Education key to finding home for Joshua Mora; WBU Professor hopes to be an inspiration for first-generation students

December 17, 2014

PLAINVIEW -- Dr. Joshua Mora remembers the stories his mother would tell -- stories of how when she and his father came to the United States from Mexico they would live in rundown shacks and work in the fields to make ends meet. The walls of their home didn’t meet and during the winter months, icicles would form at the end of exposed nails from moisture that would seep into the building.

“They lived in these shacks that my mom told me you could see the outside (through the walls),” Mora said. “They had a room that they couldn’t sleep in. She would make Jell-o in there. That’s how cold it was.”

The life of migrant workers was not glamorous -- working through the night, riding in the backs of trucks to get from one field to another, taking additional odd jobs like ironing clothes for the landowner just to put beans on the table.

“They went through such incredibly hard times,” Mora said. “The life of a migrant worker was horrible … really, really horrible.”

It was a life he would grow accustomed to. Mora grew up in the fields, working alongside his father and his brothers from the time he was 8 years old. Picking crops, hauling baskets full of berries and cucumbers, eating little more than beans and tortillas … except at Christmas time when his parents might find enough money for his mother to make tamales.

It’s a story of hard work and reliance on faith and family. It’s a story of success. And as he teaches Spanish at Wayland Baptist University, it is now a story he shares with his students.

The youngest of 13 children, Joshua Mora was born in Idalou. Several of his older brothers had been born in Wyoming and Colorado as his parents moved to work in the fields. His parents moved to Texas because they didn’t have enough money to make it all the way back to Mexico. They got as far as New Deal.

“My mother said they paid the trucker with a radio for having brought them there,” he said.

His father managed to find a job working a local farm and the family continued to grow. Several brothers and sisters were born in New Deal before Mora. And as the family grew, so did his father’s desire to return to a migrant lifestyle.

“He still liked being a migrant worker,” Mora said.

When he was 8 years old, Mora said the family returned to the life of migrant workers in order to make extra money to support the large family.

“We were so large that we figured that was a good way to make some money,” he said.

The work took them to California, Oregon and Wyoming, following the crops. They would leave school early each year in order to work during harvest. Mora said the rules about school attendance were more lenient in those days and they were allowed to leave school in early May before the end of the term. He said he actually finished third grade in California. Many of his brothers and sisters dropped out of school during their elementary years to focus on work.

Mora said it was hard work, especially for an 8-year-old. The days started early as they had to be in the fields by 5 a.m. and bedtime came early as well. Working the fields in Oregon, Mora and his family would pick strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cherries and cucumbers. The berries had to be picked in the morning because they would melt when picked in the heat of the afternoon sun. He said to this day he can bite into a fresh cucumber and it takes him back to the fields in Oregon.

“It was really hard being out there,” he said. “You had to carry the pallets and boxes. Cucumbers you picked in 5-gallon cans. My dad was a hard man. If you were going to be out there, you had to work hard. If you were going to pick crops, you had to go fast because the more you pick, the more money you make. Dad would throw dirt clods at us and tell us to hurry up.”

Mora can still remember eating some of the biggest and sweetest strawberries as a snack.

But through those tough times, he said his family never lost sight of God.

“Both of my parents were very spiritual and very faithful,” he said. “They taught us and ingrained in us faith in God and faith to believe in God and trust God for everything.”

And while he grew up poor and times were tough, Mora said they never went hungry.

Faith saw them through and it was faith that Mora would rely on as he started his own journey, moving out of the fields and into the classroom.

Even though the family would spend its summers living in migrant camps on the West Coast, they always returned to the Lubbock area to go to school. As was the culture at the time, kids were encouraged to drop out of school and work in order to support the family. Most of his siblings had dropped out, but Mora struggled on. He was a good student in elementary school, working hard to learn. However, that desire to learn didn’t carry over into his high school years.

“When I was at Estacado (High School), I was just like everybody else – not as motivated, hanging out with the wrong crowd,” he said. “Honestly, leaving every summer made it really hard. I just felt misplaced.

