As the youngest child of farm labor contractors, Jackson Walker associate Monica A. Lopez spent her summers working in the fields of Nyssa, Oregon, and the school years in Mission, Texas. Though her parents, who emigrated from Mexico as young children, dropped out of middle school to help their families work in the fields, they always stressed the value of education to Monica and her siblings. That motivation drove her to graduate at the top of her high school class and receive the Gates Millennium Scholarship to attend the University of Texas at Austin.
That following year, her father was diagnosed with kidney cancer and passed away in November 2006. Four years later, her mother passed away after battling leukemia. In homage to her parents, Monica began her pursuit of being an attorney and graduated as the valedictorian of her class at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law.
“It is through my parents’ life, lessons and leadership that I truly learned the meaning of my Hispanic heritage. It is succeeding in the face of adversity. It is taking a middle school education and running a business. It is family, sacrifice, humility, respect and appreciation. It is losing someone you love and learning to bounce back from the pain and loss. It encompasses everything about determination, perseverance and resilience.”
Monica has volunteered her time with the American Cancer Society – Cancer Action Network, attending state and national cancer lobby days advocating for cancer fighting initiatives.
Here is the full excerpt of Monica’s article, “The Road from Migrant Work to Law School,” contributed to The Texas Lawbook:
My mind often replays a memory of me as a young child looking out the back window of my father’s Chevy pickup truck.
I am about 7 years old and looking at the winding road and hills behind us and at the endless pairs of headlights beaming back at me. I hear my father honk his horn and flash his headlights. He reaches out the window and waves his arm. The cars parked at the gas station come to life and join the headlights behind us. I turn to my father and gaze at him. We travel farther into the Hill Country, turning down a dirt road and over an old bridge. The blue-green Chevy rolls down the dirt road alongside a field of onions before it stops.
One by one each car behind us stops. We jump out of our vehicles, stretch, inhale the smell of morning dew and glance at the sun rising over the horizon. My father begins to pace the field and shout directions, and everyone starts to scurry around. Car trunks pop open and each person reaches for their gloves, handkerchief and sombrero, closes their trunks, and heads toward the field.
The memory is one I return to often as it fills me with a sense of pride and happiness every time I replay it. The memory is a small synopsis of my parents’ life. As their eighth, and last child, my part of their life revolves around the memory of them being farm labor contractors. However, this wasn’t always their story.
My parents were both born in Mexico in the 1940s but immigrated as young children. Growing up they both had to drop out of middle school to help their families by working in the fields. My mom was 16 and my father was 19 when they married. They had six girls and one boy before I was born in their 40s. About 10 years before I was born, the farm labor contractors my parents worked for, a Japanese couple, decided to retire and since my father had been a crew leader and familiar with the farmers and the work, they offered my parents their business. The couple not only offered, but the woman also helped my mother learn how to keep the books.
At the peak of their business my parents employed hundreds of workers in a little town called Nyssa, Oregon. Over the years, I learned that my parents were courageous leaders with soft hearts. As my siblings and I became old enough to work, my parents had us spend every summer working in the fields until we graduated from high school. All summer long we woke up at 5 in the morning, packed our daily lunch with our mother and spent the next 8-10 hours in the fields with my aunt and uncle.
Those days gave way to learning more about my parents, the work and our people. As teenagers we often struggled to start the day and keep up the momentum, but our crews seemed to breeze through the fields effortlessly and enthusiastically. People were lighthearted as we passed the long hard days together, joking as they called my father the “CuCuy” when his Chevy came blazing down the dirt road to check on our progress. As “scary” as he seemed supervising his fields, when the end of season came he never forgot to have a fried chicken lunch or host a huge BBQ in our backyard to show his appreciation for the completion of another hard season of work.
Despite their own limited education, my parents always stressed the importance of education to me and my siblings. While my teenage summers were spent in Oregon, my school years were spent in Mission, Texas. As migrants, at the end of each season we migrated south for the winter to Texas. But when I started high school my parents sent me to Texas early so that I could have the chance at a better education, spending the full school year in one state.
Because of sacrificing their time with me, I graduated in 2004 as the ninth-ranked student of my high school class and received the Gates Millennium Scholarship (funded by Bill Gates) to attend the University of Texas at Austin. Their sacrifice also taught me how to learn to live without them at a young age, so that I could learn to live without them shortly after that. In 2005, my father was diagnosed with kidney cancer and passed away in November 2006 during my junior year of college. My mother, who had been in remission from colon cancer, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2009 and passed away in October 2010.
Despite the limited time I had with my parents, they are the reason I am a successful Hispanic woman today, and their many lessons of love and sacrifice will resonate deep in my heart for the rest of my life. After they passed away, I decided I owed it to them to do more and began my pursuit of being a lawyer. In May 2016, I graduated from Thurgood Marshall School of Law as the valedictorian of my law school class. Today, I am the first lawyer in my family.
It is through my parents’ life, lessons and leadership that I truly learned the meaning of my Hispanic heritage.
It is succeeding in the face of adversity. It is taking a middle school education and running a business. It is family, sacrifice, humility, respect and appreciation. It is losing someone you love and learning to bounce back from the pain and loss. It encompasses everything about determination, perseverance and resilience.
Today I am more than proud to honor my Hispanic heritage with a piece of my parents’ story. Every day their story inspires me to keep trucking down the long winding road and to go as far as I can so the next beaming light can go even farther.
This article, which Monica Lopez wrote in October 2018, was originally posted in The Texas Lawbook. All photos are courtesy of Monica.