Angel Onofre was 14 years old when he returned to Minnesota from Mexico. He spoke no English. Worse, he felt abandoned by his parents, who had been deported to Mexico.

Onofre didn’t see much use for high school. His life was already filled with cultural, financial and emotional struggles. He was ready to drop out and take his chances on a life without a diploma.

But an administrator at El Colegio charter school wouldn’t let him. Leaders at the south Minneapolis school know how bleak the future can look to Hispanics and Latinos new to Minnesota. But administrators saw in Onofre the glimmer of a student who didn’t really want to give up, so they wouldn’t let him.

“If I can do this, I can do more,” said Onofre, 19, who graduated on Friday. “I’m just trying to do something more with myself.”

Onofre, a soft-spoken teen who sports a dice earring, was born in Minnesota. At that time, his parents and older siblings were living in south Minneapolis. But his dad got arrested when Onofre was just a toddler. Onofre and his mother returned to Morelos, in south-central Mexico.

When he was 12, Onofre’s parents decided it was time for him to return to the United States. He said his parents feared he would lose the right to return because he had not been in the country since he was a toddler.

They traveled to Santa Ana, Calif., for a vacation, and then left him to live with an older sister he had never met.

Soon, he started hanging out with gang members who lived across the street. His sister and her family worked most of the day and did not have time to make sure he made it to school. “I went for two days,” he said.

Instead, he hung out with his new friends. The gang members wanted Onofre to sell drugs at the elementary school. When Onofre’s sister found out that he was part of the gang and that he had been skipping school, she sent him back to Mexico.

That’s when the fighting started between Onofre and his parents.

Within two years, they told him it was time to return to Minnesota, where he had older siblings he barely knew.

“I wanted to stay with my friends,” Onofre said. “I thought they were sending me here because they didn’t want to live, or deal, with me.”

Filled with anger, he eventually broke down and asked them why they had sent him away.

“They said this is better for me. That I have an opportunity to study in the United States and to become somebody,” he said. “I felt like I was just looking to my past without really thinking of my future.”

Tough to fit in

Like Onofre, the school’s 16 seniors are mostly first- or second-generation immigrants. They are learning English and have parents who have been deported or face the threat of deportation. Many of them also have not performed well in a traditional public high school.

Norma Garcés, the school’s executive director, said many of the seniors came from other high schools, mostly from Minneapolis. They were failing and were not on a path toward graduation, falling severely behind on their class credits.

“It doesn’t matter if they got here yesterday or if they were born here, their American dream is to go to the big high school, be part of it, be engaged,” Garcés said. “By the end of 10th grade, they realized they are never [going] to be part of that, unless their level of assimilation is super high and they have left all of their community behind.”

El Colegio became their refuge, and a place that taught them to embrace their culture, their background and experiences, and look toward their future.

Final struggle

Once at El Colegio, Onofre began taking school seriously and learned English. He was most challenged by his science teacher, who did not speak Spanish. Onofre had to stop using his Spanish in that class and really concentrate on speaking English. Now, he speaks it fluently.

Still, school was not easy, and neither was life outside of it.

Onofre still doesn’t have stable housing. He bounces around among the homes of siblings and friends. In the winter, he was working the night shift at a Qdoba Mexican Grill, and he didn’t go to school for months. He called his parents to tell them he was dropping out.

Onofre went to El Colegio to let Garcés know he would be leaving without a diploma. She told him to write her a letter explaining why he was making that decision.

“I told him it was as if he had been working for three years, and in just a few months, you are going to get your paycheck, but then you decide you don’t want to get paid,” Garcés said.

Onofre never turned in the letter.

“He would not have been able to graduate somewhere else,” Garcés said.

This fall, Onofre will enroll at Minneapolis Community and Technical College to begin his studies to become a probation officer.

“I’m going to finish,” he said.