Angelo Cabrera at the Hub, a few blocks from MASA's office.
Angelo Cabrera at the Hub, a few blocks from the school where MASA holds its classes.

Immigrant advocate draws on his own experience

At age 14, Angelo Cabrera slept in an abandoned ice cream truck in Tijuana, Mexico.

Now, 22 years later, Cabrera is emerging as a leader of the growing Mexican immigrant community in the Bronx.

His hard-fought journey from poverty to heading the Mexican American Student Association (MASA) is a story he hopes will teach and inspire others.

“Every project that I’m involved in has to do with part of my story,” Cabrera said.

Born in central Mexico, Cabrera left home at age 14. He decided to live with cousins in New York City, hoping to make money to send home. But his journey was not an easy one. He became waylaid in Tijuana for a year before finally finding his way to his family.

Once he went three days without food in Tijuana, and asked a street vendor who was selling mangos to give him work so he could buy something to eat. The vendor had his own children to feed, but he told the 14-year-old he was welcome to eat the mangos no one else wanted. A starving Cabrera dug the rotting fruit out of the trash.

Twenty-two years later he is still thankful.

“To me, it was like caviar,” he said. “I survived for another day because of those mangos.

“So whenever I just feel down or procrastinating about life, or complaining, I will always try to eat mangos and remember what it feels like to be hungry.”

Cabrera eventually made it to the South Bronx, where he worked at a series of low-wage jobs including working 12-hour days in the basement of a grocery store. In 1995, a friend sponsored his enrollment in GED courses. This year Cabrera received his master’s degree in public administration from Baruch College.

Since his early 20s, Cabrera has taken his life experiences and used them to inspire his work, campaigning for rights and better opportunities for his community.

Cabrera began MASA in 2001 to reduce the Mexican student dropout rate, which according to the 2010 census is the highest in the city.

In addition to tutoring students, MASA works with parents to help them understand the American school system, to navigate the PTA and to know what rights their bilingual or ESL children have in school.

MASA sponsors community events, offers adult ESL classes and serves more than 50 students in its after-school tutoring program. It operates out of the Melrose neighborhood, where the Mexican population has more than doubled since MASA’s inception.

Maritza Batista stood beside a column in the basement of theImmaculate Conception School in Melrose on a recent Monday night as students and parents cleaned up after the evening’s tutoring program. Her 8-year-old son Robert has been attending MASA since August. Since beginning the program, Batisa said, Robert has become more motivated to do schoolwork and is improving in reading and math.

“He used to be a kid who didn’t like to read. Now he looks at a book and tries to read it,” Batista said. “Robert likes MASA. He likes being part of it.”

As Batista talked, Robert pushed a large broom around the room. A moment later, Cabrera joined him with another broom and challenged him to a race back and forth across the linoleum floor. Hair flying and smiles wide, the boy and Cabrera sprinted, brooms in hand.

Batista smiled.

“This is him,” she said. “This is Angelo.”

Asked how he feels about what he has achieved, Cabrera looked thoughtful.

“Estoy in la Gloria,” he said with a smile. “I’m in heaven at this point.”




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