Esteban and Maria Ordaz, parents of Kent City Elementary third- and fourth-grade sisters Romalda and Rufina, immigrated from Mexico 12 years ago. They spend summers and early falls in Michigan picking apples at orchards, but leave for southern climates as the cold weather approaches.
While in West Michigan, they and other migrant families live in very sparse trailers or housing units, often not visible from the road. Sheets are used as curtains and symbols of faith like the Virgin Mary hang on several of the front doors. Sometimes showers are located in a separate facility for families to share.
But Esteban’s outlook is one of appreciation.
“Everything is good here,” said Esteban, with Berry translating his words. He said he likes the teachers, and he is happy his girls attend a Migrant Summer Program which provides all-day schooling.
His hope for his daughter and preschool age son, Esteban: “That they are successful in school.” But college seems out of reach for the girls, who aspire to become a teacher and a doctor, he said. “We are thinking ‘no’ because it is really expensive,” he said, through translation.
Realizing New Possibilities
But college and professional careers are not impossible, said Berry, who has helped migrant students and other students new to the U.S. get exposed to different possibilities. In 2011, she brought a group of first-generation American and immigrant students, all Hispanic, to Washington, D.C., through the Close-Up program, where they met legislators and learned about U.S. government. It was a trip full of firsts.
For Guadalupe Hernandez, now 20, the experience was eye-opening. Many of the students had never flown before nor been exposed to things outside of school and work, she said. She had never thought much about government and the impact everyday citizens can make.
She learned of people making that impact and of Hispanics who fought for their freedom. “I realized how much I didn’t really consider the world around me,” she said.
Berry said she heard the same thing from other students. “Our students gained a much broader perspective on the world, a greater understanding of how government works, and most importantly a sense of empowerment,” Berry said. “They were able to see these places for themselves and address the leaders of our nation directly.”
State Reps. Justin Amash and Bill Huizenga met with students and discussed issues with them. Out of that group, Guadalupe, her sister Valeria, and at least two others have enrolled in college, Berry said.
Help Them ‘Build Dreams’
Guadalupe, who lives on the outskirts of Kent City in Casnovia with her parents and four siblings, graduated from Kent City High School in 2011. She attends Baker College and is pursuing a degree in culinary arts. Her sister Valeria, a 2013 Kent City graduate, is a freshman at Columbia University in Chicago, pursuing a degree in musical performance. Guadalupe dreams of owning a restaurant.
Guadalupe and Valeria’s parents are not migrant workers, but immigrants who came from Mexico 23 years ago. Their mother runs a beauty salon from their home, and their father works in a factory. The family lives in an area surrounded by orchards, and the sisters spent several summers babysitting migrant children. They know the way of life well.
Berry invited Guadalupe to meet with migrant parents to discuss possibilities for the children. She told them: Sign your children up for programs, enroll in extracurriculars, “something where they can learn to socialize and build dreams.”
Guadalupe has known many families over the years who make the biannual move of migrant workers, and said students often feel a disconnect and sense of impermanence with school because they don’t commit fully to one location.
Guadalupe encourages parents to inform themselves about the schools their children are attending. School programs, church retreats and a career fair during eighth grade led her to consider college. Berry was like a “door” for her, opening her up to ideas, she said.
“Always, always inform yourself as much as you can,” Guadalupe said.
Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education