In-Betweeness as Life: Young Migrant Workers Seek Stable Education In the Face of Geographical Instability

The following interview was conducted November 25, 2008, part of a series of discussions called “44,” with people of varied background about their reactions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. This interview is with Maria Dominguez, who coordinates the Illinois Education Even Start program for migrant families.

The Illinois Migrant Council is an umbrella company for different programs. The part that corresponds to us is migrant education. Out of this Princeville, Illinois office we coordinate the migrant Illinois Education Even Start program, which promotes and provides family literacy for migrant families that come into the state of Illinois. The families coming into Illinois that are home-based in Texas we will also follow back to Texas with extended services.

The other piece of the migrant education program that takes place here is data entry. This is where we try to track all of the families that come into the state, and are recruited and served here. This part of the program serves children in grade school through high school, and are eligible through the age of 21.

My name is Maria Dominguez, I am the Projects Coordinator of the Even Start program. I have worked for Even Start for many years, and with Migrant Head Start before that. So I have worked with and been involved in the migrant population for a very long time.

The mission statement of the holistic Illinois Migrant Council reads: “To promote employment, education, opportunities, self-sufficiency, and stability.”

That part of the program tries to help families that are looking into settling into one place. They try to help them find local employment, housing. In the summertime, when the majority of families come into the state, they try to help find or give access to whatever health care might be available in the state. Vouchers, if they need vouchers for food. For gas. All just so they can get on their feet before work starts.

Most of the migrants the come into the state are working in various occupations, entirely dependent on what part of the state they go to. Once they get there and start working, a lot of them work from sun up to sun down. They work very long, extended hours. We have some families that come into the state and reside thee to six months. Some are here three or four weeks and then are gone. They’re on the move again.

So this is what the Council and Even Start provides. Why is it important or needed in these communities?

When there families migrate, when the move, they are uprooting their whole family. When they leave their home base they’re coming into a new area and need everything, from housing to clothing. Trying to find whatever educational organizations are available for their families. And they are coming in to do work that a lot of people aren’t willing to do.

Many times when they come into very small rural towns such as this they don’t have support, and are need just to do the job they came to do. Not only does that work benefit those of us in the wider communities, but its wages are their only means of survival. These are very low income workers, at or below the poverty line. The income they generate from the agricultural work is all the income they’ll have.

                           Audaz Garza, seated in November, 2012, began migrating to Princeville, Illinois for                                work in the 1950’s.

So there is a great need. A great need to help families and try to maintain some balance. There’s a real need of education concerning the children, to support those kids so that they don’t fall behind. So that they don’t fall through the cracks. One of the things the Migrant Education Program does is, as I said, track the children as they move from place to place, and offer extended educational services to keep those kids at grade level. And try to maintain their credits to stay on track for graduation, so they don’t fall back and feel the need to drop out. And we encourage them to continue to their education once they graduate from high school.

Some of their families have migrated for generations, so the kids sometimes have a natural tendency to just want to stay in the migrant stream. For this reason they may not look to continue their education if they don’t feel they have the support and that push to do so.

About thirteen years ago, while in high school, I spent a summer in Peoria helping my Spanish teacher as an assistant to a group of young migrant children. I remember it as a very good experience, and that they are were happy to be there and learn. How would you characterize the local mood towards the migrant workers and their families?

Here, specifically around the Princeville area, the migrant families have come here for so long now that the community has adapted. They know pretty much when to expect them every year. The town for the most part has gotten to the point where they welcome them. You do still see some circumstances of bias—I think particularly as it is such a small town, population of 1,700, and primarily Anglo—that you don’t always get rid of that sentiment.

But overall I think they’re well accepted. The families that come into Princeville are second, third generation migrants. They’ve been coming to this area for a long time. Most families that come here have a home-base in Texas and migrate for the duration of the work, and then they go back to Texas. But that’s not always the case in some other places of Illinois.

In the Campaign-Rantoul area the majority of the families come in for corn detasseling, so they’re there for three or four weeks. And they could have come in from Washington, Illinois if they were picking apples or asparagus. They’ll do detasseling too. And then they’ll move up north to Michigan to continue on with the next crop.

And then we have areas in southern Illinois, around the Carbondale area, where we’ve had families who’ve come into the area and basically established their own community within the local populace. So they have their own grocery stores, their own meeting places and churches. There’s a lot of little restaurants popping up. So it just depends on the area of the state and how much the community is used to them there

Cobden, down in southern Illinois, is very different, even though they have started to settle out and become embedded in the community. There’s a lot more bias there, a lot of racism that’s still pretty obvious . And I think that contributes to the families wanting to form their own groups, their own communities. Separate yourselves.

It’s striking how common this might be. Part of my graduate work involved research into California school models for immigrant children. Again and again an isolation on the part of the students was institutionalized. They were not quite a part of either their homes or schools, they found themselves caught between two cultures.

