After five days painting hotel rooms in Ohio and an all-night bus ride, Jorge Garcia reached his Falls Church home at 4 one recent morning. His wife, Sara, was waiting up with hot Bolivian-style soup in the small house he had remodeled with friends.

In the living room, a silver-framed photograph on a cabinet showed their daughter Vanessa clutching her diploma from George Washington University in 2008, the first person in the Garcias’ extended family to graduate from college. The second came soon after, when their younger daughter, Paola, finished at James Madison University.

After years of sacrifice and struggle in a new world, the Garcias had achieved their highest goal.

“It was hard,” said Jorge, 51, bleary-eyed as he sipped tea the day after returning from Ohio. He reflected on his earlier travails — stumbling over English, suffering ethnic slurs in silence. “Everything I have endured,” he said, “was all so my girls could succeed in America.”

In their determination to succeed and faith that education and work would lift their families from humble circumstances, the Garcias reflect the attitudes of many Hispanics in the United States.

Hispanics and the American Dream

A recent national survey by The Washington Post and the University of Virginia’s Miller Center points to some surprising findings. In many cases, Hispanic residents’ faith in the American Dream exceeds that of whites and African Americans — an optimism that contrasts sharply with the current economic status of Hispanics.

Both the hopes and struggles of Hispanics are of particular interest now as they are exercising unprecedented political clout and immigration reform is back on the table after months of being stalemated in Congress.

According to The Washington Post-
Miller Center poll, 57 percent of Hispanics predict that they are more likely to move up than down in social class over the next few years, and a similar amount say they are better off than their parents were at the same age.

Fully 64 percent believe that a college diploma is a major part of the American Dream, compared with half of whites and African Americans. Seven in 10 cite education or hard work as most important in climbing the economic ladder. And more than six in 10 believe that their children will be better off than they are — a percentage that matches African Americans’ view but is more than double the share of whites who predict improvement.

But the reality for most Hispanics is less rosy. The median income for a three-person Hispanic household is about $39,000, compared with $58,000 among all Americans, according to the Pew Research Center. More than twice as many Hispanics in the Post-Miller poll said they have felt less financially secure the past few years than the number who feel more secure — perhaps an aftershock from the 66 percent collapse in the group’s median household wealth from 2005 to 2009.

Upward mobility is also not ensured: Hispanics’ income and educational levels, after rising between first- and second-generation immigrants, tend to slip in later generations, studies have shown.

The optimism among Hispanics noted by The Post survey coincided with findings by other experts. The upbeat attitude, they said, is due in part to the fact that Hispanic immigrants often start with little and expect to sacrifice much to move up, while native-born adults may have already seen their expectations lose ground in an ailing economy.

“The reasons they came here all look to the future — a better standard of living and a better place to raise their kids,” said Mark Lopez, executive director of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington. “They may be in bad shape today, but they believe things will improve.”

Promise and problems

The Garcias’ journey from ­Cochabamba, Bolivia, to Falls Church more than 18 years ago was fraught with obstacles and setbacks but strengthened by a unity of purpose. Jorge and Sara loved their country and were not driven to flee war or poverty, like many immigrants from Central America and Mexico. Both had finished high school when they married in 1985, and he was hoping to become an accountant.

But neither could afford to continue their education, and Jorge ended up driving a public bus. With their own prospects stymied, they decided that their best option was to leave home and pin their hopes on their two young daughters. Their experience is a familiar one: Half of Hispanics in this country are first-generation immigrants.

“I was very frustrated, but I had brothers and cousins in Virginia. They told me, ‘Come on up — there’s lots of work,’ ” Jorge recounted.

But there were also difficulties. The family’s first landlord, in Arlington County, charged $700 a month for a tiny basement apartment with no furniture. Because neither Jorge nor Sara could read English, they never knew whether an envelope would contain an overdue notice or worse. “For years, I was afraid to open the mail,” Sara confessed.

Their daughters, ages 11 and 12 when they arrived in America, were excited about their new adventure but not fully prepared to enter U.S. schools, and Vanessa had to repeat fifth grade. Yet both were young enough to pick up a new language quickly and soon began earning high grades.

The sisters found that they were different from some Hispanic classmates who did not take school seriously, lacked adult guidance and drifted toward failure. The Garcia girls, raised in a loving but strict home, grew up keenly aware that their parents had sacrificed everything for their success.

“Some Americans don’t see the opportunities they have here. They take things for granted,” said Paola, 26, who is studying for her doctorate in physical therapy. “Our parents taught us that if we wanted something, we had to fight for it.”

High hopes for children

The Garcia sisters’ college achievement sets them apart from most American Hispanics. Just 15 percent have college degrees, compared with 31 percent of all Americans, according to the Census Bureau. The picture is starting to improve, however: In 2012, 49 percent of Hispanic high school graduates enrolled in college, for the first time surpassing whites, at 47 percent. African Americans stood at 45 percent and Asians at 66 percent, according to Pew. The Hispanic high school dropout rate has also plummeted by 50 percent in the past decade, falling to 15 percent in 2012.

Over the years, Jorge built his skills and earnings by cultivating relationships with Bolivian friends who owned small construction companies. Today, he earns as much as $30 per hour.

The Garcias were never far from the edge. One year, when Jorge fell ill and could not work for six months, the loss of his income was such a heavy blow that Paola, against his wishes, briefly took a part-time job.

Determined to protect his daughters from the dangers of an unfamiliar, liberal society, Jorge frowned on their socializing. This led to tensions as they entered high school and wanted to go to movies and parties with friends. The one outlet he condoned was their participation in Bolivian dance groups, a supervised cultural activity.

“I was always worried that something would happen to them. I never slept until they came home,” Jorge said. “So many people who come here want to get money and a big house, but what good is having those things if your children end up in drugs and gangs?”

Vanessa, more rebellious and independent than her younger sister, bore the brunt of her father’s protective hovering and academic expectations.

“I would get straight A’s, and he still wouldn’t be satisfied,” Vanessa said. “He always wanted to know where we were, and he insisted that we call him every time we went somewhere else. It was very frustrating, but now I understand. Our parents had come here for us,” she said. “We knew that if we failed, they would feel the defeat as their own.”

As she spoke, she translated into Spanish for her father. Sara, also 51, said little but understood almost everything, having picked up conversational English during years of working on school cafeteria and custodial staffs.

The girls described their mother as the family mediator who made sure everyone gathered for dinner and talked things over, no matter how tired or grouchy they were.

In addition to their schoolwork, the Garcia girls had to help their parents navigate English-language bills and bureaucracies. Vanessa started writing the household checks as a teenager, then eventually decided to go to business school. To her astonishment, she was not only accepted at George Washington but also given a generous scholarship.

“The day I opened that letter, I knew my life would be different. It justified everything my parents had been through,” Vanessa said.

She is now a finance manager for an international firm that has sent her to meetings from Brazil to Switzerland. She also still performs in a folkloric dance troupe and manages a college scholarship fund for young Bolivian Americans.

Over the past year, there were more family milestones. Vanessa became engaged and bought her own house in Springfield. Paola was selected as a college teaching assistant. And in August, after paying tens of thousands of dollars in fees over the years to become permanent residents, both Jorge and Sara were sworn in as U.S. citizens.

“When the ceremony was over, I cried and cried,” said Sara. “I thought to myself that now I have everything I want. I am an American citizen, both my daughters are professionals and their future is ahead of them. What more could I ask of life?”

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.