For Migrant Students, A Chance To Watch History

Two teens from a Migrant Student Program in Florida will be sent to Washington to attend the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. Both students are amazing success stories.


Two teenagers from a Florida program for children of migrant workers will be sent to Washington, D.C. to attend the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. NPR's Greg Allen has this profile of the pair who are making the trip.

GREG ALLEN: Manatee County is just a short drive south of Tampa Bay, and its prime Florida farm land. It produces nearly half of the state's tomatoes plus citrus, melons and, as 16-year-old Liliana Ibarra(ph) knows well, cucumbers. Her mother works from one of the nation's largest pickle farmers, packing cucumbers in Florida, September through June.

Ms. LILIANNA IBARRA (Migrant Student, Florida): Then we travel to Michigan over the summer, which is around June, July, and we go over there to work, and they work over there harvesting the cucumber the same - with the same rancher here in Florida.

(Soundbite of announcement)

ALLEN: Lakewood Ranch High School, were Ibarra is a junior, is about 30 miles, but in another sense a world away, from the migrant camp where she lives in a three-bedroom trailer with eight other people. With her honors and advanced courses, she has a better than 4.0 average, and is a member of the National Honor Society.

Ms. IBARRA: I have always seen education as a way out, so I just study hard and try to keep my grades up.

ALLEN: Does it come easy to you, or you have to really work hard at it?

Ms. IBARRA: Yes, I do sometimes. I mean, it's not that easy. I mean, I have to go home and help my mom with the siblings and all, and then I have time to do my homework.

ALLEN: Because of her good grades, Ibarra was eligible to apply for what she saw as once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the chance to travel to Washington for Barack Obama's inauguration. A private Florida foundation is covering the expenses. In the essay she wrote as part of her application, Ibarra described what it's like to be a child of a migrant worker, constantly on the move. My life felt like a play, she wrote, every time the curtain closed and opened again I seem to find myself in a different place. I asked her if the moves ever made her resentful.

Ms. IBARRA: Yes, sometimes. I mean, you have to leave people who you're friends with and then come to a different place and make new friends and, I mean, it's hard and especially school-wise.

(Soundbite of music)

ALLEN: At Palmetto High School, 17-year-old Pedro Limas has the alto sax solo at the annual Christmas concert. With an outgoing personality, near perfect grades, involvement with the jazz band and student council, the high school junior seems on track to fulfill his ambition to become a cardiovascular surgeon. His father works on tomato farms, part of the year in Florida and part of the year in South Carolina. Limas says that can be tough.

Mr. PEDRO LIMAS (Student, Palmetto High School): Seeing the struggles in your parents of being sad, of not being there like my dad, how he was not here for his birthday or his Father's Day. He is always out working. Or like with my mother how struggling she taught us English when we were younger.

ALLEN: Limas' family stopped moving and settled down here on Florida's Gulf Coast when he and his sister were younger, so they could make friends and get a good education. Educators here in Manatee County say they are not alone. They're seeing more migrant families settle down and fewer children and teenagers working in the fields. Limas' father, also Pedro, is clearly proud of his son. Last summer, he says, he took a direct hand in improving his son's education.

Mr. PEDRO LIMAS (Father): (Spanish spoken)

ALLEN: Limas sent his son along with a nephew to Indiana, where they worked 12-hour days in the fields detasseling corns.

Mr. LIMAS: It was hard. I've never had any job like that before. The leaves that the corn plant has, believe it or not, it has like small hair-like things that cut into your face. It's Indiana. It's five in the morning. It's cold out there, and there is a whole bunch of dew on the plant so it makes it even colder, so you're soaking.

ALLEN: Afterwards, Limas says, his father asked him, based on what you lived there what do you want? Education or the life we've gone through? The younger Limas says he already knew the answer. There are a lot of people in Manatee County pulling for Pedro Limas, Liliana Ibarra and the hundreds of other migrant students who live and go to school here.

Loraine Batista(ph) is one of them. She is a migrant liaison for the school district. For 15 years, she's worked to help migrant students graduate, and she now sees increasing numbers of them going on to college. Experiences like attending a presidential inauguration, she says, can make all the difference.

Ms. LORAINE BATISTA (Migrant Liaison, Manatee County, Florida): It's a walk in history, they're stepping into a history book. And right now I don't know that they're going to understand the value of that experience, but they certainly will in the future. And what a story to tell your grandchildren about.

(Soundbite of music)

ALLEN: It's a reminder the although history will be made in Washington on January 20th, it will reverberate far beyond that, even to the tomato and cucumber fields in Florida's Manatee County. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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