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UC San Diego graduate honors farmworker parents with photo shoot that goes viral

Jennifer Rocha and her parents Jose Juan and Angelica Maria Rocha
Jennifer Rocha and her parents, Jose Juan and Angelica Maria Rocha, celebrate her graduation with a photo shoot at a bell pepper field in Thermal, Calif., in May 2021.
(@branden.shoots)

Jennifer Rocha wanted to celebrate her bachelor’s degree in sociology from UC San Diego with a photo shoot, but instead of run-of-the-mill graduation pictures, she decided to honor her parents and the sacrifices they made for her.

That’s why, on a sunny May afternoon, 21-year-old Rocha donned a graduation gown and a Mexican stole, and had her parents at her side in a vegetable field in Riverside County.

The three held hands, walked together, and smiled for a series of photos. Weeks later, when the images were uploaded to the internet, they went viral, receiving thousands of likes on Facebook and Instagram. Rocha was invited to tell her story on “Good Morning America” and “Today.”

Palm Springs-based photographer Branden Rodriguez said he and Rocha had been following each other online for a while. He said she contacted him earlier this year for a graduation photo shoot and asked for it to be done in the fields where her parents and she had worked extensively.

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“When she told me she had a different idea, I thought it was very original,” Rodriguez said. “I also researched around what has been made, to make it our own. She is with her parents collecting bell peppers. ... So it’s her graduation, but she wanted to make it about them.”

Rocha said she decided to take the pictures with her parents in the fields because she remembered with pride the moment when her dad took her and her two older sisters to work there. She said she and her sisters were in high school. She was in her junior year, and she was also running cross-country track.

“I would get off practice around 2 or 3 p.m., and then my dad would pick me up,” she recalled. “I would go home, change, eat, and then go to work planting strawberries overnight. And then I would get off around 2 or 3 in the morning and wake up, like, at 5:30 or 6 to get ready for school or else I would miss the city bus.”

Jennifer Rocha wears her cap and gown as she picks bell peppers in a field.
Jennifer Rocha chose the fields where she’d worked with her parents as the backdrop for her graduation photos.
(@branden.shoots)

She said she wanted to recognize her parents, low-wage farmworkers who nevertheless were able to give a career-oriented education to three daughters.

“It’s really impressive,” she said. “Through blood, sweat, and tears they are out there, working hard during hazardous conditions, especially right now that it’s like 120 degrees. And I just want to recognize them because, without them, I wouldn’t have this degree.”
Rocha said she planned to continue her education — she wants to pursue master’s and doctorate degrees. Her dream, she said, is to work in law enforcement, where she sees a lack of Latina professionals.

“My parents feel extremely proud,” she said. “It’s crazy because I would be the first one to be an officer within my family, and for them it’s pride and honor.”

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Rocha said her parents, José Juan and Angélica María Rocha, had been farmworkers their entire life, having emigrated from Michoacán, Mexico, to California as teenagers.

They have been together for over 30 years and have five children.

It’s easy to say this with the benefit of hindsight, but “In the Heights” was never going to live up to its expectations. Framing a work of art as the Latinx anything is a doomed endeavor from the start.

Rocha said she hoped she’d started a new tradition among farmworkers’ children in California and beyond.

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“Hopefully students and Latinos start taking pride in their roots, and start to recognize all the sacrifices that their parents made,” she said, “especially when they work in domestically tough labor that doesn’t pay enough.”

Rocha said she was also sending a message to young Latinos and Latinas: “It’s possible to make your dream come true and to make your parents proud, but never forget where you come from.”

Jennifer Rocha and her parents stand among plants.
Jennifer Rocha and parents José Juan and Angélica María Rocha hold her decorated graduation cap.
(@branden.shoots)

Navarro writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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