Reading, writing, and redemption

A shrine stands where Daniel Ramos' father committed suicide in 1997. Shortly afterward, Daniel quit the seventh grade to take care of his sister's children while she and their mother worked in the fields in Poteet. (Photos by Josh Leighton)

Three-time dropout Daniel Ramos knew he could succeed if he only had the chance

Editor's Note: this is the second in a three-part series on migrant education. The stories, which center on the workers' and their families' personal histories, will run through September. Part 1: "You can't break me down."

Much has changed on the corner where Daniel Ramos lived as a boy. The fir trees have grown tall and sturdy. The farm across the back fence has been abandoned. The little white house has been torn down, and in its place stands a stone shrine dedicated to Daniel's father.

It was in this spot on a rainy day nearly seven years ago that Daniel, who had just turned 13, entered the one-room house where his parents slept, and found his 42-year-old father hanging from a beam.

"Things seemed weird the day before," says Daniel. "I went looking for him. My brother and I, we were walking toward the shack and there he was. I was so young, I hardly knew what was going on."

Two weeks earlier, his father, once a jockey and later a horse trainer, had entered his 4-year-old filly, Summer Mission, in a 16-furlong race at Retama Park. She won first place. The family paid for his funeral with the winnings.

With his father gone, Daniel's mother, Mary Jane, and oldest sister, Marina, had to work in the fields in Poteet, picking strawberries and peanuts to help support the family. Marina left her two children, ages 2 and 1, in Daniel's care. Instead of learning percentages and playing baritone in junior high school band - where he won awards for being the "most dependable" - Daniel changed diapers. At the semester break, Daniel dropped out of school for the first time; he was in the seventh grade.

"I loved school but I never had a teenage life," he says. "I never went to movies or had a car. I had to go home and help with the kids. I became a young dad. I didn't know how to take care of kids at the time, but I got used to it."

"I've seen my family go through so many struggles and I want to rebel against that."
Daniel, who recently earned his GED through Palo Alto College's high school equivalency program for migrant workers and their children, puts a face on the sobering statistics: According to a Migrant Attrition Project Study conducted for the U.S. Department of Education, children of migrant workers have just a 40 percent chance of entering the 9th grade, compared to 96 percent of non-migrant students. Only 11 percent of migrant children make it to their senior year in high school; 80 percent of their non-migrant counterparts do.

Some children of migrant families, through good fortune, a nurturing school environment, or intervention of a mentor, overcome the obstacles endemic to farmworkers' lives. But for many families, little has changed: Illness or death, the transient nature of the work, or school systems ill-equipped to cope with migrant children's needs, can derail their best efforts.

Former Bexar County Judge and Congressman Albert Bustamante came from a family of migrant workers. "Low pay. Long hours. Oppressive heat. Lack of jobs. Lack of housing," he said, describing his life in the book, Fields of Toil: A Migrant Family's Journey. "That was then. But this is now. Low pay. Long hours. Oppressive heat. Lack of jobs. Lack of housing."

These conditions have beset Daniel's family for generations. But with his GED, Daniel is determined to be the last of the Ramos family to drop out of school. He is determined to break the cycle.

Daniel, whose hair color changes from dark red to fluorescent orange to midnight blue depending on his whim, strolls around the lot where his grandmother and several aunts and uncles live in a modest, 10-year-old home on Pleasanton Road. A train whistle blows nearby, briefly drowning out the birds. The grass has been freshly mowed; 14 white socks hang on the clothesline; behind the house is a scrubby woods where goats used to graze. "My dad planted these trees for my grandmother," he says, pointing at a 10-foot fir. "I used to jump over this tree and now it's bigger than me."

Daniel, his mother says, is like his father: quiet and not one to complain. The youngest child of four, Daniel spent his childhood living like children during the Depression - except he grew up in the 1980s and early 1990s. As a small child, Daniel accompanied his parents to the fields, playing nearby - just as his mother, Mary Jane, now 46, had done with her parents when she was little. Fieldwork paid little, and seven people were crammed in to a two-bedroom rental that, until 1992, had no running water or indoor plumbing. The family took baths using five-gallon buckets of water his grandfather hauled from a nearby school. They had no air conditioning. Many days, the family ate one simple meal of fideo and beans. Daniel has never had a bed.

