Thriving in Immokalee

How the Villanuevas push for a better life under the most challenging of circumstances.

BY November 11, 2016


If you are driving east from Southwest Florida’s coastal communities, through the citrus groves and into Immokalee, you might fixate on the following:

A strip of a downtown dominated by mom and pops, boarded storefronts and social service agencies. Tired-looking trailers. Chickens, free range. Men with faces lined beyond their years, and dark-haired women pushing strollers. You’ll hear a lot of Spanish, some Creole, a little English.

You’ll notice throngs of children and busy schools (the median age here is about 27) and imagine the young people doomed to fields and packinghouses, or maybe a slightly more upwardly mobile gig at the casino, the fast-food joint, la tienda.

That’s not what Berenice Villanueva sees. When the 16-year-old considers her community, she describes it this way: “It’s a small town with big opportunities.”

In Immokalee, her family—parents Javier and Maria, siblings Adriana, 22, Jessica, 20, and 14-year-old Jonathan—have created a life that contrasts starkly with what a casual passer-by might expect, and one that the parents could have never imagined growing up in Mexico. Yes, by many American standards, they are poor. But within a single generation, the father has gone from migrant worker to business owner; Adriana has hung a newly earned college diploma on the living room wall; Jessica has settled into her second year of college; Jonathan has started his first year of high school; and Berenice’s mentors have started laying out plans for her to take college entrance exams and apply for university summer programs.  

“We were always told people from Naples and people from Fort Myers don’t think you’re as smart as them. It’s one of the most annoying things,” Berenice says. Her teachers challenge kids like her to prove the outsiders wrong. And so they have.

Immokalee can be called many things—poor, undereducated, oppressed. But it might be given another label, too: a social laboratory where residents experiment with ways to achieve the American Dream. Here, one family tells its formula—one that combines ingenuity, solidarity, goal-setting and a sizable push from a social service organization that’s helping Immokalee’s children make their way from this agricultural town to college campuses.

Javier supports his family as an auto mechanic, working about 12 hours a day.


The first time Javier Villanueva entered the United States, he walked. He was 15 years old, and had joined his father and three other men in making the journey. By the end of the seven-day trek, they’d run out of food, having shared their provisions with another group of migrants.

Javier was already work-hardened—he’d held jobs ever since he was 7—and eager to experience life in the United States, even if it meant stoop labor. Illegal immigration wasn’t the national obsession it is now, which was good for work opportunities and bad for work conditions.

“No rules,” Javier says, recalling the pesticide trucks that used to spray alongside workers and the little kids picking alongside their parents. It’s better now, more regulated, though the work remains unimaginably hard.

Picking tomatoes in America pays more than working a skilled trade in Mexico, according to Javier and Maria. Javier, whose formal education ended in middle school, would come to spend a dozen years doing it.

Maria grew up in Matamoros, Mexico, a border town. She was a bright student, earning 9s and 10s on a 10-point grading scale. She once contemplated becoming a teacher, but when it came time for high school, she decided to focus on business management because of an abundance of factory jobs. She thought maybe she might become a supervisor.

In Mexico, elementary and middle school are tuition-free, though families must cover books, uniforms and ancillary needs. High school costs money. Maria didn’t want to risk the educations of her younger siblings by relying on her parents for tuition. So she ventured out on her own, taking a full-time, second-shift factory job, renting an apartment and enrolling in the nearest high school. She held onto the schedule for as long as she could, until slipping grades and sheer exhaustion led her to abandon her schooling.

Javier met Maria one Christmas Eve. Their relationship was a long-distance one as Javier continued his trips to the United States. He’d been granted legal status in the U.S., a provision that used to be granted liberally to farmworkers. Javier proposed a year later; she wasn’t ready. He waited another year, and proposed again. This time, she said yes.

Maria joined Javier in the fields, but she never intended to settle in the United States. The couple owned a little piece of land in Mexico and when Adriana arrived (she was born in the United States), the young mother planned to raise her in proximity to her tight-knit family. Javier, they agreed, would rotate between the two countries, spending two months in the United States and one in Mexico.

But the baby forgot her father every time he left, and Maria feared the family’s bonds were unraveling. One day, she trekked to a phone to call her husband. “Either you come or I go,” she says. “I married you. I want to be where you are.”

