‘I am the proud son of an immigrant’

Story highlights

Juan Rocha's father came to the U.S. from Mexico on a work visa program

While his father picked crops, Rocha didn't have a life of backbreaking labor

One of 12 children, Rocha thanks his father and mother for their sacrifices

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Editor’s Note: CNN iReport is gathering stories from first-generation Americans about what it’s like living between two cultures. Juan Rocha, 30, is a site coordinator for a federally funded college and career readiness program in San Antonio, Texas. His father arrived in the U.S. from Mexico on a work visa program in 1959.

CNN —  

I think back to 56 years ago: What if?

If my father had not been brave and hungry for a better future in America, there would be one fewer public administrator, one fewer third grade teacher and one fewer student in medical school in my family. Had so many young people not given their youth, their energy, their strength and their love for this country, the America we know would not exist.

I owe the America I know to my father and the many men that toiled long ago in the fields of our past. I owe my success to my father Herminio, mother Juanita and countless others that dreamed of a better tomorrow. They dreamed of a better tomorrow never knowing if they would reap the slightest of benefits from their hard work.

Today I stand as a testimony to that dream.

As a teenager, my father left his life of poverty in Mexico for the promise of a new life in the United States in 1959. The hard, physical work of picking crops in the fields of California, Arizona and Texas, earned him less than a dollar a day, once room and board was subtracted. The Braceros program granted him a work visa and when he finished the program, he began his path to citizenship.

My father did not complete any formal education past fourth grade. In that era in Mexico, you had to pay for school past a certain grade and my father’s family couldn’t afford it. He was limited to menial work and low wages.

Unlike my father, I wasn’t born into a life destined for backbreaking labor. My dad brought us into a world with endless possibilities. The sky was truly the limit and for the first time in his life, my father had hope – for us.

Our upbringing was humble, but my parents provided for all 12 of us children. They taught each and every one of us the importance of education. Our childhood was filled with the joys of love, laughter and belief in God.

My father created paradise in a modest, two-bedroom home in the inner city of San Antonio, Texas.

Our eggs came fresh every morning from the miniature chickens we raised. We were raised to live off the land, just like our father did as a younger man. We had a goat, a turkey, a potbelly pig, ducks, geese and chickens. Many of my fondest memories were of feeding and tending to our animals. One would assume that we lived on a farm.

But balancing a life of dual identities was not an easy feat for either my siblings or me. I recall having to wake up early on Sunday mornings to feed the chickens and collect the eggs, while my friends were going to the zoo, water park or the mall. When Mondays came around, I dreaded talking about what I did that weekend. I didn’t want to be judged, so I always made something up.

The frustration of not being able to fit in gave way when I started getting positive feedback at school. I was outperforming my peers in English and writing, and I was finally getting recognition by my teachers and classmates. I felt that I finally was doing something like everyone else.

I excelled at school. I decided to take a chance and apply for college. I started at the University of Texas at San Antonio in fall 2002 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and a Master’s in public administration.

I was the first in my family to get a college degree – I’m the seventh out of 12 children. All of my siblings after me went to college and today we have a public administrator, a teacher and a medical school student in the family.

Now, I work in an urban school district as a site coordinator for the federal initiative Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. The program sets out to make a college education a reality for underrepresented students and communities experiencing high poverty. I work to remove those barriers so that every one of my students has a chance at a life like the one that was given to me by my parents.

I have given myself to a life of service. I am now responsible for helping many young children reach their potential and live a life our ancestors could only dream of.

I am the dream. I am an American. And I am the proud son of an immigrant.

Are you a first-generation American? Share your story with CNN iReport.