Raul Altreche ’06
Tragedy to Triumph
By Kevin Graber
“Over and over again, life has brought me back to the same questions and same search, exploring who I am and what life has taught me. Life’s counterpart, death, has been a long-lasting friend and has introduced me to some of the most plaguing events in my life, but it’s also taught me to live.”
—Raul Altreche ’06, in his 2002 memoir, My Life
Late in the first half, with the season on the line in the 2004 NESCAC Men’s Lacrosse Tournament quarterfinals against perennial power Bowdoin College, Amherst’s all-conference goalie, Cushing Donelan ’05, went to the bench with a roughing penalty. That sent seldom-used sophomore netminder Raul Altreche scurrying on to the field, fists clutching his white goalie stick and legs churning with nervous energy. Like a shark smelling blood in the water, Bowdoin charged downfield almost immediately, rifling the ball around the perimeter until it rested in the hands of its most feared scorer, who stood nearly a foot taller than Altreche and worlds apart in both talent and experience. He took one peek at Amherst’s diminutive reserve goalie—perched cat-like between the pipes, eyes wide as saucers—and uncoiled a point-blank right-handed laser toward the top left corner of the net. Altreche, stiff after watching the first 25 minutes from the sideline, yet unfazed by the scenario unfolding before him, lurched to his right, stick held high, and stopped what would have been the game-tying goal with one of the season’s most spectacular saves. Bowdoin couldn’t believe its misfortune. As Altreche trotted off the field, his day finished after just 80 seconds in goal, scores of teammates and onlookers congratulated him. “Great save, Raul!” and “Nice job, Raul!” they shouted, patting him on the back as he made his way to the bench. “Way to show some guts out there.”
If only they knew.
Altreche was born and raised in the South Bronx section of New York, in a Hispanic neighborhood not far from Yankee Stadium, where life moved to the beat of salsa music and the shouts of children playing tag in the streets. His grandfather had moved to New York from Puerto Rico, found work as a superintendent in an apartment building, and later sent for his wife and children, including Raul’s mother, Madeline. Soon after, 17-year-old Madeline fell in love and married a handsome boy named Raul, whose looks and name would be inherited by his son. They bore three sons, Moses, Raul and Jason, and for a short time, life was like a fairytale. There was no shortage of love in their modest five-room apartment, especially during the holidays, when their home blossomed with home-cooked meals and Christmas gifts and the excitement of family get-togethers. But the neighborhood was rapidly deteriorating, and many of its inhabitants fell victim to the downward spiral of poor living conditions, unemployment and drugs. Like many other men in the neighborhood, Raul’s father succumbed to the lure of the streets, settling into drug addiction and eventually contracting AIDS.
“My mother was always trying to get my father off the streets,” Altreche recalls. “She loved him to death. She’d pick him up wherever he was and didn’t really care. She loved him until the day he died.”
Altreche, only five when his father died, doesn’t remember much about him, only vague flashes, like watching television together or being reprimanded for quarreling with his brothers. But he can recount the most minute details about his mother, some of which are extremely painful. He remembers her not knowing what to say when he asked, “Where’s Daddy? Where is he?” He remembers her growing more and more frail in the months that followed his father’s passing, and recalls being curious about the mask and tubes she used to help her breathing. He remembers wondering why there was an ambulance outside and where the paramedics were taking her.
His mother, who also had contracted AIDS, remained hospitalized for months, and the boys were shuttled off to his grandfather’s apartment, where they lived with their uncles. Raul spoke to his mother only occasionally by telephone, and she promised she’d be home soon, that she’d bring presents, and they’d do all sorts of fun things together. At the same time, she was working to ensure that her Social Security checks would go to support the boys and that they’d be cared for after she, too, succumbed to the disease.
Altreche and his younger brother weren’t allowed to visit their mother—they were too young, and hospital regulations forbade it—but they sneaked in with the help of relatives and the kindness of a sympathetic nurse. He remembers hiding in a closet when one of the “bad” nurses walked by and finally seeing his mother, in bed, looking as if she were about to cry. That was the last time he would see her alive. Her final words to him were mere whispers of “I love you” and “Behave.”
