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Program Helps Migrant Workers Earn a GED

Passing the high school equivalency test is seen by Project Avanzando's graduates as their passport out of poverty.

April 24, 2002|MILTON CARRERO GALARZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gustavo Toxqui's hands have welded metal, picked grapes, clutched oranges, hauled concrete blocks, wielded paintbrushes, gripped mops, hurled newspapers--and, just recently, grasped a GED certificate.

His hands carry the marks of an immigrant journey that began nearly 12 years ago in Puebla, Mexico. The General Educational Development certificate carries the hopes of what he and his wife, Susana, want to make of their lives in the United States.

"Earning my GED has been one of the greatest satisfactions I have had," Gustavo said. "Learning doesn't come easy for me, but this is a way to demonstrate to my children that it can be done."

The Toxquis are among nearly 30 former migrant workers who recently passed the high school equivalency examination as part of Project Avanzando, one in a smattering of programs in Southern California designed to help migrant workers leave subsistence labor to pursue an education.

Project Avanzando, which in Spanish means advancing, operates out of schools in Rosemead and Santa Fe Springs. Its students take high school classes over three to five months to prepare for the GED exam.

The program is geared to those who have worked as migrants within the last two years, offering them free transportation and child care to encourage attendance. It also provides college counseling. Forty-two students have graduated since the program began in January 2001, and about a third of them have attended community college.

Pablo Jasis, director of Project Avanzando, said many of the migrant adult students had been forced to abandon their professional hopes in their home countries, and they see the GED program in the U.S. as their passport out of poverty. Although most migrant workers have other immediate needs to worry about, Jasis said, many have an incredible hunger for knowledge as well.

"We could multiply [our] program by a hundred and we still would not be able to meet the needs of the community," he said of Project Avanzando, which operates on a $300,000 yearly budget.

Gustavo, 41, and Susana, 40, are trying to set a good example for their three sons. "If you want to live better, you have to study," Gustavo says to them. "When you have an education, even without experience, you can say: 'My work is worth so much. I'm worth this much.'"

For the last two years, Gustavo and Susana have worked as janitors. They start at 4:45 p.m. and end some days at 3:30 a.m., only to wake up three hours later to get their children off to school.

The calluses on Gustavo's thumbs and index fingers attest to the hours he spends each day clenching a vacuum cleaner, gripping a broom or scouring floors to pay the bills.

The couple sometimes bring their sons to work to show them the difficulty of earning a living without an education. Among the places they clean regularly is a legal building in West Covina, where the executive office has a view of an impressive house with horses roaming in the backyard.

"Look how grand that house looks over there," Susana said. "It's precious." Every time she looks out the window, Susana said, she can hear her children's voices in her mind saying: "I want a house like that, with horses."

Education was not always that important to Gustavo. What he now preaches to his children is the result of a metamorphosis.

In Mexico, poverty wounded his pride. He struggled to come up with $3 to buy a pair of shoes for his wife to wear at a baptism ceremony.

He realized that his welding job was not enough to support his family.

One day, Gustavo kissed his baby boy, Alfonso, goodbye and took off for the border without saying goodbye to his wife. She had warned him that if he left, it would be the end of their relationship.

"How could he go when the child was so small?" she asked. "Money is not what matters. What matters is being together in good and bad times."

Gustavo slept in a van parked near the Los Angeles Convention Center and sold oranges during the day. He saved his scant earnings and sent the money to Susana and their son. Gustavo was determined to improve his life and reunite with his family.

After two years, he had saved enough to rent an apartment in El Monte and, in a love letter to Susana, asked her to come with Alfonso to live with him.

He returned to Mexico to get them, paid a "coyote" to guide them back and ran with Alfonso in his arms across the frontier. They survived harsh weather, lack of food and even an attack by thieves.

Gustavo was aware that his family had taken a great risk to follow him. He worked hard at odd jobs, painting, welding and in the fields. Susana worked just as hard, picking grapes and baby-sitting. But their goals changed when Susana learned about the federally funded Migrant Education Program, which offered parenting classes. To Gustavo, his children's education became a priority. What better way to motivate them, he thought, than to show them that even their parents could pursue their academic dreams?

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