Guest Post: Growing Up with a Migrant Mother

Conde La Voz Staff Photo

Photo Credit: La Voz

I recently attended the funeral of our Godmother Lala Esquibel. Her passing was more than an interruption of the life our families.

The closer you got to her two sons in their moment of sorrow, the more devastating was her departure. They say that funerals are a way of coping for those left behind and this certainly was a great example of that purpose.

I lost my mother in 2002 after a relatively long illness. Knowing she would be gone soon, she attended our family reunion in Austin, Texas to say goodbye and ask her younger sister, my Aunt Lydia, to look after us.

We buried Uncle Robert, one of mother’s brothers a week ago in Texas and everyone was there including my Aunt Lydia. My brief moments with her brought back so many memories of living with and loving mom.

As I prepare to celebrate both the Mexican Mothers Day on Thursday, May 10th and Sunday May 13th for those in the United States, I have so much to go over. The spirit and shadow of mother’s power and affection hangs over us as it has always.

My earliest memory of mom was when she was 15 and I was a 1-year old holding a tin cup so that my grandfather, who was milking a cow by hand, could fill it. Drinking that warm milk with mother looking at me with pride was the subject of the first story I wrote for a school project.

I remember her with us in the back of a truck as we prepared to leave South Texas for the harvest fields of the Midwest. Our travel began that year in front of a courthouse where one of the men in the group went in to get a copy of his birth certificate because even then, having your papers in order was important.

It was that year that mom showed her mettle as a 19-year old leader in the migrant community. I was on the floor at my father’s feet in the front cabin of a truck that was headed back home from the harvest fields of Missouri, Ohio, Michigan and Arkansas when we were refused service at a restaurant in Wichita Falls, Texas. My angry mother came from the back of the truck and took over the driver’s seat and the caravan that followed.

She found a restaurant that would serve us because she could read a sign that said, “We serve all the children of God.” She never waited for the right political climate such as today’s “#Me Too” to exercise effective leadership as a woman and her reputation grew in the fields even after we settled in Colorado.

Until shortly before I left to join the Air Force, mom continued to take the family during the summers to work the cotton fields in the South. The last time I spent one of these summers with her, she managed a Black crew from Louisiana that chopped and clean the cotton fields of Central Texas.

In a way she was like an older sister that grew up taking care of a younger sibling. Our closeness came out of growing up together in an atmosphere of unconditional love that only a mother can give.

Mom created a magical world founded in the richness of what she offered even in the middle of poverty and economic challenges. She was a leader of people that always sought to address issues greater than herself and the regular requirements of a loving mother.

[Written by David Conde. Published in La Voz Bilingüe on May 9, 2018.]

Dr. David Conde is the President for North America of the Chamber of the Americas.  He currently serves as the President of the ECMHSP Board of Directors and a Contributing Writer to La Voz Bilingüe. 

Strengthening Community Ties in Semmes

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Ilsy Gray has been the Center Director at ECMHSP Semmes Center since July of 2017.  But her story with ECMHSP started in 2014, when she was the Family Services Coordinator.  She says this position prepared her for the challenging role that she holds today.  Ilsy is originally from Honduras and holds a degree from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), where she graduated as a Chemical Engineer.  Besides leading her center to success, Ilsy is also working toward an Early Childhood Education degree at Bishop State Community College.  She’s passionate about furthering her education and motivating others to do the same.

Stephanie, an ECMHSP parent, recently got hired as the new Family Services Coordinator, which will allow her to take a break from working in the fields and spending more time with her family.  Stephanie previously served on the Parent Committee in 2014 as the Secretary, so she has been trusted with this role of enrolling farmworker families.  “Good communication has been key to building strong relationships.  It’s rewarding to see the children and their family’s growth as seasons go by,” says Ilsy.

The families at the Semmes Center in Alabama harvest fruits and vegetables. In addition, they plant and prune ornamental plants, ferns, and pine trees for Christmas. The season starts in May and ends in September.  The countries primarily represented by the center’s farmworker families are from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

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ECMHSP Semmes Center Parent Orientation 2018

They recently opened for the season on Monday, May 7 with 45 children. This season, staff plans on strengthening their current community partnerships, which are crucial for farmworker families’ well-being. One of the most important partnerships is with the Mobile Health Department.  The Semmes Center staff consider themselves lucky to have two former ECMHSP employees working at the Mobile Health Department, making them very responsive to the center’s needs.