The boys were passed off several times over the next few years, living with their grandmother, moving back in with their grandfather, spending three months with an uncle in Virginia and moving up and down on different floors in their grandfather’s apartment building. They survived on just $1,200 a month, until the oldest, Moses, turned 18, when the funds dwindled to $1,000. The boys learned to do without and became painfully aware of life’s harsh realities: rent, electricity bills, rationing food and taking care of one’s belongings, because there would be no new ones.
Consequently, school became almost unmanageable. Starting in the second grade, Altreche switched school systems over and over, sometimes missing six or seven months at a time. He found himself on the doorstep of junior high, unable to read and feeling abandoned.
“I felt like everyone thought things weren’t going to happen for me,” he says, “and I felt like I was neglected a lot. I could understand that, and part of it was that I was the spitting image of my father, and my mother’s side of the family was raising me. I think that had a lot to do with it, especially with them blaming my father for what happened.”
Then, despite the turmoil that was overtaking his young life, he had an epiphany. Not yet 12 years old, Altreche looked around at his crumbling Bronx surroundings and decided he wanted something more, that he had something to prove. He was fed up and he was going to make something happen, and he started seeing things very differently.
He sought teachers who would help with his reading and found a junior-high guidance counselor who would help him through the high school application process. The counselor, in turn, found Altreche to be exceptionally bright and resourceful, despite his considerable lack of schooling, and thought he might qualify for a program called A Better Chance, which takes bright, motivated students of color from disadvantaged backgrounds and places them in educational environments that affirm and nurture their academic talent. A Better Chance involves several application processes, including one just to get into the program and another to gain acceptance at a member school. Altreche endured countless interviews and endless paperwork before finally receiving an invitation from Daniel Hand High School in Madison, Conn., a town of approximately 16,000 people, framed by Long Island Sound to the south and farms and woodlands to the north.
It may as well have been Mars.
“I didn’t think it was suburbia,” he says. “I thought it was super-suburbia. It was the boondocks to me. I had barely seen trees before. It was a huge fantasy world.”
Fresh off the bus from New York City, a world away from home and still coping with the shock of his new surroundings, Altreche moved into Daniel Hand’s A Better Chance house with six other students, two resident directors and a resident tutor. The students tended to household chores, earning $10 at the end of each week. Every Friday was “mop and clean,” and there were mandatory study hours from 6:45 to 10 p.m., with an 8:30 study break.
He took to the extreme structure and challenging schoolwork almost immediately, becoming only the second freshman in the history of Daniel Hand’s ABC program to hold a 10.0 grade-point average, the equivalent of an A-. Fitting in with his mostly white, well-to-do classmates was a different story altogether.
“I remember sitting on a bench, and I got off on a rant like a cartoon character, and everyone looked at me like, ‘What are you saying, kid?’ I was frustrated that they couldn’t understand me. I learned just this past year that there’s actual research on this in linguistics. They call it code shifting. I was jumping from standard English to black English to Spanish and into a separate dialect called Spanglish. At the time, I didn’t know any better, but it was tough. I had a whole identity issue.”
ABC students were paired with host families, and Altreche spent every other weekend with the Mesas and their youngest son, Jack. Fernando Mesa, the family’s half-Cuban half-German father, was extremely sports oriented, as were the Mesa children, one of whom attended Northwestern University on a field-hockey scholarship and another who played lacrosse at the United States Naval Academy. Madison was a huge football town, and Jack was on the freshman team at Daniel Hand. Fernando Mesa told Altreche, “You’re playing football.” Altreche had never played a team sport in his life.
“I was 167 pounds, not very tall, and my fat percentage must have been around 27 percent. We were running a warm-up lap on the first day of practice, and I was the last kid behind, the heavy, overweight kid in the back. When you’re that overweight, they clap you into the finish line, and I was wheezing and sweating and I could barely make it, but I had a major chip on my shoulder. As soon as you tell me I can’t do something, that’s when I throw it in your face and do it even better than you ever thought I could.”
Altreche fell in love with football and the warm feeling of knocking someone down. In the process, an amazing thing happened: his teammates and coaches fell in love with his spirit and enthusiasm. He’d accumulated tremendous pent-up anger over the years, and now he had the perfect outlet. Sports became his avenue for acceptance, and he couldn’t get enough. He tried wrestling in the winter and lacrosse in the spring, neither of which he’d ever heard of before coming to Daniel Hand. He soon shed his baby fat and morphed into a jock, and his friends and family back home couldn’t believe the transformation.