When Berenice hears this, she claps her hand to her heart, looks at her mother and exclaims, “Aawww!” It’s a mid-summer afternoon, Berenice’s last week of vacation before pre-school band practices start. She’s sitting at the dining room table as her mother recounts the family’s early history. Helen Midney, of the Guadalupe Center, the organization that has assisted all three girls, is translating for Maria; Berenice’s sisters are at work, and she doesn’t think her Spanish is strong enough to take charge of the conversation, a byproduct of Americanization.

“I didn’t realize all the things that my mom did. It breaks my heart,” Berenice says. “I never really knew the struggles my mom went through.”

Ingredient 1 in this family’s formula: parental sacrifice.


Maria spends much of her day in the family’s white Kia, chauffeuring her kids to and from school, work and activities. In between car trips, Maria cleans the two-bedroom house, cooks the meals, and manages the myriad other tasks mothers do to ensure a harmonious household.

During season, she sometimes picks up hours at a packinghouse. She tried getting a regular job once, in a Florida Gulf Coast University cafeteria, but she noticed Jonathan, then a toddler, regressing without her constant supervision. Later he’d be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. He’s got a brilliant mind for technology and for memorizing directions (he can find his way around Mexico years after his last visit) and with his family’s support has kept up with his peers.

So, Maria and Javier agreed that her work would be to keep order among their high-energy children, freeing the girls especially from the domestic tasks that fall to many daughters in many Immokalee households. The parents expect their children to dedicate their time to studying and enrolling in after-school activities.

“I’m going to make sure my daughters and son have the opportunities—as long as they do their part,” Maria says.

Meanwhile, Javier spends his days at a place called Ceslo’s Auto Repair a few miles away. Ceslo is the name of the property owner, but Javier is really running his own enterprise there, bringing cars and trucks back to life. The place is state-licensed, Adriana explains, but American drivers would hardly recognize it as an auto repair shop; it’s more of a giant yard packed with vehicles lined up for repair, or stacked and destined for the scrap yard. A few men work there, in blazing sun, each with his own clients.

The volume keeps Javier busy from 8 in the morning until 9 most nights.

When she was in her teens, Adriana—feminist, outspoken, a little brash—used to resent her father coming home and asking her to fetch him a soda or take off his shoes. The American-born girl had little patience for Mexican machismo.

“I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to be told what to do,” she says.

In retrospect, she realized her dad wasn’t trying to impose a marginalized gender role. “While there are traditional aspects in my family, like the men are in charge and the women do the cooking and the cleaning and the childrearing, my father was not doing it to be macho. He was doing it because the man was tired. I didn’t understand that until I got older.”

Her dad has done all kinds of work, Adriana says. When she was little, they lived in a little yellow and white aluminum trailer that Javier would hitch to the back of a truck and haul throughout the Southeastern United States, following the harvest. In Immokalee, he’d park it in the yard of an immigrant-friendly church by Lake Trafford. Adriana remembers celebrating her fourth birthday in the church’s outdoor pavilion.

Around that time, Javier declared an end to the family’s itinerant lifestyle. He’d seen other families move their children from state to state, school to school, and he believed these broken educations would lead children in only one direction—to the fields. The Villanuevas settled permanently in Immokalee, enrolling Adriana and later Jessica in Lake Trafford Elementary School.

“I love my parents. They’re amazing. They’ve always tried to show us they can do it, so we can do it, too,” says Jessica, a few weeks before her scheduled return to Illinois where she attends Augustana College, a small private school. 

The family had, at times, supplemented its earnings with government support such as the maternal and early childhood nutritional support program WIC. But Javier was continually scheming up new ways to make money and secure the family’s financial independence.

Adriana remembers her parents once owning a small piece of property by the lake that they rented to migrant workers. Then, there were the can-collecting years when her dad would buy aluminum cans from the neighbors and re-sell them at a profit to scrap yards. In the mid-2000s, Javier earned his commercial driver’s license, attracted to the trucking industry’s high earnings potential. Gas and insurance, however, ate up too much of his profits and he decided to go back to auto repair, a trade he’d learned from a relative and from his own trial-and-error studies.

“He’s always trying to do new things,” Jessica says. “Just last year, he said, ‘I want to learn Creole.’ To a certain degree, it’s like, ‘Dad, you’re crazy,’ but to a certain degree, it’s nice to see that he started off with so little and he strives to better himself.”

The kids never went hungry, though they recall weeks when Maria served eggs at every meal. They know how to “rock Goodwill,” but they got a new pair of shoes at the start of each school year. Their little yellow house has no air-conditioning and all four kids squeeze into one bedroom—but it’s a house, and in this town, that is a very big deal.

