Crossing the River to a Better Life : The Miranda Family Thrives in the U.S.

So fierce was Tomas Miranda's desire that his children have all the benefits of American life that three times during the 1950s he carried his pregnant wife across the Rio Grande so that she could give birth in an American hospital.

Maria Miranda clung to her husband's back as they made the illegal 100-yard river crossings under moonlight. Once Tomas dropped her in the knee-deep water and worried that she might miscarry. But each time they made it safely to shore and to a hospital.

"I don't believe things come easy," Tomas Miranda often says. "Hard work is the only way you're going to make it."

That philosophy has carried the Mirandas much farther than across the river.

Today at 61, Tomas Miranda is a ruddy-cheeked, heavyset farm worker in Oxnard, lugging irrigation pipes from field to field. Maria, 54, works part time packing food in an Oxnard factory. Legal residents of the United States since 1956, together they earn about $12,000 a year.

But the real payoff in the Mirandas' furtive river crossings is shown in the accomplishments of their 12 children. All have excelled in school, and most have gone on to complete college.

Eldest son Rodrigo once picked tomatoes in the fields with his father. At night, he studied hard.

"My father kept telling me, 'If you want to get out of this vicious cycle, you've got to hit the books,' " Rodrigo said.

Rodrigo Miranda took those words to heart. He completed course work at UC Santa Barbara in two years and then graduated from UCLA Medical School. Today at age 34, he is a heart surgeon at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Fontana.

Equally impressive are the accomplishments of the other children. Rafael, 32, is a loan officer and night-time law student; Lourdes, 30, teaches elementary school in Oxnard; Lorenzo, 28, a Stanford University graduate, is studying for the priesthood in Mexico; Monse, 27, is employed by the California Youth Authority in Camarillo; Tomas Jr., 26, is a supervisor for a Camarillo manufacturing firm; Elva, 22, is a pre-med student at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles; Humberto, 19, is an engineering student at the DeVry Institute of Technology in the City of Industry; Arnoldo, 19, and Armando, 17, are both students at Stanford; and Eduardo, 15, is a college-prep student at Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard.

Close-Knit Group

Tragedy struck the family in 1984 when son Jaime, 22, died in a traffic accident. Jaime was driving family members home from a vacation when he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed. At the time of his death, Jaime was a student at UCLA Medical School.

The Mirandas are a loving family, a close-knit group that has much in common. On weekends, the white screen door of their rented Oxnard home is forever slamming shut, announcing the arrival of another visiting child. Although only Eduardo and Tomas Jr. still live at home, most of the other children live nearby. Four are married: Rodrigo (who has two sons and a daughter), Rafael (who has a son), Lourdes, and Monse (who has a son and daughter).

The Mirandas are devoutly religious, and meals often begin with a prayer. "This is a Catholic home," a sign on the front door reads. Crucifixes hang in nearly every room. All of the sons have been altar boys, and the family remains active in Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.

The Mirandas are equally devout about education. Because of their poverty, neither Tomas Sr. nor Maria went past the sixth grade in Mexico. But they were determined that their children would do better.

"My kids liked school and we pushed them," said Maria, a brown-haired, graceful-looking woman. "We've always wanted them to be educated."

A Reward for Good Grades

The elder Mirandas made certain their children did their homework. They read their report cards and visited their teachers. After a long day at work, Tomas Sr. insisted on personally accompanying his children to the library. At night, he gave them lessons in arithmetic and in Spanish. Later, the older children would help their younger siblings in the same manner.

When his brothers' and sisters' grades were high, Rodrigo would return from medical school with their reward--bags full of McDonald's hamburgers.

The emphasis on education continued into the summer, when the family's rural isolation forced the Miranda children to turn to one another for company. To keep busy, they organized their own summer school. Elva was the teacher, Jaime was the principal, and the four youngest boys, sitting behind lemon crate desks, were the students.

The Mirandas' roots go back to Chihuahua, Mexico, where Tomas Sr. and Maria were married in 1950. They legally entered the country in 1956. After living in Detroit, Mich., and El Paso, Tex., the family moved to Ventura County in 1965. Tomas Sr. still holds a job with the Oxnard farming company that first hired him.

In recent years, Tomas Sr. often took his sons to work in the fields with him. Eventually, it wasn't out of economic necessity that he made them work in the fields, but out of a desire to teach them.

He wanted them to know about hard work, and to inspire them to do so well in school that they would never be forced to become farm workers.

As the children's accomplishments have increased, so has their respect for their parents.

Recently asked to describe her mother, Lourdes found it difficult to speak and burst into tears.

"I cry because I think, 'Could I ever give so much love and patience to my own kids?' There's so much she's given."

Humberto perhaps summed up best what it meant to grow up in the Miranda family, poor in money but rich in spirit. "You wish you could have a lot of things your friends did," he said. "But we've had a lot--great parents."

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