“I’d go back to New York City and the girls would see me and be like, ‘Raul, you look completely different. You look like you’ve been lifting.’”
His confidence soared. By sophomore year he was class president, and as a junior he was one of two students selected to represent Daniel Hand at American Legion Boys State, one of the most respected programs of government instruction for high school students.
Meanwhile, lacrosse became his sport of choice. During the third week of practice, freshman year, a teammate nominated Altreche for the backup goalie position, as the current second-stringer was afraid of the ball. Altreche had no clue how to play the position but threw himself in front of oncoming shots with reckless abandon.
He developed an unquenchable thirst for improvement in the sport and gladly accepted an invitation to attend a summer lacrosse camp at Springfield College, where Amherst head coach Tom Carmean worked as an instructor. That first year at camp, a Daniel Hand booster club paid his way. The following summer, the camp’s instructors invited him back at no charge.
“I remember there was one type of shot I just couldn’t save, so I asked Coach Carmean for help,” says Altreche. “He worked with me for a half-hour, firing shot after shot at that same spot until I finally made the save. That was fun.”
“Basically, he didn’t stop during camp,” Carmean remembers. “And it wasn’t just me, but all the instructors, particularly the goalie coaches. Raul was there to get as much information as he possibly could from anybody who would listen, all day long. My impression was that he felt like somebody sent him to that camp to become a better goalie, and he was going to squeeze everything he could out of every second he was there.”
By his senior year, Altreche was captain of the lacrosse team at Daniel Hand and a member of the National Honor Society, and he had many influential people in his corner when it came time to consider colleges. One such person was Carmean, who thought Altreche would be a great fit at Amherst. Another was Gary Meunier, the coordinator of guidance and counseling at Daniel Hand.
“I became very much like a parent in this,” says Meunier. “With all the things we take for granted in the college selection process, Raul had me, so we did everything together, from the financial-aid forms to helping him open a checking account. Our contact with Amherst College was so empowering, and everyone was so supportive. This is a kid who is essentially on his own. He’s an orphan—it breaks my heart to say that—and now he has a seat at the table of one of the most elite institutions in the country.”
And his time at Amherst has been well spent. As a first-year on the men’s lacrosse team, he expected to be nothing more than a practice player but saw action in a trio of games, as the Jeffs rolled to a 10-5 record, including a best-ever 6-3 mark in conference play. He took up rugby as well, taking out his aggression on unsuspecting ball carriers, just as he had in high school. He joined La Causa, a Hispanic group on campus, and spent last summer working for the college, planning Orientation trips for incoming students. As a sophomore, he worked as a residence counselor in a first-year dormitory and played an even larger role on the lacrosse team, highlighted by his spectacular game-saving stop in the Jeffs’ NESCAC Tournament quarterfinal win over Bowdoin.
Through it all, Altreche has had a profound impact on almost everyone with whom he’s come in contact.
“He is just raw enthusiasm,” says Meunier. “He thrives on the connections he makes with people, and the more you ask of him and the deeper you go, the more you get. He’s the kind of kid that makes life worth living, and that’s why people like me stay in this business.”
Says Carmean, “It’s a one-in-a-million chance that somebody could take all the circumstances that Raul’s had in his life and turn out to be the most positive person you could find. Sometimes, if any of us on the coaching staff are having a bad day, we think, ‘What would Raul do?’ He’s positive about everything, and that sort of thing spreads throughout the team.”
“He makes this a better college,” says Cate Zolkos, associate dean of admission at Amherst. “He makes each of us as individuals better people. He enriches everyone’s life.”
Altreche is spending this summer enriching even more lives, teaching African-American and Hispanic kids at a summer program at Harvard University. He says he feels an obligation to give back what he’s received in his life. “I see too much not to do something about it,” he says.
And while things have turned out well for Altreche, in many ways, he’s still the little boy who lost both his parents in a tragic turn of events that would have broken most people. “I talk mostly about the good stuff,” he says, “but in truth, it was miserable being there, and 99 percent of the time I feel like I’m completely alone, even when I’m with other people, even now. It’s something I live with on a daily basis. But the only way to get through things in life is to be very positive. What excuse do I have to be negative?”
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Photo: Frank Ward