Caruthers teen graduates from farm work to college scholarship (video)

The Fresno BeeMay 8, 2014 

— On the 10-minute drive from Caruthers High School to her home next to an almond orchard just south of Raisin City, Magi Salinas Cruz points out a fenced-in fruit packing plant along the way.

The 18-year-old remembers the time she tried to land an after-school job there but had to look elsewhere when she discovered she's allergic to a certain chemical used in the packing process.

But it wasn't the after-school gigs -- often several, pieced together to bring in a little extra money -- that color her childhood memories. Her years are marked by her summer routine: Each year since she was 7, her family traveled 19 hours to a small agricultural town in northern Washington to pick berries and make enough money to live through the winter months, when farm jobs are scarce. Not ideal work for the teen, who's also allergic to pollen.

"I'm just used to it," she said.

She doesn't expect to make many more such trips: Magi, who is graduating this year and heading to Fresno State, hopes to study forensic science and someday work for the FBI. Her aspirations earned her one of just a handful of $350 scholarships from the Fresno County Office of Education, an award for her academic achievements -- and for overcoming barriers that so often become insurmountable for students like her.

The awards ceremony will be Friday at Tornino's Banquet Hall in northwest Fresno.

Magi is one of nearly 8,000 students in Fresno County who take on migrant work for part of the year to help their families pay the bills. In some ways, county officials say, she's beating the odds: about half of all migrant students graduate and even fewer go on to pursue a college degree.

Returning to school months after her classmates, Magi said, meant hours of making up homework and class assignments and missing out on fall sports.

Students like Magi and her siblings qualify for extra assistance through Fresno County's migrant education programs, which help students catch up on missed classes and provide college counseling, parent education and even health services like immunizations and eyeglass prescriptions for youngsters who aren't insured.

Magi's family is proof the safety net is needed. One of her younger brothers who dropped out is now getting back on track through homeschool services and a one-day-a-week program that will help him get his high-school-equivalency degree.

Unlike other industries, there's virtually "no restriction in agriculture" on putting children to work, said Ruben Castillo, Fresno County administrator for migrant education programs, which means even middle school-aged youngsters can work the fields. Washington state law allows children under 12 to harvest certain crops like berries and cucumbers.

"You can't put them at McDonald's or Taco Bell because they're underage, but you can bring them into the field with you," Castillo said.

Entire families, some with young kids, follow the row crop season, often to other states where they may make more money than some California farms offer. Magi said some families buy fake IDs for their young children to get them started early.

Summers away from California are normal for Magi, and the number of homes she's lived in surpass her finger count.

Her family of six -- parents Victor Salinas and Reyna Cruz, brothers Rodolfo, 15, and Orlando, 17, and sister Gloria, 12 -- rent a two-story stucco home down a dusty road in Raisin City. Magi and Rodolfo give a tour of the grounds they've grown used to since moving there two years ago: the paint-chipped chicken coop where their neighbor has set up a makeshift home, the stone scrub board near the garden where their mom washes clothes.

Magi points to her family's van stored in another old coop and recalls her first drive up to Lynden, Wash., where they pick strawberries just five miles south of the Canadian border. She recounts the early days, when her mother carried then 2-year-old Gloria on her back, picking up to 1,000 pounds of strawberries in a day.

As Magi grew older, she followed her day shift in the fields with a night shift in the packing plant. Rainy mornings pinching strawberry stems turned to long nights operating machinery, often with only four hours of sleep between shifts.

Going away meant missing out on things back home, like school sports and time with friends.

But even through all the moving, Magi was able to maintain a 3.1 grade-point average, excelling in English and history classes throughout high school. She once dreamed of joining the military -- a plan she abandoned to stay closer to home -- but now has new hopes of a career in law enforcement.

"If I could make it far I would like to do the FBI or crime scene investigation," she said, noting her favorite TV shows are "CSI," "Bones" and "Dexter."

One of her favorite high school teachers, Pat Barklow, said Magi never seemed too bothered by her frequent moves and lengthy absences from school to work in the fields. After having her in four of his classes, he was surprised to learn how she spends her summers.

"Magi seems very focused and it's refreshing when you see it in a student," he said. "I'm really glad she's getting recognized."

Her parents are grateful for her hard work, and proud she's being honored with a scholarship.

"They're happy because I'm getting somewhere and I won't have to work in the fields like them," Magi said, translating for her Spanish-speaking parents. "They came over here so they could give their children a better opportunity, what they didn't have. Me graduating high school is going to give me it."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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