Only a third of California's farm workers have a high school diploma or more, and another third only have an elementary school education. With funding from private donations and the U.S. Department of Education, Project Avanzando helps farmworkers get their GEDs.
At eight sites around Southern California, the group organizes transportation and childcare, and provides six months of tutoring, six hours a week. This month at Wilson High School in Long Beach, 65 students received their diplomas. Sometimes, though, just attempting to make changes can upset the balance at home. Rebecca Schoenkopf followed the process from math lessons to caps and gowns.
Project Avanzando’s director, Patricia Feliz, tells of one woman who wasn't coming to class, and when she did, she was often unprepared.
“It turned out her husband had left her, she wasn’t sure if she was going to be homeless the next week, the husband was threatening to have her kids taken away from her because she wasn’t home with them at night,” said Patricia. “She was here in class and I just told her, you know what, you are probably one of the most intelligent people I know!”
It was easier for Antonia Zapata. Her husband was resistant but he came around — with a push from his mother. Zapata works as community liaison for a school in La Puente, so getting her GED wasn’t a matter of bettering her finances; it was a matter of personal growth.
“My husband was really upset with me going back to school and leaving the family aside,” said Antonia. “Even sometimes in the Hispanic families, they feel that they’re superior to the women, so he didn’t want her to be more superior than him. No, he’s not upset any more and now he’s even proud of me and tells me that he’s proud, and he even sometimes helps me with the homework.”
Jorge Cazales, 19 years old, was inspired by his mother, Francisca Florez, after she went through Project Avanzando last year. He's now getting his GED after dropping out, and wants to go on to college and medical school. He wants to be a doctor.
Cazalez recalls his mother’s decision to become a student, “She got really sad because I dropped out of high school. One day she just got tired and said, ‘If you’re not going to get your education, I’ll go get my education.’ When they come here, they see all the hardships, that they get the minimum wage, sometimes even less. They’re treated like they have no rights, but she says she didn’t care about that because she came over here to get me a better life for me and my sister. She says it’s worth it to go through all that.”