Book: Resilience - The Life of a Mexican American. Novel based on a true life story. Names changed to protect participants. Introduction & 18 Chapters. I´ve posted first nine chapters. Interested in reader feedback. If interested, please read and provide me contructive feedback via comments. For additional chapters and poems, email (comments emailed to me, not posted so as not to influence future readers)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Chapter 5: Migrant Labor Camp

Hard work really wasn’t anything new to me. Every summer, from the time I was six until I was twelve, Mom took all of us kids to the Traverse City area to pick cherries. We usually joined the flocks of migrant workers from down south who migrated to the Michigan fruit fields.

We followed the caravan of cars up to Lake Leelanau, just north of Traverse City. There, we went to the home of a very nice fruit farmer. He housed us in clean garages and barns and paid us a fair wage. These were much better conditions than other migrant families had to endure at neighboring farms, but Dad knew the farmer and knew he was a fair and honest man.

My parents, especially Dad, were teaching all of us children that hard work and an education would enable us to achieve success in America. Dad loved our country and believed in the American Dream.

Dad knew first hand about hard work and sacrifice.

Dad was born in 1914. He was the oldest son of Alex and Marcella. He had six brothers and two sisters.

Dad´s grandfather owned a large ranch southeast of San Antonio. His family received a land grant in the 1800´s. Alex and his brothers worked with their father and crew on the ranch.

Their family was prosperous but Alex didn´t like ranch life so he moved to San Antonio where he met and married Marcella, another affluent citizen. Their family did well financially until the Great Depression. During the Depression, their family lost their ranch and went hopelessly in debt.

Dad was a brilliant student in school and competed in various competitions. He dreamed of being a successful businessman some day.

Dad was in ninth grade, competing in a state-wide Mathematics championship when his father pulled him out of school.

“You are too old to be in school,” his Dad said. “You have to work with us and help the family.”

Dad was disappointed about leaving school but knew he did not have a choice. He left school and joined his uncles and brothers in hiring out as manual laborers. They were in the midst of the Great Depression and this was the start of their twelve year journey as migrants.

From that point on, Grandpa’s family traveled the country looking for work, always returning to their San Antonio home every few months.

Several years later, on one of these trips home, Dad found a part time job in a Furniture store. He met and married Mom. She was readily welcomed into this family of migrants.

Mom was shy. Grandma took her under her wing. Marcella was a somewhat domineering mother-in-law, but Mom didn´t mind. Marcella gave Mom cooking and sewing lessons, even though Mom already knew both. Marcella just liked doing things her way so Mom went along.

Grandma taught the same lessons to the wives of her other sons as they brought their new wives into their traveling clan.

In the late 1930’s, Dad was hired by the State of Michigan Labor Program. This program was a precursor to the Bracero Program. He was responsible for transporting Migrant Workers from Texas to Michigan. Dad’s skills as an interpreter were in high demand. He was fluent in both Spanish and English. It was a good paying job with a significant amount of responsibility.

Dad grew lonely on his trips to Michigan. He had a good job and knew there were more jobs for people willing to work. He wanted his parents, brothers, sisters, brothers’ wives and Mom to move to Michigan with him. Women were not allowed on his truck, however. The trucks were reserved for Migrant men.

Dad went to his boss and begged, “I want to bring my family to Michigan. I have no money to move them. Will you help me? I will give you something in trade.”

His boss responded, “What are you giving me in trade.” He knew he owned next to nothing.

Dad responded, “I will give you my body.” Dad was willing to give himself up for Indentured Servitude for a set amount of time in order to repay the debt.

His boss stared at him.

Dad continued, “I will work for you and pay you back with my hard work. I will work tirelessly, day and night. Please. Help me bring my family to this land.”

His boss didn’t know what to say at first. He was a compassionate man, but he was also a businessman. He looked at Dad, this strong, hard working-man.

Slowly he nodded. “How much do you need?”

