This was life for Hortencia Magana. From age 14 until graduation, she balanced the roles of high school student during the week to farm worker on the weekends, hoping to bring in just enough extra money to support her family. It was this humble upbringing and her desire to help her family that pushed Magana to join the Marines.
Reliable work with a steady income was hard for her parents to find, said U.S. Marine Sgt. Hortencia H. Magana, an administrative specialist currently serving at Recruiting Station Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The newly-wed couple could seldom find employment, and they were on the cusp of starvation when her father decided to get the documentation to work in America. After a year, he had saved enough money for his wife and two children to join him. A year later, Magana was born.
Things were beginning to look up for the young family. When her father moved to America he bought a three-bedroom house and a truck. He intended for the family to have stability in their new home.
“For a while there, we were very happy,” Magana said. “We felt like we were living the American dream. My parents both had good jobs, and I and my brothers were enjoying life.”
Their happiness did not last long though. Shortly after establishing themselves in America, Magana’s mother became dangerously ill and was diagnosed with a leaky heart valve requiring emergency surgery. The loss of income from the illness coupled with growing medical bills placed a significant financial stress on the young father, who was now struggling to make up for the lost income.
“My dad was working very hard, and I remember seeing the stress coming down on him as our life took a turn for the worst,” Magana said. “He was working as a field foreman at the time, and it just wasn’t paying him enough to support the family.”
In order to make up for lost income, Magana and her brothers started working as child laborers in blueberry and grape fields. It was the only job they could find that would hire them. For their hard work, they were paid seven dollars an hour in addition to 10 cents for every box they packed.
“My brothers and I hated working there because it was physically demanding and stressful,” Magana said. “My body was sore a lot from stretching and bending to get grapes, but you couldn’t pick slow. We were always rushing to pick as much as we could as fast as we could. A seasoned grape picker could pack a box of grapes in under a minute but it took my brothers and me five or six minutes just to pack one because we were new.”
Magana worked in the grape fields for the next three years until her senior year at Delano High School in Delano, California, when she was hired as a waitress at a local seafood restaurant.
“All through High School, I took an extra class each year that was helping me prepare for college,” Magana said. “I knew college was a way for me to find a better future for my family and myself so this class was important to me, and I worked really hard during it. But during my senior year, I had to drop out because my family needed more money so I dropped the class so I could work more.”
Her family was struggling to scrape by. There were many times the electricity and utilities to their house were cut off. She knew she had to do something. Then, one day, she spoke to a Marine recruiter and everything changed.
“I saw the recruiter at my school and I thought ‘I should go talk to him and see what he has to say,’” Magana said. “I listened and decided I wanted to know more. I started doing more research into the Marines and asked for my family’s opinion. At first, everybody was against it because they said it would be too challenging for me, but I knew that I could do it.”
Magana joined the delayed entry program at her local Marine recruiting station and began participating in pool functions while still working as a waitress.
“I was always exhausted,” Magana said. “I had deadlines to meet at school, and I had to help take care of things at home so I didn’t get a lot of time to rest. My hard work payed off though because my recruiters saw how invested I was in becoming a Marine despite everything else, and they worked hard to make sure I was prepared for boot camp.”
A month before Magana shipped to boot camp, she had her high school graduation. Before the ceremony, her recruiter surprised her with an act of kindness. It is something that has left a lasting impression on her, and ultimately inspired her to join the Leatherneck community, Magana explained.
“Coming from a poor family affected my graduation. I wasn’t in my high school yearbook because we couldn’t afford a graduation photo,” Magana said. “I was also worried that I wouldn’t be able to cross the stage for graduation because my sister’s hand-me-down cap and gown didn’t have a tassel. My recruiter surprised me with a new tassel a few days before I was supposed to walk though. I almost broke down in front of him because I was overwhelmed, but I managed to keep my composure.”
After she returned from boot camp her parents were beaming with pride, Magana recalled. She was also able to set up a bank account that allowed her parents to pull out money when they needed it. Things began to improve, and she is happy that she made the commitment.
“I joined for a few reasons,” Magana said. “I knew I needed to do something to help my family during their financial crisis. Secondly, because this country has been good to my family, and I felt it was my duty to serve as an American citizen. And third, because the Marines showed me that they really cared.”
Since earning her Eagle, Globe, and Anchor, Magana has continued to help her family. One thing she is proud of is the help she has given her brother.
“My brother is very smart and is capable of great things, but he didn’t have any credit so he couldn’t pay for nursing school,” Magana said. “I was able to emotionally and financially help him through the program so he could become the man that I always believed he could be. Words cannot express how it felt seeing my brother’s nursing graduation on live broadcast.”
She has come a long way since picking berries and grapes in California, yet she says she wouldn’t change anything on the journey that has led her to become the marine she is today.
“If I had the opportunity to do everything over again, I wouldn’t change a thing,” Magana said. “Being a Marine has taught me a lot about myself and helped me mature. I am happy with the choices I have made.”