“For my parents, they came with nothing and gave me everything”

A first-generation college student’s father misses his first day of work in 28 years to surprise her at graduation.

This story is Part II of Raquel Perez’ journey from a migrant farmer to a future teacher. For more about Raquel and how her journey began, visit Part I of this Spotlight on a Charles Butt Scholar.

By Lauren Cook

Header Photograph by Golden Light Photography

She should have been thrilled.

She should have felt the fullest sense of accomplishment and celebration. But the day before she would become the first in her family to graduate college, Raquel Perez disguised tears in her eyes with a polite smile.

“We talked about it and I said it’s fine,” she said. “But it just feels like something’s missing. That’s why it hasn’t hit me yet, because I know that I’ll walk the stage tomorrow, but at the end of the day, my family is not going to be here, and they are the main reason why I’m doing this.”

Raquel is a migrant farm worker who has spent nearly every summer of her life working in the fields of Southwestern Michigan alongside her family, 1,500 miles from their home in Edinburg, Texas. As she prepared for graduation, she knew she wasn’t going to celebrate with those closest to her. According to the statistics, she wasn’t even supposed to make it to college graduation.

But Raquel’s story has always been of the impossible becoming possible.

WATCH VIDEO: See what happened when Raquel’s father missed his first day of work in 28 years to surprise Raquel, when she finally crossed the graduation stage, and when the family got their chance to celebrate Raquel’s accomplishments — together.

Produced by Lauren cook, edited by Anne Bannister, cinematography by Anne Bannister, Brian Diggs, & Charlotte Moore, assisted by Briana Mascitelli

The long road to the graduation stage

Raquel graduated on May 11, 2019, from The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley with a degree in bilingual education. She was part of the inaugural cohort of the Charles Butt Scholarship for Aspiring Teachers. As a Charles Butt Scholar, she committed to a career as a public school teacher in a classroom serving economically disadvantaged students. But her eventual success was by no means a foregone conclusion.

“It’s been a bumpy road, to say the least,” says Raquel.

Even graduating high school was a huge accomplishment, given the challenges of having to start school one month late and leave one month early every year due to the farming schedule. She wasn’t able to attend the Edinburg North High School graduation, since she was already in Michigan. She walked across the stage at the local high school in Michigan, wearing her Edinburg North colors.

Following high school, she took a year off to work at the farm and get focused for college. It took her five years to complete her college coursework, in part because she couldn’t take summer classes.

“These five years have been intense, from transitioning here to university level and going back to Michigan to work full-time in the summers,” Raquel said. “I’ve had to really learn how to balance my academics in a more rigorous way.”

Her determination paid off, both in reaching graduation and in her personal development.

“I’ve grown a lot. I would say I’m more confident. I feel more confident in my work and who I’m trying to be as an educator.”

She credits her family for everything she has achieved, and everything she has become.

“My family is my support system, and I’m a reflection of who they are because I’ve learned so much from every one of them — my parents, my sisters, they’ve always given me advice and support. When I have hard times in school, I see their faces and I feel so motivated to continue.”

“When I graduate, I just don’t see my name on the diploma,” Raquel said. “I know it’s theirs too, because they’ve supported me and given me everything I need.”

Even though her parents weren’t going to be there, Raquel wanted to honor her family’s role in her achievement, and feel close to them on graduation day. She designed her graduation cap in bright striped hues of red, blue, green, and yellow, adorned with butterflies, and a message:

“Para mis padres, llegaron sin nada y me lo dieron todo.”

“For my parents, they came with nothing and gave me everything.”

Raquel knew why her parents couldn’t attend. She knew her parents were working seven days a week on the farm, from sun-up until after sundown in the fields and warehouse, and getting away was next to impossible. The 3,000-mile roundtrip drive would take them away from work for too many days. She also knew the other challenge: her father’s work ethic. Fito had never missed a day of farming work in nearly three decades.

“We’ve actually had quite a few little talks about it,” said Raquel. “We talked about it because they go to Michigan in April, and I knew graduation would be in May. My dad, he’s really responsible on the work front. He said, ‘I need to be here [in Michigan].’”

Both Raquel’s parents and her sister, who lives in Michigan with her two kids, decided they just could not make the trip.

Raquel with her parents, Raquel and Fito, outside their home on the L.H Piggott and Girls Farm in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

The Pérez family sits on the steps outside of their mobile home in Benton Harbor Michigan

Raquel in the tomato fields with her father and in the warehouse with her mother. 

The big day, made bigger

Late Thursday evening, two days before graduation day, Raquel talked with her mom on the phone, just after her parents got off work at the farm. That’s when Raquel knew her parents were not driving to Texas to see her graduate.

What Raquel didn’t know was that her father would miss his first day of work in 28 years the following day to make it to her graduation. Through our work with Southwest Airlines®, Raquel’s sister, niece, nephew, and parents were provided roundtrip transportation so they could travel to Raquel’s graduation without missing too many work days.

That same day, Raise Your Hand Texas interviewed Raquel for a follow-up to the first story about her journey to becoming a Texas public school teacher. Little did she know that the interview would turn into a tearful, surprise family reunion, and give her the graduation celebration she had dreamed of for many years.  

The next evening, Raquel crossed the UTRGV commencement stage and looked up to the back-left corner of the risers, where her parents and sisters sat in the second-to-last row. She shook her diploma in the air, smiled, and gave a thumbs up to the family who helped make this day a reality.

“My parents always tell me to focus on my education because that’s something nobody can take away from me, and I keep that very present all the time because I know that … it’s not just a milestone for myself, but it’s something for them also.”

Raquel graduates on May 11, 2019, with a degree in bilingual education.

Photograph by UTRGV Communications

Perez family celebrations, both at the UTRGV graduation and their home in Edinburg, Texas.