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Children of migrant workers find home, prosper in Holland

By Jake Allen/The Holland Sentinel • Jul 18, 2017 at 3:00 PM

Holland has always been a place for people willing to “work their rear-ends off,” said Roberto Jara, executive director of Latin Americans United for Progress.

Opportunity for hard workers is a reason for the return of seasonal migrant workers year after year to the Holland area. These opportunities have also helped many children of migrant workers find permanent homes in Holland, Jara said.

Jara’s own mother was a migrant worker, and he ultimately decided to make Holland his home.

“There’s a lot of jobs for the migrant workers that don’t involve speaking English and don’t involve elaborate skills,” Jara said. “There’s also fantastic schools here. It’s a mix of all of those things. It’s a good community for everybody and you can ride on the coattails of that.”

Audra Fuentes, a department analyst for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Migrant Affairs, said the most recent numbers on migrant workers in Michigan are from 2013 when the Michigan Interagency Migrant Services Committee compiled a migrant and seasonal farmworker enumeration profiles study. It estimated that the total number of migrant workers in Michigan was 32,337 and that there were 29,227 non-farm workers in migrant households.

Ottawa County had the most migrant workers in the state with 4,754, while Allegan County had the fifth most with 1,810, according to the study.

The study also tracked the number of children of migrant workers — estimated to be 27,965 — which included anyone younger than 19 living with a migrant worker.

Jara said, for most people in the Latino community now living in Holland, at least one of their parents was a migrant worker.

“This is just a place where you feel like you can be safe and is a strong place to raise your family,” Jara said. “There’s just a high quality of life around here. People have family values, a strong work ethic and it’s attractive to a lot of Latino families.”

Juanita Bocanegra

Ottawa County assistant prosecuting attorney

In hindsight, Juanita Bocanegra said she would have been overwhelmed if she thought about everything she needed to accomplish to reach her goals.

Bocanegra was the child of migrant workers and grew up with a mother, who had a fourth-grade education and a father, who had a second-grade education.

Now Bocanegra is the assistant prosecuting attorney in Ottawa County and works at the 58th District Court in Holland.

Bocanegra’s family first came to Michigan in 1979, but stopped migrating because there was concern it would negatively impact Bocanegra’s education.

In 1985 after some encouragement from his brothers, Bocanegra’s father decided their family should migrate to Michigan again. Bocanegra’s grades actually improved once her family began the migration again.

She found support from her fifth grade teacher in Michigan.

“He believed in me, he taught me to believe in myself,” Bocanegra said. “He taught me not to expect less of myself just because I was a migrant worker and he kind of really took me under his wing.”

Bocanegra continued to find support from Michigan teachers throughout school and continued to surprise her Texas teachers when she would migrate back with good grades. She excelled in school even though English was her second language.

“In hindsight, it took a lot of hard work,” Bocanegra said. “I took it one day at a time and focused on what I needed to do that day, that week, that month. If I stopped to think about everything I needed to accomplish it would have been overwhelming.”

After graduating from high school, Bocanegra stopped migrating between Texas and Michigan and started college at Grand Valley State University.

She graduated with a degree in international relations and minored in legal studies and Spanish. Bocanegra married when she was a junior in college and her first daughter was born shortly afterward.

She had her heart set on becoming a lawyer and going to law school at University of Texas, but both her and her and husband realized Holland was home.

“This is where we wanted to raise the family and, as hard as it was, we finally decided to stay in Michigan,” Bocanegra said.

Bocanegra started at Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids, while working full-time as a legal assistant at a law firm and part-time at a bank. She also had two children at home.

“I can’t tell you how many times I went to bed at 2 or 3 in the morning, working two jobs and with two young kids at home,” Bocanegra said. “It just seemed like the normal. That’s what I did.”

Bocanegra compared her late nights during law school to being a migrant kid and staying up to study and do homework.

She finished law school and continued working at a law firm. In 2011, Bocanegra and 350 other applicants applied for an open position with the Ottawa County Prosecutor’s Office. She got the position and hasn’t looked back.

She likes giving members of the community who are willing to work hard for an opportunity a second chance. At the same time, Bocanegra said she likes to work hard to protect the community and put those behind bars who deserve it.

Bocanegra said her experience as a child of migrant workers has an influence on her work today.

“It kept me humble; it allows me to have an open mind,” Bocanegra said. “A lot of the people we work with on a daily basis do not come from a privileged background and I am able to work with them.”

Bocanegra has a message for children of migrant workers or those in a similar situation she was in as a child.

“I would tell them not to get discouraged, to believe in themselves,” Bocanegra said. “You can’t expect somebody else to believe in your capabilities if you don’t have any trust in yourself. Just believe you can do it, work hard at it.”

Alfredo Gonzales

Retired dean at Hope College

Alfredo Gonzales was almost 16 years old before he started going to school. In December, he retired as dean of international and multicultural education at Hope College.

Gonzales was a child of migrant workers. He was born in Texas, but raised by his grandparents in Mexico.

When he was a teenager, Gonzales rejoined his parents and they migrated between Texas and other southern states in the U.S.

Gonzales said his parents worked with a number of different crops including strawberries, tomatoes, blueberries, pickles and apples.

“You follow the seasonality of the vegetables or fruits that are coming to maturity at that particular time,” Gonzales said.

In the mid-1960s, Gonzales and his family settled in South Haven, shortly before he started school for the first time.

Gonzales said his family came to Michigan because there was a need for work and opportunity in South Haven.

According to Gonzales, the law at the time made it illegal for children above the age of 16 not to show up for school. Gonzales started at South Haven High School when he was 15.

Gonzales compared starting school at that age to getting dropped in a foreign country with no time to learn the language or culture.

