Football, Farm Work and the Inspiring Kids from Robert F. Kennedy High School

Gabe Zaldivar

Manuel Beltran is walking through a field, perspiration just starting to bead on his head. He is wearing a light-colored fishing hat, a dark bandana covers his face. Foliage frames his image as he pops onto the screen.

He looks like he could be on an expedition somewhere in the Amazon or, as it were back in May, on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley. He’s 16 years old, diligently attending to two responsibilities simultaneously. He is getting things done as a farmworker during the early summer and at the same time logging on a Zoom call with his coaches at Robert F. Kennedy High School.

Head coach Mario Millan saved a snapshot from that day, it’s an image that is specifically 2020 but particularly Delano in nature.

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Photo Credit: Robert F. Kennedy High School/Mario Millan

I asked Beltran what was with not only signing onto Zoom while at work but signing on when his work is as demanding as being a farmworker amid excruciating heat.

His response is typically Delano, a nonchalance about diligence that is astounding to anyone outside Kern County.

“I saw the message on the app because the coaches messaged us, and the place I was working actually had service, so I decided just to join to see how our team is doing and to learn all the new plays that the coaches are teaching us,” Beltran said.

Robert F. Kennedy High School is relatively new, joining the likes of Delano High School and Cesar E. Chavez in the Delano Joint Unified High School District in 2008.

Their inaugural football season was rough, opening up with a loss to Wasco to the tune of 63-0. Nine more losses would come for a team made up of the kinds of young men who shoulder responsibility like a backpack, filled with basic necessities to get you through the day.

So, it’s no wonder that the school has turned things around in a decade, going 10-3 last season under head coach Mario Millan. Their second game in, they beat home team Mira Monte by a score of 62-0.

“Our kids really don't complain about it,” the 50-year-old coach said. “It might show in their faces. But they don't complain about their lives.”

Those lives are tough. The per capita income based on a 2018 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau is $12,813. The city also has a crime rate that is roughly 84% higher than in other cities in the state.

The kids that go to school here don’t just go to school, they help raise their siblings, chip in with work around the house and out in the field. It’s all hands on deck in Delano, and every single person pulls their weight.

But it’s not something you boast about and never something that garners complaint. You simply move and work and repeat.

That sometimes means waking up at four in the morning to accompany dad to the fields to pick grapes, then leaving the farm to make zero period weightlifting by six and putting in a full day of school.

Sometimes it’s too hot to practice but not too hot to work. It’s not unheard of for these players to work a shift in the field and head to evening practice, a normal occurrence during the normal sweltering summer.

Sleep is a luxury, something you bask in for four hours or so a night before you do it all again the next day. Stress is a real worry for teachers and counselors who do all they can for students who still excel in their studies, many heading off to schools like U.C. Berkeley and U.S.C.

It’s an arduous existence when you look at it from 140 miles away in Los Angeles, or on the other side of Zoom call.

But for the football players at RFK, it’s just life. You keep your head down, work hard and go off to college. And like any great story, you tend to find yourself right back where you started, armed with a degree, wisdom and the same passion to help the community with which you left.

Coach Fragoso and Nat

It’s nice to think of these football players and cheerleaders as thick-skinned workaholics raised on perseverance and homemade tortillas, but that would seriously undermine the fact that we are talking about kids here.

There is inherent stress that comes with growing up, let alone growing up and having to shoulder a wealth of additional responsibility.

Tucked away in the community are two people doing what they can for these kids. You might hear them mentioned as Nat and Coach Fragoso but I was introduced to them as Natalie Fragoso and Jacob Fragoso, a married couple that is devoted to this community and the kids that make up its heart.

“We've provided this safe haven place,” Natalie said. “There's not a bunch of chaos going on. It's kind of like a little sanctuary for them.”

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Photo Credit: Robert F. Kennedy High School/Mario Millan

Natalie has been at RFK for eight years now and is both a counselor and the cheerleading coach. She grew up in this town and is the granddaughter of Latino icon and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez.

“My way of continuing his legacy is through the education part and just giving back to the less fortunate with whatever we can, whether it's time, money, supplies,” she said. “I think that's why I find it so dear in my heart to try to help others in any way that I can.”

