DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Ramon Zepeda looks in the young eyes and sees a familiar struggle: duty and devotion to family struggling with dreams and desires for a better life.
It’s a battle that haunted Zepeda as a teen in Hoke County. It’s a battle that children of farmworkers fight every day across the South.
And now, as the program director of Student Action with Farmworkers, Zepeda shares his struggle — and his success — with a new generation of students. The nonprofit organization helps farmworkers and college students build coalitions for social change through the arts and storytelling.
“It’s a huge change, both in their lives and in their futures,” Zepeda said from the SAF offices at Duke University. The nonprofit has offices on campus, but it is not part of the school.
“It’s very difficult to look at the bigger picture when your whole life has revolved around family.”
“I was fortunate. I had opportunities that many never get. And still, for me, it was very difficult to break away.”
Zepeda knows how difficult that break can be. He is the first person in his immediate family to hold a college degree. He’s also the first to earn a high school degree.
That dedication to study masked the stress of a young man who dealt with the dissonance of long-term goals and the immediate need to work and help the family.
Life had been that way for generations in his family. He was born in a small village in central Mexico, the middle child of Panfilo and Cecilia Zepeda.
Immigration amnesty in the late 1980s allowed his family to move into the United States. At the age of 10, they moved to Boyle Heights, a Latino community in Los Angeles.
While it didn’t feel that way at the time, it was the best place for Zepeda.
“Looking back now, I was fortunate. I was young enough to learn English and adapt,” he said.
In 2002, his father’s meat-pack-ing job disappeared. With relatives already in North Carolina, Zepeda’s family migrated to Hoke County. The rural surrounding was like a breath of home for him.
“Things were green like I remembered,” he says. “I didn’t like the big city. In East LA, nothing was green.”
His parents worked in agriculture, tobacco and blueberries while Zepeda attended Hoke High School and worked odd jobs. He was a solid student and soon began helping other Latino students who were struggling in their new home.
Zepeda’s leadership was recognized in school, and he was selected to attend a SAF summer high school workshop his junior year.
He returned to Hoke High that fall with a different outlook.
“They urged us to have a plan for the future,” he said. “I hadn’t thought that way before. They supported us and mentored us.”
Zepeda helped create the school’s first Action Inspiration Motivation (AIM) program, open to all students. Hoke High officials were supportive, he said, with mentoring and study programs aimed at helping students in need of motivation and guidance.
“If it weren’t for the mentoring I received, I would have just dropped out and gone to work,” he said. “I honestly needed that someone to hold my hand. I needed to have someone tell me I could do it.”
Zepeda paused, then paraphrased a quote by philosopher John Allston: “‘If you don’t use your mind, someone else will.’ I realized that the value in education is far beyond money. It is something that can never be taken away.”
His education stretched beyond the classroom. In 2005, after his freshman year in college, Zepeda took part in the SAF’s Into the Fields program. The internship places students in farmworker legal and health service positions.
The next summer, Zepeda documented stories from workers at processing plants, including the huge Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel.
It’s those stories that he shares with college-age students now in SAF. About half the students, he said, come from farmworker families.
“It is not very glamorous, but the work is vital,” he said.
Zepeda travels to colleges across the South as a lecturer on immigrant worker issues, often visiting his alma mater.
Zepeda, himself a naturalized citizen, said he also hopes to open the eyes of people who see immigrant labor as stealing American jobs and “sponging off the government.”
“The jobs most are doing American workers won’t touch for the pay and the conditions they must endure,” he said. “And because of the Free Trade Agreement, millions of families in Mexico can no longer keep their farms.
“Here, there are jobs. There is hope. There is survival for families in work that needs to be done. The fields go to rot if we aren’t here.”
Ridicule and ranting, he said, should be replaced by respect.
“We must force people to see beyond the easy stereotypes and see the issues that must be addressed. We must look beyond what others want us to think.”