A Dream Deferred

The kids of immigrants find there's no straight path to American success

Two years out of college, this son of a barber and a former postal worker owes over $100,000. He spent 2003 cleaning toilets and vacuuming airplanes in a Westchester airport, for $15,000 a year, before moving up to $18,000 a year as a flight instructor on Long Island. "I wish I could go back to graduation day and say, 'Give me my money back,' " he says.

But recently, José finally landed his first job as a commercial pilot, and in some ways, he doesn't seem fazed by his loans. When you're six digits in the red, the debt becomes an abstraction. "These white kids have the connections, which I think matters more now than education," he says. "I had to start from scratch."

So did Derrick Cruz, 32, a graphic designer, who spent much of his early childhood in Puerto Rico. He was raised by his grandparents and went to school in a classroom with dirt floors. As an adult, he juggled a data-entry job and schooling, taking eight years to earn a degree from Eastern Carolina University. He also married and had a child. Even with $35,000 debt, Cruz was lucky to have graduated during the late '90s; he immediately scored a designer job in Miami, at $42,000 a year. Hedging his bets, he moved to Hoboken on September 1, 2001, ready to take advantage of the boom economy. He has hung on ever since, right through New York City's steep downturn and tenuous recovery.

Cruz says that for second-generation kids, the measure of success isn't necessarily clear. "They don't compare themselves to their parents," he says. "They compare themselves to the best thing, the best life-style. So I compare myself to the best designer or who has the best pad. You don't have the same expectations as your parents."

At 32, he feels that adulthood has just begun, a sentiment that might surprise older immigrant parents. "I have friends who are in the same situation as me. We have a deadline, March 3, 2005," he says, and smiles. "Look out for me."

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