Roger C. Rocha Jr., the national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), was raised in a poor part of Laredo, Texas, where he saw his peers struggle to help their families survive. “We all knew that education and hard work were the keys to getting ahead, but there weren’t a lot of opportunities to go college,” he says. “I had many friends who had to work two to three jobs to help their families, or they enlisted in military service.” Rocha was lucky to have parents who were determined to help their children get through school. “In my family, it was understood that you were going to college, and we all took out loans,” he says. He credits scholarships from LULAC for making it possible for him to attend Laredo Community College and eventually transfer to Texas A & M International University.
Rocha, now 45, believes his education helped him escape the poverty that has trapped many of his peers. He supports immigration reform that would give undocumented immigrants legal status to allow them to work or apply for financial aid to attend college. “We have entire generations of immigrants who have gone through the American high school system, but can’t go to college,” says Rocha. “On the other hand, we have a workforce in this country that’s not being tapped because of their legal status. All they want to do contribute and pay taxes and be good American citizens.”
Growing up in Laredo, which is predominantly Hispanic, Rocha says he didn’t experience much of the racism that his fellow Hispanics did elsewhere. He believes, however, the city’s poor socio-economic status is a different barrier that keeps his community from enjoying the kind of prosperity that other minority groups in the United States enjoy. “When I traveled outside Laredo and saw the rest of the country, it was a real eye-opener,” he says. As a result, Rocha devoted his career to helping his community gain economic and political power and started working for LULAC, the nation’s largest Latino-based organization with more than 135,000 members, in 1993. The non-profit supports youth leadership seminars and events to encourage high school students to apply to college and runs more than 60 technology centers to help members learn job skills, improve their English, or navigate the citizenship application process.
We have a workforce in this country that’s not being tapped because of their legal status. All they want to do contribute and pay taxes and be good American citizens.
A year ago, Rocha became the national president. He’s helped grow the high school and collegiate membership by more than 10 percent over the last few years and has fostered corporate partnerships to create more employment opportunities. He has also supported initiatives to improve civil rights and veterans’ rights and health services in under-served communities. Yet what’s nearest to his heart is the $1 million in college scholarships the organization offers to students annually. “LULAC believed in me by giving me a scholarship so many years ago, and I want to give back,” he says.