He loaned Dad $500 to bring his family to Michigan.

Dad moved Mom, his brothers and other family members to Michigan as Migrant Laborers. They all partnered in the back breaking work. Their jobs provided wages, a place to live and brought the family together.

Dad quickly repaid the loan. His boss liked Dad´s work ethic and made him foreman of the Migrant Workers. Dad also kept his interpreter job for the State.

Times were good at first. Dad worked side by side with his fellow foremen, all of them white. He was responsible for many acres of the Fruit Farm. There were meetings held each day to discuss the size of the harvest. His work ethic and knowledgeable expertise were valued during these meetings.

What was difficult for Dad to accept was the way he was treated after the meetings.

Dad was not allowed to eat with his co-workers. He was not allowed to use the same restroom facilities. Even though he was their equal in the meetings and an American citizen, he was still considered a Mexican by his co-workers and not their equal in the Farm owner’s house.

Dad was much too proud to be looked down upon. When meals arrived, he found an excuse to leave. If meetings were long and he needed to use the restroom, he held it until he was back in the fields again.

While Dad was feeling the injustices working with his fellow foremen, he was well received by the migrant workers. The migrant workers trusted and looked up to Dad. He was their advocate to the English-speaking Fruit Farmers. He negotiated finding them work with good pay and decent housing in Michigan.

Dad felt a strong loyalty to his fellow Mexican-American people in the camps. He felt responsible for protecting them. They were a quiet and humble people. Most could not speak English. Some people tried to take advantage of this.

There was a group of truckers that took advantage of one group of migrant families. Since the families could not speak English and were afraid to venture out alone, they hired the truckers to take them into town each week to go to church and to buy their weekly groceries.

This, in itself, was not a bad thing. What was wrong was the gouging rate the truckers charged them for the trip. Each week, the amount grew and grew. Soon, the migrant families were giving all of their weekly earnings, except for their grocery money, to the truckers.

When Dad learned of this, he was angry. He went to the church and explained what was happening to the priest. He asked for their help. Could they come out to the camps each week and hold Mass? Would they help the families purchase groceries? Would they help these people? The priests agreed. They made the arrangements.

The truckers were angry at Dad. They confronted him. They wanted to continue to exploit the workers and make money. They fought with Dad. The police came. They took them all to jail. After they heard all sides, they arrested the truckers and asked Dad if he wanted to press charges. Dad asked for a private conversation with the truckers. He said he would not file charges if they agreed to not take advantage of the migrant families again. The truckers agreed. Later, after they were released, they agreed to reasonable rates they would charge the families for rides.

Grandpa passed away the next year and Grandma and relatives moved back to San Antonio. Dad decided to keep his family in Michigan. He eventually found a job in an auto factory. Once he secured his job, he helped other migrant workers obtain jobs there as well.

Dad loved our country and was a proud American. He knew so much about hard work and sacrifice and wanted to instill his work ethic in each of us.

Dad was also a realist. He experienced the pangs of racism. He realized by sharing his own experiences he was teaching us to separate the frailty of our fellow man versus the opportunities we could attain in our great country if we applied our work ethic and education.

He often said, “In America, anyone with a good education who is willing to work hard and has the resilience to overcome obstacles can be successful.”

We took these lessons into the cherry fields and later, we took these same lessons into our adult lives.

In the cherry fields, entire families joined ranks, starting their work day at 6:00 am each Monday morning, ending their day at 6:00 pm and working half a day on Saturday.

We worked in the Traverse City area picking Cherries from June through the end of July.

The farm owners paid about fifty cents a lug. It took two full buckets of cherries to fill a lug. On a good day, a hard working adult could average 1 – 2 lugs an hour or about 12 – 16 lugs a day.

When my oldest brothers were around, they used to race to see who could pick the most cherries. I think the record was twenty-five lugs in one day.

