Juan Garcia helps the family’s youngest, Jacob, 9 months, as he fusses during a recent mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Central Oregon, Madras, where the ecosystem looks like parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Chihuahua.
He introduces me and my colleague, Susy S. — both of us from Family Independence Initiative, a national non-profit now working in both Lincoln County and Jefferson County to engage families in a large social capital project – to his family and parishioners.
For Juan, who is a former Michoacán resident, family is everything to him. He tells me recently at the Madras Latino Festival 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.
Juan 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 states as he preps the ground for the second annual Madras Latino Festival before the onslaught of people coming to Sahalee Park.
Also deeply ingrained in this former undocumented immigrant is his religion, Catholicism, and his tolerance of other peoples. It’s fitting the Latino Festival – the second annual event Juan has had some hand in helping 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’s roots in Michoacán – a tall, dark-skinned man who is part of the Purépecha people. The Nahuatl name for the Purépecha was “Michhuàquê” (“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,” Juan, who is 41, states proudly. He is six foot two and very dark skinned, unlike Juan, 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 from the present, 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 non-conquered tribes during that era.”
For the young Juan and his two sisters, it was rough growing up in that community – the tribe didn’t accept his family because Juan’s 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 Juan gets highly dramatic and dangerous.
“My dad ran into a lot of bad people because he was heading up safety and environmental plans,” Juan tells me. His father attempted to keep illegal loggers off tribal land, and for that, he was attacked and insulted by many poachers.
At seven years of age, the young Juan was kidnapped. The people who took him had other children, part of a human trafficking ring.
These criminals believed the Garcia clan was rich because of grandparents who had some land and farming interests three hours away.
Juan 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 reverence for wildlife and nature, always going into the forest protecting the tribal land and cultural trust.
Juan said he escaped his captors with other children in toe.
Leaving Home, 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 UT-El Paso when I was a graduate student.
Juan’s journey at age 17 was one of desperation to help his family at home – mom, dad, sister, brothers – who were struggling financially. Another sister had married a man who ended up moving them both to the US. He wanted to find her.
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, Juan 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.
He 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 Juan’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 Juan 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
- Juan 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 Juan ended up in Woodburn, Oregon, and he 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 Juan 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 Juan 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 Juan to not let her down. “I told her that I didn’t think that was in my dictionary, letting people down.”
Juan has worked since age four or five in Mexico, and this journey was not without risks – he held down three jobs to help pay for the health care costs for one of his medically 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 Juan’s married sister in Woodburn was also having surgeries for her medical issues.
The hard reality of exploitation hit the young Juan after he dropped out his junior year to support his family. The tree planter hired seasonal workers, mostly Latino migrants. Juan recalls how the boss restricted the amount of water the hard-working laborers could get.
“I told the boss that this is not humane. That he was treating us like criminals. We ended up drinking water from puddles.”
Enter the University of Oregon Ducks
Juan went back to his “guardian teacher” at Woodburn High School, and proposed to re-enroll with only a few weeks left of the school year. It just so happened that a teacher passing by heard the conversation and offered Juan a chance to enroll in an accelerated GED program that was being piloted at U of O.
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 Juan was okay 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 percent grade. He also met his future wife there, Jackie who was also in the program.
Juan 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, Seattle, Teas, Washington, Oregon and other parts of the US.
He said he came to Madras the first time to ask her 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. “I interviewed for a supervisor position, but the general manager laughed, saying I was going to be sweeping and mopping floors. If that’s a reason, that I am Latino, then, well, I told him I was there to work.”
He worked hard to assist co-workers, and soon this Wilsonville
Holiday Inn was being managed by Juan, 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.
Seven years later, he got an apology from the GM, telling Juan he was wrong to doubt his abilities based on racist perceptions about Latinos.
“The problem I had there was I treated co-workers as family. 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, Juan 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. Every single one was giving 100 percent. I told them I wasn’t going to fire them.”
Nike, Just Do It (unless you are a Latino)
He and Jackie at that point had two children. Juan went into an interview with Nike to get more income for the growing family. He was told that since he was a Latino, he couldn’t be trusted. So they put him in a department nobody liked. Juan thought cleaning restrooms was the bottom rung, but the interviewer laughed and told him the very worse department was receiving.
Juan 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.”
Even though Juan has worked his entire life, he felt this this place was treating them like animals.
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.’”
He realized that nobody was watching or cared about this 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 and 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.
He quit Nike, because he wanted to go into the Army, and was still working three other jobs. He told me that he felt he was providing okay, 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.”
Enter Madras, Oregon
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. This job for Juan Garcia is going on 14 years, and while Juan 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.
He was just hired on as a part-time site director for Family Independence Initiative. The Madras Pioneer ran my article on the FII initiative Sept. 11; however, in a nutshell this non-profit is partnered with the state of Oregon to get hundreds of households in both Lincoln and Jefferson counties to enroll in a social capital project.
Juan’s presence in Madras and Metolius is deep, and his commitment to coaching youth and helping youth have options rather than spiraling into drugs and delinquency is huge.
Juan’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 More than Meaning – It’s 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 Juan 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.”
We get to the basics – love is satichu in the native tongue. I ask him what community is in the language, and like many indigenous languages, the concept of community is expanded: “What brings you here” – natchiwantuterasini abeushaqi.
This proud man ran for mayor of Metolius and lost by one vote. He said it is a dream of his to become governor of Oregon. He is also enrolling at OSU-Bend to carry forth with his college education.
If he was mayor of Madras, Juan said he’d get an activities center building with a climbing wall, indoor soccer, a jumping house and other amenities to give families a place to recreate and bond.
This 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.