Jul 31, 2006
MIT ‘10: Cristen Chinea
Posted in: Process & Statistics
'Miracle Child' of Public Drinker Earns a Full Scholarship to MIT
July 17, 2006
BY DEBORAH KOLBEN / The New York Sun
If you've ever walked through Union Square Park, you probably noticed Belinda and Joey. On most days, you could find them there getting drunk. Not the falling down kind of drunk, but drunk enough. Belinda started the day with a bottle of vodka, Joey a bottle of something else. On some days the cops would ask them to keep it down. On others, Joey took a trip to the emergency room with a case of the shakes.
At 50, Belinda, who wears her black hair tied back tight, lives with her mother in the same apartment where she grew up, in the Bernard Baruch housing projects on the Lower East Side.
What most people don't know is that at home Belinda Chinea has an 18-year-old daughter, Cristen, who just graduated from the elite Stuyvesant High School with a 93.3 average and earned a full scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Ask about Belinda's daughter and you're guaranteed to see a tear. "I call her my miracle child," she says.
From a young age, Cristen - who has long brown hair, brown glasses, and wears a little heart around her neck - lost herself in books. Her mother was rarely home and when she was, Cristen never knew when her temper would flare.
Instead of hanging out in the projects, Cristen headed to the Hamilton Fish Park Library on East Houston Street near Avenue D.
"I always wondered why she wasn't like the other moms," Cristen said on a recent afternoon at Union Square Park sitting just feet from where her mother spends most of her days sitting on a park bench. Belinda stopped drinking and called things off with Joey six months ago, but she still returns every day to the park. Instead of the booze, she sketches, smokes cigarettes, and works her way through a book of Sudoku puzzles.
For as long as Cristen can remember, she did well in school. She says that she doesn't know why. She shares a bedroom with her 80-year-old grandmother, Josefina, who moved to New York from Puerto Rico decades ago.
Cristen was chosen as the valedictorian at P.S. 142, the local school on the Lower East Side where almost every student was poor enough to qualify for free lunch. She was the only student at her middle school to score high enough to get in to Stuyvesant, one of the most competitive public high schools in the city.
Because she was used to being at the top of her class, the transition to high school was a shock.
"I definitely felt different," Cristen said. "I didn't know that I was poor until I got into Stuy. A lot of people are upper class and have money to spend. Everybody has an iPod and a cell phone and I didn't have any of that."
On most afternoons, Cristen plunked down in front of the television to watch cartoons and finish her homework. Her grandmother made rice and beans "and other Spanish stuff" for dinner. When her mother finally came home late at night, she would come in to her room and kiss her goodnight.
Belinda was 31 when she met a Colombian carpenter named Oscar at a social club. When she got pregnant she decided not to keep the baby, but then she felt it kicking and changed her mind. She never knew Oscar's last name. She never told him that he had a daughter. She thinks that Oscar is dead. On Cristen's birth certificate under "father" it says simply, "unknown."
Cristen wants to be a meteorologist. She likes weather, especially severe thunderstorms and hurricanes. She says that she wants to learn how to reduce their power so that they don't do so much damage.
"My aunt took me to Disney World and in our hotel room I had cable and I would just watch the weather channel over and over again," she said.
Cristen just opened her first bank account. She wants to learn how to pay bills. She plans to work on campus. She wonders about who her roommate will be and is excited about leaving for school next month.
"I'm going to come visit you like three times a year," Belinda told her daughter. "I can find one of those cheap places to stay and I can spend the night." When Cristen crinkles her nose and makes a face, Belinda backs down. "Okay, then I'll just come twice."