Moms and dads across the city are gone from the early morning until evening, coming home so they can cook, clean and do laundry. There isn’t a lot of time to delve into maintaining mental health.

The couple is a support system for kids who oftentimes just want a place where they can literally and figuratively exhale for a moment.

For Jacob, he comes to Delano with the outlook of someone who grew up around the constant bustle of Los Angeles, an Inglewood kid who just wanted to finish his masters at Cal State Bakersfield but then fell in love.

“Growing up as a Mexican in L.A., our perspectives are completely different; you come up here and you realize the real struggle,” Jacob, who is the head baseball coach and assistant varsity football coach, said.

He brought to this place a football mind but one that was whittled from normalcy not found in Delano.

“We wanted to do two-a-days and the kids just laughed,” he explained of his initial foray in coaching at RFK. “I think the first day we did two-a-days, we probably had 10 out of the 70 kids (show up). We later find out, once we're talking to the kids, that 70% of our kids are working in the fields during the summer. And that was a shock to us because we're looking at them like, dude, you're fourteen, fifteen, sixteen (years old).”

Minors who wish to work outside of school hours are often met with varied stipulations that don’t necessarily carry over to agricultural jobs where California allows kids as young as 12 to work.

“If you're working in the fields and you need the money, you're probably going to let your kids work in the fields if they're willing to do it,” Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers, explained.

“Because our communities are very close together and children, for the most part, want to help their parents. So, they're very willing to just step up.”

The work becomes paramount for these kids who have an unrelenting desire to help their family and would forego the otherwise grueling reprieve of the gridiron.

“We’ve had to have practice at three-thirty, four o'clock in the morning because the kids have to go to work at six o'clock,” Jacob said.

The coach quickly discovered that he had to evolve even during baseball practices in the winter. Many of the kids would go back to Mexico to celebrate the holidays with family. It would be so easy to demand they put in more time on the field but, as he says, you aren’t going to win an argument with a Mexican father in this regard.

“So, what we've done, and we've done a great job and that's why we've become successful, is make the adjustment, adapt to the culture,” he said.

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Photo Credit: Robert F. Kennedy High School/Mario Millan

And they’ve done more than that, taking football players and cheer squad to dinners out to Olive Garden, exposing them to a touch of life outside their bubble.

When a kid shows up to practice in Chucks, it just means it’s time to escort them to the nearby Big 5 to get some proper cleats.

Natalie understands this place is home and the desire to maintain residency in address and heart is real.

“I tell the kids, I don't want you to stay here for college, but when you're done, come back and give back to the community,” Natalie said.

“They're afraid to go out into the outside world. When it comes to college, these kids are smart. They're getting accepted to Berkeley, UCLA, Davis, I mean, all over the place, to Columbia. I mean, you name it, they're getting accepted and they'll say, ‘Oh, we're just gonna go to Cal State Bakersfield.’ I'm like, no, don’t do that. Go away and get exposed.”

And some of the kids do go away. They do get exposure. But what I quickly discovered is that when they do leave this place that just got a movie theater three years ago, they often return precisely because they want to give back to a community to which they owe a great deal.

“I have spoken with many people who went to college and remember, even fondly, believe it or not, the times that they worked in the fields and they remember it fondly because they were helping their parents,” Romero said.

Growing Up in Delano

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Photo Credit: Robert F. Kennedy High School/Mario Millan

Anthony Ontiveros is an 18-year-old who is just now starting his freshman year at U.C. Berkeley, studying civil engineering. At Robert F. Kennedy he was an outside linebacker who worked the fields every summer so he could help out his parents.

That work mandated throwing one crate of grapes after another onto a truck, often in 100-degree heat. But it was the more meticulous practice of rosca, or carefully taking a blade and carving a circle around the vine to enhance the end flavor of the grape, that hurt his back.

His father has been doing this practice for over 20 years. Ontiveros, however, discovered quickly from it that he had scoliosis. It was an affliction he kept to himself.

