A young man paying for his higher education by crocheting and selling beanies?! I had to find out more. This week when NBC Latino ran their story on Houston’s own Jose Luis Zelaya about how the 24 year old has been crocheting to earn his masters degree at Texas A&M, I knew I had to track him down. I did and what the Honduran-born undocumented grad student had to tell me really connected with me on a personal level. Zelaya is upbeat and passionate, positive about everything, and very open about his tumultuous journey to get to where he is today.
At the age of five he lost his younger brother because his family could not afford a taxi to get him to the hospital when he suffered an asthma attack. At seven he began working the streets of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, cleaning windshields and shining people’s shoes for money. His father was an alcoholic and often took what little earnings the young Zelaya brought home. At times he’d sleep under bridges just to not come home to his own father. At 13, his mother and his younger sister immigrated to the United States in search of new opportunities. That was the same year he taught himself to crochet by watching an elderly lady do the same. She had refused to teach him because he was a man, not a woman. One year later he was in Houston with his mother and sister, attending high school and crocheting for an income. His mother divorced his father. Fast forward 10 years later and the DREAM Act supporter holds a bachelors degree in education from Texas A&M and is working towards his master’s degree. He now utilizes this craft to pay for not only his education, but also his 20 year old sister’s.
Here are some of the questions Jose Luis answered during our phone conversation:
Juan of Words: Where do you get your motivation?
Jose Luis: Number one, my strength comes from God, but my passion comes from my mom. Just to see his lady who had the strength to leave Honduras, escape a country, just to save her kids… brother, every time I wake up I call that lady and tell her “thank you so much” for everything she’s done for us… Whenever we were in Honduras she used to make food, and we were really poor… every Sunday she would make a lot of food and just hand it out to the people that were living in the streets. She always made me realize how lucky I was regardless of how little we might have had.
Juan of Words: What is the highest amount you have made selling beanies in one month?
Jose Luis: About $500… It’s really hard. I honestly don’t know how we make it sometimes. A lot of times it’s friends helping us out. I have a lot of faith in God that he is taking care of us, so a lot of it just comes from people wanting to help us.
Juan of Words: What do you want your story to be?
Jose Luis: Whenever I share my story I don’t like to share it in a way that makes people feel pity for me, or think “oh, poor Jose Luis!” My story isn’t about making people feel bad. My story is about making people believe that no matter the circumstances that you go through, that you can always search in your heart, and know that if you are persistent and dedicated… that there is a possibility for you to be successful. It’s been hard. There are times that I just can’t do it, and I wake up and I cry and I pray, and I ask God to give me the will because I can’t do it anymore… he definitely helps me a lot.
Juan of Words: Any advice for others out there facing some of the same challenges you have?
Jose Luis: If you want to go to college, you can go to college! I used to wake up at six in the morning everyday during the summers and just go and mow people’s lawns. I’d crochet for 16 hours a day because I wanted to go to graduate school. That was hard! But even though it’s been a hard journey I look back and know it has all been worth it.
Juan of Words: How frustrating is it to not be able to legally work in this country because of your status?
Jose Luis: Something that no one can take away from me is my education. That’s something that I have in my mind. That I have in my heart… I’m always going to be teaching. I love to teach. If I can’t work as a teacher I’m still going to teach people, whether it’s volunteering or tutoring others… teaching is a part of me.
You can find and purchase Jose Luis’ crocheted beanies online at Dream Beanies.