Daniel and his grandmother, Mariana.
After dropping out of middle school, Daniel eventually returned to Southside High School, entering as a freshman, while still occasionally caring for Marina's children. "I liked school, but I didn't feel challenged at the time," he says. He dropped out again and worked odd jobs at fireworks stands, convenience stores, and his sister's floral shop.

Again, he tried to go back to school, this time to McCollum High in the Harlandale Independent School District because, he says, Southside ISD refused to accept him since he had dropped out twice. "I had to repeat classes, and there was a problem with my age. I was 18, and they wanted to make me a freshman. I got the credits I was missing, but the school still had a problem with my age," he says.

An interrupted education often causes migrant kids to repeat grades because they missed school, lack credits, or even because their transcripts can be lost during transit from one school to the next. The Migrant Attrition Project estimates that 45 percent of migrant children are behind their grade level; 18 percent are placed at more than two years behind. The dropout rate for migrant children is estimated at 45 to 65 percent.

Last October, at age 19, Daniel, then a sophomore, was butting heads with the school administration, which he says "told me to go somewhere else." So Daniel dropped out for the third time and spent the next nine months going out every night, "hanging out with the wrong people," and "never coming home at all."

Eventually, he grew tired of the party scene. "My sisters and brothers used to do the same thing, and I saw what happened. I didn't want it to happen to me. I want to be someone."

In June, an adminstrator from Palo Alto College visited him at his sister Marina's house, where he was living with her and her six children; the older kids attend a migrant education program for elementary school students in the Southside Independent School District. (Many Palo Alto adult referrals come via children in the elementary school program.)

A few weeks later, he went to Palo Alto to enroll in the migrant GED program. "I was nervous, but I took a practice test and they said I passed with flying colors."

For the past two months, Daniel has spent 10 to 12 hours a day at the college, arriving before it opens and staying until 5 or 6 in the evening, studying, reading, making up for lost time. He's moved from his sister's house in the country - she doesn't have a car - into an apartment with his mother, which is on the bus line.

"I love it here," he says. "I'm so thankful. I never thought I'd meet people like this; there are cool people that really care."

In July, he took all five GED exams. On August 4, he received his results: After just six weeks of classes, Daniel earned his GED.

On a recent July evening, Daniel, his mother, grandmother, and two aunts sat around the kitchen table, reminiscing about the past and discussing Daniel's future.

Mary Jane Ramos, Daniel's mother, comes from several generations of farmworkers. Her mother spoke no English; her father, just a little. As a child, she played in the fields while her older siblings, Lupe, Jesse, Bea, Joe, and Enrique picked cotton.

"I remember once, my sack felt so heavy and I thought I was done," laughed Lupe, who later worked in nursing homes and won several employee awards. "But it was Mary Jane in the sack."

Mary Jane and David Ramos had four children: Marina, who now has seven kids; Alice, who has one; David, with three; and Daniel. None graduated from high school, although Marina earned her GED. Mary Jane dropped out of school in the 11th grade; she never learned to read.

"I hope my children know what I didn't," Mary Jane said. "People made fun of me because I didn't have money and I couldn't read. I hope my children know that they don't need to feel ashamed or embarrassed."

The extended family, many of whom piled into small houses on neighboring lots, helped them get by: pitching in for medicine, loaning them a car to take Daniel to the hospital, and sharing their electricity.

"We lived in an old house next to this one," Mary Jane recalled. "The rent was $25 a month and I couldn't afford it. When they cut the lights off because I couldn't pay the electricity, dad would run extension cords from his house to ours."

Daniel's aunt, Sylvia Medrano, a schoolteacher and coach, has also taken him under her wing, bringing him on family vacations and encouraging him to get his GED. "I've treated him as my own son. I want him to stay the way he is: To take care of himself. To finish his education. And to remember where he came from."

With his GED, Daniel plans to enroll in college to pursue a career in radio/television, but has also considered working with animals as a veterinary technician. Occasionally, he still cares for Marina's children and helps his mother, who is disabled.

"I've been wanting this for the longest time; now I know I'm doing it," he says. "I'm interested in a lot of things. I'm really determined to make something out of myself. I want to see if I can help support my sisters and my mom. I've seen my family go through so many struggles and I want to rebel against that." •

By Lisa Sorg

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