'You can't break me down'

Michelle Melendez has eight children: three of her own and five that she took in after her sister could no longer care for them. Melendez' son, Mark Anthony, is 21 months. (Photos by Josh Leighton)
'You can't break me down'

By Lisa Sorg

Former migrant worker Michelle Melendez finished high school 15 years after she dropped out. She is one of a dozen students whose lives are improving because of Palo Alto College's migrant education program.

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series on migrant education. The stories, which center on the workers' personal histories, will run monthly through the summer.

At Michelle Melendez' house, you can't get away from the noise. A block down the street, cars speed down New Laredo Highway. Inside her four-room home, three of Melendez' eight children romp or watch television; the rest are visiting relatives. When night falls, the house cools slightly, as one small fan blows humid air through the living room window.

"Last night I put everybody to bed early," Melendez says. "I went outside and sat in the chair and I thought about my life and where I live. But I'm not going to complain."

A former migrant worker, Melendez has reason to be optimistic: In February, she received her High School Equivalency Diploma (GED), more than 15 years after she quit school at the end of eighth grade.

In addition to its regular GED programs, Palo Alto College offers classes for current or former migrant workers to earn their GEDs. `See box, page 15`. Because they travel extensively and often, like Melendez have left school to work, migrants in particular lack educational opportunities. According to 1997-98 National Agricultural Workers Survey of 2,000 farmworkers, 85 percent of them had difficulty reading in any language. Sixty-one percent of the farmworkers had incomes below the poverty level and only 14 percent were able to buy a home. One-fifth had taken at least one adult education class, primarily for a GED.

"I worked at anything that I was capable of doing without a high school education. When you need a job, you'll work anywhere no matter how they pay or how they treat you."
Twelve students in two classes have graduated from high school through Palo Alto's migrant education program - also known as HEP; a third class is expected to graduate next month.

"Finish your education," Melendez advises. "You may not regret it `not finishing` in a day or a month or a year. But you'll regret it."

Born in Waco, Melendez moved to Jourdanton in the sixth grade. Her mother was disabled; her father, an ironworker, couldn't find a job. At 14, Melendez left school and began working 10 to 12 hours a day in the fields of Uvalde picking corn and cabbage and stacking watermelons to contribute to the family's income. "A man would come at 5 in the morning to pick us up," she explains, as a thunderstorm crashes overhead, the rain briefly cooling the afternoon. "There was hardly any time for lunch or dinner. We'd finish at 7 or 8 at night."

In the fields, women and girls were mistreated, Melendez says, often by fellow workers. "You wanted to work, you needed the job. Women wouldn't complain," she recalls. "They'd throw the watermelons at you and didn't care if they hurt you or not. You'd just better be fast stacking them up."

Melendez' family later moved to San Antonio, where she worked at Griff's Hamburgers, Dairy Queen, and a perfume factory in Pleasanton making lipsticks and body sprays. In addition to 12-hour days manufacturing perfume, she commuted an hour to and from her job. "I worked at anything that I was capable of doing without a high school education. When you need a job, you'll work anywhere no matter how they pay or how they treat you."

She became pregnant with her first child, Alexander, at 22; she had her next son, Gabriel at 23. Her third son, Mark, is 21 months. She receives no child support from the boys' fathers. Meanwhile, because Melendez' sister has become addicted to drugs and alcohol, the mother of three has taken in her five children, now 12, 10, 9, 8, and 7.

Melendez learned about HEP through a kids' migrant program at Price Elementary School, where Alexander is in the second grade. A school counselor told Melendez that she should get her GED. "I didn't want to," Melendez says, stroking Mark's long black curls as he rests in her lap and nurses a bottle of milk. A Palo Alto teacher, Graciela Carrizales visited her at home and tried to persuade her to enter the program. "I was still skeptical and I didn't want to go. I thought I was too old."

Finally, she entered HEP on a challenge from her 12-year-old niece who told her, "If you want us to finish school, you should go back to school."

