This past June, I walked across the stage in front of thousands of students and family members to receive my bachelor’s degree from UCLA. There was a sea of black robes behind and in front of me, and as I set my feet on the stage and saw the crowd, I felt a rush of excitement. With the diploma in my hand, I felt the weightlessness of unlimited opportunity. Yet I knew that I didn’t get here alone. Two generations before me struggled to give me this chance.
Sitting in the living room at home in Santa Ana, California, my grandfather rocks back and forth as he tells me about his life as a Mexican bracero. Braceros were contract seasonal agricultural laborers who were part of a program between Mexico and the United States that lasted from 1944 to 1962 to help meet the U.S. needs for manual labor. My grandfather would wake up early to go down to the fields. By ten in the morning, the sweltering dessert sun of Yuma, Arizona would beat down on the workers. Sweat would seep through his clothes and his back would ache as he harvested the crops. At the end of each day he returned to rest in worker housing, cramped sleeping quarters with dirt covering the floors and little privacy. For him, though, this was just a way of life. Working hard meant taking pride in using your hands – this is something he often emphasized to me.
My father followed in the footsteps of his father, and arrived to the U.S. in the 1960s to work in agriculture. Yet, in the 1980s the course of my father’s life took a turn. My grandfather and uncle told him about the construction industry. They said it was better pay than agriculture, had better benefits and could allow him to build a career. Construction is not easy work, but having a career was attractive to him, and he decided to go for it. This turned out to be a huge game changer for him.
My father became a construction laborer and a member of Laborers Local Union 652. In his work, my father digs footings, pours and smoothes cement, erects retaining walls, and carries lumber or bricks to build walls and many other things. This is highly skilled work. It requires him to calculate accurate measurements to order materials and use meticulous attention to detail to execute each project.
For me, as a child, my early memories of the union hall were of a place where my family and close relatives had weddings and quinceañeras. The live conjuntos and bandas, and delicious Mexican food and aguas frescas were my first impressions of what a union was. Later I began to understand more about what this really meant to me and my family.
My father’s union health care plan meant that my family was able to get affordable prescription coverage. When my mother discovered she had breast cancer and went through all her treatment, she had coverage. Because of my parents’ hard work and sacrifice, and my father’s Laborer salary, they were able to purchase a modest home in Tustin, California. And now, after 25 years of hard work and dedication, my father will soon be able to retire with a decent pension plan. This hugely differs from my grandfather’s experience – when he worked in agriculture he did not receive health benefits or have access to a pension plan.
My parents had always encouraged me to go to college, saying that it would create better opportunities for my future, but I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I had always struggled in school and never thought college would be for me. The summer before graduating high school, my dad told me that if I didn’t go to school, I should go to work with him to see what it was like. I spent the summer working with my dad in construction and it was seriously hard work. Measuring the right amount of water, mixing the cement, and then pushing the full wheelbarrow of fresh cement was enough to wear me out. After that, I reconsidered my options. I decided to try my luck at a community college, Santiago Canyon College.
The Laborers union granted me my first college scholarship, a spark of hope at a time when I was undecided on a major and wasn’t clear where I wanted to go in life. In the end, it took three years to complete my general education requirements while working as a part-time security guard and commuting to school. I then applied to UCLA. When I first received my letter of acceptance in the mail, I felt incredible.
It’s been a generational struggle, from backbreaking work in the agricultural fields my grandfather endured to my father’s hard work in construction. I am proud of where I come from, and this is what I felt when I received my diploma this year. I owe all the opportunities available to me to my family’s sacrifice and hard work.
Paul Garcia works at the California Construction Academy, a project of the UCLA Labor Center. His dream is to go to law school. This post first appeared on the CoLab Radio site and is republished with permission.