Generations of Mexicans toiled in the fields so their kids wouldn’t return. So why are college grads returning? | RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.

Teenage migrant farm workers pick ripe Roma tomatoes in February 2014 in Cristo Rey, Sinaloa, M ...

There are those in my business who think you should write only about subjects on which you have strong feelings.

I disagree. After writing more than 3,000 columns, I’ve learned that some of the best subjects to wrestle with are the ones on which I have mixed feelings.

One such topic keeps resurfacing this time of year during the solemn season of college and university graduations. And even with all that’s happening — from school shootings to a looming Supreme Court decision on abortion to a possible surge of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border — I can’t stop thinking about it.

Blame it on my roots, which come with a built-in paradox.

On the one hand, I’m a Mexican American who is extremely proud of his ethnic heritage and never gets tired of talking about it. Faced with racial strife, I run into the fire and not away from it. A reader picked up on that, recently describing me as: “Nothing but a (expletive) stirrer. Always gotta be about race.”

On the other hand, I’m at home in the mainstream and fanatical about the benefits of assimilation. I’ve challenged affirmative action when it lowers standards, bashed bilingual education when it interferes with learning English and criticized a Mexican-American Olympian for waving the Mexican flag with the Stars and Stripes.

Now, I have mixed feelings about those photos that sprout up on social media this time of year — of newly minted Mexican or Mexican-American college graduates posing with their farmworker parents in lettuce fields or peach orchards. Often the graduates themselves pick fruits or vegetables while decked out in caps and gowns.

While well-meaning, these photos send the wrong message — that the fields are where Mexicans and Mexican Americans truly belong, even those with college diplomas.

I’ve been on the receiving end. When I graduated from Harvard, one of my dad’s white co-workers offered this offensive piece of advice: “What you really need to do now is go pick grapes.”

Then that harmful message gets amplified by a media run by white liberals who appear more comfortable with the image of Mexican farmworkers stooped over rows of artichokes than they do Mexican-American journalists heading up liberal media companies.

In 2019, CNN told the story of Erica Alfaro, who — along with her mother — worked in the tomato fields of central California. After a hard day, her mom told her: “The only people who don’t have to go through this get an education.” Despite dropping out of high school, Alfaro got her GED, graduated from college and eventually got a master’s degree in education. To inspire others to overcome their own obstacles, she took her graduation photos standing in cap and gown alongside her parents in a fruit orchard.

In 2021, National Public Radio shared the tale of Jennifer Rocha, who took her college graduation photos in the bell pepper fields of Coachella, California — 24 miles southeast of Palm Springs. Having worked with her parents in those same fields since high school, Rocha told NPR: “I’m proud that that’s where I come from. The whole reason I wanted to go back to the fields with my parents is because I wouldn’t have the degree and the diploma if it wasn’t for them.” A sociology major, Rocha is pursuing a career in law enforcement.

Both of the young women posted their graduation photos on social media, where they promptly went viral.

The concept is heartwarming. Mexican-American students who worked hard in school and graduated from college are paying tribute to their immigrant parents who worked even harder in the fields to support their families and give their children a better tomorrow.

That’s all good. Young people should honor their parents, assuming those parents did their jobs right and produced good humans who want to improve society. But paying it forward doesn’t always have to mean looking backward.

My parents and grandparents did their jobs right. They too worked in the fields. But they didn’t see the romance in it. My mom and dad always told me they did that backbreaking work so I wouldn’t have to. They counted on me to break the family tradition. And I did.

Listen up, college grads. Learn to be comfortable with your accomplishments. Take your victory lap — just not in the fields. You’ve earned your ticket out. You don’t have to go back, not even for a photo-op.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is crimscribe@icloud.com. His podcast, “Ruben in the Center,” is available through every podcast app.