"I was very nervous," Melendez recalls. "I didn't think I was going to get it; I thought it would take me years. I said to myself, 'If I don't pass the first time, I'm not going back.'"

Yet, within in a month, Melendez had passed the required exams and earned her GED. When she received her congratulatory letter in the mail, she says, "I thought they lied. I called the college, and they said, 'You got it."

Of the seven children in her family, Melendez is the only one to complete high school. "I wish my mom could have seen me," she says. Her mother died in 2000 at age 58 after a long, debilitating illness of heart disease and high blood pressure. "Graduating was my proudest moment after becoming a mom."

Melendez has enrolled in Palo Alto College for the fall semester to pursue a career as an elementary school teacher. She credits her success on the support she received from Palo Alto's HEP staff.

"The teachers made our goals their goals," she says. Often Carrizales or program coordinator Rosie Castro picked up Melendez at home and took her to school. "They would honk and honk and say, 'No excuses, you're going to class.' They made me feel like I could do it, no matter how people put you down."

Melendez' goal of becoming a teacher is inspired by a teacher from her past: Judy Johnson, who taught junior high in Jourdanton. A troublemaker, Melendez often fought in school and spent much of the eighth grade in detention, even in isolation. "If you looked at me the wrong way I was ready to strap it on," says Melendez. "If you were sitting in a chair and I wanted to sit in it, I'd just push you out. I fought seniors. I cut class. I remember standing on the toilet so the teachers couldn't see my feet.

"But Miss Johnson was the one who never gave up on me. She would come to see me at in-school suspension and talk to me. She left me with that lasting impression: You were meant to be something."

"I've never had much of a life. My life has depended on taking care of other people and leaving myself out of everything. But I'm not going to give up on my dream. You can't break me down."
For the past 18 months, Melendez has been out of work because her last pregnancy injured several spinal discs, which were damaged initially when she gave birth to Gabriel, who weighed 14 pounds. Without a job, she receives $458 in food stamps and another $261 in public assistance, although she receives no additional state help for her sisters' children. The family does qualify for Medicaid. Her father pays Melendez' monthly rent of $250; he, his wife, and his mother live in a small house next door.

Her friends donate clothes and Pampers - "I haven't bought this kid `Mark` any clothes since he was born" - but she worries about how she will afford school clothes for her older children. "Other kids make fun of them at school for their clothes."

There are few toys or games in the house, and the family rarely goes out except to venture across four lanes of New Laredo Highway on the way to H-E-B or summer school. "You can't get depressed. You have to make up games."

The walls of the Melendez home are decorated with photos of her children, paintings of Jesus, his head crowned with thorns, and the Virgin de Guadalupe. "I'm a spiritual person," says Melendez, who was raised Catholic. "I pray for health and strength."

After her back surgery scheduled for next month, Melendez hopes to return to work at Lone Star Bakery where, after several years of watching her better-educated colleagues receive raises and promotions, she became a day manager, overseeing the production of cheesecakes, brownies, and biscuits.

"I want to go back to work so I can go to a better house," she says. "I teach my kids what's right. You need a high school education for anything and if possible, a college education. I've never had much of a life. My life has depended on taking care of other people and leaving myself out of everything. But I'm not going to give up on my dream. You can't break me down." •

By Lisa Sorg

"I didn't think I was going to get my GED; I thought it would take me years. I said to myself, 'If I don't pass the first time, I'm not going back." (Photo by Josh Leighton)
'No me pueden vencer'

La antigua trabajadora migrante Michelle Meléndez acabó la escuela preparatoria 15 años después de que la abandonó. Ella es una de una docena de estudiantes cuyas vidas mejoran gracias al programa de educación a migrantes de Palo Alto College.

Por Lisa Sorg

Nota del editor: Éste es el primero de una serie de reportajes acerca de la educación a migrantes. Los artículos, que se centran en las historias personales de los trabajadores, aparecerán mensualmente durante el verano.

