Juan Garcia helps the family's youngest, Jacob, 9 months, as he fusses during a recent mass at St. Patrick's Catholic Church.
Garcia introduces me and my colleague, Susy Sarmiento — both of us from Family Independence Initiative, a national nonprofit now working in both Jefferson County and Lincoln County to engage families in a large social capital project — to his family and parishioners.
For Garcia, who is a former Michoacán resident, family is everything. He told me recently at the Madras Latino Fest that he and his wife, Jaquilina, are done growing their family.
He smiles proudly when rattling off his brood's names and ages — Jose, 21, Julianna, 16, Jesse, 15, Juan Junior, 11, Javier, 9, Josefina, 5, and the infant, Jacobo.
Garcia is proud that all of them are still at home, part of his philosophy of bearing the fruits of decent living and the proverbial golden rule.
"What I believe we have on earth is this ability to pass on good lessons and instruction to our children who have a chance to make this a better world," he says, as he preps the ground for the second annual Latino Fest before the onslaught of people coming to Sahalee Park.
Also deeply engrained in this former undocumented immigrant is his religion, Catholicism, and his tolerance of other peoples. It's fitting that the Latino Fest — the second annual event Garcia has helped get off the ground with the Latino Community Association — is held at a park whose Chinook name translates to "high heavenly ground."
Life before El Norte
We talk about his father — a tall, dark-skinned man who is part of the Purépecha people — who had roots in Michoacán. The Nahuatl name for the Purépecha was "Michhuaque" ("those who have fish"), for which the Mexican state of Michoacán was named.
His father was a metallurgy specialist working for a door frame and security bar factory near Zamora.
"My father can trace his family tree back to Asia," Garcia, who is 41, states proudly. His father is 6-foot-2, and very dark skinned, unlike Garcia, who picked up many traits from his mother, a woman who traces her family line back to Portugal, Spain and Germany.
"I am what you call a Mestizo, a mix from my dad's pure Indian line and my mother's European side."
That tribe — Purépecha — only numbers in the tens of thousands, but more than 600 years ago, it was considered a tribe of exceptional warriors.
"Out of the hundreds of tribes in Mexico, most think of the Mayans, Aztecs and Toltecs. Well, the Purépecha was in the middle, one of the few nonconquered tribes during that era."
For the young Garcia and his two sisters, it was rough growing up in that community — the tribe didn't accept his family because his mother was white, and the white community didn't accept them because of the father's tribal background.
His grandparents on his mother's side were ranchers and agriculturalists, with land and productive fields. For that, this story of a young Garcia gets highly dramatic and dangerous.
"My dad ran into a lot of bad people because he was heading up safety and environmental plans," said Garcia. His father attempted to keep illegal loggers off tribal land, and for that, he was attacked and insulted by many poachers.
At 7 years of age, the young Garcia was kidnapped. The people who took him had other children, part of a human-trafficking ring. Those criminals believed the Garcia clan was rich because of grandparents who had some land and farming interests three hours away.
Garcia recalls many dismembered bodies being found around his community.
"As I grew up in that community, I learned there is no difference between the races. We are all the same, all creatures of God."
His father inculcated the deference to wildlife and nature, always going into the forest protecting the tribal land and cultural trust.
Garcia said he escaped his captors with other children in tow.
Searching for a sister
I have been lucky to have lived in the Southwest of the USA and the northern parts of Mexico we call La Frontera. I have had many deep relationships with people who have roots in Mexico and Central America, who made the treacherous journey north as undocumented humans. A few of those people were my professors at University of Texas-El Paso, when I was a graduate student.
Garcia's journey at age 17 was one of desperation to help his family at home — mom, dad and sister — who were struggling financially. Another sister had married a man who ended up moving them both to the U.S.
It took more than two weeks to journey from his home state to Tecate, in the state of Baja. Because his father left the family on many occasions to seek work far away, there were months on end when the family didn't know if he was alive or deceased.
"It was tough. In my own country, I was discriminated against all different ways. So many people think they are superior," Garcia recalls. "Honestly, when I crossed the border, I didn't know it was illegal to do so. I was not hurting anyone. I wasn't trying to harm people or this country."
