By Halima Aquino
The road to the city of San Joaquin from Tranquillity High School was 105 degrees or hotter on black pavement on Sept. 6 at 12:30 p.m. Beside the fields of nuts and fruit, there is no shade or sidewalk. There is a two-lane road, mostly populated by farm trucks, in this remote part of California’s Central Valley, 39 minutes by car from Fresno.
A student leader named Isaac had no difficulty inspiring Tranquillity High School students to join thousands of other students across the country to defend DACA by walking out of school to protest President Donald Trump’s decision to end the program. Even in California’s Central Valley, few people know the sleepy little towns of Tranquillity and San Joaquin. Tranquillity students wanted to rouse the world from its sleep.
A junior named Sarah called me to come meet the students when they arrived in San Joaquin. I knew Sarah and others because in 2016, before the General Election, I’d spent countless hours there and throughout Fresno County launching the Voter Engagement and Education Project (VEEP) to better understand why citizens register but do not vote.
We experimented with interventions to motivate people between the Primary and General elections. We spoke with City Council people throughout the county. VEEP visited Tranquillity and other high school government, art, band, leadership, art and orchestra classes to engage students in civic improvement activities and talk about government and voting. We interviewed and videotaped city officials and brought state leaders like State Controller Betty Yee to town. We held an Election Day celebration in San Joaquin and other towns to raise people’s consciousness.
More than twice as many people voted on Election Day in 2016 as had voted in either 2012 or 2014. We beat the odds. Sarah knew all this.
The students at Tranquillity High School feel more connected to the DACA controversy than most. Every farmworker in our Central Valley farm towns has a DACA student somewhere in their family. The children do not know if someone will round them up in the day or the middle of the night. “Why do they hate us?,” more than one student asked when we interviewed them a year ago in their government classes across Fresno County. We told them that no one hates them. No one even knows them.
The kids cannot predict the future, but many want to go to college and lead better lives.
The students did not know that the trek from Tranquillity to San Joaquin would take more than an hour in 105-degree heat. They normally take the bus. The principal threatened his students that they would lose their sports privileges if they left the campus that day, according to Isaac. To prevent the students from walking out, the principal also locked the gates. The students told us they jumped over their school gate to “escape”—though they’d never done anything like that before. The Golden Plains School District Superintendent, Martin Macias, walked with the students from Tranquillity to San Joaquin to ensure their safety.
The students had a serious purpose on Sept. 6. They walked out of school to show their support for DACA because they need to feel in control of their destinies. They are weary, anxious and miffed. They want the country to know that they do not agree with President Trump’s decision to end DACA. One 10th-grader said she is helping her mother to find an immigration lawyer who will charge them $1,000–$2,000 to file immigration papers. Employers could help their employees, in theory. It is unclear why they don’t.
DACA students’ parents are grateful for their back-breaking work on some of the largest farms in the country. These parents are fearful of leaving the area though it’s imperfect from a leisure and public health standpoint. The town looks like a wild west town of yesteryear and has only one main street with general and convenience stores, a gas station, a couple of restaurants, a tax preparer and a café. There is little time or opportunity for leisure. Even the recreation center sits idle most of the time because of the cost. Almost 25% of the people have asthma, and the water ran brown for many years until a story came out last year. Life is hard and many men die in their 40s.
Immigrants are proud to work overtime in the smaller communities for days on end, and they know their employers need them. What many people don’t talk about is that some of the DACA parents came because their employers brought them. California’s Central Valley has employed immigrants from all over the world—dating back to the days when the United States first annexed this former stretch of Mexico.
When you think about it, the DACA kids are protesting for the right to work hard. Many of the students go to school, practice sports and work with their parents in the fields in the afternoons and on weekends. They do not want to have to leave their homes and travel to a country they do not know or understand. Mexico is their heritage, but it’s not their home.
When we asked a group of chanting students whether they consider themselves “criminals,” we heard a voice sing out “nooooo,” then the rest chimed in. One student dropped her jaw and looked baffled. Another student laughed. She realized we did not think anyone was a criminal.
The walk from Tranquillity High School to San Joaquin took an hour and a half. A teacher later told us he believed that many of the Tranquillity students who participated in the protest (he was not there) are top performers at school; they are destined for college. A policewoman that we met later at a gas station said the kids are “nice” and unlikely to cause anyone trouble. She stifled a smile.
Other than us, there were no reporters besides Univision in San Joaquin when the students arrived. On our way out to San Joaquin, we called Channel 30, Radio Billingue, Channel 24 and Univision. The only other adults we saw at the protest were 3–4 parents who were serving the 50-plus students water as they circled our video camera, answered questions and chanted.
Although these students might be in trouble with their principal, they were excited about what they had done. They succeeded in bringing around 45 students to a movement of young people across the nation. They showed their faces and asked the country to hear their call. They want their President and country to recognize them for who they are—hard-working students and employees who make America’s biggest farms successful. They want citizenship because they love and contribute to society. They do not want to fear their leaders. They feel they deserve the right to vote and manage their own towns and enjoy the American dream that they diligently pursue every day.
Halima Aquino, M.A., is the director of the Central Valley–based Voter Engagement and Education Project (VEEP). Contact her at 559-343-3124 or hali.voterproject@ gmail.com.