Home Away From Home
|The children at the Westley center and other migrant programs also face emotional uncertainties.|
Today, children entering the program in Westley most frequently have problems with their teeth. When parents are on the move or exhausted when they come in from the fields, it's often easier to pop a bottle in the children's mouths than to feed them healthy vegetables and fruit, said Noni De La Rosa, Westley's health aide. The sugar in the milk eats away at tooth enamel. Two area dentists donate time to check the children's teeth. In addition, a local Elks Club provides a technician who does vision screenings, and a Lions Club helps pay for needed glasses. Teachers had noticed that one little girl had trouble finding things; it turned out she needed glasses and had just received them when I visited.
The children at the Westley center and other migrant programs also face emotional uncertainties. It's hard enough on some children with settled lives to be left with strangers first thing in the morning. For the youngster whose family uproots itself often, that can be particularly traumatic. One morning, little Ruben, new to the center and wearing an oversized Dallas Cowboys cap, would sit only with his mother, who stayed with him in the classroom that day. The next day, she had to go to work, and he cried and cried. Occasionally, he'd run to the window and look out and cry. Anyone who came in the classroom door picked him up; he'd be quiet for a moment and then start to cry again. Elvira Garza and the other staff members spoke gently with him and let him walk hand in hand with them as they moved around the classroom. As the children played outdoors, Garza put Ruben on a seat at the back of a tricycle; he managed to flash a wan smile as another child pedaled him down the walkway. He smiled a bit more as Garza ran sand through his fingers and helped him fill a small pail. Later, he ate his snack quietly, but his big eyes still held the look of a lost little boy.
Ismelda Cantu, an energetic woman in her late 30s who is the Westley center supervisor, knows all about the uncertainties of migrant life. Her own family, which spent each winter in McAllen, Texas, followed the crops into Illinois, Colorado, and California until she was about 11 years old. She would go to the fields with her parents and stay in the car with some of her brothers and sisters. "They'd pack two lunches—one was for us—and tell us not to get into theirs," she said. "Sometimes we couldn't help it, and we'd get into trouble." Often the family worked in nearby Patterson, where Cantu now lives with her husband, Gerardo Barrera, an auto mechanic, and their daughter, Nelly.
"I remember we'd go into a school and be there maybe two days," Cantu said. "There was no work, and we had to move out." In other places, she recalled, "you'd finally make a friend, and then you'd be gone."
Sometimes when they were in Patterson, Cantu and her younger brothers and sisters—she was the middle child of 13—attended Head Start. Back then, Head Start was housed in barrackslike buildings. Today, there is a gleaming new infant and toddler center in Patterson, complete with a spotless diaper-changing area, comfortable chairs, cribs, and colorful toys. Around the corner is a new Head Start center for older children.
Cantu dropped out of high school in 10th grade to help support her family. Even earlier, she remembered, she was cutting asparagus in Illinois and picking potatoes in Idaho. By 15, she was in the fields full time, thinning plants or picking tomatoes. "We'd be at work not long after 5 a.m.—as soon as you could see anything," she said. "You were lucky if you still lived at home because your parents would make your lunch. Once I got married, I made the lunch, and I'd have to wake my husband up and tell him they were blowing the horn for us to go—they wouldn't wait."
|Like Cantu, most of the staff at the Westley center had once worked in the fields.|
As a teenager, she didn't mind the work. She'd have a radio and her friends there with her. When the day was over, she said, "you'd come home and slather Noxzema on your red face because your boyfriend was coming over."
She'd go to work as early as possible and stop by early afternoon. "In the heat, the tomato plants would flop over, and you couldn't work as well. Even with the machines, we'd have to pick by hand the ends of the rows—las cabazeras—where the machines would turn. Sometimes my husband and I drive along, and I see the people out in the fields and I tell him when I look at that that we are so lucky we aren't there anymore. I really feel for these parents."
Like Cantu, most of the staff at the Westley center had once worked in the fields. Secretary Estella Martinez, who had been with Head Start 23 years, started picking crops when she was 10 years old. She remembers moving her little brother in a hammock from under one tree to the next when the family was picking fruit or nuts. "I hated to pick grapes," she said. "The vines were sticky, and spiders hid in them. You used a little knife to cut off the whole bunch of grapes, and if you didn't watch out, you'd cut yourself, too. I told my mother I would work anywhere—just please don't make me pick grapes."
Martinez, who began with Head Start as an aide, helped open the Westley center each morning. Clearly an ardent supporter of the program, she asked cheerfully, "What other secretaries go to work at 5 a.m.?"
Workers of Mexican origin have long been a mainstay of the labor force in the San Joaquin Valley, whether braceros—workers brought to the United States temporarily to pick crops—or today's migrant families, some of which remain in the United States in the off-season. These workers may be poor, but the land they work on is rich—and full of contrasts. On one side of the highway, drivers roaring up Interstate 5 pass an unending sea of green trees and fields made possible by irrigation. Rising abruptly on the other side of the interstate are rolling, grass-covered hills, turned a tawny brown in the summer heat and looking from a distance like misplaced sand dunes.
