Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
English, Class of 2011
In 1951, William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” Like it or not, our personal histories define us; they provide the lessons and stories we carry for our lifetimes. Senior English major Mattie Aguero has embraced this concept, turning her own narrative history into her senior thesis project, a 70-page memoir titled, Don’t Stop for the Brick Walls: A Memoir. In it she candidly recounts her childhood, without any tone of self-pity.
“I’ve always known that I have my own story to tell,” says Aguero. “But I didn’t know where it would go, or what it would really be about, until I was actually in the process.”
Encouraged by Ann Green, Ph.D., professor of English, Aguero wrote her story – one that takes readers from the Juniata neighborhood of North Philadelphia, a section of the city bordered by Kensington, Port Richmond and Frankford, to the campus of Saint Joseph’s University. In it, she honestly and unapologetically presents her experience growing up at the poverty line, on food stamps and government assistance, with a dysfunctional family, all while combating the degenerative effects of cystic fibrosis (CF). A genetic disease diagnosed in only about one thousand American children per year, CF thickens the mucus and secretions of the body, making it hard for the digestive tract to absorb nutrients from food and clogging the small airways of the lungs, lessening lung capacity.
CF patients require treatment and regular medical monitoring, which means that Aguero’s family, had to pull together in order to cover the costs. Aguero herself, beginning at age 16, worked as well. Her older sister, Courtney, stood in as her support system when their father’s addictions complicated the family’s life. In the end, it was a coalition of family members that managed to pay for and provide the care Aguero needed. At the same time, these same relatives funded her tuition at Philadelphia’s Little Flower Catholic High School.
“There was always stress about tuition,” says Aguero. “My parents gave money, other family members gave money. Sometimes I was working in offices over the summer to help pay, too. But every year there was this question of whether I’d be going back in the fall.”
Despite that stress, Aguero attended Little Flower all four years, graduated, and enrolled at SJU.
A self-defined “over-achiever,” she funded her college education through a variety of scholarships, student jobs and loans. To date, she has received funding through the SJU Achievement Award, Annual Grant, the Saint Joseph’s Mission Scholars and the St. Perpetua Housing Grant. In addition, she received the Horatio Alger Scholarship, a scholarship given to students who exhibit integrity and perseverance to overcome personal adversity. Even when scar tissue from a past surgery led to complications and hospitalization during finals week in the fall semester of her freshman year, she rebounded, completing the semester only a few weeks late.
In 2009, during her sophomore year, her father died, leaving her conflicted about both his life and death. Yet Aguero maintained her integrity and goals through it all. Graduating this May with a final G.P.A. of 3.7, she says that higher education was always something she saw as necessary.
“There comes a point where you make a decision to either stay stuck in your neighborhood or get out of it,” she says. “I decided to get out.”
Once at Saint Joseph’s, Aguero faced the same obstacles as her peers – moving to a new place, making new friends – but knew many of her classmates hadn’t had the same turbulent past she had experienced. This drew her toward psychology, a major she believed would satisfy her interest in how people think. But almost as quickly she realized that she wanted to write and edit, and switched to a major in English. After graduation and a summer job with the Department of Defense, she hopes to pursue a career as a book editor.
“People have so many ideas they want to get out there,” she says. “I want to be a part of that.”
As for her own writing, like Faulkner, Aguero believes that the past has a high impact on the present. Without her history, she says, she wouldn’t be able to write from such a brutally honest perspective.
“There’s a language and dialect of the culture that forms in places like North Philly, and I’m not afraid to hide it,” Aguero says. “I’m not afraid to go there. There’s no reason to be afraid to say how it is.”
Despite trying to silence a growling stomach throughout much of class, I dreaded when the bell rang for lunch. Every afternoon the bell would shriek at 12 p.m., signaling the start of my daily ritual of inevitable shame. I treaded slowly behind the stampede of excited first graders, running to get first in line for hot lunch. I walked past the line and sat at my usual lunch table, my best friends Simone on one side, and Casey on the other. Staring at the happy, chattering kids around me, I envied the simplicity of their $5 lunch, a plastic tray of steaming tater tots, mystery meat, Arctic iced tea and a vanilla frosted cupcake.
Lunchables were an unthinkable luxury.
As we talked about the most important things in the lives of any first grader – what’s your current favorite color, which boy has the least cooties – I sat forlornly between the large fresh ham and cheese sandwiches of my best friends, complete with Ssips iced tea juice boxes, bags of chips and Gushers, and unwrapped the Saran Wrap from my slightly crushed butter and sugar sandwich.
Cringing only slightly, I washed down every gritty, greasy bite with a splash of a Little Hugs grape juice, my only 50-cent expenditure for the day, longing for the days we could manage peanut butter and jelly. This was a bad week – nearing the end of the month with no food stamps left always was – and I didn’t even want to think about what would be for dinner.
--An excerpt from Don’t Stop for the Brick Walls: A Memoir