember...I can still see my mom's face.
"I got to Austin, and I had no clue where I was going to live. We didn't even know where the exit was for Austin. We passed it, and we had to drive back. I looked for the housing center for the university. I told them I needed a dorm room. They said I was on a waiting list of 1,011 girls who needed rooms."
That number rolls straight off her tongue: 1,011 girls needed rooms. With her, that made 1,012.
"They said they would house me for a couple days. They housed me in the basement of a dorm. There were 25 or so beds down there, but no one else was in the basement. I was down there alone. I was really scared. I remember the first night crying, thinking, 'What did I do? Why did I leave my home?' I was so scared. The next day I called Joe Rymal."
The Adamson Foundation was launched in 1940 when Elizabeth Baker, a drama teacher at the school, contributed $200 for a scholarship fund. The endowment grew modestly through the 1950s and '60s, when Oak Cliff was a middle-class white area, but the fund has been blessed in recent years by a generous stock market and clever management. It now stands at almost a million dollars and gives out both four-year and one-year scholarships to Adamson graduates -- a process that has forged a bond between some of the old white graduates and the poor and minority kids who attend the school today.
Rymal, a 1969 Adamson graduate who is now a banker in the Washington, D.C., area, was working in Austin at the time at a high post in the agency that used to manage the University of Texas endowment. When I reached him by phone, he said he didn't remember all the details of Sonia Cabrales' plight, but he did remember flying into high gear when he realized the Adamson kid he was supposed to be mentoring was crying herself to sleep at night alone in a dormitory basement.
"You know, I don't really remember who all I called," Rymal said, "but when something like that happens, you tend to cast a broad net and hope somebody somewhere along the line will do you some good."
"The very next day," Cabrales told me, "I had a dorm room."
Cabrales paused before telling me the next piece of news.
"My roommate's name," she said, looking at me carefully to see if I would appreciate the significance, "was Kimberly."