“I didn't want to say anything because I wanted to continue working,” Ontiveros said. “My junior year of football, I regretted not saying anything because the whole season I suffered from scoliosis. It was bad.”

But the thought of losing out on the chance to help his family was far more burdensome to this young man.

“For me, it was more I wanted to work,” he explained. “I wanted to support my parents from my pocket. It was like, I know it's going to be tough, going to work and practice, but it's something that I wanted to do.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Alex Madera, a former RFK defensive tackle who is now at Cal State Fullerton with his eyes set on law school.

He remembers often times waking up at four in the morning while in high school, not ending his day until midnight.

“I just want to make my parents’ sacrifices of coming here to pay off,” Madera said. ”Trying to better my life, that’s what motivated me.”

Daniel Flores had a different path than others. He didn’t work in the fields but poured his time into his studies, football and his family. He found a valuable support system in his teammates when he needed it most.

His mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in his sophomore year. She would pass away a year later in 2015.

“That for me was tough,” Flores said. “She was going through treatment and all that stuff. I was still playing sports. And so sports were my getaway.”

For a few hours a day, he could plunge himself into football and relish the calm that comes with consistency, a sport wherein you have some control.

“I could go out and do something. Take my mind off things like one of my biggest fears that was my mom having this disease and I never really told anybody…I kept it with my family. But football was the perfect thing for me. Like, I was able to (have) that other family that was going to support me no matter what.”

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Photo Credit: Robert F. Kennedy High School/Mario Millan

Flores is now studying biology at U.S.C., a pre-med student with lofty ambitions to treat those afflicted with cancer.

Coach Millan gets emotional talking about Flores’ story, a kid who epitomizes the resilience of this emotionally rich area, “luckily he had a strong foundation of brothers and sisters in the area that were able to help him.”

Like so many that have come before him and those that will come after, Flores is building his future on the shoulders and kindness of others.

“I carry everybody that has played a part in my life alongside me and my goals and my journey towards being a doctor. I want to be an oncologist and the doctor that treats cancer and that's ultimately my goal.”

It’s a similar sentiment that drives other students from Delano. Hardship sometimes makes us look inward on the reasons why things are tough. It would be easy and quite frankly normal to wonder why life is filled with so much turmoil.

But Delano has a special way of cultivating generosity and altruism.

Madera looks at his future and sees Delano. He wants to study immigration law and come back once his studies are finished, opening up a practice to help out his community.

Ontiveros has similar aims. “I'm planning on coming back and giving back because most of the people in the community have the same story as me,” he said. “I want to make sure that I can help in any way, shape or form.”

Delano is just a starting point, but it’s often where these kids return. It’s a remarkable journey that ends with home, a home that has the brightest of futures thanks to the foundation cultivated in these fields.

Friday Night Lights

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Photo Credit: Robert F. Kennedy High School/Mario Millan

Delano may not have as much entertainment as your bigger cities. Maybe it’s from a scarcity of options or maybe it’s because football is the perfect respite from a stressful existence, but there is a small-town feel to a place that amplifies the greatest night of the week.

Friday nights are sacred in Delano. It’s a little bit of Texas pageantry dropped into this rural setting in the middle of California.

Football is more than a game. The players taking the field aren’t going to Division I schools to show off their on-field talents. But they are going on to prestigious universities to enrich their lives and those of the people that pack the stands.

They are on the field because they love it. They leave the farm dehydrated and head to practice to drink in the waters of competition. It placates the soul. Their coaches bark at them like any other team, but the yelling is less sting and more a cacophony of normalcy.

The work on the field. The work on the farm. The work. It’s as defining as a sign welcoming you into town.

“I'm getting tired of often being criticized just because you're from the small town of Delano. I mean, people from Delano, their drive, it leads them to be successful most of the time,” Ontiveros said.

“I know lately it's been pretty bad here; like there's been a lot of murders and because people don't really have the help they need or the guidance. So, I'd say, like coming back and helping out anyway they can, guiding people in the right direction is why people come back to Delano,”

Out of immense toil and hardship comes tremendous camaraderie and an unbreakable sense of duty. And it’s a beautiful thing to behold. 

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