Westley, a town of 500 people, elevation 85 feet, was settled in 1888 around land owned by John Westley Van Benschoten. It is on the northwest end of the San Joaquin Valley, which lies between the Sierra Nevada on the east and the Coast Range to the west. San Francisco is northwest of the valley, Sacramento due north, and Los Angeles due south. Originally inhabited by the Yokut and Miwok Indians, the area drew little attention until after the gold rush because neither the Spanish nor the Mexicans set up missions in the area. Cattle ranches and wheat farms were established after the gold rush, and the area often saw battles over water rights. The federal government's Central Valley Project, begun in the 1930s, crisscrossed the area with irrigation canals, allowing farmers to diversify their crops. In Westley today, there is a warehouse, a grocery store, a hotel and restaurant, a post office, and a few car repair shops. The nearest city is Modesto, the county seat, about half an hour's drive away.
One day, Cantu drove me into the fields to see if we could find the kind of tomato machine she rode as a young woman. A suburbanite, I had never heard of tomato machines, and my ignorance astounded and amused Cantu's co-workers. Not far from the Westley camp, we saw a clump of parked cars, which always meant crop work nearby. Obligingly, at just that moment, there came one of the machines that picked the tomatoes, plant and all, and conveyed them to workers riding on the truck along either side. Wearing hats and often plastic sheeting or garbage bags to protect them from squirting tomatoes and the ever-present dust from the fields, the farmworkers cleaned and sorted the tomatoes. Toilet or water breaks were few, and the conditions were clearly exhausting. More than one Head Start staff member told me that she began working with young children after deciding that she did not want to spend the rest of her life riding a tomato machine.
|Head Start staff showed Cantu how to apply to become an instructional aide and prodded her along the way.|
Married at 18, Cantu had a daughter, whom she enrolled in Head Start. She started to volunteer for the program, she said, "probably because I didn't want to let go." She started wondering, "What does it take to work here?" Soon she began substituting as an aide for the program and became motivated to earn her high school diploma. "Somebody out there is telling you there is something else you can do," she said, "and you're realizing that you could do it." Cantu found going off to Modesto Junior College "the scariest thing," especially her first class in child development. "There were several of us, and when we got our first papers back, they were full of red marks, mainly for the grammar," she said. "But they helped us. The college got us a tutor who went over our papers with us before we turned them in. So when that was over, I thought, I survived this. I think I can do another." Now she's only a few courses shy of receiving her associate of arts degree and hopes to attend California State University-Stanislaus, in nearby Turlock.
"My life was in the fields," she said. "My parents had maybe a 5th grade education. They didn't discourage education, but they never encouraged it. For us, making a living, putting food on the table, surviving, was more important." Working in the fields, she added, was "all we knew. That was the norm."
Head Start staff showed her how to apply to become an instructional aide and prodded her along the way. "The people in Head Start could do things your parents couldn't do for you," she said, her eyes starting to mist over. Having overcome her hesitancy about public speaking, she has talked with local high school students about the importance of planning for the future. There are things you can do, she told them.
One of the Head Start staff members who encouraged Cantu—sometimes pushing her to do jobs she feared she couldn't do—was Pearlene Reese, who was the Westley center supervisor before leaving to run the countywide program. When Reese left Westley, she asked Cantu, who had moved quickly from aide to teacher to head teacher at Patterson, to take over for her. "She was the first one to tell me I had all this potential," Cantu remembered. "I think I told her no at least six times. I was afraid. I didn't want to fail. I liked what I was doing." But Reese ultimately wore her down, and she's been Westley's supervisor since 1991.
Reese had needed similar prodding years earlier. The oldest of eight children, she came with her family to the agricultural town of Dos Palos in Merced County in the 1930s. Her father had ridden a freight train from Arkansas to see whether he could find work. Over the years, a small black community developed in Dos Palos as relative followed relative. "Cotton is king over that way," Reese said. She dropped out of school in the 10th grade to work in the fields.
"In 1965, Head Start came to town," she said. "We had never heard of anything like this before. We thought it was almost too good to be true. It was going to provide all these services for children. And there were no jobs in this little town. We were excited to think about having a year-round job. I was 32 and never had had a year-round job at that point."
Reese radiated enthusiasm when she talked about Head Start, for it had changed her life. In 1965, she applied to be a community aide because she felt she lacked the skills to be a teacher. The superintendent of schools, who sat in on all the Head Start job interviews, noted that she had been a regular volunteer at the local health clinic and thought she had promise. She could be an instructional aide, he said, on the condition that she go back to school. "There is not a choice," he told her.
Reese took classes in child development and finished junior college after years of work. She didn't really know what she was doing, she explained, and because of that lack of focus she had far more credits than she could transfer to the university. She received a bachelor of arts degree from what was then Stanislaus State and in 1986 earned a master's degree in education from California State University-Sacramento. Often, she would work from early in the morning at Westley and then drive to Turlock or 80 miles each way to Sacramento to take evening classes.