Under Dr. Cynthia Bejarano’s tutelage, farm worker students are creating new futures for themselves and their communities
Written by Ashley M. Biggers
Photography by Jose Montoya and the College Assistant Migrant Program
When she was 10 years old, a case of mistaken identity altered the trajectory of Cynthia Bejarano’s life, placing her on a lifelong quest to understand and provide the antidote for social injustice. At that time, a few young men shot Cynthia’s father when he tried to stop them from stealing a neighbor’s truck. In their drug-induced high, the youths mistook him for a rival gang member. Though he nearly lost his life, Cynthia’s father survived with the help of her sister who witnessed the event. It took law enforcement quite a while to arrive on the scene and, in Cynthia’s words, virtually nothing was done to prosecute the boys. For the elementary schooler in Anthony, the incident brought up burning questions about the lack of access to the justice system and a “Pandora’s box of having a deeper understanding of the social problems that prompt young people from disjointed backgrounds and families to gravitate to gangs.”
It took nearly two decades for this curiosity to evolve into the arguments Dr. Bejarano makes as an academic, and for her to seek solutions to issues of structural violence. But evolve it did; today, she is a regent’s professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at New Mexico State University and is the chief investigator (essentially the chief administrator) of the university’s College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), a resident program that helps farm worker students attend and succeed in college.
Dr. Bejarano attended the university as an undergraduate and master’s degree student, and returned as a professor after receiving her doctorate from Arizona State University in 2001. She’s been a perennial advocate for the exploited and underserved. Her research has taken her into Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, where she’s researched human rights abuses, femicides (gender-based murders) of women in Latin America and the US, and border violence. In 2014, she was one of five international scholars to serve as judges for Tribunal Permanente de los Pueblos Audiencia Final Sobre Feminicidios y Violencias de Genero in Chihuahua City, Chihuahua—a mock court in which she adjudicated gender-based violence and human rights abuses plaguing Mexico.
Dr. Bejarano doesn’t, however, play the role of detached academic; she digs into the communities she works with, seeing the bright spots and creating them when absent. In December 2015, she worked with students to deliver sports equipment and art supplies to the YMCA in Juarez, and she advocated in two cases involving people seeking political asylum. “It’s important too to realize the resilience of people in Mexico. I’ve never seen courage and resilience in the way I’ve seen there,” she says.
Since she was an undergraduate, she’s also researched the exploitation of farm workers, visiting downtown El Paso where she would meet them as they rose at 3 am, some from cardboard boxes, to travel to fields in Hatch and Deming. Today, she continues to work with the Border Farm Workers Center in El Paso, and, of course, with CAMP, she helps youth from farm worker communities attend and graduate college. “It’s been a labor of love,” she says of CAMP, which she describes as one of her greatest accomplishments—and greatest rewards.
College Assistant Migrant Program
Funded by the US Department of Education, CAMP helps migrant or seasonal farm worker students attend college. It’s a national program with local grantees; other universities, including the University of New Mexico, have programs. Dr. Bejarano was part of the initial grant writing team at NMSU; since then, she’s garnered additional funding from the state of New Mexico and overseen the program.
CAMP is a residential program that provides tutoring, mentoring, academic advising, and financial support. Recruitment coordinator José Montoya reaches out to high schools, church groups, and even visits the fields and onion sheds to reach potential applicants. To apply for the program, students must have a high school diploma or GED, be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, and have been employed at least 75 days during the past 24 months in seasonal agricultural work.
As freshmen, the students receive housing and meal plan scholarships, stipends for personal expenses, and a book stipend; they generally qualify for financial aid that covers their tuition. Staff advisors, including Jaime López, guide them through creating an individualized degree plan and check in with them throughout the year, helping with everything from dropping a class to homework. CAMP also has its own student council that organizes social and service events. Each March, they organize a campus-wide blood drive. Throughout the year, CAMP students also volunteer at the Border Farm Workers Center in El Paso, help farmworker plaintiffs fill out paperwork for legal cases, and engage in other social justice advocacy.
The program aims to broaden the students’ horizons, taking them to cultural events such as music concerts and poetry recitals, and helping them attend leadership conferences. The program encourages students to study abroad. “It offers young people the opportunity to do more for themselves and their families, and not think they are only capable of working in the fields. Many are very smart kids. They’ve come to college and have been very successful. The program has opened doors for them to do more with their lives,” says program director Michelle Montano.
CAMP hosts meetings for parents twice a year, teaching them about what it’s like for their students to be in college in general and at NMSU in particular. Staff members also help parents understand how they can support their students. Family support is essential for the students who come from close-knit communities and who are often the first in their families to attend college.
After the first year, students continue to receive mentoring and career training. Staff members tasked with retention, like Sarah Gallegos, encourage students to earn internships, prepare them for interviews, and help them with cover letters and resumes. Students can also serve as mentors for the freshmen.
