Jennifer Rocha wanted to hear the rustle of her black graduation gown against the bell pepper bushes in the California farm fields. She wanted to see the hem float above the dirt paths that she and her parents have spent years walking as a family while plucking heavy gallons of perfectly ripe fruits and vegetables that end up in America's grocery stores.
That's why she decided to take her college graduation photos in the same hot vegetable fields in Coachella, Calif., where she has worked with her parents since she was in high school.
"I'm proud that that's where I come from," says Rocha, who graduated from the University of California, San Diego on Saturday. "It's a huge part of who I am."
"The whole reason I wanted to go back to the fields with my parents is because I wouldn't have the degree and the diploma if it wasn't for them. They sacrificed their backs, their sweat, their early mornings, late afternoons, working cold winters, hot summers just to give me and my sisters an education."
The stunning pictures, in which she's in heels wearing full graduation regalia and picking veggies alongside her parents dressed in "regular field picking work clothes," have struck a chord across social media, going viral over the past couple of days. But Rocha says it's the feedback from other children of immigrants who have reaped the rewards of having their parents do back-breaking work so they can succeed that she cherishes the most.
"I really think that's why people like them so much," she says after a short pause.
Rocha began working in the fields when she was a junior in high school. Her mom and dad, Angelica Maria and Jose Juan Rocha, had both labored in the fields of Michoacán, Mexico, as young children before emigrating to the U.S. And when they arrived, they put aside dreams of becoming doctors or taking up other professional careers, Rocha recalls. "They just didn't have those options," she says. Instead, they returned to the fields.
"And when we were older they started taking us so we could learn a lesson about the value of higher education," she says.
The message was simple: "If you don't pursue a higher education, this is where you're going to end up. And the only way for you to learn is for us to take you for you to experience it."
That meant juggling school and cross-country practice with overnight shifts, Rocha says.
"I would get out of cross-country practice at around 2 p.m. and then my dad would pick me up and I would get home, change, eat something and then go right to work overnight because during that time we were planting strawberries overnight." The whole family would get home sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., she says, giving her enough time to "shower, nap and then wake up like around 5:30 a.m. to get ready for school because I had to catch the city bus or else I was going to miss it."
She continued the work through college even when she got a job with campus security. During winter, spring and summer breaks she would join her parents, hunching over different crops and hoisting as many barrels as she could manage onto her shoulders from the field to a sorting table for eight hours a day.
"And then once I got the other job as a cadet [with the Beverly Hills Police Department], I was basically doing three jobs at the same time," she says, laughing.
The photos, she says, show the world that she is just one of the hard-working, smart people like her parents who are often invisible but can be relied on every day doing the nation's most menial and low-paying jobs.
"So I want you to recognize not just them, but also all the other migrant workers that we tend to forget about."
Rocha says she hopes that anyone who's been moved by the photos will have a new perspective the next time they shop for food.
"When people go to the grocery store, [they] just grab vegetables and food without really putting thought into it," she says, sounding frustrated. "They don't think, there are people that are drastically working hard and in hazardous conditions just to make sure that we have these foods accessible."
Her favorite picture of the series is one in which she's flanked by her parents walking down a dirt path.
At the time, she says, she couldn't see exactly what her parents were doing as the photographer snapped away. But when she caught a glimpse of their smiling faces, she says, "it's just a joy and pride that they feel that now they have three girls with degrees."
"It just made me feel like, 'Wow, I just made you guys proud.'"
Rocha, who majored in sociology with an emphasis in law and society, is already pursuing her dream career in law enforcement. She hopes to be a chief someday.
She says she'll take this moment in the limelight to encourage other young Latinos to hustle and set clear goals for themselves regardless of circumstances.
"It's not impossible," she says. "Just because your parents work in domestic labor jobs doesn't mean that you aren't going to be successful. It's going to be hard, but everything is possible. And never forget where you come from."