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David Baker, Mayor of Semmes, Alabama, visits the ECMHSP Semmes Center.

In addition, the City Hall of Semmes is very engaged with the center. Last year, David Baker, Mayor of Semmes, Alabama, accepted the center’s invitation and attended the literacy festival, where he shook the hands of many of our ECMHSP parents.  Ilsy looks forward to a great 2018 season at the Semmes Center.  She has promised to stay in touch and continue sharing the growth of her community.

Building Trust in Loxley

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The ECMHSP Loxley Center in Loxley, Alabama, welcomed more than 40 children on Monday, May 7.  The families we serve work with a variety of crops, such as: sweet potatoes, potatoes, strawberries, corn, green beans, and peppers.  Dignora Bonilla is confident that in the upcoming weeks, more than 100 children will fill the center with joy and laughter, especially since a third person has been recently added to her team to help with recruitment.

Dignora came to U.S. from the Dominican Republic at the age of 16.  She joined the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project family in 2009 as an Assistant Teacher at the Loxley Center.  About a year later, she was appointed as the Family Services Coordinator.  During the last nine years at ECMHSP, her passion of serving farmworker families has allowed her to grow professionally and take advantage of the educational opportunities.

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Dignora Bonilla, Family Services Coordinator at ECMHSP Loxley Center, enjoys reading to the kids.

Dignora shares that new families tend to have a difficult time at the beginning of each season, which is the reason why it’s so important for her to build trust the first time she meets with them.  A couple seasons ago, she recalls a single mother dropping off her four-year-old child on the first day.  They both hugged each other as they cried their eyes out.  The woman told Dignora that she wasn’t sure about leaving her son anymore. Dignora comforted her by saying she would keep a close eye on her son.  “Your child is safe with us.  Please allow us to place him on this path to school success,” said Dignora.  About 10 minutes after the child’s mom left, Dignora found him in the playroom interacting and laughing with the other children, so she sent mom a picture to give her peace of mind.

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The Loxley Center children are really excited to participate in crazy hair day. 

What is the key to her team’s success with our farmworker families?  Respecting their values, being culturally sensitive, and always reminding them of the organization’s open-door policies.  Farmworker families at the Loxley Center are immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.  When asked about the uniqueness of her center, Bonilla points out that the Loxley staff is very dedicated. “We make things happen. Our center is the priority, so if we need additional training to cover a different position, we do it,” says Dignora proudly. All teams come together to ensure that they provide high quality services for our farmworker families.  Stay tuned as the Loxley Center continues to advocate for more farmworker families.

Two Decades of Serving North Carolina Farmworker Families

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Celia Rodriguez was born in Mexico and came to the U.S. when she was two years of age.  Her parents were farmworkers for more than 30 years, so she knows firsthand how much migrant farmworker families struggle.  Celia recalls being a migrant farmworker child between the ages of 10 and 14 years.  The hardest thing about being a migrant farmworker child was adjusting to a new school and making friends.  Celia couldn’t make close friendships because she moved every three months. Another difficulty she faced was that each school had a different curriculum.

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During her first day at the ECMHSP Long Creek Center, a child plays with her teacher.

Today, she’s been working at the ECMHSP Long Creek Center in North Carolina for 21 years as a Family Services Coordinator.  The Long Creek Center serves primarily three groups of families during the season.  First, the families who come to pick strawberries from early April and usually stay until late June or early July.  Then, there are the blueberry families who usually arrive in May and leave the first week of July.  Lastly, the tomato families arrive around July and stay until the end of the season, which is in late September.

Part of Celia’s profession is to build strong community partnerships, which can sometimes provide life-saving services.  Last year, a four-year-old child at Long Creek Center was found to have a brain cyst.  A nurse at Pender County Health Department and a social worker tried endlessly to get the child an appointment to see a specialist.  Celia served as a point of communications between the medical professionals and the child’s family.  During more than two decades of working at ECMHSP, Celia had never felt so much frustration for not being able to help as she watched the child’s mom crying on a regular basis, pleading for an appointment.  After six weeks, Chapel Hill Hospital was finally able to perform a CAT scan and informed the parents that the cyst would not hurt their child’s development.  The family and the ECMHSP staff were relieved with the news.

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Celia Rodriguez, Family Services Coordinator at ECMHSP, has been advocating for farmworker families for 21 years.