Yes, they get caught in between. It turns into a real cycle and it becomes very difficult. One thing we see is that once they learn the English language not only are they now in that in-between place, but the parents also then depend on them as translators. Either because of the busy work schedules or because they don’t see the need, the parents don’t pick up the language themselves. Once the kids learn English then the parents might think there is less of a need. A lot of times the mindset is “We have someone to translate, there is no need now.” Then the children are even more caught in the middle.

                           Anavelia Rodriguez in 1996 about to celebrate her quinceanera—her 15th birthday                             —while her family lived in Princeville’s migrant camp.

There’s also a stigma with the migrant kids that not only is there a difference between the Anglo community, the school environment and their homes, but even between the migrant population. Those inside differences set them even further apart. And you kind of see that, where many times kid’s don’t feel right. Like they can’t relate to the children who do not migrate.

Even when they are back in Texas. It’s like you have that group of Hispanic kids that don’t migrate, but stay in Texas. The returning migrant kids are still left out, even when coming back into a big Hispanic population. In a sense they’re not even a part of that population.

Give me a better idea of the Even Start program. Do you work in conjunction with the local schools?

Right now we are not working with the migrant Princeville families because of the drop in numbers that we’ve had the past couple of years. But at the other sites—Kankakee, Mendota, Champaign-Rantoul, and Cobden—this is where we have the Even Start services.

They are home-bound services in which we hire home visitors to work with parents and children to conduct educational services. Part of that is to help the children stay at the level they need to be at. If it’s a child that hasn’t started school yet then the focus is preparing them to enter. If the children are already in school then it’s about trying to keep them with their peers. That’s the support piece, and then there’s the piece trying to get parents to understand how important it is for them to work with the children. For them to know how they can be involved in their children’s education, regardless of whether they speak the language or not. We show them tools and techniques. A lot of times it’s just important for the kids to know the parents care about their schooling.

What is the age range?

Even Start serves birth through the age of eight. As part of that we have meetings with the children’s teachers to make sure the service is being coordinated and what is being taught at home will correlate with what’s being taught in the classroom.

Many times if a teacher feels a child has a special need in a specific area then we’ll try to focus on that. Because we really want the children to have as much benefit as possible. Another piece of that is to encourage the parents to continue their own education, whether it is with English as a Second Language (ELS), or a GED need if they are trying to become citizens. At first their education might be finding resources that can accessed locally. If so we’ll step in and find instructors.

What are some examples of curriculum?

Curriculum will vary. We try to tap into research-based programs that will meet the needs of the population we’re working with. Not everything out there works, because of the language barrier, but also because of the logistics of teaching a population that moves. Many times we tap into several curriculum and pull out the pieces that would apply to our kids.

We’ve used some things that are on the market, like Creative Curriculum, and we’ve accessed a program that Even Start put together in New York. We’ve used parts of that. There’s also a Wings curriculum that was designed for use by parents in the home. That’s one we use often because all of the activities are structured into developmental areas and by age.

What strategies do you use when it comes to language?

We take the approach of following the lead at home, of the children. Because of this it can vary. Some times we have kids that are primarily Spanish speakers, and the instruction will also be in Spanish.

                                 Illinois Migrant Education Program

If we have a bilingual student that goes back and forth we again follow the child’s lead. We’re more interested in making sure they understand the concepts being taught, versus specifically expanding language skills.

If the home is Spanish we try to encourage that the home reinforces and strengthens the Spanish language, because the research shows if the children have a strong foundation in their primary language it will make it easier to learn a secondary. So we really try to encourage parents to reinforce the primary, and not jump the gun to pick up that secondary language immediately. A lot of our families think they do need to do just this, and want to learn English as quickly as possible, bring it into the home, which is understandable.

That must be difficult, obviously because English is understood by the families to be the language of opportunity.

I know. It is. For those kids that are already in school it will also depend if they are in a bilingual classroom. In some of our sites the public schools do have bilingual programs offered, so there again we are in concert with the local school system. We coordinate that piece of it, depending on the instruction the child is taking part in.

Which strategies have you found to be most beneficial: bilingual or separation?

That’s a hard one. A really tough one. It’s one of those areas where, in my opinion, it comes back to the individual child. I don’t think there might be one correct or “best” way to instruct.

Because I’ve seen kids who will be enrolled in a bilingual program and it’ll be the best thing for them. It’s like they catch on and they have that ability to code switch from one language to another—and to be able to distinguish between both. And I’ve also seen kids that go into a bilingual program and are really confused. Sometimes we end up with more complications and problems because it seems to take them longer to learn. Some don’t know which direction to go in.