“If you had a house,” Jessica says of the socioeconomic ranking among school kids, “you were considered privileged.”

Adriana worries that the skills her parents’  generation honed—their ingenuity, their ability to create something out of nothing—will get watered down in hers and the coming generations. Just recently, her mother chided her for buying $500 eyeglasses while at school. Had she waited to return to Immokalee, Maria told her, she could have gotten them for a fraction of the price. Among immigrants, the economy is cash-based, prices are negotiable and invoices frequently paid in trade rather than currency. Both Adriana and Jessica watched their college friends spend money with a carelessness unheard of in their town.

“But I know for sure what hasn’t changed: I try to figure out things first and if I can’t, then I ask for help,” Adriana says.

Berenice volunteers twice a week with the Guadalupe Center of Immokalee.


If ingredient 1 has to do with the foundation Javier and Maria laid, Ingredient 2 has to do with their children.

Immokalee kids, by and large, don’t experience family vacations. Those without reliable transportation rarely venture even to Naples or Fort Myers. To be exposed to the wider world, they have to take advantage of school-sponsored activities. Berenice plays the tenor sax in the marching band. Adriana spent two years on the cheerleading squad. All three sisters have been active with the Beta Club, a leadership organization that travels to competitions statewide and nationally. School sent them to places they’d never heard of, exposed them to people they might not have met otherwise.

The girls take their educations seriously.

“My entire family was a support system—my family in Mexico, my family here on my dad’s side. There was always a push on every end,” Adriana says. “From every corner of our family it was education, education, education.”

Immokalee kids are acutely aware of the consequences of academic failure. “The kids who have worked in packing houses are the ones who want to move on,” Berenice says. Javier won’t let his children step foot in the fields, but he makes sure they don’t forget where the family has come from, either. 

Perhaps even more influential than school, however, was the Guadalupe Center, Ingredient No. 3 in this family’s American journey.  

It was Adriana who stumbled upon it first, through her best friend, who’d heard about the organization’s job opportunities for teens.

The Guadalupe Center had started out as a soup kitchen in the early ’80s, and its trustees quickly shifted their energy into education, establishing elementary school tutoring and an early childhood education program. The organization adopted the slogan “breaking the cycle of poverty through education.”

In 2004, it introduced Tutor Corps. Guadalupe hires teenagers to tutor elementary school children every weekday afternoon. The teens earn an hourly wage, plus accumulate scholarship money—$4,000 a year, payable upon college acceptance and under the provision of maintaining a certain grade point average. The program also links teens with a mentor, offers college tours, requires participation in workshops for college financial aid applications and SAT/ACT preparation.

Javier, working 12- to 14-hour days so that his wife and children wouldn’t have to, was not pleased when he learned of Adriana’s Tutor Corps application. “You need to focus on school,” she remembers him insisting. Once he understood the program, however, he became one of its cheerleaders. Midney, the Tutor Corps high school coordinator, says unlike some other families, the Villanuevas were wholehearted in their embrace of college opportunities, allowing their daughters to apply to far-flung schools in places as foreign to Immokalee as Mexico might be to an American teen. 

“It’s a great blessing they’re able to go to school and it hasn’t cost a penny,” Javier says, speaking through Adriana. He speaks English well enough, though in more formal settings prefers his native Spanish. “I have to let them fly.”

Prior to her Tutor Corps involvement, Adriana says she knew nothing of the college admissions process. “I didn’t know what the ACT or SAT was. I didn’t know when we were supposed to take them or that they cost money.” Her only college tours were arranged through the Guadalupe Center; her parents did not yet know that such trips were part of a coming-of-age ritual.

Both she and Jessica harbored doubts about their college worthiness. Neither girl spoke English when she started kindergarten, though both had mastered the language quickly. Adriana struggled in math; Jessica experienced significant anxiety and depression her senior year, which threatened to set her back. The girls questioned whether their Immokalee schools prepared them adequately, and they wondered how they’d fare in a world that is whiter and wealthier than their hometown.

“We have things put into us about the outside world, about other races, about the white race being against us,” Jessica acknowledges. “You hear stuff on the news. And when you meet people from Naples … they’re scared of you and then you’re scared of them, too. People will mostly follow the stereotype before they get to know you.”

