She likes to say that she's been working in the fields since she was born. Actually, Alicia Anaya spent her early years as a farm worker napping in one of the empty bins used to collect lemons.
Years later, after turning 13, she joined her parents in the fields. On vacations and weekends, Alicia and her siblings picked tomatoes and apricots, asparagus and grapes. Days that began before the sun rose ended as it set.
The Anaya family tracked their years by an agricultural calendar. Her parents were born in Acuitzeramo, a small town in the Mexican state of Michoacán, where houses were made of adobe and the roads lined in cobblestone. With thousands of other farm workers, Alicia and her family moved north every year, following the harvest along the "western stream," one of three agricultural paths that stretch from the southernmost to the northernmost parts of the country. The Anayas would pause in Blythe, Calif., near the Arizona border, then continue up through Stockton, and into northern Oregon. Some years they made it as far as Washington State before turning back. Then the ritual began anew: six months in Mexico, six in the US.
Each year, Alicia and her three siblings attended three separate schools. She recalls an undercurrent of prejudice ("Oh, the migrants are back") that emanated from white classmates when she'd return midyear. Jostled from town to town, she never joined after-school activities. Her older sister nearly didn't graduate from high school after a counselor failed to advise her of missing credits. And always, there were the setbacks of itinerancy.
Alicia enrolled in French at her Stockton high school. Midway through the semester, it was time to move to Blythe, where the course wasn't offered. The next fall, back in Stockton, she was placed in second-year French, even though she hadn't completed the first. Not knowing whom to talk to, or what to say, she failed. "That's the downside of it," Alicia says. "You took whatever they had."
She estimates that 80 percent of her migrant classmates didn't complete high school. Somewhere between labor camps and rented rooms, fields and orchards, they lost sight of academics. Earning money - even through the punishing work of a field hand - was reward enough to derail friends who were saving for cars, what Alicia calls the migrant dream. Nationally, as many as 60 percent of migrant students never graduate.
To encourage his children to stay in school, Alicia's father wielded the specter of physical labor. "If you don't do well in school," he'd say in Spanish, "you're going to go up to the fields - all day in the sun and working like a donkey."
Alicia is 29 years old. She expects to earn a bachelor's degree in criminology from the University of California, Irvine, in the fall, becoming the second in an extended family of nearly 90 to graduate from college.
The lives of five migrant families who raised 41 "highly successful" children have been mapped in a study by Roberto Treviño, himself the son of migrant farm workers. Scattered throughout Texas, these children went on to careers as doctors and lawyers, aerospace engineers and entrepreneurs. The thread uniting all five, says Mr. Treviño, an education professor at the University of North Texas in Denton, is parents who prized their children's education above all else. One father, determined that his daughters not miss their first day of school, packed them into his tiny Chevy Chevette one year and drove from Washington State down to two Mexican towns - his girls attended different schools. So that he wouldn't lose his job in Washington, he immediately turned round to cross back into the US, without papers.
For children whose lives are always in flux, family and community are a constant. Some educators - Treviño included - say parents may be the most important factor in a migrant student's success.
When Alicia, who is a US citizen, speaks of growing up, she isn't sentimental. She neither glorifies nor denigrates a lifestyle she grew so accustomed to that today, she says, "I feel weird being in the same place for a long time."
She believes her upbringing made her more adaptable, more focused, more determined.
Alicia is a decade older than most undergraduates at UC Irvine. After high school graduation, she did what many migrant women do - lived with her family and worked in the fields and at fast-food restaurants. It wasn't acceptable to live on her own, and she wasn't especially eager to marry. But one day she realized just how much she didn't want to spend her life working at Taco Bell.
In 2000, she enrolled at a community college in Stockton. Three years later, when she transferred to Irvine, she knew exactly why she was there: to earn a degree and gain a foothold on possibilities that few in her community have known. "Those four years I stayed out of school helped me put more effort into it because I knew I wanted to go back," she says. "It made it easier, in a way, because I knew what I wanted. Seeing how my family went through all the hardship made me realize school was the way for me to get a better future - for them, and for me."
Today, Alicia's father tells his children: "This is the only inheritance I'm going to leave you - your education. It's the most treasured thing I can leave you. I can't leave you money, because I don't have any. This is my will to you."
After graduation? Possibly a master's degree in criminology. Or law school. In the meantime, Alicia is an intern at NASA, with the criminal investigation division.
Because it's NASA, her littlest cousins assume she is an astronaut - and in a way she is. The first woman in her family to graduate from college, she's become an unwitting role model, an emissary to a different sort of world.