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Photographs by George Sakkestad

Generation Next: Farm worker Hugo Candelerio doesn't want his daughter Genesis to work in the fields, so he enrolled her in Head Start.

Faith of Their Fathers

Watonsville's migrant workers know that education is their children's key to leaving the fields

By Jessica Lyons

THE AMERICAN DREAM starts here, in a beige portable amid blackberry fields behind Bradley Elementary in Watsonville. The small building houses the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Migrant Head Start Office, a preschool and child-care center for migrant kids ages 2 months to 5 years. Separated from the school by orange plastic netting, its door opens onto a play yard of swings, slides, a jungle gym and tricycles.

Five-year-old Genesis, a tiny Latina in overalls and bright pink shoes, pours sand on a swing and sits on it, sliding off the seat and giggling, doing her best to charm an easy reporter.

After laughing at me from the swing set, Genesis comes over to where I sit and sticks her nose inches from mine, holding up five fingers.

"¿Quantos años tienes?" I ask her. How old are you?

"Cinco," she answers.

"¿Y en inglés?" I ask. And in English?

"Five," she says.

Genesis tells me she learns numbers at Head Start and likes coming here to paint and play outside.

Soon, Hugo Candelerio, Genesis' father, arrives to take his daughter home.

Come Fly With Me: Genesis Candelerio, 5, says she wants to be a teacher when she grows up.

Hugo works at Rodriguez Farms in Watsonville and lives in Freedom for six months out of the year. When the picking season is over in December, he returns to Mexico to work.

"Genesis is happy here," he says in Spanish. "The program helps us learn about the needs of migrant students and helps her emotional and educational development."

I ask him what he wants for his little daughter.

"I hope she receives an education. Working in the fields is very difficult work. I don't want her to have to do this. I hope she does well in school. Maybe she'll be a doctor?" Hugo says, nudging Genesis, who buries her face in dad's sleeve. Genesis bites his arm and shakes her head no.

"A lawyer?" I suggest in Spanish.

Again, no.

How about a teacher? She nods yes.

Three-year-old Jerry Ayala's mom, Alicia, picks up her son every afternoon at about 4:30, following a six-hour day in the strawberry fields. "Hola mijo," she says, scooping Jerry into a hug.

Alicia has been migrating between Mexico and Watsonville for 18 years to work in the fields. She says she brings her son to Head Start "because I want him to learn many things.

"Every night he says, 'Mami, sit down,' and he picks out a book to read to me," she says in Spanish. "He turns the pages, and he doesn't understand a word, but he loves to sit me down and 'read' to me."

Head Start parents Paula and José Luis Jimenez pick raspberries in Watsonville for six months of the year. José Luis works in Mexico for the other half of the year.

"In Mexico, we don't earn enough money to live, to eat even," Paula says in Spanish. "Here, we do."

They don't want their 4-year-old daughter Crystal to follow in their footsteps.

"Here she learns words in English--colors, songs, numbers. Things she can't learn at home," Paula says. "It's good preparation for school."

"For her life, I want her to study a lot, and get a good education--and not work in the fields," José Luis says in Spanish.

Swingers: Adrian Melgoza waits for his parents to pick him up from Migrant Head Start in Watsonville.

Head Start

GENESIS, JERRY and Crystal are three of some 230 kids enrolled in the Pajaro Valley Migrant Head Start Program, a federally funded service for migrant toddlers, infants and their families. Another 160 kids are on a waiting list.

At 14 day-care homes and six school sites throughout the district, infants and toddlers receive free child care, meals, diapers and formula, Monday through Friday. Teachers play educational games with the kids, counting to 10 or identifying colors in Spanish and English.

"It's a pretty good start, for the children and the parents," says Queta Narez, Migrant Head Start's parent involvement coordinator. "The children get used to being involved in school at a very young age, and the parents receive a lot of training, too."

Parents attend monthly meetings on such topics as child development, adult education, unemployment and secondhand smoke. Twice during the growing season--April through November--counselors visit the families at home to talk about the children's education and health needs, and to make medical referrals.

