The eldest of five siblings, Rodríguez was born in 1985 to young parents in a rural town near Aguascalientes, about 500 kilometers northwest of Mexico City. Most adult men in the village worked elsewhere to support their families. Both of his grandfathers were braceros, contracted laborers in a program that brought hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to the U.S. during World War II and for two decades afterward. His father was a migrant worker, too, on farms and in construction in northern California. When José was a toddler, his parents received U.S. green cards in an amnesty deal for migrants, but he had to stay in Mexico with his grandmother.
At age 4, he finally joined his parents and baby sister Maria in Los Angeles. At the time, many elementary classrooms in California were segregated by language, and José spoke mostly Spanish until 3rd grade. “He passed everything very easily, and he always wanted to do experiments,” recalls his mother, Jacinta Rodríguez, who insisted that José start learning with his English-speaking classmates. When a statewide measure compelled all immigrants to be taught in English as José entered 5th grade, he was well on the way to catching up with his peers.