Note: This essay is the third installment in a series entitled, "American Lives," which spotlights great Americans, famous and anonymous, who have lived exemplary American Lives.

This particular piece is something of a departure, in that it spotlights a young person who is in the very earliest stages of living an exemplary American life. Nevertheless, his already compelling story is instructive.

Jonathan Treviño is eight years old and lives in a “colonia” in Peñitas, Texas, approximately eight miles north of the United States-Mexico border. Thanks to the vision of John Shary, a developer from Omaha, and a 320-day growing season, the Rio Grande Valley is one of the largest citrus producers in the world. But the Valley is not a lush garden spot. The climate is dry, averaging twenty-three inches of annual rainfall, and the days are hot and dusty. This area is also one of the poorest in the nation, with a per capita income of $9,899, according to the Census Bureau.

Jonathan lives on a crudely paved street off a farm road that connects via another road to the state highway north, which connects to an interstate highway that traverses the heartland of America. He lives in an unfinished home with his parents and his two brothers (ages ten and sixteen) and his two sisters (ages three and thirteen). The children all attend public school, where they have won many ribbons and other honors for their academic achievements, which they proudly display on their bedroom walls. The family has several bookcases filled with Bibles, other religious literature, textbooks, children’s stories, and American history, including the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Most of these volumes are in English.

For Jonathan, summer days are spent playing with cousins and friends and his brother, Sebastian. Their oldest brother, Orlando, works in the fields with his dad during the break from school. Jonathan and Sebastian play football (American) and catch “horny toads” and geckos and do their best to stay clear of red ants, scorpions, and rattlers.

Jonathan’s mother is a strong woman, who encourages and praises her daughter’s academic successes as much as that of her sons. Her girlish beauty, on display in family photos, but under constant assault from the South Texas sun and elements, has given way to a handsome maturity under-girded by her resilience and the glow of maternal dedication. She spends her days cleaning, cooking, and taking care of the family and most anyone else with whom she comes into contact. She prays fervently for miracles for others she knows to be in need. Her friends respect the power of her righteous prayers; they lovingly call her “Sister Maria.”

This summer, God answered a prayer for the Treviño family. He sent teenagers to play with Jonathan and his brother for a week. Jonathan knew that they were sent by God because his mom and Pastor Omar both said so. The teenagers came from the north. They applied themselves to improving the three-bedroom, two-bath, single-family house that Jonathan’s father has been building on for a long time. Although not connected to a sewer line, the Trevinos have electricity and mail service and running water; these amenities make the Trevinos a near-privileged class within “colonias” society. Even so, the house remains very much a work in progress.

The teenagers from the north cut and installed drywall and painted, while they listened to rock and roll music. Although they tired easily, and rested for long periods on Maria’s furniture, Jonathan’s mother would always smile and do things to show her gratitude for the work they were accomplishing. Maria was genuinely grateful. She was grateful that they came, grateful that they cared, and grateful that they brought building materials that meant progress toward a finished home. Teenagers listening to loud music, playing football in the yard, and lounging on the furniture was a small price to pay for the difference they would make in their lives.

The teenagers (and the three adults who accompanied them) were not always very good at construction. Jonathan and his brother tried to teach them some of the skills that they had learned from their dad. Sometimes they grasped their lessons, and sometimes they didn’t.

Jonathan’s dad, Jose, would work in the fields all day and then come home at night and fix things that the inexperienced work crew did wrong and contribute to the joint effort, sometimes working all night and then going back out to pick fruit in the sun all the next day. Jonathan’s mom, brothers, and sister worked very hard as well, during the day and long into the night after the teenagers would leave each afternoon.

But the teenagers were great playmates for Jonathan and his siblings, reading to them, laughing with them and listening to them. They made friends. They opened their hearts, and, for a brief moment in time, the Treviño family and the teenagers from the north united in a profoundly mystical way.

At the end of the week, Jonathan was grieved to see his new friends go. He hugged them and buried his head in their chests, clinging to them, stubbornly refusing to let them go. He wrote his name on the arms of some of his favorites with a “sharpie” pen, and he and Sebastian had some of the boys autograph their football.

I was fortunate enough to accompany this group to the Valley and meet the Treviño family. One day during the week, I told Jonathan a story about Abraham Lincoln. I pointed to a shed and recounted Lincoln’s birth in a log house with a dirt floor “about that size." I explained to him how Lincoln, as a boy, worked on his family’s farm, went to school when he could, studied hard and dreamed big dreams. He listened intently as I told him how this man became president of the United States and saved the nation. This country would not exist today, I said, if Abraham Lincoln had not lived.

Jonathan seemed impressed, perhaps surprised to learn that there were white men somewhere in America who were not rich, but I am confident that he grasped my true meaning: this is a land of the possible.

Thinking about the Treviños of South Texas, I am reminded of the optimism of Ronald Reagan. Consider this excerpt from his speech to the 1992 Republican National Convention:

“Emerson was right. We are the country of tomorrow. Our revolution did not end at Yorktown. More than two centuries later, America remains on a voyage of discovery, a land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming.”

“But just as we have led the crusade for democracy beyond our shores, we have a great task to do together in our own home. Now, I would appeal to you to invigorate democracy in your own neighborhoods.

“[W]e are all equal in the eyes of God. But as Americans, that is not enough. We must be equal in the eyes of each other. We can no longer judge each other on the basis of what we are, but must, instead, start finding out who we are. In America, our origins matter less than our destinations and that is what democracy is all about.”

We are in the midst of rancorous national debate as to whether people like the Treviños are weighing down the American experiment. After spending a week with Jonathan and his family, who live on an unmapped street called “Salido del Sol” (which in Spanish means sunrise), I am convinced that these people, twenty-first century pioneers, dreaming impossible dreams, steeped in the Bible, evangelical religion, Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln, are much more likely our salvation than our destruction.

Perhaps it is morning in America once again.

Good luck Jonathan Treviño. May God bless you and your family and the United States of America.