Narez has been with the program since its inception in 1989. She understands the hardships parents and kids face. She's experienced them firsthand.

"I came to the U.S. with my parents when I was 12," Narez says, "and it was hard for me, going to two or three schools. I would finally learn something at one school just when it was time to move to another school. My parents told us education was very important, but we didn't have a lot of time for conversations. They would work late, or sometimes they wouldn't come home at night because they worked three hours from where we lived."

Narez attended Watsonville High School for a year and then dropped out to get married. She started working in the strawberry fields at 18.

"It was hard for me, 20 years old, working in the fields five to six hours a day with three kids. I think it's hard for all migrant families. They work in the fields, then they go home to cook and clean. There's even work on Sundays."

Narez worked in the fields for seven years before attending Cabrillo College and earning her children's center teaching permit.

"I am giving my children the same idea that they can do it, too," she says.

It will be a long, tough road for these kids. Most of their parents are monolingual Spanish speakers who move regularly, following the crops. Not all are documented. The language barrier and constant mobility make learning difficult. Parents rely heavily on migrant services like Head Start to provide learning materials and classes for their kids and themselves.

But not all Californians think this is such a great idea.

In 1994, 60 percent of voters approved Prop. 187, denying public education, social services and nonemergency health care to undocumented immigrants. It also required teachers and administrators to question and report families suspected of being undocumented. But in 1995, a federal judge ruled that the state cannot deny education and other federally funded programs to illegal immigrants, so most of the measure remains unenforced.

While undocumented kids were never denied free child care or medical attention, some fear still lingers among migrant parents.

"If anything, the negative impacts were more along the lines of public response, and parents being more afraid of using the resources out there because of hype associated with Prop. 187," says Faris Sabbah, the migrant education director for Pajaro Valley's Region 11.

Federal Migrant Education Region 11--which encompasses 16 elementary, middle and high schools in the contiguous Pajaro Valley Unified School District--receives about $4 million annually from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Migrant Education. The money funds after-school programs, tutoring services, medical care and parent meetings. There are 30 bilingual teachers and 17 classroom aides for Pajaro Valley's 8,000 migrant students, ages 3 to 21. After preschool, kids graduate from Head Start and are eligible for Region 11 services.

Making the Grade

ASIDE FROM THE language barrier, the most obvious hurdle in migrant students' education is the constant mobility, which sometimes involves moving more than once a year. Of the 8,000 migrant students--out of a total of 20,000--in the district, one-third will move within the year.

It's a challenge to bring the kids up to speed, says Pajaro Valley Unified Superintendent Dr. John Casey.

"It has been proven time and again that students that have positive attendance, that are in class every day, do better in school," Casey says. "Sometimes they go to school in another state and attend school in a different district, sometimes they move to Mexico and go to school or do not go to school. Anyway you look at it, there are gaps in their school attendance and that's problematic."

Students are eligible for migrant services if their parents work in agriculture or the fishing industry and if they have moved within the last three years. Eligibility lasts three years from the family's last move.

Qualified families receive financial assistance to pay for students' visits to the dentist and doctor. Students can attend after-school and lunch-time tutorials to improve their English and receive extra help on assignments. They can also attend summer school to get a head start on classes they will miss during the winter and take independent study courses to make up for credits missed because of migrancy.

Monthly parent education meetings promote family reading time and provide parents with a place to discuss their children's academic experience, community resources and drug and gang prevention. An additional summer program at UC­Santa Cruz encourages migrant students to continue their education after graduation and informs parents about financial aid options.

"A lot of families don't realize we have a UC right here in Santa Cruz," says 21-year-old Carmen Becerra, who coordinates Region 11's migrant outreach program.

"Our goal is to plant this seed in their brains," Becerra says. "The earlier we get them thinking about college, the better."