Ultimately, though, Adriana won a full ride to Arcadia University, a small private school outside of Philadelphia. She was one of three Tutor Corps students to win the first of the Blankley Scholarships, named for Arcadia alumna and Guadalupe donor Rosemary Blankley and her husband, Walter. She majored in English, went to South Korea for a semester abroad and graduated last spring. She is considering returning to Korea as an English teacher (she loved the culture and found its family-centric values meshed with her Mexican ones). She is also thinking about going into law and specializing in immigration, remembering the bureaucratic struggle to get her mother’s legal status resolved, knowing the many similar needs in her community. 

Her father is anxious to see her return to school. “I want her to go higher and higher,” he says over dinner with his daughter one night. “You stop now, you just gonna get some small job. … Keep studying as far as you can go.” He has switched to English, as if in emphasis.

Jessica, meanwhile, is back at Augustana for her second year. That school, which also partners with the Guadalupe Center, awarded her some $17,000 a year in aid. An avid fan of Asian culture, she’s majoring in Asian studies with a minor in Japanese language and another possible minor in Spanish. She hopes some day to teach Spanish and English in Japan. 

Jessica’s fears about racial discrimination dissolved at school, although she is very much in the minority. “All of the hate that I was so afraid of coming to me never came, and if anything I had more Caucasian friends than I had multiethnic friends,” she says.

Maria worked diligently with Jonathan and meets with his teachers regularly. Middle school, Jonathan says, was hard, though he couldn’t quite articulate the challenges. “High school is a lot better,” he says, a couple of weeks into classes. “It’s perfect. It’s much better than middle school.”

Like his sisters, he joined the Beta Club.

Berenice just entered her junior year of high school, a critical one when students shore up transcripts and start the admissions process. “I’m worried, but I think I’ll do good,” she says. “Adriana is pushing me.”

She’s considering a couple of career options: marine biology, nursing—and now teaching, an interest born out of her Tutor Corps job.

“It’s your decision,” her mother tells her.

“Education is valued as a survival tool.”—Adriana

The family, of course, has experienced its rough patches—the recessionary years when work was scant and money was frighteningly tight. They’ve experienced the pains of prejudice—the white driver hollering at Javier, the inevitable academic comparisons between well-off Naples students and struggling Immokalee ones. They’ve had to navigate the line between adopting American traditions and holding onto treasured Mexican norms. Language creates barriers: Sometimes Javier will squelch his children’s English chatter with a reminder that they are a Spanish-speaking household—at least around the dinner table. A school counselor had to help Jessica explain her depression to her mother; the young woman lacked the depth of vocabulary in Spanish to express what she was feeling.

Southwest Florida has lots of disadvantaged children, in foreign-born and native-born households. In Lee County, 68 percent of K-12 students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches—a standard way of measuring poverty among children. In Collier, the rate is 63 percent. In academia, socioeconomic status, more than any other factor, sets a child at risk of academic failure. In Immokalee, Midney estimates maybe 40 percent of students make it to some form of higher education.

The question becomes, then, can the formula that worked for the Villanuevas apply to others?

From a programming standpoint, it’s a question that intrigues Guadalupe Center Chief Executive Officer Dawn Montecalvo. “That’s something we want to see,” she says. She’s been talking to both local and out-of-town nonprofits that are impressed with the organization’s outcomes: 88 percent of preschool students meeting state kindergarten readiness standards; 100 percent of Tutor Corps members graduating from high school and 90 percent earning a college degree.

But access to high-quality programs is only part of the formula. The families that thrive are the ones who understand the value of education and who push their children toward excellence. That’s the part of the equation that no social service organization can control—and no amount of philanthropic dollars can influence. 

“You hear people think (immigrants are) lazy and taking advantage of what we offer, but they have really strong work ethics,” Montecalvo says. “The families have taken that work ethic to the field to survive, and they’ve passed it on to their kids who take it into the classroom.”

At dinner with Adriana, Javier says he’s not pushing his kids for the sake of his own financial future. “No, I don’t think like that,” he says.

His children, however, do.

“Education is valued as a survival tool,” Adriana says. It’s how she’ll provide for the children she hopes to one day have and how she’ll assist her parents and siblings. “Because there are four of us, one of us is gonna buy a house (for our parents), one of us is gonna pay the mortgage, one of us is gonna buy groceries for the rest of their lives and one of us is gonna buy them a car. Every once in a while, we switch and we’ll argue (about who is providing what), but the point is it’s about how we are going to take care of our mom and dad.”

And that says everything about why this family is prevailing.

“The key to everything,” Maria says, “has been a successful marriage.”

Or, in Jessica’s words, it’s because, “We don’t just have a supportive mother, we have a striving father. We always have our mom here, and we always have our dad here.”


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