Agapito Sustaita vividly remembers how most of his days began as a child of migrant workers: Waking up in the dark, pre-dawn hours and driving in a van with his parents to one of the many farms surrounding Fresno, Calif., and waiting for daylight to break before picking grapes, over and over again.
“It was always very cool before the sun came up, but quickly after sunrise it got scorching hot,” said Sustaita, a graduating law student whose parents travelled from their native Mexico to Texas and California in search of work in cotton and citrus fields. “The damp dirt would then get dry and dusty and it would get into every part of your body.”
A photograph of Sustaita taken in the early ’70s shows him standing in a vast field of dirt and grapevines. He is an infant with shiny brown hair and big eyes, wearing a diaper and cowboy boots covered in dust. Behind him is his mother. On the ground are sheets of paper where grapes would morph into raisins.
“I don’t remember the first time out (in the fields), I simply remember a gradual increase in the amount of work I could do,” said Sustaita, who picked grapes every summer until he was 15 years old.
Sustaita, now 36, said his experience working hard labor on the farms shaped his choices in life and fueled a desire to find a way to work with the immigrant community during and after law school. It also gave him the dogged determination to pursue an education and leave the insular world where he grew up.
“One good thing about growing up the way I did-hard work is drilled into you. I know that I have to work to accomplish things,” said Sustaita, who said he was a senior in high school when he realized he wanted to find a good job away from the farms of Fresno.
Despite growing up in an environment where higher education was rarely an option, Sustaita researched jobs that paid well, and applied to colleges with engineering programs. He earned an undergraduate degree in computer science from the University of California-Santa Barbara and a master’s degree, also in computer science, from Texas A&M University.