Born in Long Beach, Becerra migrated with her parents and two younger brothers every year, traveling between Mexico, Southern California and Watsonville, working in agriculture and following the crops. Becerra and her brothers would regularly miss two weeks of school in January, when they returned to Watsonville after spending the winter in Mexico.

"It was always a catch-up game for us," she says. "The language barrier makes it hard, speaking English in school and coming home to a house where no one speaks English and no one can read to you. Some kids have an older brother or sister who spoke English, but we had no one. So we were always intimidated. We didn't know the language. We were so isolated."

She says her mom, who started working in the fields when she was 15, talks about never being asked if she wanted to go to school.

"Most of our parents didn't have the chance to go to college," she says. "I'm the first."

Becerra graduated from Aptos High in 1997 and was student body president--the first Latina to hold the office--for two years. Today she's a senior at Whittier College.

She's one of the many success stories. And the number is growing.

In June, 251 out of a class of 264 migrant students graduated. The same number graduated in 1999, but in 1990 only 132 graduated.

Region 11 director Sabbah credits expanded student and parent services, but adds that migrant parents play a role, too. "Parents are the primary teachers of students, so helping the parents develop their parenting and educational skills as a family improves students' success."

Building a Bridge: Middle school students and Elizabeth Paramo (left) and Maria Orozco work together at a UCSC workshop called 'Building Bridges'.

Higher Learning

LAST MONTH, 18-year-old Noemi Orozco graduated from Aptos High--the first in her family to finish high school. After migrating for 15 years, her father, Gonzalo, now has a permanent job at Watsonville's Monterey Mushrooms. He's also the treasurer for the Migrant Parents Association.

Noemi, her mother, two sisters and two brothers moved to Watsonville four years ago. Noemi was 14 and didn't speak any English.

"It was like not having a mouth," she remembers.

"I asked [the counselors], 'What classes should I take to go to the university?' They said you have to take advanced classes, and I asked, 'How am I going to do this?' I had very low English [skills], and getting good grades wasn't going to be easy. I went to summer school to take English all over again. My counselor said it would take one student seven years to finish all my classes. I did it in four. My senior year, I was taking seven classes--two English, one math, two science, computers and Spanish."

"Every night, she would study until 1am," Gonzalo interrupts proudly.

Noemi graduated with a 3.89 GPA. In September, she'll be the first in her family to go to college, attending UCSC.

"There were so many people telling me, 'You are not going to make it. You are wasting your time.' If they say I can't do it, I am going to do it."

Like Father: Noemi Orozco graduated from Aptos High last year. Her father, Gonzalo, says he's studying to take the GED.

Upon moving to the U.S., the Orozco family didn't learn about migrant services until Noemi's sophomore year, when they received a flier in the mail inviting them to attend the monthly meetings. There Noemi learned about after-school homework help sessions, summer school and tutors to help her stay on her university-bound track.

When Gonzalo talks about his first board meeting, his eyes widen.

"So many of the migrant parents, they don't think so much about the kids," says Gonzalo, a polite man who gives a great deal of thought to each of my questions. "We need parents involved in the schools," he says, talking faster. "They have to open their eyes to what is going on in the schools--it really is amazing. Just one meeting and their eyes would be open. They say, 'Oh, the problem is money,' but it's not. Everybody can go to the university. It's not like Mexico."

Which is why he started migrating 15 years ago. Gonzalo was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, and didn't get beyond the second grade. He wanted a different life for his children.

In Mexico, they were comfortable financially, Gonzalo says. They had money for a house, clothes and food. In 1985, he migrated to Stockton to work. "I really needed to come," he explains. "I saw in my friends who had come back to Mexico that they had come back very different. They said the United States had better opportunities for the families, and the money was very big."

His family stayed at home in Guanajuato. Sometimes he wouldn't see them for a year.

"My wife told me, her brother would come over, and his kids would run in circles around him and say, 'Daddy, Daddy.' My kids would just watch. Sometimes they would join their cousins, and run around their uncle, saying, 'Daddy, Daddy,' too. Those things hurt me very much."

