MECCA, Calif. – Like many college and high school students, Enrique Lazcano has dedicated his summer to earning and saving enough money to support his return to school in the fall.
But for the San Diego State University sophomore, that means picking grapes under the sweltering desert sun of his hometown, in the fields of Southern California’s eastern Coachella Valley. Unlike a lot of other college students, though, only a portion of his earnings will actually wind up going into his college fund.
“I’m trying to make extra cash for college and also help my parents pay finances,” said Lazcano, 19, who applied without luck for several other, non-agricultural, local summer jobs.
His last resort was to take the farm job, working in the grape fields of this rural community that lies on the unincorporated southern edge of Riverside County–a job he accepted wholeheartedly.
Earning for Education—and Family
The image of a university student working in the fields may be unusual for some, but that’s hardly the case in Mecca or any of the surrounding communities in this valley.
“It is not a common experience for a college student to be working out in the fields during their summer vacation because a lot of kids in college actually have money to pay college fees,” Lazcano said. “But in the eastern Coachella Valley . . . families usually can’t help pay for college tuition when they have other finances to worry about.”
Lazcano lives in the nearby City of Coachella with his parents, both laborers, and his brother, age 17. His father is a landscaper, who also works in the fields during the summer harvest. His mother works as an upholsterer.
According to collegeboard.org, the average in-state tuition and fees at four-year public colleges in California grew by 8.3 percent prior to the fall semester of 2011. Tuition inflation has had a powerful effect on students like Lazcano, and their families.
There are many college-age youth living in the valley who would like to seek higher education, said Lazcano, but just don’t have the necessary financial support from their family.
The majority of jobs available to east valley residents lie in the low-wage farm work sector, or in the tourism and hospitality industry that thrives in nearby Palm Springs and other more affluent west-end valley communities.
Appreciating the Work, Acknowledging Economic Limits
“Five of my friends who attend college work by my side, picking grapes along with about nine other high school students that attend Desert Mirage High School and Coachella Valley High School,” Lazcano said.
Rosa Lemus, a junior at Coachella Valley High School, experienced working in the fields for the first time this summer.
“My parents didn’t encourage me to work in the fields, but they knew that working there would make me appreciate what I have,” Lemus said.
Lemus’ older siblings and two of her high school friends, Nancy Rodriguez and Jessica Patino, have also picked grapes.
“I think us high school students work in the fields to get our own money so that we don’t have to ask our parents, because it’s hard enough to get money in this economy,” said Lemus.
Lazcano feels fortunate to simply have found a job this summer, but he admits he had no idea just how difficult working in the fields would be. He wakes up at four in the morning to begin his hard day of work.
“The hardest thing about working (in the fields) is being bent over and standing up for nine hours in the heat,” he said. “One humid day, I was ready to give up and go home [even though] I still had five hours left for that day. I looked at an older worker and saw how hard he was working, then I realized that I needed to push through it.”
Lazcano is only going to work for the seasonal harvest. Like many people, he will have to look for a different job once the grape season is over. Others will migrate all over California in search of steady work in the fields.
Motivated by Older Workers
“I see these hardworking people that have been doing this for their whole lives, and it makes me appreciate all the opportunities I have,” said Lazcano. “As young adults, we know the economic obligations that must be met.”
Lazcano has set ambitious goals for his future. He is planning to major in criminal justice and minor in business management. He aspires to become a detective and run a profitable business.
“If working myself to death will help me go to college, then that’s what I have to do. I’m working so I can get myself out of that life style I don’t want to live for the rest of my life,” Lazcano said.
Alejandra Alarcon is a youth reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a hyper-local and youth-led media project founded by New America Media to shed light on community health issues impacting residents of the eastern Coachella Valley. The project is supported by a grant from The California Endowment