Agapito Sustaita vividly remembers how most of his days began as a child of migrant workers: Waking up in the dark, pre-dawn hours and driving in a van with his parents to one of the many farms surrounding Fresno, Calif., and waiting for daylight to break before picking grapes, over and over again.
“It was always very cool before the sun came up, but quickly after sunrise it got scorching hot,” said Sustaita, a graduating law student whose parents travelled from their native Mexico to Texas and California in search of work in cotton and citrus fields. “The damp dirt would then get dry and dusty and it would get into every part of your body.”
A photograph of Sustaita taken in the early ’70s shows him standing in a vast field of dirt and grapevines. He is an infant with shiny brown hair and big eyes, wearing a diaper and cowboy boots covered in dust. Behind him is his mother. On the ground are sheets of paper where grapes would morph into raisins.
“I don’t remember the first time out (in the fields), I simply remember a gradual increase in the amount of work I could do,” said Sustaita, who picked grapes every summer until he was 15 years old.
Sustaita, now 36, said his experience working hard labor on the farms shaped his choices in life and fueled a desire to find a way to work with the immigrant community during and after law school. It also gave him the dogged determination to pursue an education and leave the insular world where he grew up.
“One good thing about growing up the way I did-hard work is drilled into you. I know that I have to work to accomplish things,” said Sustaita, who said he was a senior in high school when he realized he wanted to find a good job away from the farms of Fresno.
Despite growing up in an environment where higher education was rarely an option, Sustaita researched jobs that paid well, and applied to colleges with engineering programs. He earned an undergraduate degree in computer science from the University of California-Santa Barbara and a master’s degree, also in computer science, from Texas AandM University.
He also finished two years of a Ph.D. program at The University of Texas at Austin before joining Applied Research Laboratories as a research engineer and later Intel Corp. as a senior software engineer.
Sustaita was the first and only person in his family to graduate from college. He has also coped with more loss and turmoil in his youth than most people experience in a lifetime.
His mother died when Sustaita was four, prompting his father to send him and six siblings to live with various relatives. Later, Sustaita rejoined his father and new stepmother, continuing to pick grapes when he was not in school. Not long after, Sustaita’s father served several short prison stints. A few years later, his stepmother was arrested on a drug-related conspiracy charge and served 13 years in federal prison before being deported to Mexico.
One of the darkest times for Sustaita, however, occurred in October 2003 when his young wife died of cancer two months after giving birth to their daughter, Lucero, and leaving him to raise her alone.
“Those first few months,” he said. “I didn’t think about anything. But having Lucero was the biggest help in terms of keeping me moving forward. She was a focus.”
After his wife’s death, Sustaita decided to take his career in a new direction by going to law school. He liked the idea of merging his background in computer science with law.
“I still like engineering and with patent law you can use your engineering brain,” said Sustaita, who will join Campbell Stephenson, an Austin law firm specializing in intellectual property in September.
Sustaita also chose to go to law school because of the option it would provide to do public service work, particularly in the area of immigration law.
“It is important to me,” he said. “After serving her sentence, my mom (Sustaita’s stepmother) was deported because she never became a citizen and that just seemed wrong. Her whole life was here, her kids were here, her husband was here and she got kicked out anyway.”
Last year while enrolled in the law school’s immigration clinic, Sustaita represented the clinic’s first client at the Texas’ Hutto Detention Centera pregnant mother from Central America who received no prenatal care.
Sustaita said he found immigration law to be interesting and important but heartbreaking because the outcomes for his clients, many of whom had suffered horrible injustices, were often unfavorable. They rarely received asylum in the United States.
Law professors observed that Sustaita took many hard, extremely scholarly courses in law school when it would have been understandable to take a lighter schedule because he was raising a baby.
“Agapito worked very hard, and always had great things to add to class. I enjoyed having him in the courses, because he is so thoughtful, and he doesn’t take anything for granted,” said Professor Emily Kadens, a law professor who hired Sustaita to be a research assistant.
When Sustaita participates in this month’s commencement ceremony, his daughter, now almost five, will be in the audience. She will be with his fiancée, a university graduate student, and their 11-month-old daughter, Rosalía, named for Sustaita’s grandmother and 32-year-old sister, who died in a car accident more than a year ago at Christmas.
Lucero, his new daughter and fiancée are an important part of how his life has taken a new direction, Sustaita said.
“I am completely appreciative of where I am just because I know the other side,” he said, explaining he’s not just referring to growing up in poverty. “The other side is not knowing anything about the world, like how college works or how the world at large works. I wouldn’t go on vacations with my parents and they wouldn’t talk about news or current events and they wouldn’t vote. My world was so small.”
Sustaita is confident that his daughters’ childhoods will be much different from what he experienced.
“They’re never going to work in grape fields,” he said. “They are never going to use food stamps and be on welfare. And they’re never going to think that college is not an option.”