The Rodriguez Family in their Coachella Valley Housing Self Help Home in Mecca.
From left: Erendira, UC Berkeley student Juan, Wendy, Francisco, and parents Elizabeth and Juan Antonio RodrIguez.
The distance between rural Mecca and the Halls of UC Berkeley might as well be the mileage to the moon for a farm worker's child.
Juan Rodriguez, 2012 UC Berkeley graduate and aspiring urban planner, knows this trip by heart and is amazed at his good fortune to have had booster rockets for the launch. The big lift came in the form of supportive parents and, to his surprise, an almost lifelong relationship with the non-profit Coachella Valley Housing Coalition.
The day Juan Rodriguez left the family home in Mecca to start his freshman classes in the San Francisco Bay Area at UC Berkeley, words of wisdom from his father kept running through his worried head: "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
Somehow those words helped him overcome the terror of taking his first airplane ride alone, finding a bus to the BART station, locating the Berkeley campus and finally his dorm, where he was socially isolated at first as the only Hispanic resident.
The 18-year-old had reason for his travel reluctance. Juan had never seen a Pacific Ocean wave or stepped inside the Magic Kingdom. The only times he had left the Coachella Valley were when his farm worker parents drove the family to Bakersfield to work during grape harvest season.
Juan, who received two CV Housing JFM Scholarships, said he never could have made it through college without the extra money for books and living expenses. Delving into family history, he found out this was not the first time the Rodriguez family had been touched by CV Housing.
When Juan Antonio and Elizabeth Rodriguez, his teen-age parents, couldn't earn enough in the fields to rent their own apartment, they moved with their baby boy into their great grandparents modest two-bedroom apartment at "Campo," Indio. "Campo" is the popular name for the Department of Agriculture's first Valley housing for farm workers. It was formally named Fred Young Farm Labor Center when it opened with 250 apartments in 1955.
Campo apartments were designed with the bare necessities. Campo, many years later, was acquired by CV Housing, which is in the process of completely replacing the center with a contemporary village enhanced with common recreational areas.
Juan's parents weren't the only family members to seek refuge with his great grandparents in those early days. Juan was too young to remember but he knows the Rodriguez family tales of survival well.
Long before CV Housing took Campo over, there were 20 relatives staying temporarily in the cramped Campo apartment rented by Juan's great grandparents. The women took turns cooking and cleaning the kitchen. Sharing the one bathroom was a challenge. Juan Sr. showed sensitivity and consideration at heroic levels. Before leaving at dawn to work in the fields, the young father walked crying baby Juan all night long so everyone else could sleep
"When my parents finally could find an apartment and move out on their own, it was into a CV Housing complex called Pie de la Cuesta. That was the move that brought CV Housing into my life and they have been a positive factor in my family's life ever since, from providing us the opportunity to own our own home to helping me earn my degree at Berkeley. "
After a few years living in Pie de La Cuesta, the growing Rodriguez family applied to CV Housing's Mutual Self Help program to build their own home with a team of seven other families at Mexicas subdivision in Mecca. There were months when the parents were away from home long hours. After working all day, they spent evenings and weekends building their dream home. There were four bedrooms in the new home for the parents and four children: Juan, then 12, his brother Francisco, 11, and sisters Erendira, 9, and Wendy ,4.
Juan's parents wanted their children to aspire to a better life than farm work. They were strict about what their children did in their spare time and constantly encouraged them to do well in school. However, it was the way the family spent their summers picking grapes that drove the message home.
"Working in the fields from 6 a.m. to late in the afternoon was the greatest motivator to study and never have to do such backbreaking work again," Juan explains.
In spite of never leaving the Valley except for grape harvests, Juan began realizing he was straddling two worlds when attending Desert Mirage High School in Mecca. A good student, he began tutoring students in math and he even came to the aid of the faculty.
"Ninety percent of the parents couldn't speak English and many of the students only spoke Spanish," recalls the bi-lingual collegiate. "I volunteered to serve as a translator."
Having experienced how affordable housing, or the lack of it, affects family stability, safety and aspiration, Juan majored in urban planning and architecture. In 2010, he served a summer internship with CV Housing and loved working with community members impacted by the nonprofit.
"My goal is to go back after graduation and help the community by working for an organization like CV Housing that plans and builds quality low-cost housing," Juan says.
Although Juan Rodriguez, who only knew the Coachella Valley and Bakersfield before heading to Berkeley, plans to return home this winter, he has picked up much more than his impressive degree. Juan's adventurous BART travels throughout the Bay Area led him to discover great little restaurants, music venues and other haunts, which he loves to share with visiting friends.
Education is not all about school. The new self-reliant Juan learned it was a blast to get out and test those Cal Berkeley urban planning theories first hand.