“I felt a little bit out of place,” Gonzales said. “I had no context for it. I had no idea about education. I had no idea what people expected of me and I also did not know the importance of education.”

Through the encouragement of his mother — a woman without any formal education herself — and teachers, Gonzales finished high school.

Determined to continue his path in education, Gonzales enrolled at Lake Michigan Community College in Benton Harbor. About halfway through his first semester, he received a letter from the U.S. Army informing him that he had been drafted.

His counselor at school told him he could probably get a deferment, but his father encouraged him to join the Army.

“My father said, ‘Well no, I served in the Army. Your cousins have died in the wars and when your country calls that is something you need to do,’” Gonzales said.

Gonzales completed basic training in North Carolina, then was sent overseas to Germany; he said deployment was one of the best experiences of his life.

“It was formidable and probably essential for me,” Gonzales said. “In retrospect, it gave me an opportunity to know about the world and it gave me an opportunity to learn about international education.”

When Gonzales returned to Michigan after three and a half years with the Army, his family moved to Holland and he began working for the city as an administrative assistant. He was then named director of the first human relations commission with the city.

He enrolled at Hope College and finished his degree at Grand Valley State University. Gonzales said college was difficult because he didn’t know anyone else who had gone and didn’t have a guide to follow.

“It’s very difficult to find a new address in a large city unless you have some idea how to get to that address,” Gonzales said. “Once you do it, it gets a lot easier.”

After graduating from GVSU, Gonzales started working at Hope College. Throughout his years there, Gonzales directed the Upward Bound program, minority affairs and the office of multicultural education. He also served as assistant provost, associate provost and finally the dean for international and multicultural education.

Gonzales said he worked hard for his education and achievements because he wanted to contribute to the community.

“Education remains the bridge to freedom,” Gonzales said. “Education is essential for the development and for the vision we have for a democratic society.”

Getting as much education as possible is something Gonzales said he encourages anyone in a migrant field to do.

“You have to believe in yourself,” Gonzales said. “Believe that you can make a difference in the world. It doesn’t have to be a large difference. It can be a very small stamp, working really anywhere.”

For Gonzales, coming from a migrant background, Holland has become home.

“This is the place that I know,” Gonzales said. “I would say that Holland is my place of awakening and development and, to that extent, I would consider Holland and Michigan my home.”

Nayeli Venegas

Teacher at Holland Language Academy

Growing up as a child of migrant workers and learning English as a second language, Nayeli Venegas found elementary and middle school difficult.

She decided she wanted to help children in similar situations and is now a fourth grade teacher at Holland Language Academy.

Venegas’ parents were migrant workers at a nursery in Grand Haven and lived in housing provided by their employer. They would work in Grand Haven from April until November, but couldn’t find affordable housing in Michigan after the season ended.

They would migrate back to Texas to find affordable housing. Venegas said this was difficult because she felt she was behind the other students in Michigan schools due to the migration.

“The most difficult part for me was the support that my teachers gave me was lacking,” Venegas said. “They had a hard time understanding my situation and that I needed extra support.”

Venegas said one of the most difficult parts of school was that her parents didn’t speak English and couldn’t help her with her homework.

Before starting at West Ottawa High School, Venegas told her parents she couldn’t migrate anymore. She wanted a stable education and an opportunity to get scholarships for college.

Venegas said her drive to become a teacher pushed her through high school.

“I had that vision or goal of helping students and children in the future, who faced the same challenges I did,” Venegas said. “When I was in middle school I already knew I wanted to be a teacher, specifically a language teacher.”

After high school, Venegas received two scholarships for being a migrant student and another for being a first generation college student. She enrolled at Hope College.

After college, Venegas began her job at Holland Language Academy, a safe environment for non-native English speakers, Venegas said.

“It is very important for students learning English to build a base in their native language of Spanish and add English later on,” Venegas said. “I wish I had gone through a program like that and I could have felt safe and included and not singled out.”

Venegas said her job gives her an opportunity to share her story with children of migrant workers and their families and uses her job as a way to offer support any way possible.

It feels great to give back to her community, Venegas said.

“They (students at Holland Language Academy) can relate to me and I want to be a role model and help them succeed,” Venegas said. “I want to let them know they are going to succeed and it doesn’t matter where you come from as long as you set up goals. They can work hard to reach those goals and will meet them.”

Nohemi Jimenez

Defense attorney

A lot of injustice is what Nohemi Jimenez saw growing up as a child of a migrant worker. This led her to become a lawyer.

Jimenez’s mother was a widow and a migrant worker. Jimenez remembers helping her mother during the summer with blueberries in Michigan or with asparagus in Washington before returning home to Texas.

Jimenez married when she was a senior in high school in Texas and she decided not to migrate with her mother that year because it was difficult to focus on school while migrating. A lot of times Jimenez said she would end the semester with an incomplete in a class while migrating.

After graduating from high school, Jimenez’s husband found work at a blueberry farm in Michigan. The couple migrated between Texas and Michigan before she decided to go to to school to become a lawyer.

After graduating from Grand Valley State University, Jimenez worked at a bank. She continued working at the bank while going to Cooley Law School and raising a family.

Now Jimenez owns and works at her own law firm, called Jimenez Legal in Holland.

“I always wanted to help people that didn’t know how to defend themselves and defend their rights,” Jimenez said. “Working with migrant workers you see a lot of injustices. Sometimes people don’t even get their breaks and they work a lot of hours and they don’t get good pay.”

Ninety percent of her clients are Hispanic and are looking for a lawyer who understands their language, Jimenez said.

“I am bilingual and we can communicate and they can express how they feel, what they need, what they want and their problems in their own language,” Jimenez said. “That really makes me feel good — to be able to help people.”

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