Could twins Jazmin and Lizbeth Lopez make it at top-ranked colleges more than 3,000 miles apart? Of course, they could. The real story was how they made it there in the first place.
On a breezy, tourist-brochure day in California's wine country, twin sisters Jazmin and Lizbeth Lopez sat side by side waiting to graduate as the top two students in Napa High's Class of 2005. This was a moment of triumph, but Jazmin was so nervous she couldn't even listen to the speeches. She feared she was going to get kicked out.
The twins had decided to make a statement during the ceremony. As Jazmin crossed the stage to accept her diploma, she unfolded a black-and-white banner reading Orgullo Latino-"Latino Pride." Lizbeth followed right behind with a Mexican flag. This sort of thing didn't come naturally to the shy teens, but they did it anyway, and Jazmin even added a little flourish-blowing a kiss to the crowd. It was only the latest surprise from the once-predictable pair.
The inseparable siblings were known simply as "the twins" or "the Lopez sisters" to many at Napa High. Along with taking most of the same classes, they served as co-presidents of the Hispanic Club, studied side by side after school and cleaned homes together on the weekends to help with their family's finances. They tied for the highest GPA-4.67-in a class of more than 500 students, and became co-winners of the school's highest honor-the "Indian of the Year" award. To no one's surprise, they were accepted at every college they applied to: Berkeley, Dartmouth, Stanford and others. Jazmin and Lizbeth easily could have gone off to school together, as many twins do.
No way, the sisters decided. In fact, the fraternal twins who had shared a bedroom their entire lives wound up choosing colleges about as far apart as you can get in the continental United States. Jazmin picked Pomona College in California; Lizbeth chose Bowdoin.
Could they make it on their own? There was little doubt. Jazmin and Lizbeth's story is about more than the drama of going off to college and leaving behind a twin sister. The sisters went through transformations before college that set them on a different course-and set them apart from the typical first-year students. These two weren't going to come home for the holidays and freak out their parents with idealistic, change-the-world talk. They already had done that years ago.
Back to graduation: Despite their fears, Jazmin and Lizbeth's on-stage statements of ethnic pride passed with little reaction. The ceremony in the high school football stadium was as California-casual as they come, with students stepping down from the stage to a line of welcoming teachers-some clad in shorts and floral shirts-offering hugs and handshakes to the graduates. When the twins arrived at the line, the affection was so strong that some teachers joked that they were creating a bottleneck.
"I wouldn't be surprised at anything they decide to do-politics, law, service," said their ninth-grade English teacher Hilary Zunin. "Wherever they go, people are going to just say, 'wow.'''
After the ceremony, the girls skipped the grad night event planned by the school-it cost 50 dollars-and headed home to celebrate with friends and family at a backyard barbecue shaded by an expansive grapefruit tree. Ranchera music played as they feasted on arranchera, grilled flank steak seasoned with cilantro, and nopales, a cactus dish. Dad worked the old-school charcoal barbecue. Hugging the girls, mom gave a brief, heartfelt speech in Spanish: "Thanks for everything, for all your hard work," she said, with tears in her eyes. "I'm going to miss you."
An astoundingly complicated set of conditions comes together to make the Napa Valley a perfect place to grow wine grapes, an "American Eden." The 30-mile long valley is tucked between the too-cool California coast and the too-hot Central Valley, providing just the right climate for those grapes to ripen slowly and evenly, according to the Napa Valley Vintners. Everything from the placement of canopies to the way the vines are pruned plays a part. After the harvest comes crushing, fermentation, bottling and more. Longtime Napa Valley winemaker Cathy Corison describes the making of a good wine as an art and a science and something beyond. "It's a miracle," she said. "No question."
The story behind the Lopez sisters' success is almost as complex, and just as alchemical. Of course, family played a big part. In the living room of the Lopez family's humble 1920s bungalow, where Jazmin and Lizbeth had lived their entire lives, hangs a large, framed photograph of their mom's parents, ranchers from Central Mexico whose lively eyes seem to watch over the house. The Lopez family rarely visited San Francisco, about an hour away, or the swanky wineries that mostly lie outside the city limits of Napa. But every year or so the family traveled south to Mexico for several weeks during the summer to visit their parents' hometown in the state of Aguascalientes, with cobblestone roads, adobe homes and bountiful guava crops. There the twins stayed with their mother's mother-the one in the living room picture-listening to stories from the old days.
Their mother, Maria, found these summer sojourns to a slower-paced world to be relaxing. She sometimes pined for the simpler life back in Mexico. Their father, however, found the long summer stays with his wife's family in Mexico boring. His life was in the U.S. Decades ago, Rodolfo Lopez had followed his father north for better opportunities than his life as a ranch hand. In Napa, he learned to paint homes, then did plumbing work, then electrical. With no time or money for school, he learned English on his own.
