Can-do Parents

By David Abel and Lynda Gorov  |  Globe Staff  |  3/03/2001

CAMBRIDGE - Every month, his hard-working parents send Rogelio Garcia Jr. about $200 in walking-around money.

It doesn't sound like much, but the 20-year-old junior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has an inherited knack for making a little bit stretch a long way.

The credit goes to his parents, Yolanda and Rogelio Garcia, who live in a cramped one-bedroom Los Angeles apartment and also support a daughter at the University of California and a son in high school.

Often starting after midnight and working 14 hours every day, rain or shine, Rogelio's father steers his old white truck through the back alleys of Los Angeles neighborhoods so he and his wife can gather thousands of cans.

"We're working 365 days a year," said Rogelio Sr., 53, a quiet, skinny native of Oaxaca, Mexico. "There's no rest."

For more than a decade, the couple has vied with other foragers to collect about 45,000 cans a month, earning them on average between $1,400 and $1,600.

Not a penny is wasted. What doesn't go toward food, gas, and rent goes to their 19-year-old daughter, Adriana, at UC Riverside, and to Rogelio Jr. at MIT.

Their son works just as hard as his parents.
In Cambridge - a city so far from home his parents thought they needed passports to visit - the bespectacled student stays up until 2 a.m. almost every day, amassing a different kind of wealth: studying aeronautical engineering and laying the foundation for a career that may soon allow his parents to retire.

"My parents always said, `Work hard, keep studying, and don't worry about the money,' " he said. "They always told me that I could do anything I wanted if I worked hard."

His parents grew up together in the same small town in Mexico. His father worked as a baker and made Oaxacan-style jewelry; his mother worked as a government secretary. The two later met and married in Los Angeles, after both took separate buses to the border and illegally dashed into the United States on foot.

They moved to an unincorporated section of Los Angeles called Venice, and both worked odd jobs. Rogelio found work as a restaurant dishwasher and meat cutter, earning as much as $9 an hour. Yolanda also worked various jobs, including one paying $7 an hour making pens at a factory.

Things went well until 1985, when Yolanda was laid off. That's when she got the idea to collect cans. Seven years later, also laid off from his job, Rogelio joined his wife's expeditions.

The work - arduous, demeaning, and sometimes risky - has never been ideal, and they must work hard to beat their competition to the quarry.

The first time Yolanda stuck her hand into a Dumpster she wasn't sure the money was worth the work. "I felt horrible," said Yolanda, 51, a small woman with callused hands and a bright smile that exposes her missing front teeth.

But the couple never lost sight of the goal. They didn't accept welfare, believing it would block Rogelio Jr., Adriana, and their 14-year-old son, Angel, from qualifying for financial aid. They also mistakenly believed that accepting public assistance would harm their chances for citizenship, which they eventually gained.

On one point, however, they didn't err. Their firstborn, Rogelio Jr., had a gift. From elementary school, it was clear he had a knack for math and science. The problem was making sure that their son didn't turn away from his talents and give in to the cruelty of his peers, who frequently teased him.

"He was always at the books, never in the streets, never running wild with friends," his father said.

On weekends, after finishing his homework, Rogelio Jr. would sometimes spend the day with his parents collecting cans. He would watch his father fetch a battered bicycle from his truck, which his mother would ride from one Dumpster to another. If at first he was embarrassed and kept his parents' occupation a secret from his friends, Rogelio learned to live with it.

"Kids could be very cruel, and the emotional stress was sometimes unbearable," he said. "But I got over it. I knew what my parents were doing, and why."

Though his parents pushed him, Rogelio needed little motivation. As a freshman in high school, he glimpsed his ticket out of poverty when a senior became the first student in his school to be accepted at MIT.

"It was really huge news that someone from Venice got into MIT," he recalled. "No one really knew where it was or what it was."

The odds of an impoverished Los Angeles Latino getting a coveted spot at the nation's top technical college improved when Rogelio Jr. aced his SATs. But even with high scores and a grade point average surpassing perfection - including advanced placement courses he had a 4.2 GPA - he doubted he would be accepted.

The competition was one obstacle; the price was another. The $33,000 annual tuition is more than twice his family's annual income.

Rogelio Jr. sent applications not only to MIT but also to Princeton, the California Institute of Technology, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and Carle ton College in Minnesota. In March of his senior year, he hadn't heard from any of them.

He was starting to despair when MIT called and accepted him. "I was like, `Who is this? Don't joke with me,' " he recalled.

MIT's generous package of grants, work-study, and low-interest loans didn't guarantee an easy life. Even with the $200 his parents sent him each month, he often lived on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and had to save enough money from his job working at an MIT lab to buy a winter coat.

The stress wasn't just about money. A child prodigy back home, at MIT Rogelio struggled to maintain a B average.

"My first year here was incredibly difficult," he said. "I didn't think I would make it."

Nearly three years later, lugging a large sack of books and wearing baggy blue jeans, black clunkers, and trendy, oval glasses, Rogelio is comfortable in Cambridge and indistinguishable from other college students.