En la casa de Michelle Meléndez no se puede uno alejar del ruido. Una cuadra abajo, los carros circulan por la autopista New Laredo. Dentro de su casa de cuatro recamaras, tres de los ocho hijos de los Meléndez corretean o ven la televisión; el resto está visitando a sus familiares. Cuando anochece, la casa se refresca un poco, mientras uno de los ventiladores sopla aire húmedo a través de la ventana de la sala.

"Anoche mandé a todos a la cama temprano", dice Meléndez. "Fui afuera y me senté en una silla y me puse a pensar en mi vida y en donde me encuentro. Pero no me voy a quejar." Una antigua trabajadora migrante, Meléndez tiene una razón para sentirse optimista: en febrero, recibió su High School Equivalency Diploma (GED), 15 años después de que dejó la escuela al final del octavo grado.

Además de sus programas regulares de GED, Palo Alto College ofrece clases a antiguos o actuales trabajadores migrantes para que obtengan su GED. `Véase el recuadro de página 15.` Puesto que viajan amplia y constantemente, como Meléndez que abandonó la escuela para trabajar, los migrantes en particular carecen de oportunidades educativas. De acuerdo con la Encuesta Nacional de Trabajadores Agrícolas de 1997-1998, de 2,000 trabajadores granjeros, el 85 por ciento de ellos tenían dificultades para leer en idioma alguno. El 61 por ciento de todos los trabajadores agrícolas tenían ingresos debajo de la línea de la pobreza y sólo el 14 por ciento podían comprar una casa.

Doce estudiantes en dos clases se han graduado de la escuela preparatoria a través del programa de educación a migrantes de Palo Alto Collage - programa también conocido como HEP - un tercer grupo se espera que se gradúe el mes entrante.

"Terminen su educación," Meléndez aconseja. "Quizá no se arrepientan `de no concluirla` en un mes o en un año; pero se arrepentirán."

Meléndez nació en Waco, y se mudó a Jourdanton cuando cursaba el sexto grado. Su madre era incapacitada; su padre, un trabajador del acero, no pudo encontrar empleo. A los 14 años, Meléndez abandonó la escuela y empezó a trabajar de 10 a 12 horas al día en los campos de Uvalde recolectando maíz y col y apilando sandías para contribuir al ingreso familiar. "Una persona venía a recogernos a las 5 de la mañana. Apenas había tiempo para almorzar o comer. Terminábamos a las 7 u 8 de la noche."

En los campos, las mujeres y las niñas eran maltratadas, a menudo por otros compañeros de trabajo. "Querías trabajar; necesitabas el trabajo. Las mujeres no se quejaban," Meléndez recuerda, mientras Mark, su hijo, descansa en su regazo. "Te aventaban las sandías y no se preocupaban por si te lastimaban o no. Más te valía que fueras rápida para apilarla."

La familia Meléndez después se cambió a San Antonio, en donde ella trabajó en Griff´s Hamburgers, Dairy Queen y en una fábrica de perfumes en Pleasanton en la que hacía lápices labiales y aerosoles para el cuerpo. "Trabajaba en todo lo que fuera capaz de hacer sin estudios de preparatoria. Cuando necesitas un trabajo, trabajarás sin importar cómo te paguen o cómo te traten." Se embarazó de su primer hijo, Alexander, a los 22 años; tuvo a su siguiente hijo, Gabriel a los 23. Su tercer hijo, Mark, tiene 21 meses. No recibe apoyo de los padres de los niños. Mientras tanto, puesto que la hermana de Meléndez se volvió adicta a las drogas y al alcohol, la madre de tres hijos ha acogido a los cinco hijos de su hermana, ahora, 12, 10, 9, 8 y 7 años de edad.

Meléndez supo del HEP a través de un programa que atiende a niños migrantes en la escuela elemental Price, en la que Alexander cursa el segundo grado. Un consejero le dijo a Meléndez que debería obtener su GED. "No quería", cuenta Meléndez. Después una profesora de Palo Alto, Graciela Carrizales, la visitó e intentó convencerla de que entrara al programa. "Todavía estaba indecisa y no quería ir. Pensé que era demasiado vieja".

