“Never stop growing, and don’t be afraid of change,” says Benito, looking out at the classroom full of students. He is giving a talk at Greenfield High School as part of GEAR UP, a national program designed to increase the number of low-income students pursuing college education. Benito, 23, can relate to the students. He is an alumni of Greenfield High himself, and grew up in the Salinas Valley, California. Benito is also a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which grants him protection from deportation and the freedom to work and go to school in the U.S. With DACA, Benito was able to go to college, where he studied computer engineering. He now works as a software engineer at a major tech company in San Francisco, but regularly comes back to the Salinas Valley to tell his story and pass on advice and guidance to students who are growing up in circumstances similar to his own.
Benito was born in Sonora, Mexico, and spent the first years of his life there. “In Sonora, growing up, there were days when you would think, what am I going to eat tomorrow? I don’t remember wearing any shoes. I didn’t have any sandals either. It’s a desert there, so it’s 100, 110 degrees. The streets are dirt. So at 110 degrees, the ground gets hot. I remember as a kid, running to get under a tree, so I could cool my feet and keep walking.” Agriculture is the main economic activity of the region, but the industry has been hurt by a mix of increasing production costs, competitive international markets and reduced subsidies. Given the lack of work opportunities in Sonora, his parents eventually moved Benito and his siblings to California. It was an arduous trip, with the family running out of both food and water at times.