Education as Key to Leaving Farm Work

Schoolwatch: First to graduate: Rio Mesa friends see education as key to leaving farm work


Juan Carlo/THE STAR Alondra Mendoza of Rio Mesa High School goes over her notes in her Oxnard home with parents Gilberto Mendoza and Margarita Martinez. She will be the first in her family to graduate from a U.S. high school.

Photo by Juan Carlo, Ventura County Star

Juan Carlo/THE STAR Alondra Mendoza (left) and Maria Monjaraz (right), best friends at Rio Mesa High School, talk before their mariachi class.

Photo by Juan Carlo, Ventura County Star

Juan Carlo/THE STAR Juan Monjaraz, wife Eugenia Tapia and daughter Maria Monjaraz look at her senior picture in the Rio Mesa High School yearbook. She will be the first in her family to graduate from high school.

Photo by Juan Carlo, Ventura County Star

Juan Carlo/THE STAR Maria Monjaraz, a Rio Mesa High School senior, dances folklorico at Rio Vista Middle School in Oxnard.
Photo by Juan Carlo, Ventura County Star

Juan Carlo/THE STAR Alondra Mendoza of Rio Mesa High School practices violin in her mariachi class at Rio Mesa High School.

Photo by Juan Carlo, Ventura County Star

Juan Carlo/THE STAR Juan Monjaraz (left to right) watches daughters Maria Monjaraz and Alma Monjaraz, both students at Rio Mesa High School, study in their room. Maria is graduating this week.

Best friends Maria Monjaraz and Alondra Mendoza will graduate from Rio Mesa High School on Thursday with a lot of things up in the air.

The two do not know how to drive and don’t own cars, so they’re not exactly sure how they’ll get to college.

They’re also not sure what they want to study. Monjaraz, who is Ventura College-bound, wants to be a pediatrician, but the number of years in medical school sounds intimidating. Mendoza, heading to Oxnard College, is thinking of studying environmental engineering. She heard UC Berkeley has a good program.

But one thing is certain: Monjaraz and Mendoza, daughters of Oxnard farm workers, will have a future far different from the lives their parents have led. Having no more than four years of education, the parents of these girls have been working in the fields since they were young and didn’t have their own graduation ceremony to attend.

“My cousins, aunts … they all dropped out. My parents are proud of me because I broke the cycle,” said Monjaraz, 18, who was born in Sinaloa, Mexico. “They don’t want me to go through the same suffering.”

The oldest of five children, Monjaraz will be the first to graduate from high school in her family, and that comes with tremendous pressure. In addition to keeping a 3.6 grade-point average, Monjaraz has to take her siblings to day care before she takes the bus to Rio Mesa. When she returns from school, she has cooking and cleaning duties.

Mayra Viveros, who leads the migrant education program at Rio Mesa, said many older siblings in migrant farmworker families are tasked with responsibilities that typical teenagers don’t have.

“I wouldn’t want to be in these kids’ shoes,” Viveros said. “I see so many challenges these students have trying to shine, trying to sprout from the rocks.”

The school doesn’t keep track of how many students are the first to graduate in their families. But according to Viveros, 10 of the 14 students graduating from the migrant education program fall in that category.

Monjaraz was 10 when she and her family came to California. She remembers starting school not knowing English. While classmates carried backpacks, Monjaraz carried her school materials in a plastic bag. When she was teased, she didn’t want to return to school but knew she had to put on a strong face to set an example for her younger siblings.

“I felt like I didn’t belong here,” she said.

At Rio Vista Middle School, Monjaraz met Mendoza, and the two painfully shy girls became fast friends. As they became fluent in English, the two slowly crept out of their shells.

They’re now leaders in the Mixteco youth group Tequio, scholarship recipients and community volunteers. When a mariachi class started last fall, the two didn’t have much music background but quickly signed up. Monjaraz plays the guitar and Mendoza, 17, plays the violin.

“I’m excited and nervous at the same time,” Mendoza said about attending Oxnard College. “We’re not going to the same college.”

A Bruno Mars fan who volunteers at the local Boys and Girls Club, Mendoza is the type of student who gets embarrassed about her 3.7 grade-point average. In her junior year, Mendoza’s straight-A streak ended with her first B. A rigorous International Baccalaureate economics class this semester didn’t help.

In her last year at Rio Mesa, Mendoza enrolled in a Chicano literature class — her first English class for native English speakers.

“At first it was frustrating. I couldn’t communicate with anyone,” Mendoza said. “I kept having to look things up in the dictionary. Now it’s normal for me.”

To think that five years ago Mendoza came to California from Mexico knowing only enough English to count, is now graduating and heading to college sounds amazing even to her.

It wasn’t that long ago when classmates and neighborhood children teased her for her accent.

“I couldn’t talk back,” Mendoza said. “I didn’t know how to respond.”

Through the Tequio group, Mendoza and Monjaraz attended several school board meetings in Oxnard and Port Hueneme, working to raise awareness of discrimination against Mixtec students. As a result of such efforts, several school districts in 2012 passed resolutions banning derogatory terms against Mixteco-speaking students.

There’s myriad reasons why the best friends have succeeded in school and in the community despite the hardships. They’re both driven by the belief that education can lead them away from a life of physical labor and poverty.

Mendoza had firsthand experience working in the fields. When she was 12, she spent three days alongside her parents picking cilantro in the rain.

“I didn’t see myself in the fields. I would rather do something else like go to college,” Mendoza said. “That’s why I do well in school.”

Mendoza’s family is from Oaxaca, where two of her older sisters still live. Mendoza is the first in her family to graduate from high school in the United States; her sisters graduated from high school in Mexico.

When there was no work in the farms of Oaxaca, the family moved to Sinaloa, Baja California and finally to California.

“There’s a lot of work here for people who didn’t study,” Mendoza’s father, Gilberto Mendoza, said through an interpreter.

It’s hard for Mendoza to see her parents wake up as early as 4 a.m. to work in the raspberry fields. They pick berries 10 hours a day, six days a week, coming home with cutup fingers and numb legs.

Monjaraz’s parents spend long days picking strawberries in Oxnard and sometimes grapes in Fresno. Her father, Juan Monjaraz, left school in the third grade and has been working in the fields ever since.

“We’re really proud of her. We don’t want her to live the same life that we lived,” Juan Monjaraz said through an interpreter. “I can just give her moral support. I don’t have much money and I can’t help her economically, so I keep on supporting her.”

Monjaraz has lofty goals. She has some local universities in mind after community college but is also curious about Stanford.

Because her parents haven’t always been able to afford a doctor’s visit for her and her siblings, she wants to be a doctor in a facility that offers low-cost health care for the poor. That’s just one of her many goals.

“My biggest goal is taking my parents out of the fields,” Monjaraz said.
Read more:


Get Text Updates