I have on occasion had conversations with my parents about their American Experience. It began long ago for my father, before marrying he’ll tell you, in Mexico. It was in the early 1950’s when my grandparents first fixed their eyes north, when they first looked to the land of the free to improve their station in life.
They soon settled in the rich agricultural lands of Wasco, California where field jobs were plentiful. My grandparents had no formal education and no one from my father’s family had gone further than the fourth grade – working in unskilled, entry-level manual labor farm jobs was about as much as they could hope for, and at the time they really didn’t expect anything more. Arduous farm work would be the bane of their existence until my father married my mother. The grandparents returned to Mexico permanently, retiring sometime in the 1970’s, while my parents continued to migrate through the states of Nebraska, Washington and California following the crop season and returning to Mexico for the fall months.
I was born in California during the winter of 68, and mostly raised in the Yakima Valley of Washington State. I would spend two to three months away from school working the fields side by side with my older brother. Our migrant condition did not allow us to attend school regularly, even while attending night school. Our school transcripts read like a checkerboard with all the absences we had racked up. My situation was not uncommon. In fact, it is estimated that even today one third of all migrant children continue to work in the fields, making regular school attendance difficult. Regrettably, studies also indicate 60% of these migrant children will drop out of high school, as I did, after the tenth grade due to excessive absences.
We lived in agricultural communities that tended to be plagued with gangs, high crime rates, and high levels of poverty. While picking apples in the rain, pruning trees during cold snowy mornings, picking asparagus hunched over all day, or hoeing beets under the searing sun would harden anyone’s character, it was the disrespectful treatment from some farm owners that I recall which could have jaded me most. The mistreatment was offset by those kind farm owners who expressed sincere appreciation for the contributions of farm workers like my parents. It made all the difference.
Nevertheless, at the age of sixteen I was going down as yet another kid from the sticks that would never fulfill his potential. Despite these and other challenges, I had no regrets, nor did I ever wish fate had dealt me a better hand in life – because in fact, it had. You see, I had two key advantages going for me:
First: My parents loved each other and they were the highest example to me in good character, in virtue, and their deep faith in God. I never experienced instability, conflict, or violence in the home.
Second: I lived in the United States of America.
These two facts mattered because more than race, class, sex, ethnicity, neighborhood, or background; it is the values that a child is taught at home, coupled with the nation’s economic system in which that child is raised, which will weigh more heavily in determining that child's fate.
In fact, my parents had expressed a conscious and deliberate decision long ago – they proposed that they would never take a dime from government, and would depend solely on their own labor to provide for their family – even when times were tough (and we had plenty of those times). Turns out my parents’ independent streak also had an entrepreneurial dimension to it. They had been saving their earnings for some time, and in 1983 risked it all to buy a sixteen room hotel in the small town of Toppenish, Washington where I did most of my growing up.
That fateful decision soon allowed us to move up the income scale and become full-fledged members of the American middle class. In short order, we had left the agricultural fields for good, and only through my parents’ foresight, hard work, and efforts to save and accumulate capital, was I able to get back on track and go off to college. I became a police officer and then city councilman; years later I had the privilege to work as Associate Director at the Office of Public Liaison at The White House, and also became a national television host for Univision.
And although it’s been an amazing ride, my achievements are not really the story.
It’s my parents’ achievements, really, which persuaded me most that free enterprise works.
When they sold the motel several years ago, their initial investment was rewarded fivefold. A small fortune compared to other stories to be sure; but with limited formal education, heavy accented English, and so many other factors working against them, they were able to prosper and achieve results for themselves and their family. And such has been the case for many who came to America back then, and those who come today with similar aspirations. Although their stories vary, and their challenges may have been less or more severe, Hispanics and Latinos are currently opening new businesses at three times the national rate, and Latina women at four times the rate.
But lately, these trends have begun to wane.
For several years now, politicians have looked past the potential and entrepreneurial acumen of people like my parents in the private sector, and have over-estimated the government’s ability to stimulate an economy by providing everything under the sun via redistributionist policies. As a result, we have all wound up over-governed, over-regulated, over-taxed, and over-borrowed. And yet, such policies have produced lackluster results. In fact, one out of every four Hispanics now live under the poverty line, and more Hispanics are out of work than ever in our nation’s history.
Those of us who promote economic liberty do not ask others to embrace its principles solely out of concern for the interests of the wealthy – but because the excessive size and scope of the state limits the liberties of all citizens, hampers job creation, private sector growth, and has resulted in higher rates of poverty.
If we truly seek to improve the whole of society, then what we need is a full throated defense of truly free markets, improved educational attainment, and American individualism. Our policies need to incentivize risk taking, entrepreneurship, and free enterprise.
My parents can show politicians a thing or two about that.