Then I’ve those kids that are in an all-English classroom and are struggling because they don’t have the support and background in the native language to help them understand the transfer concepts between the two languages. And then they become withdrawn. One of the things I see in that scenario—so maybe this will give you your answer—is in classes where I see the school systems have only all-English. Those are the kids that fall between the cracks. Those are the kids where the teachers do not—or cannot—take the time to help them. They don’t want to take the time to help them adjust to the new setting, and students become withdrawn. They lose hope. They don’t want to go to school. And many times the teachers will just want to send them to special ed, because they are not at reading level and don’t know the concepts familiar to other kids. And instead of working with them and realizing that the language barrier is the issue, they generalize and just think that they need to be in a different classroom. We’ve come across many situations in which, as along as the child isn’t in their room, the teacher is okay with that. Whereas in a bilingual setting at least the staff is more conscience of the difference and specific needs.

Beyond classes you also provide scholarships.

There are migrant scholarships out there that we help the families tap into.

Where does the funding come from?

Most of it is federally funded. Our Even Start work is all through federal monies. They all come from the U.S. Department of Education. When we applied for and were awarded the grant the Migrant Council became our administrative agency.

If you will excuse this question, many Americans might hear this and say something along the lines of “Why should federal money go toward kids that aren’t citizens?”

Right, yes. Actually, the majority of our families are citizens. I think it’s a big misconception that they are not. One thing I have found as I’m out meeting with agencies and collaborators is that there’s a lot of confusion between the terms “migrant” and “immigrant.” It is automatically assumed they are all immigrants. The difference is that a “migrant” is an agricultural farm worker that travels from place to place within the United States. The majority of our families travel within the United States.

An immigrant is of course someone who comes in from a different country, and they can work as whatever once they are in this country. We don’t ask about being documented or undocumented. That’s not something we have an interest in. We know that the majority of our families are coming from Texas or Florida. A lot will travel from California into the Midwest. Very few of the families we are working within Illinois will actually return to Mexico to then return to the U.S. the next season. Most of our families have home-addresses, like I said, with the state. So a lot of them we do know they are here legally.

Depending on what part of the country you are in you will also see a lot of Anglo migrant workers. There’s a lot of Asian migrant workers, a lot of Africa-American workers. So one of the things I have encountered is when people hear the term “migrant” they automatically assume Hispanic, Mexican, South American. That to them is what a migrant is.

I can tell you that in Illinois our largest percentage is still Mexican, but then we’ve started to see a trend of movement from Puerto Rico. Many families around the Beardstown area are coming from Puerto Rico. We’ve come across some whose nationalities are Guatemalan or El Salvadoran.

Outside of the educational sphere, what type of work do migrant workers usually take part it?

I mentioned the detasseling. Down south we have orchards, so they’re either picking apples, peaches, berries. In the Carbondale area we have wineries popping up, so that’s a new trend, to go in and pick grapes. Locally and in the Rantoul area pumpkins are the big produce. In Mendota it’s corn for the Del Monte company. Also some meat packing. But just a lot of local vegetables, a lot of vegetables.

What is the common payment for the work?

It depends. Mostly it’s going to be minimum wage that is set by each piece picked. But very low.

What happens to families, to individuals, in the off season?

When they return to their home bases they will usually look for construction work. Families will try to pick up whatever work may be available. Home construction, road construction. If they’re in the right Texas areas, they might try the oil fields or the oil rigs. Pretty much whatever they can pick up until it is time to return.

But they do find themselves here. They’re traveling throughout the country, actively in pursuit of these jobs. Not because they are great jobs, but because it’s the best of what’s available?

I think of the families who have been in the migrant stream for years or generations. That’s just the routine they have established. When they migrate to a job it is known that the work hours are going to be long with little pay, but it allows them to save up a little money while they’re here. Many times the older kids will also join a work force and go into the fields as well to contribute to the family income. Which again allows for something to be saved to be taken back.

How did you get involved?

I started working for Migrant Head Start out of high school. I was living in Peoria and I found there was an Hispanic population that came to Princeville every summer. I was interested in working with my culture, and once I started working there, when I got to know the families and the kids, I was hooked. It’s a population with so much need. Once you get to know them the families are amazing, the kids are amazing. You want to do whatever you can to make things work out for them and encourage them. That’s how I got involved, and that’s why I’m still here.

What personal stories do you have, either with families or students?

There are so many. When I was still in Head Start and working in the preschool classroom, one of the things we always tried to do was get the kids to love learning. It shouldn’t be a chore, and we wanted them to get their heads around the whole concept. At the time we were doing projects, so a lot of the learning was done through investigative work and research. And I remember it sticking with Eddie Vanega. He was someone I had had in preschool, and a few years later, while I was the migrant camp, he came up to me. Eddie showed me what he had found while fishing with his dad.

