Being raised in a Mexican family of field workers led Graciela Palacios to believe there was nothing more to life than crossing the border from Mexicali into the United States to work in the fields.
This mentality led Palacios to drop out of school in ninth grade and spend 10 years as a field worker, during which she would endure harsh conditions and travel year-round between cities such as Blythe and Salinas to keep up with the growing seasons.
“My parents said, ‘You are Mexican, and you don’t know English, so you have to work in fields,’” Palacios said. “And that’s how I’ve thought since the beginning.”
It wasn’t until Palacios became pregnant with her son that her time as a field worker came to an end and she would see the possibilities beyond farm work.
Palacios, 56, eventually returned to school, graduated with her nursing credentials and became a nurse at El Centro Regional Medical Center, where she’s had a career for more than 20 years.
Among her parents, five brothers and four sisters, Graciela has been the only college graduate. She graduated from the nursing program at Imperial Valley College in 1996 and eventually went on to earn both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Phoenix, finishing up in 2005.
Born and raised in Mexicali, Graciela migrated when she was 15 years old with her family after her father obtained legal documents for her family to live in the United States.
Palacios was just starting seventh grade in Mexicali when her family made the move, and she was placed into eighth grade in the United States based on her age.
At the time, Palacios knew practically no English, and had a difficult time learning the presented material.
“There were no ESL (English as a Second Language) instructors, so they put me in a corner in the back in the room, and they would put headphones on me with a tape recorder,” Palacios said. “They would give me a book, but it was for kindergarten, I think, and I would have to read along.”
To her surprise, Palacios was promoted from eighth grade to ninth grade.
Given her sister was pulled out of school by her parents at the age of 15 to work in the fields, completing a high school education did not seem like a possibility to Palacios.
“The priority for my mom and my dad was not for us to go to school,” Palacios said. “The priority for them was for us to cook and clean the house.”
Back to the fields
Palacios’ time in ninth grade was cut short as she had the responsibility of taking care of her youngest siblings at the home while her parents and other siblings worked in the fields.
“I was 17, and I was here doing nothing,” Palacios said. “So I got married, I went back to Mexico, and I started working in the fields.”
By 19 years old, Palacios had her first daughter, Cynthia, and adopted her first son from a family member.
Graciela then spent 10 years as a lettuce picker. At the age of 29, Palacios became pregnant with her second son and was forced to stop working the fields.
Palacios was going through a divorce with her husband at the time, and had to find a different source of income to support herself and her children.
“When I stopped working, I didn’t go back because they knew that there was something else for us other than the fields,” Palacios said.
Palacios returned to the United States in search of any work she could find.
Graciela eventually found an opening at Taco Bell, which at the time was located on Adams Avenue in El Centro.
“I stopped and I asked the supervisor if there was anything that I can do, and then I remember him saying, ‘If you learn the numbers in English, I’ll give you a job,’” Palacios said.
With very little understanding of how to speak English or pronounce numbers in English, Palacios decided to enroll in ESL classes at Imperial Valley College.
Palacios took a placement test, began attending the college and eventually completed her first ESL class.
“And I remember finishing it with a 4.0 GPA, but during the process it was really hard,” Palacios said. “I went so many years without going to school, only to seventh grade, and it was hard for me. I didn’t know what a verb was, I didn’t understand what a subject was. I didn’t know how to compose a sentence or do an essay or do anything. It was so hard, and I remember crying so much because I wanted to learn.”
As a single mother, Palacios had to find ways to care for her 9-year-old son, 8-year-old daughter and newborn son while she attended classes.
“Back then I would to go to school at night and I would leave them in the cafeteria. I did it for two semesters. My oldest son would take care of my two kids, and my kids would wait for me in the cafeteria.”
At the time, Palacios was working to complete her general education classes simply to obtain quick employment.
“I wanted to go back (to school) just to get a job and start working anywhere that’s not the fields,” Palacios said. “That was my goal, but I never thought that I would continue my dream from when I was little, which was to be a nurse.”
Palacios recalled that one of her favorite hobbies as a child was caring for her dolls as if she was a nurse.
Another moment which foreshadowed her future career came about in 1988 when Palacios’ father was in the hospital.
“It was a little bit sad, but I remember that my dad was dying,” Palacios said. “I remember the day before he died, he was standing and he wanted to go to bed and there was a nurse. I was asking questions to the nurse, and then she was showing how to take bubbles out of tubing and all that, then at that time my dad hit me on my back because I was not paying [enough] attention [to her]. I was into nursing at the time, but I felt like I didn’t really know it until I was at IVC.”
The true pivotal moment for Palacios in becoming a nurse came about while she was attending an English class at IVC.
Palacios had been scoring As and Bs on her tests, yet was given a D as her overall grade for the class.
“I asked the instructor why, and she said, ‘because you cannot speak English and this is a transferable class,’” Palacios said. “Then I said I’m getting As and Bs on my tests, and then she said, ‘I don’t care’ in front of the class. I started crying, and I left them room.”
Dream come true
While in the hallway, Palacios encountered a teacher who, unbeknownst to her at the time, would change her life.
“He told me everything was going to be fine, and then he asked me what my dream was since I was little,” Palacios said.
Palacios told the teacher that she always wanted to be a nurse, but couldn’t as she didn’t know how to speak English.
“And he said, ‘There’s another student who just graduated and she was also like you, so you can do it if you want to,’” Palacios said. “I’ve always thought there were angels around me.”
The conversation prompted Palacios to speak with her counselor and enroll in the IVC nursing program. Prior to enrolling in the program, Palacios earned her general equivalency diploma.
By 1996, Palacios had earned her certification as a registered nurse, licensed practical nurse and graduated from IVC as a registered nurse.
For a short period of time after graduating, Palacios worked at the Valley Convalescent Center in El Centro. She then transferred to work at ECRMC in the maternal and child department, which was known as the pediatrics department at the time.
“I used to get welfare,” Palacios said. “So when I got my first paycheck from working, I went to the office and I returned it. It was so nice. It felt so good.”
From student to teacher
Despite successfully finding a stable career, Palacios’ hunger and love for education was still not satisfied.
“I couldn’t stop,” Palacios said after feeling the success of graduating from IVC. “It was like an addiction for me. I was starving for more education.”
In 2000, Palacios decided to return to school and attended the University of Phoenix, which at the time was located in San Diego. Five years later, she held both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
After spending about seven years working in ECRMC’s pediatrics department, Palacios transferred in 2003 to the hospital’s intensive care unit.
About three years ago, Palacios was approached by IVC with an offer to teach.
“So I went back to IVC, but as an instructor,” said Palacios, who has taught pharmacy technician classes at IVC for the past three semesters.
The ICU nurse hopes her life story serves as motivation to other single mothers who may find themselves in a situation similar to hers.
“Even though my kids are Mexicans, I don’t want them to suffer and go through what I went through in the fields,” Palacios said. “I don’t want them to be in the heat. I don’t want them to go through unemployment. I don’t want them to be struggling because they don’t have money for food, or go through the humiliation that I went through. There were a lot of people who humiliated me, like that instructor. But she made me a stronger woman. Through that humiliation that she did in front of the class, I was able to find this other person who helped me. And through trying to look for another job other than the fields, I found someone who told me, ‘If you go and learn the numbers in English, then you’ll get a job.’”