Finalmente, entró al HEP ante el reto de su sobrina de 12 años que le dijo: "Si quieres que nosotros terminemos la escuela, tú debes regresar a la escuela."

"Estaba muy nerviosa," Meléndez recuerda. "No pensé que fuera a obtenerlo; pensaba que me iba a tomar años. Me dije: 'Si no apruebo la primera vez, no regreso'." Hasta ahora, en un mes, Meléndez ha pasado los exámenes obligatorios y obtuvo su GED. Cuando recibió su carta de felicitación por correo, cuenta: "Pensé que mentían. Llamé a la escuela, y me dijeron que lo había obtenido."

De los siete hijos de su familia, Meléndez es la única que completó la preparatoria. "Me gustaría que mi madre me hubiera visto," dice. Su madre murió en 2000 a la edad de 58 años. "Mi graduación fue mi momento de mayor orgullo después de ser madre."

Meléndez se inscribió a Palo Alto College para el semestre de otoño para continuar una carrera como profesora de escuela primaria. Atribuye su éxito al apoyo que recibió del equipo de Palo Alto College.

"Los profesores hicieron que nuestras metas fueran sus metas," dice. Continuamente Carrizales o la coordinadora Rosie Castro recogían a Meléndez y la llevaban a la escuela. Ellos tocaban y tocaban la bocina del carro y decían: 'No hay excusa, vas a la escuela'."

La meta de Meléndez de llegar a ser profesora se inspira en una de sus antiguas maestras: Judy Johnson, quien enseñaba secundaria en Jourdanton. Una niña conflictiva, Meléndez, continuamente peleaba en la escuela y pasó una buena parte del octavo grado suspendida. "Si me veías negativamente, estaba lista para ser atada," dice Meléndez. "No entraba a mis clases. Recuerdo que me paraba en la taza del baño para que los maestros no vieran mis pies. Pero la maestra Jonson fue la única que nunca se desilusionó de mí. Iba a verme cuando estaba suspendida en la escuela y hablaba conmigo. Ella me dejó un recuerdo duradero: Tú tienes las intenciones de ser alguien."

En los últimos 18 meses, Meléndez ha estado sin trabajar debido a que su último embarazo le lastimó varios discos de la espina dorsal, los cuales se habían dañado con anterioridad cuando dio a luz a Gabriel, quien pesó 14 libras. Sin trabajo, ella recibe $458 en vales de comida y otros $261 de ayuda pública, aunque no recibe ayuda estatal extra por los hijos de su hermana. La familia reúne los requisitos para recibir Medicaid.

Sus amigos le donan ropa y pañales - "No le he comprado a este niño `Mark` nada de ropa desde que nació" - pero se preocupa por cómo conseguirá ropa para la escuela de sus hijos mayores.

Después de su operación de la espalda programada para el mes entrante, Meléndez espera regresar a trabajar a la panadería Lone Star en donde, después de muchos años de ver que sus compañeros con mejor educación recibían aumento de salario y ascensos, ella llegó a ser gerente durante el día, supervisa la producción de pays de queso, panqués de chocolate y galletas.

"Quiero regresar a trabajar para que me pueda cambiar a una casa mejor," dice. "Les enseño a mis hijos lo que es bueno. Necesitas concluir la preparatoria ante todo y si es posible una carrera. Nunca he obtenido mucho de la vida. Mi vida ha consistido en cuidar a otra gente y en hacerme a un lado de todo. Pero no me pueden vencer." •

The nuts and bolts of HEP

Early one morning at Palo Alto College, a class of three students is learning to add fractions, evaluate mixed numerals, and find common denominators. As two students write multiplication tables on the board, the teacher, Cynthia Blizzard enthuses, "You're learning. You didn't know these before!"

For a second year, Palo Alto College is offering high school classes to migrant workers trying to earn their General Equivalency Diploma (GED). The program, also known as HEP, is open to people 17 and older, who within the last two years have worked at least 75 days in agriculture, including farms, plant and tree nurseries, canneries, and some food manufacturing jobs.

