(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series that began yesterday.)
Not long after a short stint picking strawberries and peaches in Maryland, Antonio Gomez and his stepdad were on a bus to New York City, and then another one to Geneva. It was 1995, and his stepfather knew of some farms here.
Divine intervention #4: Gomez ended up at Hansen Farms. He was ambitious, and soon he says he was one of the hardest workers picking, hauling and cutting cabbage. Back then the farm was a small outfit. Gomez says the family was so supportive that he even lived at their home for a time and was welcomed like a member of the family.
After about a year, Gomez began taking English classes with others at a migrant camp. He also would listen to rap, heavy metal and the television to learn the language. He particularly credits English As A Second Language teacher Judy Chang, who forced everyone to speak only English, not Spanish, while in class. He would later get more instruction at Jordan Hall of Cornell Cooperative Extension.
The kid was sharp. Though he never attended high school, by September of 1996 he was carrying on conversations in English.
Divine intervention #5: Winter is a time that many migrant workers are forced to find work in warmer climates, but the Hansens took Gomez under their wing and invited him to stay and continue working. He looks back fondly on the time and says Ed Hansen Jr. was a mentor and friend who taught him so much about farming, business and general American social norms and culture.
Divine intervention #6: In September 1996 the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided the farm. It should be noted that at the time, the process restricted owners from asking about workers’ immigration status when hiring. All arrested were brought to INS in Western New York for deportation.
INS encouraged everyone to plead guilty and be deported. Only one didn’t: Antonio Gomez. He refused to sign any forms. They said he might be locked up for six months until granted a hearing. Gomez was OK with that. He felt that going back to Jalapa, Guatemala, might result in his death.
Gomez had saved enough money to pay a bail bondsman to get him released.
Because of a U.S. treaty with his homeland, Gomez soon was able to obtain a worker permit. He never had to go to a deportation hearing. He then reached out to the International Institute of Buffalo, which took on his case and helped him apply and get a three-year residency. Years later he would become a naturalized citizen (pictured in foreground is that document).
Divine intervention #7: Gomez was raised Catholic but says he didn’t really follow it, saying he “went through the motions.” He had friends and family who were heavily into the Church of God — a Pentecostal Church. He had previously resisted their outreach. But, one Sunday, bored and with little to do, he went to the church in Geneva and sat in the back row. He started to like what he was hearing, including the singing. He says he felt a kind of peace settle within him. He was asked to come forward. He began to feel a release and response that found himself weeping uncontrollably and asking God for forgiveness. Two weeks later, while working in the fields cultivating carrots, he heard a voice followed by what he describes as an out-of-body experience. It would totally transform his life, the day he became “born again.”
From then on, his drinking and womanizing days were over, and he fully committed himself to God. He would get involved with the Geneva Church of God in every way possible.
He eventually felt a calling from God to be a pastor, which would involve three years of ministerial training, discipleship, church advising and leadership, mission work, studying theology and a pastoral internship.
Fast-forward to the present. Gomez is the pastor at the Farmington Church of God. He has risen to manager at Pedersen Farms, where he now works only part-time. He still lives in Geneva, where he is actively engaged with area residents on many levels. Most recently he ran for a seat on City Council, although he lost.
The scrawny kid from the bowels of Jalapa who seemed destined for a life of strife and poverty is now a respected man who owns his own home and enjoys life with a lovely wife and two wonderful daughters.
Few people overcome so many obstacles in life. Antonio Gomez deserves credit for his inspiring and successful life journey that is allowing him to live the American Dream — although I have a feeling he likely would share credit of his fortunate path forward with the good Lord above.
In the words of Antonio Gomez: “I came to this country to do good.” The guy loves this country and continues to get emotional when he hears the national anthem. “(America) gave me a second chance. I no longer have to live in fear.”