Erica Alfaro’s mom cried the first time she saw her daughter’s graduation cap and gown. In tears, Alfaro said, her mom kept repeating the same thing over and over again.
“It was worth it, that all her sacrifices of coming to this country were worth it,” Alfaro recalled her mom saying. “[She said] that she was very proud of me, and that all those hours working in the fields were worth it.”
That moment gave Alfaro, 29, an idea: She wanted to celebrate receiving her master’s in education by holding a new grad photo shoot in the fields of San Diego, where her parents, who immigrated to California from Oaxaca, Mexico, have worked.
So on a Friday this month, after her parents rushed to get off work, a photographer held a brief photo shoot for the family in the strawberry fields.
Days after posting the photos on Instagram, the images went viral. Alfaro, who received her master’s in education from San Diego State University this spring, was taken by surprise by the attention. She was also honored by the story her photos told.
“That image is very powerful because it describes the American dream,” Alfaro told HuffPost. “That is the purpose why immigrants come to this country. They come because they want a better life for their kids.”
Alfaro’s graduation pictures are more than a story of academic achievement and parental pride.
Her parents, Teresa Herrera, and Claudio Alfaro, immigrated separately from Oaxaca to California, where both worked on farms and later met.
After Alfaro was born in the city of Fresno, the family moved to Tijuana. At 12 years old, Alfaro said she crossed the border every day to go to school in the U.S. One year later, in 2003, her family permanently moved to Oceanside in San Diego County, where her parents work in the fields to this day.
When Alfaro was a teenager, she believed that high school was the highest form of education she’d be able to obtain. As a young girl who barely spoke any English, Alfaro sometimes felt like even that was out of her reach.
Her parents never went to school and never learned how to read or write, according to Alfaro. During the summers, she would help her parents toil in the fields.
One day while working with her mom, Alfaro, 13 at the time, said she was tired. Her mom wasn’t moved by the remark.
“This is our life,” Alfaro recalled her mom responding. “The only people that have a good life are the ones that get a good education. If you don’t want your life to be like this, you need to get a good education.”
That advice didn’t land for Alfaro until she was a teenage mom and a high school dropout living in Fresno with an abusive boyfriend. One night, Alfaro said her boyfriend forced her and the baby to sleep outside.
“In the midst of despair, I was crying and feeling hopeless about my life,” Alfaro recalled. “And then that’s when the memory came to my mind. Those exact words my mom said to me when I was 13 came to me. It was like she was laying next to me.”
That night, Alfaro decided to go back to school to get her high school diploma. She eventually moved back to Oceanside, left her boyfriend and worked toward her bachelor’s degree at California State University San Marcos while working full time.
On May 19, she received her master’s degree in education with a concentration in counseling.
The images of Alfaro and her parents standing in the strawberry fields show what’s missing in the immigration debate.
President Donald Trump continues to vilify immigrants, especially those from Mexico and Central America, painting them all as “criminal, illegal aliens” and even going as far calling them “animals” in order to justify his controversial immigration policies.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to catch migrants who cross the border ― including thousands of children and many asylum-seekers ― and keep them captive in detention centers in reportedly inhumane conditions. Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had a record-breaking 52,398 migrants in detention, according to BuzzFeed News.
Alfaro didn’t expect her graduation photos to be seen by more than her friends and family, but she wants to use the attention on them to show people what immigrant life can look like.
“I want people to know that we’re not bad people,” she told HuffPost.
“I want them to see why [immigrant] parents come to this country,” Alfaro continued. “They come to this country with the hope of giving a better future to their kids. I want to show them that they sacrificed a lot to come here. And that it’s not fair that they are being discriminated [against] or treated badly.”
“[Immigrants] are nice people,” she added. “They truly come here for a dream.”