Garcia recounts being harassed by Mexican federal police and coyotes. In the end, when he crossed the border, he found himself working as a "slave" in Los Angeles for the people that took his money to cross into the United States, but exacted punishment for Garcia's lack of funds.
"For two months, I was a slave. I worked 16 hours a day just to get a meal. I was in a house and the farthest I was allowed to go was from the building where I was making crafts to the trash can."
All Garcia knew was he had a sister in Oregon, but with the help of a fellow traveler he met on the underground trail to the USA, they located his sister in Salem. She basically paid off his ransom, and soon the 17-year-old Juan ended up north, in Portland.
Other stories during that trip north:
- In Sinaloa and Sonora police and federales were going to kill him.
- Six men surrounded him and were ready to murder him.
- Garcia defended himself with words.
- "You are supposed to be defending and supporting the people ... you should be ashamed of yourselves."
- "Throughout Mexico, people are just focused on greed ... all about money and they don't think about people."
From that day forward, his ethos and principles have been galvanized to a simple belief: "What I do, I do because I believe I can help change the world. Anyone is in the position to change the world, and we have to pass it on to our neighbors, friends and family."
Making bucks and hitting the books hard
So, he tells me how important school — education — is to him. The young Garcia ended up in Woodburn, and had no idea how to enroll in high school. In Mexico, school costs money, and there are no free lunches, no free supplies.
"When I tried to enroll, they asked for so many things. I reached out to a counselor, and told her, 'All I want to do is go to school so why are you asking me so many questions. I didn't come here to harm anyone.'"
He survived rejection after rejection, but as a minor, he ended up with a guardian, the principal, Mrs. Dallas, who Garcia is still friends with to this day.
"You know, when they asked me at the border if I was an American, of course, I said I was. In our schools in Mexico, they treat the entire continent — north, south, central and Mexico — as one America."
Luckily, he also had an uncle who left the tribe and ended up in Oregon, so Garcia was set with two guardian angels, so to speak. He told me he ended up crying with tears of joy when he was told school and lunches were publicly-supported with no cost to students.
Mrs. Dallas challenged Garcia to not let her down. "I told her that I didn't think that was in my dictionary, letting people down," he said.
Garcia has worked since age 4 or 5 in Mexico, and the journey was not without risks — he held down three jobs to help pay for the health care costs for one of his medically challenged sisters in Mexico.
"Everything went well, until three months later, when I was told my parents did not have the money to pay the medical bills. I left school. I told Mrs. Dallas, 'I'm sorry, but this is not about me anymore ... my younger sister needs me.'"
He ended up working in a pizzeria, for a nursery and a commercial tree grower. His brother-in-law had lost his job, and Garcia's married sister in Woodburn was also having surgeries for her medical issues.
The hard reality of exploitation hit the young Garcia after he dropped out his junior year to support his family. The tree planter hired seasonal workers, mostly Latino migrants. Garcia recalls how the boss restricted the amount of water the hardworking laborers could get.
"I told the boss that this is not humane, that he was treating us like criminals.," he said. "We ended up drinking water from puddles."
Enter the Ducks
Garcia went back to his "guardian teacher" at Woodburn High School, and proposed to reenroll with only a few weeks left of the school year. It just so happened that a teacher passing by heard the conversation and offered Garcia a chance to enroll in an accelerated GED program that was being piloted at University of Oregon.
What seems to be a truism in Juan Garcia's life is, "Good things come to people who wait, or good things come to good people."
He was on a year waiting list, which Garcia was OK with, but soon after applying, an opening popped up. He passed every single test necessary to get in.
Three months later, after attending the intense Eugene-based program, he passed the test with a 99.9% grade. He also met his future wife there, Jackie, who was also in the program. Garcia loved attending other classes at the university, and he ended up staying after matriculating to assist and tutor those others who were struggling — fellow students from all over, including Idaho, Texas, Washington, Oregon and other parts of the U.S.
Garcia said he came to Madras the first time to ask for his wife's hand in marriage from her father. They were married in November 1999, and went back to Woodburn. He ended up interviewing with the Holiday Inn.
