Clyde Rodriguez spent his childhood toiling in fields picking grapes and garlic under a scorching summer sun.
The exhaustion of those days would finally end as a young man thanks to dreams of becoming a software engineer.
The Madera native went on to work for Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and his love of computers has taken him around the world.
On Wednesday, he returned home to encourage the next generation by delivering the keynote speech at Madera High School's graduation ceremony. His story of overcoming obstacles as an immigrant farmworker was well-received in the agriculturally-rich central San Joaquin Valley.
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"All of us are descendants of immigrants who, like others over the course of 300 years, have become integral threads of this country's fabric," Rodriguez said. "Consider that eight of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were themselves immigrants. As Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote in his timely musical, 'Hamilton' – 'Immigrants, we get the job done.' "
Some of Rodriguez's biggest achievements: Following a conversation with Gates, he led a team that built a new Windows computer operating system that could consume vast amounts of information, and he later founded a team that developed cloud technology, which helps deliver services over the Internet and store data online. He's also advised the United Nations on the use of technology for international development.
"It all feels like a dream at times," the 49-year-old said. "Surely, this is someone else's life. Surely, it's not that of a farm kid whose earliest memories are those of living in a tin-roofed house in Tijuana without running water or electricity, where our family gathered around burning tires my father would gather for heat from a nearby drying riverbed – our noses covered in soot. But it is. It is my story. One I have come to accept with astonishment, humility and gratitude."
Purpose and resilience
Rodriguez said he found his purpose when he was about 10 years old, working alongside his mother in a vineyard one early, foggy morning. They were wrapping grape vines around wire when one wire came loose, swiftly striking his mom. She fell to her knees.
The lash had left a "thick burning bright red line running diagonally across her gentle face" but she told her son not to worry, that she was OK. Her eyes filled with tears.
Rodriguez was filled with anger and conviction as he told her, "One day I'm going to take you out of this place."
"Those words became my life's purpose for years to come."
After graduating from Madera High in 1986, Rodriguez was admitted into the competitive electrical engineering and computer science program at the University of California, Berkeley.
But during his second year there, tragedy struck. His father had been attacked, stabbed 20 times. Rodriguez withdrew from his dream school and returned to Madera to help his dad, who survived.
When he was ready to return to UC Berkeley, he was denied readmission. Undaunted, he enrolled in the university's extension program, taking the same classes as full-time students, then petitioned the dean of the college of engineering for readmission after a first and second semester.
"Each time he denied my request, finally telling me I did not belong there and to stop wasting his time and, he claimed, mine."
It only strengthened his resolve. After a third semester in the extension program, where he helped teach a tough digital design course, Rodriguez returned to the dean – this time armed with letters of recommendation from professors. The university finally agreed to review his case and he was readmitted.
Six months later, he graduated from UC Berkeley. He so impressed his professors and classmates that he was asked to deliver his school's commencement speech. And as he stood at the podium in May of 1995, the dean who told Rodriguez to stop wasting his time was seated just a few feet away.
"Clearly, stubbornness can be a virtue," Rodriguez said with a smile.
Five years later, Rodriguez returned to Madera with a surprise for his family. It was a note from the bank that he handed to his mother, showing that he had paid off their mortgage.
"Their 40 years of working in the fields had at last come to an end, and a promise made by a 10-year-old boy in the middle of a vineyard had been completed."
'Write your next chapter'
Rodriguez currently works for a fintech company, what he describes as the "intersection of finance and technology," in New York, and mentors students involved in robotics competitions. He's also developing an app in English and Spanish that will help farmers and farmworkers find each other for work as founder of Eleva Mobility.
Rodriguez said his farmworker roots taught him virtue and how to work collaboratively.
He shared five more messages Wednesday with the young graduates:
1. "Never let circumstances of the past define the boundaries of your future."
2. "As you write this next chapter, never forget that you hold the pen."
3. "Resist the insidious temptation of comfort. Comfort is the worst enemy of change. … Comfort is a vicious force that will tempt you to make excuses that often only exist in your mind and to surrender your dreams."
4. "Continue your journey toward enlightenment. One of the greatest threats to this great country is ignorance."
The Internet has produced an explosion of information, he said, but "we are drowning in it." It's led to "artificial news and artificial relationships measured by the number of likes on social media."
"Many of us have become addicted to living a virtual life through a six-inch screen. Remember to look up often. Reality is far more expansive and exciting."
5. "Whenever you find your dreams challenged, if you find yourself sitting alone in any dark place filled with anxiety about the future, close your eyes and remind yourself of the awesome feeling within you right this moment."
Then he quoted labor and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez – also quoted by a student speaker earlier in the commencement: "Sí se puede."
"Be bold, be fearless, fight comfort, write your next chapter. The pen is yours. Let no one take it from you."