A young migrant worker transforms to college student

June 11, 2015

DOVER — The hands that once picked fruit in the fields surrounding this east Hillsborough community helped guide a baseball across the plate at the Tampa Bay Rays game Wednesday.

The hands that once shielded him from the wrath of an angry father accepted a diploma from Strawberry Crest High School last week, making him the first in his family to graduate.

The hands of Miguel Ventura hold the hopes of a brighter future, hopes that didn’t exist in his heart and mind even a year ago. Back then, he saw himself as just another kid from another migrant family, wanting little more than a place to sleep.

• • •

Miguel, 19, started picking berries at the age of 9 with other migrant workers.

By midday, they sweltered as they worked. Miguel would find a tadpole, follow it along a rivulet created from sprinklers, between blueberry rows and beside fields, until his father came after him with a stick.

“What are you doing?” Miguel remembers him yelling. “Work! Move your hands! You’re a man.”

His parents had crossed the border from Mexico illegally. His mother gave birth to Miguel and three other siblings in Florida. They followed the crops every year to South Carolina in the spring, Michigan in the summer and back to Florida in the fall and winter.

Miguel never remembers being in school for the last day. He missed end-of-year exams and fell behind in school. Strawberries were the worst, he said. After hours bent in two over plants, everyone ached. At home, Miguel would stretch out flat. He watched the men drink away their pain.

When his father drank, he became violent. Miguel hid with his sisters when his father struck his mother.

Sometimes his father targeted him.

Miguel was in eighth grade when his father saw him coloring flowers for a school project. He crumpled the picture into a ball and threw it at Miguel, telling him it was for girls. Miguel yelled and his father hit him.

When his mother intervened, his father turned on her, leaving Miguel to seethe and silently pray for peace at home.

Two weeks later, authorities detained his father in Dade City, where he picked blueberries. He was deported to Mexico. Miguel soon regretted his wish.

“I was full of hate,” he said. “I should never have wished for that.”

At 15, he became the backbone of the family.

• • •

Without a father, his mother moved Miguel, his two sisters and baby brother into a single room in a house in Dover, where 10 other people lived.

His mother put a mattress in one corner.

Miguel slept in the closet. His little mattress barely fit.

“It was not nice, but it allowed my mother to have more room,” he said.

After school and during breaks and summer, he picked berries to make rent and buy food. He was fast. He would seek out the fastest pickers and compete with them to fill the most plastic bins. He was glad to be able to help his mother.

But after dark, he started hanging out with the kids in the neighborhood. They smoked pot and made up raps, he said.

Some were in gangs. Halfway through ninth grade, Miguel was failing.

His mother, unable to speak English, decided to return to Mexico instead of continuing to struggle. She left Miguel with an uncle.

“You’re the one with the opportunity here,” she told him, repeatedly.

Miguel promised to make her proud.

• • •

He brought up his grades by the end of the year and continued to pick berries to help his uncle with bills. By the end of his junior year at Strawberry Crest, his GPA rose to 3.1.

But it had become hard to live as a guest in his uncle’s home. So he moved in with a man who rented rooms, and took the couch. Soon, he realized that he could not study through the parties in the house.

His migrant advocate at Strawberry Crest referred him to Starting Right, Now, a nonprofit that serves unaccompanied teens — kids like Miguel who find themselves without a reasonable place to lay their head at night — by providing stability, life skills training and academic tutoring.

So far, it has helped 190 teens get into college, a vocational program or the military. Former members are in law school, graduate school or gainfully employed.

Founder and executive director Vicki Sokolik says it works because she’s on the ground with the kids. They text her until midnight and she answers, encouraging and expecting their success.

Miguel, who joined Starting Right, Now just for a bed, hoped to attend trade school, but Sokolik thought his hands could craft a different path.

She remembers Miguel coming into her office in the early months with doubts: “How do you know I can do this?”

He was from a migrant family, he told her again and again, as if his past predetermined his future.

Now, with a mentor who serves as a second mother and a wave of encouragement from the program, Miguel will attend Saint Leo University in the fall to study business.

On Fridays, he calls his mom in Mexico. She tells him she’s so proud.

“I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do,” she says.

“Honestly,” he said recently in the Starting, Right, Now office, “I can’t either.”

Contact Elisabeth Parker at hillsnews@tampabay.com.