In addition to classes, HEP offers GED testing in Spanish and English, a laptop computer lending program, and tutoring. HEP also pays for the five required GED tests, which can run $40 per exam. Students can receive money to cover transportation and free childcare is available at Palo Alto while students are in class.

Although automation has replaced people in some agricultural jobs, an estimated 5,000-7,000 migrant workers live in Bexar County; more live in surrounding counties.

Palo Alto often recruits adults through elementary schools, where their children are enrolled in migrant programs. In the first class, two of eight students graduated; the second class, 10 of 35 earned their diplomas. The third class, an intensive course, continues through June.

The average time required to complete the course is three months, although program coordinator Rosie Castro cautions that high school students shouldn't see a GED as a replacement for their education. "We encourage people to stay in school," Castro said. "If they don't, then we're here."

HEP receives funding from the U.S. Department of Education and grants to cover its $300,000 annual budget. However, this year, HEP received its funding late, totaling only $150,000 for 2004. In general, money for migrant education is tight: For fiscal year 2005, the Bush Administration has proposed eliminating a $77 million program that provides training and other services to migrant and seasonal workers.

Some students who receive their GEDs enroll in college; others return to the workforce or enter the military. "We tell them to look at the long-term, to get a better education for them and their families."

To contact Palo Alto College's HEP, call 921-5410. The college also offers regular GED programs. •

Temprano en la mañana en Palo Alto College, un grupo de tres estudiantes aprende a sumar fracciones, evaluar números mixtos y encontrar denominadores comunes. Mientras dos estudiantes escriben las tablas de multiplicar en el pizarrón, la profesora, Cynthia Blizzard los ánima, "¡Están aprendiendo. No sabían esto antes!"

Por segundo año, Palo Alto College ofrece clases de preparatoria para trabajadores migrantes que tratan de obtener su General Equivalency Diploma. El programa, también conocido como HEP, está abierto a personas de 17 años o mayores, que en los últimos dos años hayan trabajado cuando menos 75 días en la agricultura, incluyendo granjas, invernaderos, fábricas enlatadoras de comida y algunos otros trabajos relacionados con la manufactura de alimentos.

Además de las clases, el HEP ofrece exámenes de GED en español e inglés, un programa de préstamo de una computadora portátil, tutorías. El HEP también paga los cinco exámenes obligatorios del GED, los cuales pueden ascender a $40 por examen. Los estudiantes pueden recibir dinero para cubrir la transportación; se ofrece el cuidado de los hijos de manera gratuita mientras los estudiantes asisten a clases.

Un aproximado de 5,000 a 7,000 trabajadores viven en el condado de Bexar; algunos más viven en los condados de los alrededores. Palo Alto a menudo recluta adultos a través de las escuelas elementales, en las que sus hijos están inscritos en programas de migrantes. En la primera generación, dos de ocho estudiantes se graduaron; en la segunda generación, 10 de 35 obtuvieron su diploma. La tercera generación, un curso intensivo, continúa durante junio.

El promedio de tiempo requerido para completar el curso es de tres meses, aunque la coordinadora del programa Rosie Castro advierte que los estudiantes de preparatoria no deben considerar al GED como un sustituto de su educación. "Los animamos a quedarse en la escuela," apuntó Castro. "Si ellos no lo hacen, entonces estamos aquí."

El HEP recibe fondos del Departamento de Educación de los Estados Unidos y becas para cubrir su presupuesto anual de $300,000. Sin embargo, este año, el HEP recibió sus fondos con retraso, los cuales totalizaron sólo $150,000 para 2004. En general, el dinero para la educación a migrantes es escaso: para el año fiscal de 2005, la Administración Bush ha propuesto eliminar un programa de $77 millones que provee capacitación y otros servicios a los migrantes y a los trabajadores temporales.

Para contactar al programa HEP de Palo Alto College, llame al 921-5410. La escuela ofrece programas regulares de GED. •

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