In One Generation, A Farmworker Family Grows College Ambitions For as long as he can remember, Angel Benavides, 14, has moved with his parents to follow the harvest. He splits his school year between Texas and North Dakota — and keeping up hasn't been easy.
NPR logo

In One Generation, A Farmworker Family Grows College Ambitions

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/640862283/644260265" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In One Generation, A Farmworker Family Grows College Ambitions

In One Generation, A Farmworker Family Grows College Ambitions

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/640862283/644260265" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Without seasonal workers, much of American agriculture would stop. Farmers rely on those workers to harvest crops. And when the work is done, they move on, as do their kids - about 300,000 of them nationwide - which means the kids constantly change schools. Wyoming Public Radio's Tennessee Watson learned of one student's journey.

TENNESSEE WATSON, BYLINE: Angel Benavides is a lanky 14-year-old with a killer layup. He dribbles down the court of his school gym in the farming town of Manvel, N.D. Realizing he's unmarked, he goes for the 3-pointer. It's a nice arching shot, but...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Yelling).

WATSON: It doesn't go in. This was late June, and Angel was already thinking about playing for his high school team in Texas, 1,700 miles away. But he doesn't know if his parents will be done working the harvest in time for the November tryouts. For as long as Angel can remember, his family has migrated between Texas and North Dakota to work in beets, potatoes and corn. And every year, Angel misses the first couple months of school in Texas.

ANGEL BENAVIDES: There's a lot of activity that they make, like, but it's in the beginning of the year, like, in September, August. And since I'm not there, like, I can't join late because it's already going to be way too late. So I mean, like, besides basketball, I'm, like, cut off from all - pretty much all the other activities.

WATSON: And in June, when a lot of kids are on summer vacation, Angel is in a summer school specifically for migrant students. His big goal, apart from perfecting his 3-pointer, is to complete algebra I.

BENAVIDES: We have to find the common factor, then the greatest common factor. Then...

WATSON: Angel is starting high school this fall, and he's using summer school to get ahead. He says back in seventh grade, his Texas school offered a test to get into the advanced math track, but he wasn't back from North Dakota in time to take it.

BENAVIDES: And they called my name, but since I wasn't there, they took me off the roster.

WATSON: Migrant students face this all the time. Angel, who was born in North Dakota, says he feels society has lower expectations for him because he moves around so much.

BENAVIDES: So when they say, oh, you're not going to do this - and they - like, they bring me down. But, like, that actually motivates me to prove them wrong.

WATSON: He's grateful for the support he does get - summer school, tutoring, academic advising. That didn't exist for kids like him until the late 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HARVEST OF SHAME")

EDWARD R MURROW: Approximately 1 out of every 500 children whose parents are still migrant laborers finishes grade school.

WATSON: That's CBS News broadcaster Edward R. Murrow from his 1960 documentary "Harvest Of Shame."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HARVEST OF SHAME")

MURROW: Approximately 1 out of every 5,000 ever finishes high school. And there is no case upon the record of the child of a migrant laborer ever receiving a college diploma.

WATSON: The film galvanized support for migrant farm workers. Six years later, as a part of President Johnson's war on poverty, the Migrant Education Program was born. In 2017, the program put more than $350 million toward supporting migrant students like Angel.

BENAVIDES: I want to go to college because, you know, I don't want to work in, like, some random job to, like, make ends meet, you know? I want to make money, you know? I want to live a nice life.

WATSON: Farmworkers are among the country's lowest annual earners, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But for Angel, the Migrant Education Program promises a new future. Both his parents grew up in farmworker families, and neither graduated from high school. His mom migrated as a kid from Texas to Arizona following the apricot and peach harvests. In sixth grade, her dad took her out of school to work in the fields because the family needed money. Angel knows that for his sake, his mom wishes she'd stayed in school.

BENAVIDES: She's like, I'm sorry that you have to do this; I know it hurts. You know, she feels bad for me that we have to, like, go back and forth and stuff, so - that really makes me feel lucky that I have, like, the chance to, like, educate myself.

WATSON: His older brother's already in college. That's a big shift in just one generation. Angel's certain that he'll go to college, too, with help from the Migrant Education Program.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

WATSON: But the program can't help him get back to Texas in time for basketball.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

BENAVIDES: Hello?

WATSON: Hey. It's Tennessee. Is this Angel?

Summer's winding down, and I call up Angel to see how things are going.

How was summer school?

BENAVIDES: It was pretty good, actually. I finished algebra completely. And I finished, like, 1 1/2 credits already in one summer, so that was pretty nice.

WATSON: So when you go back to Texas, do you think you'll be able to get into that advanced math class that you wanted to?

BENAVIDES: Yeah. I'm pretty sure I am. I'm already caught up, so yeah.

WATSON: And there's more good news. Angel says his dad decided not to work the corn harvest this year, so he can make it back in time for basketball tryouts. For NPR News, I'm Tennessee Watson in Laramie, Wyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOONCAKE'S "NOVOROSSIYSK 1968")

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.