Twenty-one years ago, Beatriz Rodriguez struggled to get enough food to feed her children. She and her husband, Juan, came to the Northern San Joaquin Valley from Mexico in hopes of finding work. But, she told a Bee reporter in the winter of 1991, she felt just as helpless here.
"Now my sons go to bed hungry at night and still there is nothing I can do," she said then. "They tell me not to worry; they'll eat some food at school in the morning."
The Rodriguez family has grown and spread across the country. Beatriz and Juan eventually had 13 children, many of whom have families of their own. While they wouldn't be considered wealthy, they're no longer going hungry.
"We talk about that time a lot," said José Rodriguez, one of those children. Now 33, José was 11 when his family emigrated to Turlock from Mexico in hopes of finding work. "It was hard, but it was a nice time, too. We were all together."
Rodriguez said his family didn't go hungry in the United States, thanks to outreach efforts that were plentiful.
Anna Parra, José's sister, was 22 and already had started a family of her own when she came with her parents to the United States. Today, she and her husband, also named José, live in a small rental complex in central Turlock with their youngest daughter, Vivian, 10. Several other relatives live in nearby units.
Their home is spotless, with a tile floor and a sign on the kitchen door that reads, "Welcome to Grandma's Kitchen. Open 24 Hours."
Recalling hard times
Anna Parra worked for many years at cannery jobs until an accident with a forklift injured her leg. Now she watches her grandchildren while their parents work.
Unlike her brother, Anna Parra isn't fluent in English, though she and her husband are taking classes through Turlock Adult School. Yanet Parra, the Parras' daughter, is 26 and has a daughter of her own. Her parents made their way by working hard for many years, she says.
"My dad used to have two jobs," Yanet said. "He left at 5 in the morning and he would be back at 5 (at night), and then he would go back to work at a restaurant."
It was a tough time, and it wasn't ideal. Yanet admits to problems she had in high school that led her to independent study and a 12-step recovery program.
He worked so hard, José Parra said in Spanish of his father-in-law, because he wanted to succeed for his family.
"He couldn't just sit there and watch other people," Yanet said. "He wanted a better life for us."
The Parras are working on getting citizenship, and they have hopes of owning a home soon. Their children and grandchildren speak Spanish, though they don't read and write it much. José Parra supports his family with a single job now, and has the sort of time for his grandchildren that he couldn't spend with his kids.
"He loves spending time with them," Yanet said. "He takes them to the park or McDonald's."
Yanet said her daughter, Daisy, 7, asked her recently whether she could grow up and be president. "Absolutely," Yanet responded.
No mansion yet
Political office isn't Daisy's only dream: "I want to live in a mansion," she said.
Beatriz and Juan Rodriguez live in a home near an industrial area in Turlock that doesn't qualify as a mansion. But it is theirs, purchased in 1996, and Beatriz said through a translator that the family is planning some remodeling.
Son José is married and has three children, ranging from 4 to 16 years old. He graduated from Turlock High School, spent two years at Modesto Junior College and works as an assistant manager for Foster Farms.
The Rodriguezes certainly are better off than they were 20 years ago. José said his father, now 64, has retired after several food- processing jobs. But making ends meet remains a struggle. José said his family still makes occasional use of the United Samaritans truck that distributes lunches throughout Modesto, Turlock and Ceres.
JoLynn DiGrazia, who runs the nonprofit Westside Ministries in Turlock, has known the family most of that time. She said Beatriz and Juan made good choices for their family, moving them out of a higher-crime area and maintaining regular employment.
"I also believe that they have made good use of available resources in Turlock: educational, spiritual and physical," DiGrazia said. "They have become a success."
DiGrazia said that, like the Rodriguezes, several themes resonate among families she has watched move out of poverty and into a level of stability: "Finding a support system, encouraging children to go beyond the parents' education level and staying employed long-term."
As an adult with a family of his own, José Rodriguez said he recognizes the courage it took for his parents to move from Mexico. "I had a disabled brother," he said. "They had three kids still on their arms."
At the time, 11-year-old José knew only of the adventure ahead. "I didn't know what to expect," he said. "I just thought, 'It's gonna be cool, it's gonna be great.' "
He doesn't know if he would have the same fortitude. "I'd probably hesitate at this age," he said. "I'd probably stay over there."
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2343.