It’s just past 5 p.m. and dusk is settling on the Ventura County farming town of Oxnard, Calif. Cars sit in traffic along the city’s main thoroughfare, flanked by rows of strawberry and raspberry fields. For the city’s residents, many of whom are migrant field workers, the long day is finally coming to a close. For Alondra Mendoza, 19, the day feels like it’s just getting started.
Every Monday night, Mendoza and a group of about 15 high school and college students gather in the small offices of the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP). The students are members of the Tequio Youth Group, which was started in 2010 as a way to develop the leadership skills of local indigenous Mexican youth, promote indigenous pride and encourage academic achievement.
What often brings the students to Tequio are the resources the project offers — math tutors, workshops on how to apply for college and access to other youth leadership programs.
“What keeps us coming back is that we connect and relate to each other,” said Mendoza, a first-year student at Oxnard College who is considering majoring in environmental engineering. They share the same culture, background and language that is often very different from the larger Latino community. “I come here to relieve stress and because I know I can do something good.”
The students also come in hopes of winning the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project’s Tequio Scholarships, funded in part by Edison International. The scholarships provide some relief for students looking to leave the berry crop industry, where the annual household income of most workers is between $15,000 and $20,000.
Tequio, which translates to “service to the community,” is a Nahuatl term, an indigenous language spoken in Mexico. In Ventura County, there are about 20,000 indigenous Mexicans from the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero who work in the strawberry industry. It’s estimated that this group now makes up 30 percent of California's farmworkers and these numbers are expected to grow.
Going to school is a major outlet for these students, many if not all of whom have worked in the fruit fields alongside their parents. It’s not uncommon for some of these youth to work 12-hour days or even work the fields before school starts, said Katalina Martinez, the Tequio program manager at the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project.
“Many of the immigrant families rely on their children to work as a way to help pay bills,” she said.
The Tequio Youth Group also helps to educate immigrant parents about the advantages of going to college. The program evolved out of a campaign to convince the local school districts to pass a resolution to combat bullying against Mixtec youth.
Ricardo Zaragoza, 20, and a second-year student at Oxnard College, was one of the students who went directly into the fields to connect with groups of parents during their lunch breaks over a series of months last year. The students led 15-minute presentations with the message that getting a college degree can result in better job opportunities and higher wages.
“We motivated parents to sit down and talk to their kids about what they wanted to be when they grow up and to go to college,” he said.
Now the students present the same information at monthly community meetings, which can have as many as 200 attendees.
Earlier this year, the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project received a grant from Edison International, parent company of Southern California Edison (SCE), to support their Tequio Scholarship program. The four $1,125 scholarships from Edison are for college-bound students who are of indigenous Mexican roots from the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero and pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM).
“Access to education is a major focus for the company. We believe that education can transform lives and communities,” said Tammy Tumbling, director of Philanthropy and Community Investment at SCE. "Partnering with nonprofits such as MICOP enhances the impact we have in helping those most in need.”
There’s a chance that one student, Gabriel Mendoza, a senior at Rio Mesa High School, may have to leave school later this school year to work in the fields. His father may be heading back to Mexico to care for his ailing mother. While the future is uncertain, Mendoza is confident that his time with Tequio won’t go to waste — he has two younger siblings who now aspire to go to college.
“If it means they will have better lives away from the raspberry fields, it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make,” he said.