Since 2002, NMSU CAMP has served 350 students from across New Mexico and west Texas, though most hail from the Las Cruces area and Mesilla Valley. In that time over 116 students have graduated with bachelor’s degrees; 20 have earned master’s degrees, and one a Ph.D. Eighty-two percent of the graduates stay in New Mexico, working as teachers, engineers, law enforcement professionals, and other roles. Its success was clear to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, which in summer 2015 recognized the program as a bright spot in education.
As Dr. Bejarano notes, “This program creates long-term, deep seeded change in people’s lives.”
MEET THE STUDENTS
Although her family is from Chihuahua, Mexico, Iliana was born in the US. After Iliana’s father passed away, her mother moved the family back to the US. Her mother found work in the fields of Hatch. Iliana says she did everything that was available—harvesting chile from September to December; planting, cleaning, picking, and processing onions other times. She worked with her mother on weekends, school breaks, and even on holidays. “On Christmas, my mother would put the turkey in the oven and tell us, ‘Come on guys. Let’s go work. By the time we come back the turkey will be ready.’ So we would. Now we remember, with humor, that we would work on Christmas,” Iliana says.
Iliana discovered CAMP in middle school and immediately set her sights on the program. “I didn’t want to work in the fields for the rest of my life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s honest work, and it was one of my motivations to get an education. However, it’s very hard work,” she says.
Iliana knew she wanted to be a nurse in seventh grade and never deviated from her plan. She graduated from NMSU in December 2014 and is now working at Mountain View Regional Medical Center in Las Cruces.
“I’m extremely thankful to CAMP. They opened doors that I probably would have not opened by myself. They encouraged me to see the world. I was able to study abroad [in Spain and China]. I got to see anther place, get an education, and become more rounded. It’s more than I could have ever dreamed of,” she says.
Iliana and her brother are one of more than 53 pairs of siblings to participate in CAMP. He will graduate soon and intends to become a speech therapist.
When Bernardo arrived in Hatch from Mexico at age 11, his surroundings—from the place to the culture and the food—were unfamiliar, and he didn’t know the language. Difficult experiences, to be sure, but today they are the very ones that allow him to relate to fellow migrants as a recruiter for the Las Cruces Migrant Education Program, which grants school supplies and tutoring to students of migrant workers. “It’s rewarding that you can help other people because of the knowledge you got through your college experience,” he says.
Bernardo worked in the fields from ages 12 to 15. After that, he worked in the onion shed, packaging onions for sale. He had an accident in the shed, and the injury led him to explore other options for his future.
CAMP was instrumental in setting him up for his current career. He entered the university in 2009 intending to pursue accounting; however, CAMP staff soon saw his potential in another field. He served as a living community leader—essentially a resident advisor for CAMP students—helping them with roommate issues, personal problems, and doing homework with them. CAMP also connected him with an internship with Student Action with Farmworkers in North Carolina, and, after he graduated in 2013, with his current job with the Las Cruces Migrant Education Program.
Flor’s family moved to Deming from Chihuahua, Mexico, when she was five years old. She and her brother were too young to work, but since her parents didn’t have a babysitter, they would bring Flor and her brother with them to the fields. Flor remembers playing in the family’s van on the edge of the field, eating snacks out of the cooler while her parents worked. Once she turned 12, Flor joined her parents in the fields. Although she earned a scholarship to Western New Mexico University, she had always wanted to be an Aggie, so she chose NMSU. Once she arrived in the larger city of Las Cruces, she felt culture shock. CAMP staff guided her through the transition. “I felt out of place a little bit. When I went into the CAMP office, they were like my family away from home,” she says. “I felt very homesick all the time. They would tell me, ‘Yes, it’s ok to go home, but you have to learn to be on your own.’”
Flor pushed through. She took advantage of everything from free printing in the CAMP computer lab to math tutoring (which CAMP tutors can conduct in both Spanish and English). Of the CAMP staff she says, “If they see you struggling, they jump on it. They are there because they care. They motivate you and help you not give up.”
After her freshman year, Flor earned a role as a compa (mentor). She would meet with her mentees for an hour each week. These relationships inspired Flor to think about becoming a teacher. She graduated in 2014 with degrees in Spanish and secondary education and is now an elementary school physical education teacher in Los Lunas.
Senior CAMP student Juan Esparza is applying to be a compa for his last year of college. He’s the youngest of seven, hailing from Mesquite, where he once worked in the pecan orchards with his parents. His older sister, Maria, graduated from CAMP before him, and encouraged him to join the program. He’s now finishing his degree in information engineering. After graduation, Juan hopes to live in Dallas, Texas.
“My brother lives there,” he says. “I’ve fallen in love with the city. When I visited, I thought, ‘This is going to be my future.’” Juan is currently awaiting word on an IT internship with Verizon in that city. “If it wasn’t for the CAMP program,” he adds, “I wouldn’t be where I am today.”