The Long Creek Center opened its doors to farmworker families for the season on May 2.  Meeting new children and their families is Celia’s favorite part of her job.  “The children’s voices and their singing make this a happy place.  The children bring life into the centers,” says Celia.  It’s because of mission-driven leaders like Celia that our migrant and seasonal farmworker children successfully transition into public school.

By sharing our blog post with your family and friends, you will help us continue advocating for more farmworker families on the East Coast.  We will continue to write about the miracles that happen every day at our centers.

Beyond Beyoncé: Farmworkers Fear the Worst While the Music Plays on

IMG_6464“Let’s just cut to the chase,” writes Jon Caramanica, pop music critic in today’s New York Times, “There’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful and radical performance by an American musician this year, or any year soon, than Beyoncé’s headlining set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/15/arts/music/beyonce-coachella-review.html

About seven miles down the road from the scene of Beyoncé’s great triumph, a farmworker family spends a blistering hot afternoon in their double-wide trailer, shades drawn.  Gabriel Thompson, a journalist based in Oakland, California, shares this family’s story and the fear that permeates their life in Coachella, Underground, a piece for which I and others at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project were interviewed.

I don’t mean to dis Beyoncé.  In fact, I am a huge fan.  “Sorry” has been a rallying cry for our project since the song’s release in June of 2016.  Our farmworkers celebrate the song’s chorus.  It resonates: Why should we apologize for our presence when “rich or poor, what Americans have on their dining room tables is what we are giving them from our hands.” https://vimeo.com/158226128  I also love the video for “Sorry”, with its allusions to farm work, crew buses, and the stark dividing line that often exists between farm labor and farm capital.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you of the fear of family separation farmworkers experience each day they leave their children in our care and head to the fields and to the packing houses.  When all that stands between our parents and the loss of their American dream is a “broken tail light” and a sheriff’s deputy without a heart.  There are no music festivals to draw attention to it, but in Florida, Alabama, and the rural Mid-Atlantic, our farmworker communities remain persecuted as traffic stops lead to immigration holds that too often lead to removal proceedings.

In the face of these attacks, it’s important to support the causes that serve and uplift farmworker families.  East Coast Migrant Head Start Project is just one non-profit among many that have built a capacity to help farmworkers involved in immigration removal proceedings.  You should support us and you should support our partners.

Meanwhile, our farmworkers will no doubt do what they’ve always done: be resilient, work hard, and have faith that their resilience and hard work will be rewarded.  Until then, deuces up.

 

ECMHSP Shares Best Practices for Services at MAFO Conference

MAFO held its annual National Farmworker Conference and Convention this week in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  The MAFO Conference is an opportunity for advocates and service providers for the farmworker community to come together to discuss current issues affecting America’s farmworkers and to share innovative tools and best practices.  The theme of this year’s conference was Building Stronger Rural Communities and ECMHSP’s strong presence made significant contributions in support of it.

Rudy Beserra, Vice President of Latin Affairs at Coca-Cola with ECMSHP COO Javier Gonzalez.

Members from the ECMHSP Board of Directors and staff attended the conference townhalls on Sunday, as well as the workshops and plenaries on the following two days.  ECMHSP leadership also had the opportunity to share strategies on how to effectively provide services to the farmworker community through workshop presentations.

In a session titled, “Using Technology to Connect Programs,” Dr. José Villa, ECMHSP Chief Executive Officer, and Andy Pederson, IT Manager, presented ECMHSP’s efforts to utilize technology to improve data collection and effectively deliver high quality services.  They also discussed the organization’s work with partner organizations to increase collaboration and improve services delivered to the farmworker families.

In addition, Dr. Villa presented in the workshop, “Giving Migrant Children a Head Start,” accompanied by Christine Alvarado, ECMHSP Chief Innovations Officer; Javier Gonzalez, Chief Operations Officer; and Governance and Norma Flores López, Collaboration/Development Manager.  The session provided an operational view of the comprehensive Head Start services provided by ECMHSP to successfully meet the unique needs of the preschool children of farmworkers, and the program outcomes and successes achieved through collaborative partnerships.

Dr. Jose Villa, ECMHSP CEO, presents the LUPE Award at the MAFO Awards Gala.

