Mendota is a small California town in the heart of the state’s Central Valley. Most of its 11,000 residents are Mexican-American farm workers who harvest virtually every fruit and vegetable you might imagine. The Central Valley after all, is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.
If you happen to be driving through the town –- between Los Angeles and San Francisco -– you might notice the Mendota High School football field. The players in their colorful uniforms look like any other American team, running their drills, getting ready for the new season.
But if you look closer, you would realize that these young athletes are unlike any other high school team in the country. Before these guys strap on their helmets and pads, they’re out harvesting tomatoes and cantaloupes. Picking crops in the blistering California heat, earning money to help support their families.
It’s a story that’s very close to my heart.
You see, most viewers who’ve watched me on ABC News all these years have no idea the long, hard journey I traveled to get here. I was born in poverty in the barrios of San Antonio, Texas. My father was a janitor. My mom cleaned the homes of rich folks on the wealthier side of the tracks. When I entered the first grade at Carvajal Elementary, I couldn’t speak a word of English. And yet, from a very early age, I had the audacity to dream of someday becoming a television reporter. Through hard work, perseverance, some help from the federal government and, sheer luck, I wound up getting a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.
The rest, as they say, is history. But, those tough early years still haunt me. I will never forget the year my father was laid off from work. Like thousands of other Mexican Americans, my parents, my two sisters and I had little choice but to join a caravan of migrant farmworkers and travel 1,600 miles from south Texas to Northport, Michigan. For two months, we teetered atop 8-foot ladders, picking cherries for 75 cents a bucket. After that, we jumped back in those migrant trucks and followed the harvest to Swanton, Ohio, where we picked tomatoes for 35 cents a bushel. I picked 100 bushels a day.
I remember one day, in particular. I was kneeling on the cold, hard ground at 5:30 in the morning, looking at a row of tomato plants that, to this 13-year-old boy, looked like they stretched for miles and miles. My father, Bruno, looked down at me and said, “Think about it, Juanito. Do you want to do this kind of work for the rest of your life? Or, do you want to go to college?” It was a no-brainer. I was determined to shoot for the stars.
Which brings me back to those players on the Mendota High School football team. Three years ago, a new coach, Robert “Beto” Mejia took over the team. A native of the town and a farm worker himself, Beto was determined to turn the Mendota “Aztecs” into a winning franchise. And boy, did he ever. Beto has guided the team to two back-to-back district championships. This is the same team that had not won a section title in the previous 18 years.
How did he do it? “It’s just accountability, a little more discipline, commitment,” he said. But then he gets to the heart of the matter: “These kids just work hard.”