“I had horrible grades in high school. We didn’t study. We didn’t care.”

Fortunately for Mora, Texas Tech University had an open admissions policy at the time. There was also an education program in Lubbock called Learn Educational Talent Search through which representatives would help low-income students interested in college with the registration process. Mora said he wasn’t really interested, but a woman worked with him to make sure he was enrolled.

“She got us admitted and I was there at Tech in the fall of ’77, right after I graduated,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know how to study or take a course. I had no idea what was going on.”

Mora said he made somewhere between a 1.5 and 1.75 his first semester. He still has the transcript in his files and occasionally pulls it out to show his students, showing that if he can do it, they can too.

Glad that he passed, he enrolled in his second semester and managed to pull out a 2.5. But it wasn’t until that summer after his freshman year that he really decided to pursue education as a way to make a better life for himself.

Mora had given up traveling to work in the cotton fields of West Texas. It was a hot summer day and he was spending it hoeing weeds. It just so happened that the landowner hired some of the kids he had gone to high school with as well.

“I stood there and I was listening to them and they didn’t have any motivation for anything,” he said. “I remember listening to them and I just had this epiphany, Wow! I can do better.

“I was a college kid. I had already been exposed to that life and I liked it. And I saw where I came from. I realized that I had two choices: I can sit here and work at jobs that pay minimum wage the rest of my life, or I have a chance to go to college.”

At first, his father opposed his desire to get an education. Mora was expected to get married, have kids and work for a living. He also faced discrimination from his friends who thought he was “trying to be white.”

Mora soldiered on and once his father saw how serious he was about getting an education, Mora said he supported him completely. When he graduated with a bachelor’s degree, the whole family celebrated his accomplishment.

Mora went on the graduate school and began working toward a master’s degree. Unfortunately, his father didn’t live to see him graduate with a master’s. He knew, however, that by now Mora had his sights set on a Ph.D. Before his death, Mora’s father told his mother to do whatever she had to help him complete his education, even if it meant selling the house to pay for classes. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that.

Mora faced difficult times during graduate school when the pressures of studying and making good grades became difficult to bear. It was then that he would remember the lessons his parents taught him about faith and he would trust God to give him the strength to carry on.

Looking back, Mora can see God’s hand on his journey. It was the influence of friends who encouraged him to enroll in college. It was by happenstance that he chose Spanish as his degree path. He started out like many other students, trying psychology and sociology and many other areas of study. But as time passed he reached the point where he had to declare a major. With a significant number of hours in Spanish already complete, he chose to study the language. Then another friend pushed him to graduate school. While working on his doctorate he began teaching and fell in love with it. It was through circumstances and the influence of professors who served as mentors on his journey that he came to where he is today.

When Mora completed his Ph.D. he went to Wichita Falls where he taught. But when his mother got sick in 1997, he returned to Lubbock to help care for her. However, he was unable to find a job so he returned to the classroom, this time at Austin College in Sherman.

“I planned to stay there,” he said. “I liked it there, but my mother’s health got really bad.”

In 1999, Mora returned to care for his mother, finding work at Citibus and then in the child support division of the Attorney General’s Office. But he missed the classroom. During the summer of 2000, he saw a job posting for a Spanish teacher at Wayland. He applied and was hired. Dr. Don Cook, then Chair of the Division of Languages and Literature, worked out a schedule that would allow Dr. Mora to teach morning classes and return to Lubbock in the early afternoon to cook and care for his mother until she died in 2002.

Dr. Mora has a home at Wayland. He is comfortable in his office on the second floor of Gates Hall, decorated with mementos of his family and his faith. And while life has been good for Mora, he hasn’t forgotten those years spent in the fields alongside his family.

“I’m Hispanic and I know how these migrants … how difficult it is for them. I have a special place in my heart for them,” said Mora who hopes his story can be an inspiration to others. “A lot of times, Hispanics, just because of the cultural issues there, don’t feel they can make it. They don’t feel self-confident. … It gives them confidence. If other people can make it, they can make it."