He worked hard to assist co-workers, and soon that Wilsonville Holiday Inn was being managed by Garcia, and he was training workers, hiring others, and was offered to move up, out to other states, but he opted to be in Oregon, with his family.
"The problem I had there was I treated co-workers as family," he said. "I met their wives and kids. I was hiring people from different cultures — African Americans, Russians, Arabs, Asians."
Mind you, this was not his sole job — he was still working for the pizzeria and for Nike and a taco stand. When the Wilsonville Holiday Inn sold out to another company, Garcia was asked to cut 50 employees.
"I saw the numbers, the budget. I told the new manager that every single one of the workers is busy the entire shift," he said. "Every single one was giving 100%. I told them I wasn't going to fire them."
Working at Nike
The Garcias at that point had two children. Garcia went into an interview with Nike to get more income for their growing family. They put him in receiving. Garcia thought cleaning restrooms was the bottom rung, but the interviewer laughed and told him the very worse department was receiving.
Garcia recalls it was total chaos, and hard heavy-lifting work. "I wanted to quit three hours in. But a fellow Latino employee advised him not to: "Juan, people don't believe in us. You would be giving them an excuse if you quit."
He recalls praying, and remembers all the yelling he did to himself in the receiving department. "I was going crazy, I thought. But I got my own answer: 'Fix it.'"
Garcia realized that nobody was watching or cared about that department — seven of them: two African Americans, five Latinos, and one Chinese-American.
He asked the team if they could give him a few weeks to try to improve working conditions and turn things around.
That department went from the bottom of the heap to the best at Nike in six months. He was called to different departments to help those respective workplaces fix their inefficiencies and poor workplace productivity and conditions.
Garcia quit Nike, but was still working three other jobs. He told me that he felt he was providing OK, and that his wife reaffirmed that he was a loving father of two children and caring husband. His wife told him, "But Juan, we hardly ever see you."
The idea was to get closer to his wife's family and to center in a small rural community from which to grow. The third child, Jesse, was on the way, born March 2006, in Madras.
His bosses understood his drive to be centered around family and wished him good luck after three years at Nike.
Currently, Juan works as systems maintenance technician for TDS Communications, a company out of Madison, Wisconsin, that provides communication services like cellular, TV and phone service. Garcia is going on 14 years in the job, and while he has a better work-life balance than his earlier years in Oregon, he still has a large service area, sometimes driving 300 to 500 miles in his vehicle in a day, servicing customers in three counties.
Garcia was just hired on as a part-time site director for Family Independence Initiative. In a nutshell, the nonprofit is partnered with the state of Oregon to get hundreds of households in both Jefferson and Lincoln counties to enroll in a social capital project.
Garcia's presence in Madras and Metolius is deep, and his commitment to coaching youths and helping youths have options, rather than spiraling into drugs and delinquency, is huge.
Garcia's job with FII is to recruit families, get them enrolled and assist them with their commitment of 12 months journaling (once a month updates) about their families' progress and circumstances.
For the exchange of data FII collects, the family will receive a total of $800 for both the time and commitment.
Language is culture, history
We talk about how many people over the last few months and years have sort of reacted negatively when seeing the Garcia family of nine out in public. Not ironically, what gives Garcia hope is how the "world needs to have hope through the family, through children."
His biggest fear is losing his family.
We talk about language extinction, and his own tribe's language, which is called Tarascan or Tarasca.
"Every once in a while, I force my dad to talk to me in our language. But unfortunately, my kids aren't learning it, and thus on my side, it will die out."
His journey started in 1978, when he was born, and his life pathway, with seven children, in-laws, dozens of friends and neighbors, continues to find new and exciting trials and tribulations.
In 2005, he made the permanent move to Madras with his family, and he also became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
And yet, he easily recalls times when he was a child, high in the mountains in Michoacán, where the kids went out into the forest and gathered natural spoons from the palm trees so they could eat grandmother's pozole: mashed hominy, with meat (typically pork), and seasoned and garnished with shredded lettuce or cabbage, manzana peppers, onion, garlic, and limes.
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