The MIT upperclassman is over the hump. Though he still struggles with his humanities classes, he hopes to work soon for a company like Raytheon, where he can help build spacecraft equipment.

His parents will visit for the first time when he graduates in a year-and-a-half.

"I miss my family a lot," he said. "But I know they are very happy for me."

On a recent day in Venice, Yolanda Garcia was welcomed at a hotel where the Garcias are known and respected. An employee hauled out five large bags filled with trash. Meticulously, she sifted through each one, grabbing a bottle here, a can there.

The yield: perhaps a dozen bottles and cans. She wiped them clean, packed them in her own bags, piled them in her bike basket, and rode away.

After a few hours poking through Dumpsters, the small woman wearing three layers of sweatshirts and a red knit cap pulled low to protect her against the cold and the rain wasn't complaining. With her son at MIT, her daughter doing well, and her other son primed for success, she declared, "It's the American dream."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe

Follow-up story:

By David Abel

Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE - The plane was leaving at 7 a.m., and because the car taking them to the airport wouldn't come until 5, they figured they had enough time to fit in a night shift. So, like every other night of the year, Rogelio and Yolanda Garcia piled into their old white truck and went to work collecting cans in the back alleys of Los Angeles.

When dawn broke, it would herald a day like no other in their lives, one they never envisioned before leaving their small town in Mexico more than two decades ago.

After four years of hearing about the domed buildings along the banks of a river in a cold and faraway city, they would see them for the first time. Their son, a child prodigy they pampered as best they could, though they had next to nothing, would become the family's first college graduate, and not just from any college, but from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Yesterday, the Garcias, who gained national attention by collecting hundreds of thousands of cans over the years to help pay for their three children's education, watched as their oldest son, Rogelio Jr., graduated in style, pulling straight A's in his final semester and landing a lucrative job as an engineer.

"I never had any doubts he would do it," said his father, beaming despite the downpour and bitter wind that drenched the more than 2,000 graduates in ponchos and mortarboards yesterday on MIT's Killian Court. "We, of course, are very proud of him."

Other than a brief trip to Miami last year, courtesy of a TV station, yesterday was the couple's first day off in as long as they can remember - perhaps since 1985 when Yolanda began fishing through dumpsters.

Despite their joy at seeing Rogelio Jr. graduate after four years of pinching pennies, living off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and spending countless all-nighters cramming for classes that at first seemed impossibly demanding, the couple didn't have time to rest on their laurels. They had work to do.

Although their airfare and hotel bill was covered by alumni, the Garcias, who brought their two younger children, Angel, 15, and Adriana, a 20-year-old junior at the University of California at Riverside, were trying to make arrangements to return last night, a day ahead of schedule.

"Saturday is our best day," said Yolanda, a tiny 52-year-old whose smile glows brightly against dark cheeks tanned from so many years toiling under the California sun.

National publicity about their story has helped the Garcias financially over the past two years, but it has also hurt them, the couple says. That they could earn as much as $1,600 by collecting some 45,000 cans a month invited copycats - and the competition has significantly cut into their profits.

They also say they took a financial hit after Sept. 11. With fewer tourists visiting LA, fewer parties, and the hotels half-empty, they say the number of cans, bottles, and plastic redeemables fell.

So, in February, the city offered the couple a part-time job cleaning Venice Beach - near the cramped one-bedroom apartment they called home until moving recently to a larger place in what they describe as a "less noisy" part of the city.

The new job is good because it has allowed them to continue collecting cans - and to double their income to about $2,800 a month. The two continue cruising in their truck and collecting cans after midnight, but now, Monday through Friday, Yolanda leaves for the beach at 6 a.m. while her husband continues collecting cans. At 10 a.m., Rogelio, a slight, 5-foot-tall 54-year-old, takes over at the beach and his wife returns to collecting cans. At 2 p.m. on weekdays, the two meet up again and spend a few more hours working the alleys together.

"The good part is that the money is assured," Rogelio said. "But collecting cans is a job for life - we're our own bosses, there are no punch cards, and we can continue doing it as long as we like."

With Rogelio Jr. coming home to work for Raytheon, getting paid $60,000 a year - more than three times what his parents earn collecting cans - the ebullient 21-year-old, who yesterday completed a degree in aeronautical engineering, hopes his parents will let him do the family's heavy lifting. But with $25,000 in debt, his sister still in school, and his brother two years away from college, the couple insist they won't let up much.

"We might reduce our hours a little," said Yolanda, who bought a new dress for yesterday's commencement, "but working is a part of our lives. If we stopped, I'm afraid we would die."

Huddling in ponchos and sitting in the frigid rain from early morning until the afternoon, the Garcias weren't in the mood to complain. Nor were they bothered by about 100 protesters who came to show their anger at the day's keynote speaker, James D. Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank Group, who spoke about rising poverty throughout the world.

When their son found them among the throngs of parents at commencement, Yolanda and Rogelio looked at him with his new haircut and in his cap and gown, smiled, and then smothered him with hugs.

"This is really a great day," Yolanda said. "We couldn't be any more proud."