From Migrant Farmer to Future Teacher

This story is Part I of Raquel Perez’ journey to become a Texas teacher. To see what happened when Raquel’s father missed his first day of work in 28 years to surprise Raquel when she finally crossed the graduation stage, visit Part II of this Spotlight on a Charles Butt Scholar.

How a migrant farmworker defied the odds through personal determination and family sacrifice.

*Hover over map to zoom.

In April 1995, Raquel Pérez’s family left Edinburg, Texas at 3 a.m. to drive north. In their early 1980s Ford truck, the family of six began the 1,500-mile trek to Benton Harbor, Michigan. They drove for 16 hours, then pulled into a motel to catch a few hours of sleep. They woke up well before dawn the next morning, continued the journey, and arrived in Benton Harbor in the afternoon.

This marked Raquel’s first trip as a migrant. She was four months old. Every year since, Raquel has repeated the same journey with her parents and three sisters. The spring of 2018 marked her family’s 27th consecutive year migrating to work at the L.H Piggott and Girls Farm from April to October.

Migrant farming for Raquel and her parents is defined by deep family ties and an unwavering work ethic. It is a lifestyle woven with struggle and sacrifice. Raquel proudly embraces her migrant identity and who she has become. She is strong. She is determined. And she is the future of Texas teaching.

“At a young age, I came to realize that summers didn’t consist of waterparks or family vacations, but rather the reality of migrating as a form of subsistence.”

WATCH VIDEO: Raquel’s journey from migrant farmworker to future Texas teacher.

L.H. Piggott and Girls Farm sits in the agricultural countryside of Benton Harbor, MI, not far from the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan. The Pérez family, along with nearly 100 other seasonal workers, sow, harvest, and package tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, squash, watermelons, cantaloupes, peppers, pumpkins, and onions. They work seven days a week and often 12 hours per day. Raquel works closely with her mother in the farm shed, sorting and packaging produce picked earlier that morning. Raquel also operates the assembly line equipment, adjusting the speed of the machines.

The beauty of the struggle

Raquel has spent every summer of her life in Michigan. As a young girl, she played with the other workers’ children. When old enough, she attended summer school. At the “working age” of 12, she began working alongside her parents, seven days a week, often 12 hours per day.

The Pérez family values are rooted in hard work. Raquel’s mother and sisters all worked at the farm in Michigan, in the shed processing and packing fruits and vegetables, and occasionally in the field.

Raquel’s father, Fito, has never missed a day of work at the farm in 27 seasons. His determination and grit inspired Raquel to remain committed to her studies, despite the enormous odds against her. Migrants are among the student groups with the highest dropout rates. Raquel was determined not to become another statistic, but her road to a high school diploma was anything but smooth.

The Michigan farming schedule disrupted Raquel’s school life. She began each school year in Benton Harbor Area Schools, only to depart around six weeks into the school year to move back home to Edinburg. Every April, Raquel left Edinburg six weeks before the end of the school year to return to Benton Harbor.

Raquel had support from administrators and counselors in both school systems, but struggled to complete coursework, ensure the transfer of credits, and fulfill all the requirements to graduate high school. The work ethic ingrained in her from a young age during those long farming days in Michigan inspired her to persevere.

“…helpless, limited, and unhopeful. When I had all these emotions running through my head, as a response, one thing came to my mind: my father’s eyes. I could see the hope in his eyes. I saw a reflection of myself portrayed within him. The man who taught me work ethic in the fields is the same man who encouraged me to give relentless effort in my academic studies. I came to realize that without the beauty of the struggle, we as individuals wouldn’t be able to embrace success at a higher level.”

When the Pérez family returns to Edinburg each fall, their focus is on education, family, and faith.

A migrant graduation and higher education

Raquel ended her senior year at Edinburg North High School in April 2013, six weeks before the school year finished. She carried her cap and gown to the principal’s office for a small private ceremony. She migrated to Michigan the following week, finished her coursework, and walked across the stage at Benton Harbor graduation wearing her Edinburg CISD colors.

After another year working alongside her parents in Michigan, Raquel enrolled at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and decided to major in Bilingual Education.

Raquel believes education represents a critical foundation for getting out of poverty, and she recognizes bilingualism and biculturalism as valuable resources for students and communities. She loves working with children, and wants to apply her own experiences as tools for teaching and inspiring students from similarly challenging environments. Texas has more than 45,000 migrant students, and the majority of those live in the Rio Grande Valley, where Raquel plans to teach. “The students in our community need role models who they can relate to and understand that the possibilities are endless when optimizing the tools and skills provided,” she says. “I strive to be a voice in my community and give back to the pueblo that has taught me so much.”

“As a minority, woman, and migrant worker, I recognize the many factors that come between education and social mobility.”

Raquel is student teaching in a bilingual classroom at Sanchez Elementary School in McAllen ISD.

From struggling student to inspiration

Raquel credits her migrant counselor, Nora Gonzalez, as the most influential educator in her pursuit to graduate high school and seek higher education.

Because she divided the school year between Michigan and Texas, Raquel struggled to connect with her teachers and faced inconsistencies in curriculum and standards from one state to the other. Nora helped her navigate these and other challenges and encouraged Raquel to apply for college.

After Raquel graduated high school in 2013, the two lost touch. When Nora heard that Raquel plans to graduate in May 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts in bilingual education from The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, she was overcome with pride.

The two recently had an opportunity to reconnect when Nora surprised Raquel on the UT Rio Grande Valley campus.

Nora is thrilled Raquel plans to become an educator and is inspired by all she has overcome. “I think she’s going to be fantastic with the students and she’s going to be a great encourager, and give them a lot of hope.”

“I am so, so proud of her. There are very few students that I’ve encountered from that background that have actually gotten as far as she has … she’s defying the odds.”

Nora and Raquel reunite for the first time in five years. Both are humbled by the impact the other has had on their life.

Raquel’s sister Anna (top left) and Anna’s daughter Isabella (bottom left) are very proud of Raquel. “I know she’s going to do great things. From day one, she said she was going to go to school and she was going to make it to a teaching career.” 

A princess can do anything

Raquel’s success in school and life serves as an inspiration to her family. Raquel attributes her success to her parents and sisters, who she considers “the essence of who she is.” Raquel’s niece Isabella idolizes Raquel as her role model. Isabella refers to Raquel as “mi Raquel” or “my Raquel.”

For a class assignment, Raquel wrote and illustrated a children’s book. She dedicated her book, “A Princess Can Do Anything” to Isabella. Each page shows various things a princess can do: play soccer, paint nicely, enjoy sipping on some tea, and run a mile.

Isabella says she can do lots of things too, like play soccer, run a mile, and even … be a teacher.

After all, a princess can do anything. And so can a migrant farmworker from South Texas.