By Alarcon, Alejandra
National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 49, No. 2
MECCA, CALIF. * Like many college and high school students, Enrique Lazcano dedicates his summer to earning and saving enough money to support his return to school in the fall.
But for the San Diego State University sophomore, that means picking grapes under the sweltering desert sun of his hometown, in the fields of Southern California's eastern Coachella Valley. Unlike a lot of other college students, though, only a portion of his earnings will actually wind up going into his college fund.
"I'm trying to make extra cash for college and also help my parents pay finances," said Lazcano, 19, who applied without luck for several other, non-agricultural, local summer jobs.
His last resort was to take the farm job, working in the grape fields of this rural community that lies on the unincorporated southern edge of Riverside County--a job he accepted wholeheartedly
The image of a university student working in the fields may be unusual for some, but that's hardly the case in Mecca or any of the surrounding communities in this valley
"In the eastern Coachella Valley ... families usually can't help pay for college tuition when they have other finances to worry about," Lazcano said.
Lazcano lives in the nearby city of Coachella with his parents, both laborers, and his brother, age 17. His father is a landscaper who also works in the fields during the summer harvest. His mother works as an upholsterer.
According to college board.org, the average in-state tuition and fees at four-year public colleges in California grew by 8.3 percent prior to the fall semester of 2011. Tuition inflation has had a powerful effect on students like Lazcano.
There are many college-age youth living in the valley who would like to seek higher education, Lazcano said, but just don't have the necessary financial support from their families.
The majority of jobs available to east valley residents lie in the low-wage farm work sector, or in the tourism and hospitality industry that thrives in nearby Palm Springs and other more affluent west valley communities.
"Five of my friends who attend college work by my side, picking grapes along with about nine other high school students that attend Desert Mirage High School and Coachella Valley High School," Lazcano said. …