A migrant worker's dream comes true

When Monitor readers first met Michelle Castillo in 2001, the 16-year-old was working at a farm in Illinois. Now she is about to enter a new field: education.

Saturday finally dawns, a typical May morning in south Texas. By 8 a.m., the air is already thick and oppressive.

But for the Castillo family, this sweltering Saturday is anything but typical. Despite the early hour, they're up and attired in their best, pressed tightly in a crowd with hundreds of other equally eager families outside a convention center in McAllen, Texas.

They're waiting to see their daughter, Michelle, a third-generation migrant farm worker, graduate from college. (Click here to view an audio slideshow chronicling Michelle's journey.)

"I feel so proud of her," bubbles Chris, Michelle's vivacious mother. "Because from my side of the family and his side of the family, she's the first one graduating from college."

Graduation is a magic moment for every family, but only for a few can it resonate as it will for the Castillos. Finally grasping a college degree in her hand will be a triumph not only for Michelle but for her entire community.

When the Monitor first met Michelle, she was a 16-year-old with a dream: to go to college and break the cycle that kept her family toiling in the fields.

Michelle's family is originally from Mexico. With little education, they found it easy to drift into the migrant lifestyle. But once rooted in that rhythm, there seemed little hope of getting out. By the time Michelle and her sisters were born, their lives was built around two fixed points: In growing season, home was a crude, unheated trailer on an Illinois farm. In the winter, when the farmer had no more work for them and the trailer became uninhabitably cold, they retreated to a tiny home on the edge of the Texas-Mexico border.

Such an existence was far from ideal. For the adults, the work in the fields was bruising. For the children, schooling was interrupted each time they moved. For all of them, there was the sting of a certain degree of loneliness and prejudice – at least during the part of the year they spent in Illinois.

For Michelle, there was no future in such a world. "The conditions and everything, I couldn't do it," she says. "I had to get an education, to find a way out."

But it's not so easy for the child of migrant workers.

"The obstacles for mi­­grants are tremendous," says Jose Martinez, associate director of the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) at the University of Texas Pan American and a former migrant himself. Few children from migrant families make it to college and even fewer ever graduate, he says. Their academic background is usually weak due to those early years of travel, he points out, and not all migrant parents support the idea of college. Many worry that it will pull their children too far from the tight orbit of family life.

But Nuni and Chris, Michelle's parents, understood that school meant a way out for Michelle. When CAMP helped ease her and 70 other migrant students into their freshman year at the University of Texas, the Castillos were thrilled. Michelle moved into a dormitory and, briefly, lived something of the life of a typical US college student.

But it didn't last long. Her high school sweetheart Mario, also the child of migrant workers and no longer in school himself, wanted a wife. He persuaded Michelle to marry him toward the end of her freshman year. Some of the adults around Michelle were worried But Mario actually become her motivator, says Michelle. "He's like, 'You gotta go, you gotta finish.' "

Moving off-campus and into the home of Mario's parents, however, made complications for Michelle. Without a car of her own, she had only limited access to campus – and library, computer, and other facilities.

Then, midway through Michelle's junior year, the couple had a baby. Within weeks of the birth, Michelle's marriage was crumbling. Mario had met someone else and wanted a divorce.

Michelle was devastated – and, for a moment, unsure about school. How could she continue with little Melanie to support? "Sometimes I wanted to quit school because I didn't know what I had to do," she says. "Should I quit school and look for a job?" But then, she says, she thought of Melanie's future and told herself, "I can't quit now."

So the two moved back into Michelle's parents' house, and Michelle kept her head in her books. Her senior year took two years instead of one, but by the time she made it to student teaching – where she excelled – she knew she had found her niche in life.

Now it's graduation day, and, finally, Michelle's name rings out as she walks across the stage to clutch her diploma. Of the 70 migrant students who started school with her five years ago, she is one of only about 20 to have received a degree.

For the Castillos, it's time to celebrate. They eat, drink, and dance the night away in their front yard, and then, the next morning, Michelle begins life as a college graduate.

First, she's going to look for a job teaching elementary school in Texas. But then, much to the surprise of some around her, she's packing her bags for Illinois. Her parents will be migrating, and she and Melanie plan to join them for the summer – this year and every year.

"I would like for [Melanie] to know the migrant life," Michelle explains. "I would even like for her to work out in the fields." If she hadn't worked there herself, Michelle explains, "maybe I wouldn't see education as something important in my life. I might take it for granted like other kids do."

No migrant can ever take such an accomplishment for granted, explains CAMP's Mr. Martinez. In the migrant community, it's more often the stories of migrant students who drop out of college that are circulated, he says. That's what makes Michelle's story so powerful. "It could go back and change a lot of minds," says Martinez. It proves "that it really can be done by anybody."

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