Garcia originally came to Michigan as a migrant worker, traveling from Waco, Texas, to Alma, Michigan, to pick fruit. "For me it was an easy choice: Pick in Texas when it's 100 degrees or come to Michigan with its cool breezes off Lake Michigan? Yes, please," Garcia says.
His office is tucked away within Holden Hall on south campus. Walking into the Migrant Student Services center, the music and paintings immediately convey a Latinx-friendly vibe. The welcoming atmosphere is appreciated by the visiting high school students pondering college choices. As Garcia asks each student of their future plans, they listen attentively. He speaks with an authentic voice, and the connection is immediate, as he laughs and transitions gracefully between Spanish and English.
He connects with them because he knows firsthand the challenges the students and their families have overcome. "I dropped out of high school, but I had a teacher who said I was bright, but I was too stupid to know it," says Garcia, who also saw Chavez speak at MSU. "He helped put me on track to go back to night school. I graduated, went to Ferris State, worked with the Peace Corps in Paraguay, got my master's degree at MSU, and I've been here ever since."
He and his team help current students navigate the challenges of higher education and recruit potential students in migrant camps and high schools around Michigan's cherry orchards, California's almond groves and Florida's tomato fields.
For many families with whom Garcia meets, college is still a distant dream. It's a gift that many parents hope to provide their children, but they're unsure how to make it a reality.
Striding toward prosperity
Sigifredo Morales is pushing his kids toward college without hesitation.
Morales resides between the tourist destinations of Saugatuck and South Haven on Michigan's west coast. His modest house and barn are just off a dirt road, ensconced by blueberry fields. A number of the area's blueberry farms are owned by Latinos. Many of them came to the United States in a full run, literally sprinting away from a life of poverty and toward hope and prosperity; leaving behind family and familiar comforts while striding toward promises of prosperity in an unfamiliar country.
Morales went without food and water for three days while crossing into the U.S. One of his companions broke his leg, and Morales faced a difficult decision. "Do you want to stay here with him and get caught or do you want to go to America?" the group leader yelled.
He'll always remember the face of his fallen acquaintance, but he chose freedom. He ran, and he's been here ever since.
On weekdays, Morales worked at a factory in Chicago, but he was drawn to picking blueberries in Michigan on weekends. Over the years, he earned his citizenship, drove between the Windy City and the blueberry fields and eventually earned enough money to quit his factory job, move to Michigan and buy his own farm.
David Mota-Sanchez, coordinator of MSU's Latino Farmer Initiative, knows Morales and the other Latino farmers in the area. Thanks to a grant from the USDA, Mota-Sanchez and his team work with blueberry farmers to improve operations and farming practices. They help navigate the complexities of planting to harvest, including pest and nutrient management, worker safety, food safety and farm business management.