Noemi remembers crying with her younger sisters when Gonzalo would leave.

"I love my dad--oh my God--so much," she says. "When I graduated from kindergarten [in Mexico], I heard the other girls saying, 'O Papi, O Mami.' I only had my mom."

"It was terrible," recalls Gonzalo. "Money is not the only thing in the world. We need each other. I would receive letters from my wife, and one day I would feel OK. The next day, I would wonder what was happening, and I would worry.

"I didn't cry in front of them," Gonzalo says. "But on the bus, I would cover myself with a blanket to look like I was asleep, but I was crying."

Now Gonzalo is studying for his GED. He doesn't have a date to take the test, but he smiles confidently as he says, "I'll go for it. I don't know when, but I'll go for it. I was planning to work here, and I did. I was planning to get my papers, and I did. I was planning to get my family here, and I did. I did it. So I think I can get [my GED]."

Superintendent Casey credits the migrant education staff and migrant parents advisory board with locating families--through fliers, meetings and word of mouth--and familiarizing them with the district's migrant services.

"Having said all that, sometimes families who qualify will move into our district and not know about the services, or not have time to take advantage of the services offered," Casey says. Nobody knows how many migrant students are missed, but Region 11 officials say their goal is to increase program participation by 20 percent this year.

And, of course, parents play a roll in their students' success, says Region 11's Faris Sabbah.

"We know that for any child, when you express to your child that school is important, that education is a way to get ahead, when you have parents that talk to their child about their homework assignment and their grades, and enroll them in summer school--any child in the school system will do better with that kind of parent support."

Helping Hand: Day-care teacher Liz Mendoza helps Alexis Ramos paint a masterpiece.

Land of Opportunity

IN ADDITION TO the Head Start elementary, middle and high school migrant students, more than 100 parents take evening classes. The parents followed the American Dream to El Norte, and into Pajaro Valley's berry and lettuce fields or canneries. Not only is it backbreaking work, it has a dark side that often doesn't make it back to Mexico.

"You see people come back with their nice shoes and a minivan--you see they have money," says 38-year-old José Humberto Camacho. "They don't tell you they are suffering here." They don't talk about the long, hot hours picking berries, or the loneliness or racism."

Camacho, who worked in the import-export business in Mexico City, moved with his wife to Watsonville 13 years ago.

"I started picking strawberries," he remembers. "I tried to find another job, but they ask you what experience you have, and what languages you speak." No one wanted to hire a monolingual Spanish speaker whose only job experience lies south of the border.

After three years on the farms, Camacho moved to the New West Foods Cannery in Watsonville, cleaning and canning strawberries, working six to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. He also started taking English classes at the Watsonville/Aptos Adult School at Radcliff and then at Cabrillo College.

Most of the employees are migrants, Camacho says. Senior employees have the option of working year round at the cannery. The rest either move, or find temporary winter jobs. During his 10 years, Camacho eventually got year-round work. In earlier years, he worked at Martinelli's during the winter months. And he kept studying English.

Now he's a migrant support teacher at Mintie White Elementary. He tutors migrant students, bringing them up to grade level. He also assists migrant parents at monthly meetings, coaching them in their children's studies and encouraging them to take classes themselves.

"I know the first thing is that you have to pay the bills, but if you have two free hours in the afternoon, take a class. It's for you and your children. I tell them, hey, we live in the richest country in the world. We live in the United States. You can do anything here."

He teaches to help "his people," as Camacho puts it, but also to motivate his daughters, Yesenia and Noemi, ages 10 and 7, who attend Alianza School. Yesenia, who sits quietly beside her dad, says she wants to be a doctor or a teacher when she grows up. She's enrolled in summer school at Alianza. Math is her favorite subject. She also likes Harry Potter books and power bead bracelets.

I ask Camacho what he wants for his daughters.

"A good education," he responds, immediately. "I want them to have a house, and a good job, but most of all, a good education. Here, we are following the American Dream."

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From the July 26-August 2, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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