One of the fundamental tenets of journalism is that a reporter should not write in first person. That should be left to columnists; however, I must write this story in first person because I have had the privilege of watching the story unfold.
Sergio Cuevas teaches READ 180, a reading intervention program at McAllen High School.
This story begins a few months ago when Sergio invited Noemi Ochoa, Texas Coordinator for the Children of the Fields Campaign, to speak to his students about the group’s efforts to strengthen child labor laws and to fight the inequitable treatment of child farm workers. Some of Sergio’s students felt a personal connection to the children Noemi described.
“I was supposed to start school at Roosevelt Elementary at age five,” said one of Sergio’s students, Jonathan Ruiz, “but I couldn’t because my family had no money for supplies. My parents were farm workers here. I didn’t start school until I was six.” Jonathan is now a tenth grader.
Another sophomore, Kimberly Chavez, could also relate. “Mrs. Ochoa made me realize there’s so much discrimination,” she said, “working for hours without food or water. From my experience working in the fields in North and South Dakota, you’re tired and you just want to rest. I missed out on a lot. When I got to school, I was lost. I was just given a stack of work. Where were the explanations? They need to change the laws. We were minors, we were working, and we got so little money for all that work.”
Shortly after Noemi taught Sergio’s students about Children of the Fields, I asked Sergio if my students could present a short American Sign Language lesson to his students during Deaf Awareness Week. Sergio loved the idea. After my students taught them several basic signs, we had a bit of time left in the period.
“I heard you had an interesting visitor recently,” I said to his students. “Can you tell my students what you learned?”
Sergio’s students jumped out of their seats and went to the podium he has in his room. We could hear the passion in their voices as they described how migrant farm workers are forgotten when it comes to the federal minimum wage law, how the pesticides can poison them and how child farm workers often drop out of school because they fall further and further behind. Without looking at any notes, Sergio’s students provided my students with facts and statistics. The essays were much more than a classroom assignment. Those children in the fields had entered their hearts.
After Noemi’s presentation, Sergio asked his students to write an expository essay about Children of the Fields. When Noemi heard about the students’ essays, she asked for a copy so she could send them to the Children of the Fields’ main office in Washington, D.C. The mention of D.C. got Sergio thinking again. Wouldn’t it be great if President Obama heard about his students’ efforts and sent a letter to them, encouraging them to improve their reading and writing skills and telling them how these skills affect their lives?
Sergio decided the best way to send a letter to the president would be to ask a Valley congressman to deliver it for him. He contacted McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez to see if the mayor could put him in contact with someone in Congressman Ruben Hinojosa’s office.
Sergio had no idea Mayor Cortez would become personally involved with his students.
“When a teacher goes above and beyond to motivate his students and cares about his students the way Sergio does,” Mayor Cortez said, “of course I am going to be motivated to get involved.”
He told Sergio he would not only put him in contact with the congressman, but he would also send a formal letter to Sergio’s students and he would provide some books and incentives for the students, as well.
In Mayor Cortez’s letter, he explains to the students that he struggled with reading and writing as a boy. “The only difference with people who succeed and those that don’t are the ones who succeed are willing to do what the ones who don’t succeed are not willing to do,” Mayor Cortez wrote. “Success is relative. What is important is not what others think of us but what we think of ourselves.”
Sergio’s students couldn’t believe the Mayor of McAllen had taken the time to write a personal letter to them. They were even more surprised at what he did next.
“We were just in class when the door opened and the mayor walked in,” Jonathan said. “And if memory serves me right, it was September 30th, my birthday.”
“We joked that the next minute the door would open and President Obama would walk in,” said Christopher Edding-Ruiz, a ninth grader in Sergio’s class.
A few weeks later, Sergio was informed that Mayor Cortez would be returning to his classroom, this time with Congressman Hinojosa. The students decided to make posters about Children in the Fields to put on display during the visit, though they knew Congressman Hinojosa’s presentation would be about raising Pell Grant awards and other educational efforts.
Mayor Cortez and Congressman Hinojosa brought the congressman’s daughter, Hidalgo County District Clerk Laura Hinojosa, with them. Laura is the president of the South Texas Literary Coalition. She brought three new books for each of Sergio’s students, all of them by Latino authors.
“Because the authors are all Latino,” Christopher said, “we can relate to them. You grow more attached to the books. There’s more relevance. I’ve always been a good writer, but I’ve grown fonder of writing because now I know it can have an impact.”
“I’m still in the process of becoming a great writer,” Kimberly added. Only recently has Kimberly realized she wants to pursue a career as a writer.
During the congressman’s presentation, Laura noticed the posters around the room. One, especially. It was Kimberly’s poster: Everyone has dreams and our actions make them real. Kimberly drew a picture of a child farm worker dreaming of becoming a student and that student dreaming of becoming a business person.
When Laura commented on the poster and Congressman Hinojosa asked if anyone had any questions, the students jumped at the chance to tell the Congressman about what they had learned.
“I learned that people can know about a situation and not pay attention to it,” Christopher said. “If half the people who go to the store and buy food thought about what happens to the people who pick those crops, how they are treated, I believe the kindhearted people wouldn’t buy them. As a Latino born in Mexico, I think of the farm workers from there who go through this, too. I want people to know what is happening.”
Congressman Hinojosa couldn’t believe the students’ passion for Children of the Fields. He took copies of their essays and promised to deliver them to the proper congressional committee. He also brought a personal letter to the students.
“…I urge you to reach for the stars and strive to become the scientists, engineers, mathematicians, doctors, lawyers, teachers and innovators that our country desperately needs,” he wrote.
Sergio’s students aren’t the only ones who have learned from this lesson in political action and service learning. He has, too.
“I’ve learned that when I apply things that relate to my students, it can go a long way,” Sergio said. “We are here for more than a grade. We are here for a cause. What have I learned? You can always do something better. I am always trying to find new ways to motivate.”
Noemi has learned that her presentation was much more than that. “It has been so touching and so motivating,” she said. “When I saw how passionate the students were and that they wanted to help, it was beyond words. I called D.C. and told them our campaign needs to reach out to non-migrant students, too.” Because of Sergio’s students, this is exactly what is going to happen. Their passion resulted in a movement.
The project is far from over. Sergio still expects to receive a letter for his students from President Obama. His students have vowed to continue the fight for Children of the Fields until laws are changed to end the discrimination. And the students have embarked on another service learning project incorporating literacy. They are illustrating and writing their own children’s books for five-year-olds with disabilities who go to daycare at Easter Seals.
“Mr. Cuevas has taught me that just because you have a rough start doesn’t mean you can’t go far,” said Jonathan. “We should be grateful to have an education and a teacher who’s willing to do all of this for us. We’re so lucky to live in a country with free public education, and we should take advantage of it. And we should really help others.”