While their mother had taught them the importance of family and their roots in Mexico, their father taught them "if you just put your mind to it, you can do it," said Lizbeth. Jazmin still remembers her parents giving her a Butterfinger candy bar for a good report card. "If we brought good grades" home, said Jazmin, "we knew they were proud."
Rodolfo and Maria Lopez were unusually involved parents, both showing up for parent meetings and utilizing recommended study tips, said Renee Hernandez, who helps run Talent Search, a program for promising low-income students that the twins participated in. Jazmin and Lizbeth also learned from the example of their older sisters Ana and Alma; both had graduated from the University of California, Berkeley.
Still, the family couldn't do it all. Jazmin and Lizbeth benefited from a bevy of government programs, beginning with Head Start preschool. In the sixth grade, they were placed in Talent Search, started during the 1960s War on Poverty, designed to seek out low-income students with potential and put them on track for college. Through Talent Search, they would connect with a privately-run program called Summer Search, which sends low-income high school students who show an interest in serving others on summer adventures. Summer Search encouraged the girls to explore their inner lives and look beyond Napa.
"During that time is when I started realizing it's OK to be me, and I don't need to put on a mask for people, to act in a way they expect me to act," said Jazmin.
The biggest turning point came during their second year in Summer Search, when participants get to go on an overseas service trip. This would be the longest the pair would be apart-six weeks-in their young lives.
Malcolm X drew Lizbeth to Ghana, where she worked at an orphanage. The Civil Rights leader's famous autobiography had made a big impression on her, and she remembered reading about his time in Ghana on his pilgrimage to Mecca. When Lizbeth arrived in the African nation, language barriers posed challenges but she persisted with independence, impressing the group of young people she came with. She, meanwhile, was impressed with Ghanians' pride in their own culture: "They were so proud of who they are." The mixture of material poverty and rich culture reminded her of Mexico, and all the summers she had spent there growing up. "I got back home and just let the pride in my Mexican heritage show," she said.
Jazmin, on the other hand, hated her first weeks in Honduras and wanted desperately to go home. She spoke the language, and had expectations that people there would be instantly warm and welcoming. Instead, the indigenous people were quiet and cautious. "I was used to my own Mexican culture," she says.
"It took me a long time to adapt." But in time she realized she had to put aside her preconceived notions and reached out farther, and she started to enjoy her work helping to build latrines for families and teaching nutrition to children. The experience exposed her to the region's persistent poverty. "I know for sure now I want to do something to fix the situation," she said.
The sisters returned to Napa with newfound confidence and an international consciousness. At school, they pulled their noses out of the books and started speaking up. When they couldn't arrange an on-campus venue for the Hispanic Club dance they had planned, the sisters took it off campus and drew big crowds. "They fought every battle and they overcame every obstacle," said Rafael Garcia, the math teacher who served as adviser for the club. "They got all of their ideas to work."
In this time of ferment, the twins were preparing to make their college choices. The pair had never seriously considered going to college together. There was no big heart-to-heart talk. They both knew they needed to strike out on their own. Jazmin did broach the subject openly, just once, in a casual chat the summer before their senior year. Lizbeth agreed that they should go to separate colleges. That was it.
After visiting several big-name schools, their choices came down to something simple. They each picked the college where they felt they best fit in, where they meshed with the people as well as the academic program. When Jazmin returned home from visiting Pomona sunburned and in a sunny disposition, Lizbeth had a feeling her sister was going to pick that school. For her part, Lizbeth found Bowdoin wasn't just friendly, but also filled the additional criteria of offering an environment completely different from Napa.
How many twins have double-timed their way to class across the quad over the years? To be honest, we're not sure. This is the list we came up with:
Note: The College doesn't track twins, so we had to get creative with our means to identify sets of alumni and student twins in our records, comparing last names, maiden names, and birth dates. We're sure that we missed twins in our search so, don't be shy in telling us who!
It was a big step, especially since Lizbeth had always been seen as the shy - or shyer - one of the pair. Jazmin wears her hair down and her heart on her sleeve. She's the huggier, tearier kind who needs to make a quick emotional connection. Lizbeth, in contrast, keeps her thoughts largely to herself under her tight curls. Even those close to her tell of having to pull words out of her. Lizbeth's inward focus may have suited her to the big adjustment ahead - she didn't need to create an immediate connection. Still, Jazmin did worry a little: Would Lizbeth find anybody back East who understands her?
Mom and dad worried about both of their choices. They felt Claremont was too far away from home. And Maine? That was practically on another planet. What if there was an emergency? They wondered why their youngest daughters couldn't go to Berkeley - a big-name school only an hour from home - like their older sisters had. "I am very sad," said Maria, facing the prospect of an empty nest for the first time in 25 years. "I'm going to miss them a lot."
