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Student harvests us college fund.

MECCA, CALIF. * Like many college and high school students, Enrique Lazcano dedicates 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

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

"In the eastern Coachella Valley ... families usually can't help pay for college tuition when they have other finances to worry about," Lazcano said.

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 college, 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.

There are many college-age youth living in the valley who would like to seek higher education, Lazcano said, but just don't have the necessary financial support from their families.

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 valley communities.

"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," Lemus said.

Lazcano admits he had no idea just how difficult working in the fields would be. He had to wake 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.

"I see these hard-working people that have been doing this for their whole lives, and it makes me appreciate all the opportunities I have," Lazcano said.

Lazcano has set ambitious goals for his future. He is planning to major in criminal justic-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 lifestyle I don't want to live for the rest of my life," Lazcano said.


New Ameria Media

[Alejandra Alarcon is a youth reporter' for Coachella Unincorporated, a media project founded by New America Media to shed light on community health issues impacting residents of the eastern Coachella Valley.]
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Author:Alarcon, Alejandra
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Nov 22, 2012
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