By Aline Reynolds — The East Hampton Press, June 23, 2008
June 23, 2008
BY ALINE REYNOLDS | Throughout his life, Alex Jerez, 22, of Springs has faced many obstacles, supporting himself financially since early adolescence and learning how to find a place of his own in society.
Mr. Jerez, a 2004 East Hampton High School alumnus who graduated this spring from Harvard, compares his life experience to running a race in which “the starting gun” has already gone off “and you’re playing catch-up since most people are five steps ahead of you.”
Latinos made up nearly 15 percent of the East Hampton Town population in 2000 and the number has grown since then. According to Mr. Jerez, many of the challenges Latinos face here stem from the paradoxical nature of the Hamptons culture. Business owners “want cheap labor, but they don’t want” their undocumented workers “to be seen,” he said. “You have activists, but they’re prejudiced,” with biases they may not even recognize in themselves and, sometimes, failing to live according to their own standards for inclusion.
Mr. Jerez’s mother, Lucrecia Isabel Fajardo, cleans houses for a living. She migrated illegally to Long Island 23 years ago from Cuenca, Ecuador. She and Alex’s father, Luis Maria Jerez, separated seven years after he was born. The young Ecuadorian lived with his single mother for the remainder of his youth, often accompanying her to work and becoming acquainted the rich and famous in their luxurious East End residences.
Mr. Jerez has landed a job working in Houston for Hines Real Estate Investment Trust, Inc., one of the largest commercial real estate development firms in the world. He said he will be working his first year as a real estate business analyst, putting together a portfolio for investors. He starts work there in August.
Though one might think growing up in Hamptons might have prompted feelings of resentment and envy, that was far from the case for Mr. Jerez. He attributed his personal ambitions to being raised in a community that celebrated monetary success.
“I was fortunate enough to see what I had available to me in terms of resources, and I went for it,” he said. “When I was a kid, I studied hard and read a lot because I wanted to … be one of the people that summered out here.”
That’s what propelled Mr. Jerez to pursue an Ivy League undergraduate education; he hopes to eventually continue his education at Harvard and earn a business degree.
As a high school student, he worked about 80 hours a week in the summer to help his mother with the bills. He played varsity sports every semester while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average, he said. He also served as an elected governor of the New York Boys State contest held in upstate New York and was nominated for president by his political party.
Mr. Jerez nevertheless had modest expectations, he said. “I was initially applying to colleges such as Elmira,” he said. “I never dreamed I could get into a place like Harvard.”
He didn’t start to think in different ways about himself until local mentors John Mullen and his wife, Mary Ann McCaffrey, and Edward Gorman came into his life.
A retired writer, Mr. Gorman was deeply impressed by the Ecuadorian student when Alex, then an eighth-grader, challenged a children’s history book on Ben Franklin that Mr. Gorman had written and brought to a conference at East Hampton Middle School. Mr. Jerez’s critique left Mr. Gorman speechless. Instantly, Alex gained the author’s respect and a concern for his future. “I became a kind of grandfather to Alex,” Mr. Gorman said.
John Mullen and Marian McCaffrey of Mullen & McCaffrey Communications, with whom Mr. Gorman put Mr. Jerez in contact, had an impact on Alex’s acceptance into Harvard, Alex said. “What got our attention about him was his unusual maturity beyond his age,” said Mr. Mullen. “What I learned about Alex and his story motivated me all the more to help him.” The Mullens offered him guidance on the application process and how to best present himself.
“I remember John saying that I had a really good chance of getting in” to Harvard, “and Marian becoming a little choked up after reading my autobiographical” statement for his application, he said. The mentors were not surprised, though, when they heard the good news of his acceptance, according to Mr. Jerez.
As a child, Alex’s home away from home was the Peter Bistrian residence in Amagansett, where his mother cleaned. Alex remembers how he practically “grew up in their house.” He got to know their daughter Bonnie and son-in-law, builder and entrepreneur Ben Krupinski. Not only did Mr. Krupinski serve as a role model for Mr. Jerez, but the developer helped out financially, funding the difference between tuition fee and the scholarship he’d won.
After working, then going to business school, Mr. Jerez said he wants to get involved in improving the American educational system and fighting for minority integration. For the time being, his priority is to become financially secure for his current and future family and his long-term career goals is to own and manage his own company. “If I were to have my own company, I could exact more change,” he said.
“Honestly, I think I’ve suffered enough throughout my life that I deserve to make good money, and it’s something that I’m going to seek out and achieve,” he said.
To this day, Mr. Jerez said he struggles with questions about personal identity, ranging from what it means to be a Latino growing up in American society to what sort of “diction” society expects him to use. “The fact that I’m a son of an immigrant means that, one, I’m in a position in society that I ‘shouldn’t’ be in; two, I’m an anomaly as a first generation Harvard graduate; and three, we’re a very poor family in a very wealthy area.”
Despite unanswered questions, Mr. Jerez is the archetype of the American dream, said John Mullen, and is well is on his way to success.