And there was this little frog in his hand. I said to him it was very interesting, and I wondered what type of frog it was. It was so tiny. And he started shooting off all these details about this frog that he held in his hand. I was so surprised, and asked Eddie how he knew all of this. That’s so great, you know? He told me, “I had gone to the library and I looked up frogs. I found a picture and I learned all about it.” And those are the moments that made everything we strive to do, it showed that we really are touching them. That you really were making an impact. Here was a child that had taken what he had learned about research and took the initiative because he was so interested.

There’s a child that used to migrate up to the Mendota area from Texas. Again, he’s from a family that has migrated for several generations. His generation—his brothers and sisters—are the first ones to benefit form the Estreya Project, in which, through the use of laptops and special technology, they completed their credits for high school. They were able to graduate high school with honors and continue on to earn degrees. He is now settled back in Texas, and he is looking to start a family business. They’re out of the migrant stream, supporting their families with their education. And we’re seeing more of that, when we travel to the national conferences every year. Some of the students are on hand, and they share their stories. It’s really moving. It’s really powerful to hear directly from the students how they have gone from working in the fields to having that drive to complete their education. It’s amazing how many go on to become educators themselves.

There is also Ani, who basically migrated all her life. But Ani went through Head Start and the Migrant Education program and has gone on to get her teaching degree. Married very young and had a child very young, and I worked with her in Head Start. Through that she has gotten a feel for educating the families and working for them. She now is working on her master’s for International Studies at Bradley University. So she is about to have that accomplishment and she wants to teach in China for awhile.

So there you have someone who came out of the migrant stream and she has done just amazing things. At one point she was recognized by the National Family Literacy Council and given an award because of all her achievements. She’s someone we’re very proud of.

You said that most migrants have the status of citizens. Sometimes there must as a real confusion of instinctually labeling a migrant as “illegal.”

Right, there can be a stigma. But after awhile it’s just something the families get used to. Even if I were to include myself as a minority, it’s just something you get used to after awhile. For most that I serve, they are just so humble. After running into so many situations, I think it is just a part of who they are. That it’s all taken in stride. Perhaps even an acceptance of the possibility of such things happening.

You show your papers, but in the long run, in the end, what do you do? What do you do? You pretty much just have to comply with whatever it takes to prove who you are.

What other misconceptions might people have?

One of the big ones I run into, from an educational aspect, is that the families don’t care about their children’s education. That they are okay with the status quo. And that they don’t care if their children succeed. The misconception that they are not involved parents, and the kids are pretty much left on their own. One thing we see is that even though parents work these long, excruciating hours, when it comes to making time for our visitors coming into the home to work with the kids they make the time. Sometimes our visitors are coming into the home at seven or eight at night, after the parents have been in the fields all day and the kids have been in school. And they still allow the visitor to come in and sit with them. Because the visitor is coming to work with the child and they want their child to succeed.

You can also see that, when it comes to the adults themselves, there isn’t the same amount of drive, that extra step to get into an ESL class, that they have for their kids. A lot of times that is just that they don’t know how to get into the school system. They don’t know what the expectations are. Especially if we have families that are coming from the background of let’s say Mexico. In Mexico it is the teacher’s responsibility to educate and discipline. Culturally, home and school are completely separate concepts. So if they are coming from that background they don’t realize that it is different here, that it’s okay for them to get involved, its okay for them to partner with the schools. That’s one of those areas where we inform and try to encourage.

I’ll try to tie this a little bit to about president-elect and going forward with a new administration. What might Barack Obama do for your work and program?

I don’t know. I think as far as Obama being president and the mantra of change, I that that in general is a positive thing. I think that the state the country is in overall, however, with the economy and the wars all the issues out there—realistically, personally—I don’t know how much he can accomplish to impact these smaller things. Our funding is from the federal government; we depend on them allowing the money for Even Start into the budget. And we’ve been zeroed out now for several years under President Bush. This last year we were fighting for lives to keep the program running. That’s one area that our hope is, with President-elect Obama, that maybe it will get re-instated and that these programs will continue. But because of the economy and the across-the-board need, I don’t know if realistically the money will be there. We hope there will be, because on the one hand if you’re realistic about the situation I think we’re placing a lot of hope on him that we will make a difference. But there’s a lot for him to deal with. Personally, it is a big mess that he’s stepping into, and it’s going to take a lot.

                           President Obama at the Children’s Community Center, one of the oldest providers of                              Head Start, in Lawrence, Kansas, in December, 2015

Earlier you spoke about possible past complacency among minorities, taking things as they are. Will might this election for this attitude?

That’s the one area I really hope he’ll become a role model. If nothing else it shows what can be accomplished. As a minority you can learn to accept the status quo: “That’s just how it is, why bother?” But in the position he’s in has shown—minorities specifically—what can be achieved if they really work for it.

Now he can be used as another example to motivate parents, because look, though some times we only say it or only have words, but now we have examples to back it up. Now we can point at something very tangible.

***For more oral history interviews concerning the 2008 election of Barack Obama, click here:

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