On Tuesday night, MAFO held its Leadership Award Banquet and Gala, where MAFO honors the excellence and dedication of individuals, particularly those who do outreach, perform hard work and whose efforts many times go unrecognized or unrewarded.  The evening included the conference participants, leaders in the farmworker community, and community leaders representing the Albuquerque area.  A mariachi band initiated the evening’s celebration, and a young troupe of flamenco dancers provided entertainment during dinner.  Dr. Villa, as a member of the MAFO Board of Directors, participated in the awards ceremony by introducing the recipient of this year’s LUPE Award at the gala.  To close out the evening, the night’s keynote speaker, Arturo Rodriguez, President of the United Farm Workers, gave a motivating speech, reminding advocates that as a community, we have overcome larger obstacles than today’s political climate. He shared, as examples, the personal victories of farmworker advocates in the room, including ECMHSP’s Dr. Villa and Javier Gonzalez.

The MAFO Conference provided ECMHSP access to relevant and emerging information for service providers and advocates of the farmworker community, as well as an opportunity to reconnect and network with diverse and multicultural rural community leaders and organizations. We look forward to more opportunities to represent our community at next year’s conference in San Antonio, Texas!

Norma Flores Lopez, ECMHSP staff, with UFW President Arturo Rodriguez and UFW Foundation Executive Director Diana Tellefson Torres.

Celebrating a Bright Future in Palmetto

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Our ribbon-cutting ceremony was led by Dr. Villa, CEO, and Layssa Marie Garcia, President of the Palmetto Parent Committee. Photo credit: Ted Hoffman

Surrounded by parents, children, and community partners, East Coast Migrant Head Start Project celebrated its newest child care center for farmworker families on March 15th in Palmetto, Florida, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The ribbon-cut at Palmetto was the culmination of many years of hard work; but the smiles of the farmworker families attending the ceremony was the best evidence that the hard work was well worth the effort.

The Palmetto Center began as the vision of Director of Program Operations, Angel Casiano, and Florida Head Start Administrator, Dora Sanders. Angel and Dora spent many hours, days, and weeks, exploring ways in which to serve farmworker families living in Palmetto. For years, Angel and Dora had partnered with our transportation team to bring children to our Head Start center in Myakka. But the Myakka Center is almost thirty miles from Palmetto, which is a long bus route for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers to experience. Moreover, there were more farmworker children in Palmetto in need of services than we could possibly send on school buses to Myakka.

In April of 2015, all of Angel and Dora’s hard work paid off when the Office of Head Start awarded ECMHSP new funding for the creation of a new center in Palmetto.  ECMHSP quickly mobilized to execute on its plans to serve families in Palmetto. These plans were implemented on two fronts. Through the dedicated efforts of Kate Bloomquist, the Migrant Education Coordinator for the Manatee County, Florida School District, ECMHSP was able to lease classrooms at the Palm View Elementary School in Palmetto. The availability of these classrooms allowed ECMHSP to begin serving families within six months of the funding becoming available. This is a remarkable accomplishment when one considers all of the pre-operational issues that must be tackled before a program commences high-quality and comprehensive Head Start services. http://bit.ly/2GdLhvi

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John Menditto, ECMHSP General Counsel, talks to the children during our ribbon-cutting ceremony. Photo credit: Ted Hoffman

The second planning front involved the purchase an abandoned cinder block building at 906 17th Street West in Palmetto and the completion of a major renovation of the building to create engaging classrooms, a state-of-the art kitchen and playground space. Yet again, ECMHSP turned to Labelle architect, Ted Hoffman, to design the space and long-time (now retired) Facilities Manager, Michael Wilcox, to oversee construction. The new Palmetto Center, finished in the summer of 2017, is a welcoming space for farmworker families to have their children learn and grow, so that those children enter public school ready to succeed.

We were honored by the presence of many local dignitaries at the ribbon-cut, including Gary Tibbets, Special Assistant to Congressman Vern Buchanan; Jonathan Davis, the Honorable Vice Mayor of Palmetto, the Palmetto Fire Chief; and members of the Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County and representatives from the local Palmetto Library. Ramona De Lorea, the Vice President of the Policy Council and President of the Wauchula Center, spoke to our guests about her work with East Coast and the importance of the new center.

But the most important local dignitaries present were the children and families served at the Palmetto Center. Layssa Marie Garcia, the President of the Palmetto Center, did the honor of cutting the ribbon, and each classroom of children performed songs and danced for our entertainment. Our local Palmetto staff went above and beyond in hosting the ribbon-cutting, proving yet again that our center staff are the beating heart of our Head Start mission.