Migrant Lifestyle Hits Education

The Aguayo family is 500 miles apart but struggling together.
Half live in Gilroy, the others near Phoenix, Ariz. They have moved
every six months for the past 20 years. They have never had a
family vacation. They have little money
– but they are happy.
Gilroy – The Aguayo family is 500 miles apart but struggling together. Half live in Gilroy, the others near Phoenix, Ariz. They have moved every six months for the past 20 years. They have never had a family vacation. They have little money – but they are happy.

The Aguayo’s are a migrant family who follow the growing season, making the 500-mile trek from Yuma, Ariz. to Gilroy each May. They stay until early November, working most days from sunrise to well past sunset.

“It’s really hard on everybody,” said Hilda Aguayo, the family’s matriarch. “At times it’s tight – some families, they have money, but their children have problems … the best thing we have is good kids.”

Two of Hilda and Luis Aguayo’s children, Katia, 12, and Fernando, 14, are enrolled in Gilroy Unified School District. The three oldest children remain in Arizona where Alberto and Marcos attend high school, and the oldest son – Luis – is in his first year of technical school studying high performance and diesel engines.

On average, about 1,500 migrant students attend schools in GUSD. About 400 are considered mobile migrants like the Aguayo’s, meaning they move seasonally in search of agricultural work in Texas, Mexico, Washington and Arizona.

While the constant moving helps the family survive financially, the children must adjust and readjust to changes in their education tracks.

“Sometimes I came in and they were repeating class all over again,” Luis, 18, said. “(But) if you’re behind, it just kills you – not knowing what’s going on.”

He said he is not a strong reader and reads at the seventh grade level. Neither of his parents attended secondary school. To help support their families, they were forced to work in the fields instead. Hilda did not speak English until after she was married – she begin reading newspapers to learn. She did not know how to do math so she could pay a cab driver or buy groceries to take a cab to buy groceries. She would lie awake at night and worry.

“My kids need help with homework. I know a lot of words and I try to do my best,” she said. “They’re good speaking, but they have a problem with writing … I come home at 10 at night and (Katia) is waiting for me to help her with homework. I think I am going to start (English) classes because I need to do something.”

Though Hilda assists her children as much as she can, the migrant program offered through GUSD helps students when their families cannot. Students receive home-based preschool visits through Migrant Even Start, health services such as free dental from Valley Medical Center and mobile clinics, as well as counseling efforts with Community Solutions up until age 21.

“I had a lot of help from people in the migrant program,” Luis said. “They told me if I don’t make it there is more of a chance that I’d be working in the fields. It gave me a lot of motivation.”

Luis enrolled in the Portable Assisted Study Sequence, an independent study program designed to keep migrant high school students on a graduation track. He is hoping to open his own store one day and help his parents.

According to Lorena Tariba, a migrant education program specialist for GUSD, many migrant students feel as though they don’t belong.

“It doesn’t get any better as they get older. It seems to get harder,” Tariba said.

The graduation rate for migrant seniors was 45 percent last year. Older migrant students may choose to leave school for economic reasons to help their families, she said.

“At the high school level, there’s not the buy-in,” explained Gilroy High School Migrant Education Director Kermit Shrock. “They know they’re leaving – it’s hard to get them to buy into studying, to put in that effort.”

Over the past few years, Tariba has been working closely with schools in Yuma to coordinate a smoother transition for migrant students coming from that region. Record sharing has expanded so schools require less placement testing once the students return.

Whenever possible, students return to the same classes with the same teachers, she explained. Rucker School, Ascencion Solorsano and GHS are the three schools migrant students attend. A bilingual parent liaison is present at each facility.

However, keeping migrant parents informed is not easy.

“The parents have to be very committed between having to work all day in the high season and keep and eye on what’s happening,” Tariba said.

Since many families have migrated together for years, there is a collective sense of responsibility for the kids.

“The parents all work and they don’t have time to go to school,” Hilda said. Sometimes she will go to the schools to advocate for her children and their friends. “But sometimes I don’t know how to fight,” she said.

Luis began staying in San Luis, Ariz. year round to complete high school during his sophomore year. He started working at the school cafeteria in the mornings and afternoons to help his parents financially. For more academic consistency, Luis’ two younger brothers eventually joined him in San Luis.

“It’s hard to see them separated, but it’s the only way we can do this,” Hilda said. She smiles when talking about her children and you can tell they are together in her mind.

“Luis, (my son) says it’s going to be two years, but I don’t know how we’re going to make it,” she said. “We have to push him to do his best and God help us. I miss my other kids, but you can’t have everything.”

While in Gilroy, the Aguayo’s stay at the Ochoa Migrant Camp. Hilda believes that the GUSD migrant program made a difference in her children’s lives. Luis was diagnosed with a learning disorder and received proper help early on.

Hilda spoke of one teacher who helped many migrant students graduate.

“She was concerned about the older migrant kids. She made them feel important. She made them feel the way a teacher is supposed to make students feel,” Hilda said.

For Hilda, a high school diploma will be a vehicle for success for her children.

“This thing is a paper only, but for them, it is everything,” she said. “They are going to fly free and I want them to be happy … I want them to be important people and have careers and be proud of themselves. That’s why we’re trying to do our best – because I don’t want them to be like ourselves.”

Hilda wants her children to do everything she never had the opportunity to do.

“Finish school and go to the places. Travel around the world. And when you are tired of that, get married and be happy,” she said. “Life is short and you have to be happy. I want them to be happy every day.”

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