The twins' activism and idealism already had created some disagreements with mom and dad, who saw things in more pragmatic terms. When Lizbeth and Jazmin talked about boycotting bananas to support Ecuadorian workers seeking to unionize, their parents would reply that the boycott might cause workers to lose their jobs. And their dad was skeptical of their plans to help others overseas someday. "We came here to the United States and they want to go live somewhere else," says Rodolfo. "You need to first fix the country you live in. Then you can go fix the other ones."
Jazmin only needed one trip from car to dorm to unload her possessions and start a new life at Pomona College. She was traveling light: Everything she brought fit into a big suitcase, two small backpacks, a couple of shopping bags and a pair of wood crates brimming over with bedding. And her entire family-mom, dad and three sisters-had come to help out.
In her new room, she was quick to put to use two prized items. Embarrassing her parents, she tacked up a poster-her favorite-showing a crucified Central American farmer, symbolically suffering ills from sources ranging from the International Monetary Fund to pesticides to large corporations. Spread over her bunk bed was the well-worn peach-colored comforter she had shared with Lizbeth when they were little girls. It would remind her of home.
That's what Jazmin brought with her to college: an idealistic drive to better the world and a comforting sense of connection to her family. When it came time for the family to leave her, the goodbyes weren't as hard as she expected. She was excited about meeting her roommate, and the reality of the separation from home hadn't sunk in yet.
Quickly, however, she ran into some of the typical challenges of starting college. It turned out her roommate was a night owl, and Jazmin was a morning person. Her classes, of course, were harder than high school, and with so many bright students she found it was intimidating to speak up. She struggled to balance coursework and social activities.
On top of all this, she was missing her parents-and Lizbeth. "She has always been by me,'' said Jazmin. "We were together 24-7. It's strange. There's something missing."
Through it all, she kept in daily contact-by cell phone and online instant message-with Lizbeth, the one person who always knew what she was thinking. It didn't have to be a big thing to merit a call. Lizbeth rang up Jazmin the first time she slipped in the snow, and they both shared a laugh.
Lizbeth was having a harder time finding her footing after making the big leap to Maine. Social life was a struggle: "I really didn't feel like I fit in, like I had much in common with most of the people I was meeting." Classes were tough as well and she was enduring a dearth of Mexican radio stations.
Then somebody approached Lizbeth about trying out for the women's rugby team. To her surprise, she liked it, and rugby wound up providing her with the release-and sense of connection-she was lacking. She loved the adrenaline rush that came with running downfield with the ball: "I still get a few really good bruises and stuff but I am always able to get back up and keep playing." Best of all, her teammates became her closest friends at school. Academics were satisfying as well, as she enjoyed her classes in Latin American Studies, which she had decided on as a major.
Back at Pomona, Jazmin was having some breakthroughs of her own. She and her roommate, first-year Marybel Gonzalez, had a big talk, worked out a compromise on staying up late and wound up becoming good friends: "We talk about our families, our worries." Still undecided on her major, Jazmin was getting involved in activities on campus-including joining Amnesty International and playing violin in a five-college mariachi group-and adjusting to the academic workload. As the semester ended, Jazmin was composed and near-triumphant. "Tomorrow I have two finals," she said. "And I'm not stressing out at all."
But she was nervous about a different matter: seeing Lizbeth when they reunited for winter break. Their relationship had changed, or at least it felt as if it had. They only had been talking on the phone once a week or so since the hustle-bustle of finals approached. "I don't know what to expect, whether she's completely changed or not," said Jazmin.
Lizbeth's newfound fascination with rugby had surprised Jazmin. They were never big on sports. Then she discovered that her sister had started eating pork, something Lizbeth had given up after reading Malcolm X's autobiography. Jazmin was shocked. "Who is over in Maine sort of reinventing my sister?" she asked. "It's kind of scary."
Jazmin ran to embrace Lizbeth at the airport. There was a touch of uneasiness at the start of their long break, and Jazmin was busy the first week working retail at Mervyn's to help pay for her school books. The second week she found time to sit down and have a real talk with Lizbeth, sharing her fears that her sister was changing-and so was their relationship. That relieved her tension and the pair hung out, watched movies, visited San Francisco and caught up on their lives.
Napa was just the same. And so was their relationship, they discovered. Jazmin conceded her fears had been overblown. "We'll have our little bickering fights like we always do," she said. "And two seconds later we'll be completely over it and we're like 'oh, I love you.'"
Settling in once more at their separate colleges a continent apart, the twins were learning a lesson readily observed in the vineyards back home: With deep, strong roots, they could branch out as far as they needed. But even if Jazmin and Lizbeth grew in different directions, they would always stay connected.
Mark Kendall is Assistant Director of Communications and Web Editor at Pomona College.