The cool thing about life, says Cristal Chavez, is that “there’s so much out there that I don’t know.”

She is in her living room, a short walk from Elsie Allen High School, where she is a sophomore.

“I’m always talking to her about how our universe is pretty much nothing compared to what’s out there,” she says, referring to her older sister, Alma, who is in the room.

How people who are poor get by intrigues her.

“How they overcome,” the 15-year-old says. “They improvise with what they have to make it work. In Mexico, I see it a lot. They don’t have much.”

Chavez’s parents, José and Guadalupe, are from Cotija, a small city of about 12,000 in Michoacán that is famous for its cheese. Chavez was confirmed in the church on the zócalo, or central square, in 2007. At the time, she was attending Bellevue Elementary School and her brother was in juvenile hall.

“People always think that I don’t have papers, which is weird,” says the Santa Rosa-born Chavez, referring to proof of citizenship or legal residency. “They say, ‘You can go to Mexico and come back?’ ”

With her brother locked up for three years, and with Alma often running away, childhood for Chavez had its strains.

“I felt like I was really an only child, but I knew I had siblings. That was hard,” she says. “I think that’s what made me me, kind of wise, who I am.”

It was at Bellevue that she started playing basketball, the first sport she’d tried. “I’ve loved it ever since,” she says. “It has always kept me from boredom.”

At practice, she visibly concentrates, roaming the court with her arms up and, now and then, a half-smile on her face, which features piercings in her nose and below her lip.

Chavez can be animated, but more often, it seems, she holds herself in reserve. On her back is a signal of prior hurts, a tattoo reading: “Trust No One.”

“I just want people to be real with me,” she says.

At Cook Middle School, seventh grade went well. But eighth grade, not so well. She cut three out of five days a week. She had a system down, she says.

That changed in high school which, she says, she enjoys more because “sometimes they do answer my questions.”

She gets mostly A’s and B’s and puts it this way: “I have to prove it to my parents that I can do it. And all those middle school teachers who told me I wouldn’t go anywhere, I want to rub my diploma in their faces. And I’m not going to get a G.E.D. That’s not for me.”

When her father came to the United States he slept under a bridge while he got started. She would be the first in her family to graduate from high school. She doesn’t want to work in the poultry plant where her father puts so many hard hours in, and where her brother worked for a time, and where her mother hopes to find a job, too.

“I like chicken, but that’s not my thing,” she says. “I just want to bring my family up. To rise up.”

She loves French class and dreams of going to Paris.

“When I do go to Paris, I’ll kind of know my way around,” she says.

(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or

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