Roque Sanchez
Homeless at 16, Roque Sanchez was taken in by a teacher and found his path to college through Shakespeare. [Photo courtesy of Kartemquin Films/Spargel Productions]

Roque Sanchez was 5 years old when he arrived in Chicago from Mexico with his parents and younger sister. They were constantly moving from one house to the next, making it difficult for him to put down roots and make friends. “There was always something wrong with the place we lived in, maybe the neighborhood was bad, or the place was small. Virtually every year we would be in a new home,” he says.

He struggled with language barriers and shyness. He grew into a quiet teenager who didn’t speak unless spoken to first. He also became homeless.

When Sanchez turned 13, financial troubles forced the family to leave the first house that had ever felt like home, “a nice place in Evergreen Park, where me and my sister had our own bedrooms,” he says. His parents split up, and within months Sanchez and his younger sister had to choose which parent to live with.

After a failed stint at his mother’s new home, Sanchez moved into his dad’s “closet-sized studio” in Gage Park. But when immigration services came looking for his father, the undocumented 16-year-old Sanchez fled. He was taken in by a concerned teacher, Maria Rivera, who had been keeping a watchful eye on him for several months. He has lived with her and her family ever since.

Sanchez’s final year at Gage Park High School is chronicled in The Homestretch, a documentary by Kartemquin Films. The film highlights the struggles of homelessness and the surprising resilience that he and two other teens show while trying to create better lives for themselves.

The Chicago Reporter sat down with Sanchez, now a freshman at Northeastern Illinois University, to hear his story, and what he hopes his role in The Homestretch will do for other homeless teens.

Why did you move out of your mother’s home?

I was mad about the split. I was mad about my mom having a significant other so quickly, and the living situation didn’t feel right. I talk to my mom a lot and take her out to eat whenever I can. I know she doesn’t like me not living with her, but I also know that’s what our relationship needed. When we lived together we were not getting on at all; [we were] just mad at each other for so many wrong reasons. So I moved in with my dad.

What happened with your dad?

Our relationship is more like one between two friends. He’s more into having a good time than being truthful about the really serious stuff. When I lived with him he didn’t really have his life in order. [Living with him] was difficult. He drinks, and when immigration services broke in looking for him and I actually thought it was him, that he’d been drunk and done it.

He stopped drinking three years ago because of me. Now he’s a really good person to me, but [our relationship] is not completely stable.

Why is the living situation better with Maria and her family?

She already knew some of what was going on in my life, because she kept an eye on me in school. I was a quiet kid who didn’t talk unless someone spoke to me first, I wanted to be invisible. She took me under her wing. She’s a very confident lady, and very clear and practical in how to help people.

She got me to sign up for CPS Shakespeare, where kids learn and perform Shakespeare plays at Navy Pier. I had never done drama in my life and didn’t like Shakespeare. The experience was a really big thing for me, I have anxiety problems and it helped me find new potential in myself and learn to be happy.

What was it about Maria that really helped you?

Maria rounds up kids like me, who she helps get on their feet, and then we help other kids get on their feet. We were all kids dealing with more than kid problems, and we were overwhelmed. We didn’t want to speak up in case we were judged. Maria finds those people, who don’t know how to say what their problem is, and she helps them without maybe knowing what’s wrong.

She took me in, made me one of her family. I’ve met her dad and been on trips with her family. Her daughters see me as a big brother now.

As someone with anxiety problems how did you find working with CPS Shakespeare?

At first I was very shy, but Maria and the staff helped me decide that I want to be open-minded to new things. Before, I didn’t understand Shakespeare, now I love it — and apparently I am a good actor because they kept calling me back to do more.

The first introduction we had as a group was to say your name loudly in an outrageous manner, and I couldn’t do it. I went outside and started having a panic attack, and then I had to really decide whether or not I wanted to change. Did I want to live in the shadows of confident people or be one of those people? That moment when I went back inside and said my name is when it all started to change.

What has been the hardest experience for you so far?

I got run over by a car and broke my leg when I was 15 and still living with my mom. Because of that, I couldn’t go to school and failed all but one class. I had only just started building up my confidence from doing the first of my CPS Shakespeare plays, and the disability broke my spirit. I felt like the world was shutting even more doors on me.

To me “limitation” was a very big word. Being undocumented, I was already sensitive to the things that I wouldn’t be able to do. It took a few months for me to get over that and find my path out of that hole. I did a lot of night and summer school to graduate on time. I knew it would be hard, but I had made that decision to be a confident person who knows where they’re going, and so I wanted to stick to it.

I finished my first semester at NEIU with a 3.5 GPA.

What should society know about homelessness?

There’s a nice quote from the movie, that if society gives one bag of food to a homeless person, it’s not going to mean they aren’t homeless tomorrow. That’s a temporary solution. What helped me were Maria and CPS Shakespeare, which taught me that this isn’t the end to my story, that I can write my own ending. Maria didn’t excuse all my behavior because I had nowhere to live and I’d had a rough time. She was clear about what I was going to do to help myself.

What do you hope to gain from this movie?

What they’re trying to do with the film is break down the stigmas of homelessness. I don’t want anyone to pity me or treat me differently. I am the person I am because of the things I went through.

I want the movie to help anybody who was in the same place as me. Homeless people aren’t just bums who sit on the street corner taking handouts. You see stories that show homeless teens constantly trying to get to college and get out of their holes. There’s a guy trying to work to support his son, and another girl trying to get to college like me. I feel proud to have met these people through the documentary. I admire how optimistic they are about who and where they want to be. I hope that people realize homeless teens have dreams too, and want their lives to be better.

is an intern at The Chicago Reporter.