“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”
One hundred years ago my grandparents and other family members made the trek North from Mexico to the United States.
They joined countless others in their search for safety, freedom, and a better life. On foot and by horse, mile after treacherous mile, they made their way through unbridled terrain toward Nogales. They broke trail as they trudged along rivers, bypassed ranches, and stumbled upon fortune hunters following the same dream. They rode together – a string of eight horses, with one of those horses holding my school-aged aunt and younger uncles. Alejandro was in one saddlebag; Francisco was in the other, and Ofelia right in the middle – her hands and legs clenching the weathered saddle. There were no roads and there were no cars. The trip endured for what felt like a lifetime.
When they finally arrived in the United States, my grandmother was expecting a much improved lifestyle. She had seen beautiful homes in Mexico and had heard stories about the riches held within the horizons of the New Frontier. The jobs, the treasures, the magnificence! But these were fantasies tucked within the depths of slumber and stoked by the flames of imagination – the reality for my family was much different. Their first ‘home’ in the US was in Tempe, Arizona where migrant workers were rounded much like cattle.
Living conditions were distressful. Between the backbreaking work of migrant farming, and weather conditions that were beyond their control, often multiple families were forced to lie down together under tarps with little to eat and limited access to clean water. They were intentionally separated from loved ones, and left to perform unskilled tasks that offered no opportunity for advancement. The average Mexican was underestimated and undervalued. To earn money, women, men, and children worked long hours in the sun across myriad fields, often several hours apart. Separating families was one way for the ranchers to stifle the power of the intimately allied immigrants. My grandparents sacrificed time, money, stability, and personal space while striving to achieve something special to offer their children.
Migrant workers suffered religious discrimination, shootings, hangings, robbery, and rape; while they lived under worn canvas tarps in homes put together with scraps of wood. The conditions were unsanitary. No electricity, no plumbing, no beds.
My grandparents moved around extensively, trailing the crops, and praying for steady and respectable employment. They resided in several agricultural communities before moving to the Yuma, AZ area. They eventually settled in a tiny barrio called Burro Town. This was the place where the rest of my aunts and uncles were born. It is the place where my mother was born and spent her childhood.
There were 12 children in all – yet due to poor health conditions – likely stemming from my grandparents working in the horrid conditions of the fields, only 7 children survived. The loss of 5 young children left my grandparents with many inner struggles.
The Path to Service
Ultimately, my grandfather saved up enough money to purchase a service station. My uncles helped him out and after learning about commerce, opened their own businesses down the road in the communities of Somerton and San Luis, AZ. The location of my family’s most successful department store was just down the street from where Cesar Chavez spent his childhood. The work of running their businesses brought them agency in the community, and they used this agency to serve others. My family members were involved in their local government, chamber of commerce, religious life, and several organizations serving migrant workers. They pushed for policy that would desegregate their schools and other places across the community such as swimming pools, parks, and eating establishments. They also advocated for the rights of migrant workers.
I never knew my grandparents. They passed away years before I was born. Their lives cut short due to cancer – the type often caused due to prolonged exposure to pesticides and herbicides used in the fields. The impact my family had on the San Luis community is memorialized through a street named for my family. Urtuzuastegui Street is the final street you’ll pass as you approach the US Customs and Border Patrol station on your way into Mexico.
I often think of the intersecting streets in San Luis – Cesar Chavez St. and Urtuzuastegui St. – and believe with my heart that the work of Cesar Chavez to improve working conditions for migrant workers, could have been shaped and framed by the plight of my own family. Did a chance interaction he had as a young boy with my grandfather or uncles help inspire his passion? Are the intersecting streets symbolic of the sacrifice our families made for future generations of Mexican-Americans?
I share the story of my family and connect it to the work of Cesar Chavez, not because they are from the same area, and not because of the commonality they shared as farm workers or individuals that advocated for migrant workers. I share this story because of the connections it has to each one of us. Just like Cesar Chavez may have had a chance interaction with my family, we each have chance interactions with so many wonderful and inspiring people. Each interaction offers us an opportunity to reflect on our purpose. And when they align with our calling, they have an opportunity to call us to action.
Sacrifice and Service is Woven through our DNA
I also share this story because the history of my family has many similarities to the families of others’. As educators and leaders, a common thread of sacrifice and service is woven through our DNA and passed along across the generations. We are connected by an allegiance to family and a desire to make a difference in our communities and across our world.
Like Cesar Chavez, we are each called to serve. I first heard the call to serve when I was growing up working with young children as a teacher’s aide and in taking on leadership roles throughout middle school and high school.
At Arizona State, it was service that got me through. I spent my freshman year lost, disheartened, and under-prepared for the challenges of college. The transition from being a highly engaged and well-connected teen in a small mining town, to the independence and anonymity of a huge campus like ASU was more than I thought I could handle. I found a sense of belonging through a variety of service projects. I donated blood regularly, I connected with a faith community and taught young children about the principles of kindness and love, and I worked with others to raise awareness about environmental factors that lead to learning difficulties and developmental delays.
This desire to serve led to my career in education; first deciding to teach students with disabilities and then later advocating for diverse populations of learners often marginalized by fellow students, staff, and through oppressive rhetoric and policies that stood as barriers to equity and justice.
It was early on in my career when I recognized that a students’ zip code had a huge effect on the quality of educational programs to which they had access. I remember wondering what more I could do to make sure ALL students had level footing and opportunities for quality education. That’s when the idea of a doctoral degree came about. I felt a doctoral degree would give me more credibility to help shape the narrative about equity, justice, and service to others; more agency to ensure ALL students shared a sense of belonging and connection at school; more influence to help educators create meaningful and stimulating opportunities for ALL learners; and an extended reach that could help change outcomes for students that are disenfranchised because of the way things are set up – with the odds often stacked against them.
My passion for equity, justice, and service has driven my career as an educator; first as a teacher, then as a principal, and now as a superintendent. Every day when I drive to work, I think about the lives of the students in my district and the accountability I have to each and every one of them. Their futures are hanging on the decisions I make, and I can’t ever take those responsibilities lightly.
I also retain an enormous obligation to ensure the sacrifices made by my grandparents and others like them continue to extend through my reach and influence.
The stories of our family members and activists like Cesar Chavez help remind us of the sacrifices made that help bring us together for a common purpose in educating and serving our youth. We honor our future generations by carrying out the legacy of those who have gone before us. We honor our young people and our elders through our humble spirit, through our positive dispositions, and through taking pride in success.
Service to others is a way of life. And so I ask:
- What are you willing to sacrifice?
- Who do you serve and how does your impact help change their lives?
- How do you help give back to the community that currently supports you?
- What are the steps you take to find points of entry to tackle those tough-to-have conversations?
- How do you use your voice to promote peace, positivity, and inclusion?
- How do you ensure that the legacy of your family continues to pave a path toward justice?
And now here’s my challenge:
- Be enlightened about what’s going on in your community and surrounding area;
- Become more self-aware – questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better;
- Support the historical fight against prejudices; and
- Honor the history of others by living a life of service.