By Kevin Brown, Chief Copy Editor
Josefina (Josi) Bañales was born not in a hospital but in the back of a Mercedes Benz on the South Side of Chicago.
Seven months earlier, on a mid-August afternoon in 1991, her mother, 22-year-old Angie White, was taken to the hospital after being assaulted in her apartment by a schizophrenic relative who was having a psychotic episode. She was stabbed 54 times over the course of 45 minutes.
And as White was being stapled up, the doctors told her she was pregnant with her third child.
“My mother went through so much while I was in her tummy,” said Bañales, a First Year Resident Assistant at Illinois Wesleyan. “Sometimes I can’t believe this is where I came from.”
Bañales’ early childhood was fairly quiet, even though she lived in a bad neighborhood. “I was raised in a low income household. My brothers and I were never allowed to play outside or go to the park alone because my mom didn’t want us to see the bad parts of the neighborhood.”
While in Kindergarten at Eberhart Elementary School, Bañales was ahead of the rest of her class. She was talkative, a great listener, and, most of all, curious—about everything.
Her teacher recommended to her mother that Bañales take an entrance exam into any of Chicago’s eight gifted schools. Then she could have a chance to get out of her neighborhood and into the environment her mother wanted for her.
Bañales took the exam, and she was accepted at Annie Keller Regional Gifted Center Magnet, the No. 1 elementary school in Illinois at the time.
“While my mother encouraged me to take this exam seriously, she never pushed me like other parents do,” Bañales said. “Even from an early age, I knew I had to take advantage of every opportunity given to me, both for myself and more so for my mother.”
Bañales went to Annie Keller from first to eighth grade. Her attendance came with a price, though – not only did White need to take on three minimum wage jobs at once, the school was also more than an hour bus ride and walk from the apartment.
“My mom didn’t want me or any of my siblings to stay in the neighborhood, in the public school system,” Bañales said. “Between jobs, my mom would ride an hour and a half on two buses with me to get to school in the morning. I had to wake up every day at 5:30 a.m. and didn’t get home until 6 p.m.”
After graduation from Annie Keller, Bañales applied to Lincoln Park High School, a school in the richest area of Chicago, a school that was nearly a two-hour commute away. Regardless, Bañales enrolled and was soon in the AP and double honors programs.
“Seeing all my mother has done for me, everything she’s gone through, I’ve always wanted to give back to her,” Bañales said. “I did it by focusing on my schoolwork and always striving to make my family proud. I tried to put them before myself when I could.”
“Yeah, it was hard at times for my family to pay the bills. That was normal,” Bañales said. “We had the bare essentials. We had air conditioning and cable for a few summers, but when my mom had to decide where the money went, it went to food, water, electricity, stuff for me and my siblings and school.”
Although White did her best to keep her children away from the worst parts of the neighborhood, they weren’t cut off from their neighbors and friends.
“Of course I hung around with kids from my neighborhood,” Bañales said. “But as we all got older, my friends started to get involved with gangs and drugs. What can you do? Thankfully, I was able to avoid that. I had the advantage of always being able to leave my neighborhood.”
Her younger sister took a different route. While White encouraged her to take the placement exam, Bañales’ sister turned the opportunity down and instead attended public school.
“Even though we grew up in the same neighborhood, in the same house, my sister and I had totally different lives,” Bañales said.
Being stuck in the neighborhood, she quickly fell in with the wrong crowd, which eventually led to her pregnancy at the age of 14.
“We just couldn’t afford a baby,” Bañales said. “I was so angry when my sister wanted to keep it because she thought everything was going to be fine. She wasn’t worried about the consequences. But the day Tyson was born, all that anger went away. I just wanted to see my nephew.”
At the time, there were only two incomes to support Bañales, her grandmother, mother, two brothers and younger sister.
To help out, Bañales held three jobs throughout high school. She took one as an intern at the Lincoln Park Zoo, as a paid tutor at her high school, and squeezed in a third at the Amalgamated Bank of Chicago. She gave all of her paychecks straight to her mother.
“She’s strong, beautiful, and smart. She never gives up – hasn’t from the day she was born,” White said of her daughter. “Most of all, she’s loving. That is what really defines her.”
To this day, Bañales still sends her income from her three jobs back to Chicago. Only now, she works as a biology and psychology teacher’s assistant and as a First-Year Resident Assistant.
Her position as an FYRA isn’t just a job, though. Elizabeth Albers, a first-year student on Bañales’ floor, feels very close to Bañales.
“The most amazing thing about Josi is that when I’m upset I don’t even have to say anything – I don’t go to her,” Albers said. “She initiates it, she comes to me. She has shown me she really understands who I am and how I work. It’s like having a mom away from home.”
“I love talking to people and helping others,” Bañales said. “I’m not talking about being a cool FYRA or anything like that. I want my girls to know that I care, that I’m always here for them. It sounds clichéd, but I take pride in that.”
Of course, she has aspirations beyond IWU. “I’ve always wanted to be a clinical psychologist. I genuinely want to change people’s lives,” said Bañales, who plans on going to graduate school to get her Ph.D.
Though she was able to escape through her education, Bañales never left her neighborhood behind. She has always made it a point to give back to her community, just as her mother gave so much to her.
“I want to work with minorities from low-income households, because that’s who I am. That’s where I came from,” Bañales said. “They need to know they can get ahead, get out of the neighborhood.”
“I’m so proud that she is able to do what she is doing,” White said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do myself – give back to the community, especially the children. Seeing her wanting to come back warms my heart and brings tears to my eyes. I hope that my daughter is able to inspire others to continue with their education like she has.”