March 19, 1999
By Jeremy Schwartz
IMPERIAL VALLEY PRESS
EL CENTRO, Calif. - As the oldest daughter in a migrant farm worker family, Rosa Palacios has traveled with her family all across California from Salinas to Fresno to Calexico in search of work in the fields.
She estimates she has been to 10 schools along the way, often picking up and moving in the middle of the school year.
Along her journey she has faced many of the issues particular to the migrant experience - the pain of constantly being the new kid at school, the loneliness of being left behind when parents travel to work in the fields, the frustration of not learning English until later in life, scrambling to make up missed studies and acclimate to a new school system. But, unlike many migrant children, Rosa will make one more move in September, when she goes to college.
While Rosa, one of more than 8,000 migrant students in Imperial County, is heading to a four-year university with the help of scholarships, many migrant students are unable to overcome the obstacles of migrant life and never finish high school.
``Most migrant workers are generational, following in the footsteps of parents and grandparents,'' says director of migrant education for the Imperial County Office of Education Gloria Vasquez
But for those who do make it out of the fields, it is often the migrant experience itself that propels them to reach new heights.
``I want to be successful, to study and be educated, because I want to help my parents and take them out of field work. It is a horrible work,'' Rosa said.
That drive to break the cycle of field work is echoed over and over by a group of former migrant students who have become professionals and returned to the Imperial Valley to help other migrant students.
``It's difficult when you see dad come home, and you take off his shoes, and he's so tired he falls asleep at the dinner table with an empty spoon,'' says Gerardo Roman, principal at Holtville Middle School and a former migrant student.
When asked what his motivation was for getting out of the fields he replies: ``The effort a parent makes working 12 hours a day in 110-degree heat after waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning.''
``I knew school was the only way out of the cycle,'' says Lucia Villa, now a teacher at William Moreno Junior High in Calexico. ``I remember living in a car for three weeks. It's a hard life but it gives a lot of pride and drive to keep going.''
Karla Sigmond, who traveled with her family to places such as Modesto and Bakersfield to harvest crops and is now the bilingual/migrant coordinator for the El Centro (elementary) School District, says of herself and other professionals who are former migrants: ``Because of all this we are where we are. Some people choose careers for certain reasons: money, power you name it. For us we realized the conditions we were living in were not the conditions we should live in and we wanted to make it better. Every night I would pray, 'I want to be something.' I didn't know what that was but I knew I wanted to go to school.''
Thousands of migrant workers either make their base in the Imperial Valley or pass through it on their circuit of harvests. Criss-crossing the state, cutting lettuce, picking onions, asparagus, grapes or maybe traveling to Washington for the apple season, migrant workers depend on the cycle of harvests for work.
Some follow predictable patterns and follow well-worn paths while for others the next stop is always a surprise. Families may take in an annual income of $5,000 or $6,000 and surviving from day to day is often goal number one for migrant families. With no fixed residence, many migrants live in barracks-like camps, abandoned houses, rental apartments or simply in their cars or pickups.
When Sigmond was in the third grade her mother would leave for the fields before the sun came up, leaving her to get her younger brothers and sisters ready for school. ``I used to go to school with my hair (messed up) because I didn't have anyone to comb or fix it. My third-grade teacher would call me to the front and sit me down in front of the class and say, 'You look like a witch,''' she remembers.
``That didn't help my self-esteem for sure. That was one of the main reasons I became a teacher, because I don't want anyone to treat kids like that.''