Vito de la Cruz’s parents were already separated when he was born, and when he was 6 months old, his father left him in the care of his 19-year-old aunt, Iris de la Cruz, a woman he called Nena.
Vito’s extended family traveled the migrant trail, finding work on farms across the United States. At 5 years old, Vito joined them in the fields. He remembers the excitement of traveling in the summers with his aunts, uncles, and grandmother from tomato fields in South Texas, to cherry orchards in Ohio, and sugar beet farms in North Dakota. During the days, they worked side-by-side, and in the evenings, they gathered together for dinner.
But their family’s migrant lifestyle was not easy; it was “equal parts hardship and poverty.” When he was 13, Border Patrol agents raided the farm where Vito and his family were working and rounded up undocumented workers. Witnessing workers’ fear of law enforcement struck a “profound chord in his being” and changed the course of his life.
Vito had always excelled in school, with Nena’s encouragement. She, herself, was the first person in the de la Cruz family to graduate high school, and she later went on to college. Following Nena’s example, Vito left South Texas for Yale University and then went on to attend law school at the University of California, Berkeley.
After law school, Vito began volunteering with the United Farm Workers union and focused the early part of his legal career on immigrant and farmworker rights. Years later, he became a federal public defender in Nevada before moving to Bellevue, Washington, where he continues to practice civil rights law.
Vito came to StoryCorps with his wife, Maria Sefchick-Del Paso (pictured together above), to remember how his childhood and his loving Nena shaped his future.
Vito’s story is one of 53 work stories featured in our new book, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work, now available in bookstores.
Originally aired April 22, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.