By the end of the week, Mom had a tidy sum. She collected the lug vouchers twice a day from the owners who came around in their tractors to collect them.

We generally raked in about a hundred fifty dollars cash a week. Mom saved about fifty dollars for groceries, with a few extra dollars put away to give to Dad when he came up for a visit. The rest she handed out in allowances to all the kids. The money you received each week was based upon the amount you produced.

This taught us another good lesson about work. The harder you work the more you are paid.

Throughout the week, at the end of each day, we went to beautiful Lake Leelanau to swim. We went to the area of the lake reserved for all the migrant workers. There was a great sense of camaraderie at these camps. We were poor hard-working Mexican-Americans working and playing together.

There were so many kids in the camps that in the early evenings, after swimming, we gathered in the huge yard area near the barn and played games.

We played softball, volleyball, kickball and frozen tag. Sometimes we made up games. I remember sliding down this big hill on pieces of cardboard. It was similar to sledding with no snow. It was so much fun.

Sometimes, the farm owner´s daughter Janice joined us. She was my age and a tomboy just like me. I liked Janice. She was my friend. She was about my height and she was athletic, like me. We were as good as most of the boy players and we played most evenings.

Janice was always getting in trouble with her mom though. Her mother constantly yelled at her to come inside and quit being a tomboy.

We were never short of children even when Janice wasn´t there with us.

On Saturdays, we rushed home from work at noon to take a shower and clean up for our trip to the city. We had separate community shower houses, one for males and another for females.

After we showered and dressed, we lined up in front of our mother with our hands out. She neatly laid our earned dollars in our palms. The big boys got the most, but there was always money for each of us.

At about two in the afternoon, we headed into Sutton’s Bay, a bigger town with a movie theater. Once there, we went to the drug store and drank sodas or we went directly to the movies.

Saturday nights there were often dances and music. Everyone joined in on the fun. The rhythmic sounds filled the air as we swayed and swirled to the Latin sounds. We played more than just Latin music though. We were also just like other kids in America, listening to Elvis, Johnny Mathis and all the Motown sounds from Detroit. “He’s So Fine” was one of my all time favorites.

Every other week, Dad drove up from Lansing and spent the weekend with us. It was a four hour drive, but it was worth it for him to see us.

On Sundays, we got up early, dressed up and went to church in Lake Leelanau. It was a pretty little church. They saved the 11:00 mass just for the migrant workers and said the Mass in Spanish.

Sometimes, various religious groups visited the camps to “save us.” It was kind of funny. Here we were, hard working, religious people trying to scrape a living together and these people were coming to save us.

Mom asked us kids to stay away from them since we were Catholic and they were not. Mom didn’t mind too much though. So we went with the workers, sang their songs, colored their coloring books and listened to them preach. They even brought us old clothes in boxes.

The clothes were the worst. They had little second hand sweaters and dresses in old fashioned styles. I grabbed a sweater but Mom made me take it back. I handed it back to the lady and just sort of shrugged. She looked like she felt sorry for me. She just didn’t get it.

Sure we shopped in the second hand stores for our clothes, but we picked what we wanted and paid for it with money we earned.

My parents were not big believers in handouts. The whole time Dad was laid off from the factory, he refused to take welfare. He said we should rather starve than take something for nothing.

“It will ruin you!” he said. “Never take anything you didn’t work for, otherwise you will get lazy and grow to depend on the handouts!”

The only time we received any kind of support was when my father was laid off in the early 60´s.

My mother would stretch a dollar as far as she could by cooking beans and rice at almost every meal. Mom also canned tomatoes and chili peppers. Her homemade salsa, beans rice and home made tortillas were delicious.

Even with all of her efforts, she sometimes had difficulty stretching her dollars. Once in a while she received “Kennedy Food” from her sister, Aunt Lucy.

Another time when Dad was laid off, Aunt Lucy´s husband was also out of work. She picked up “Kennedy Food” from the area food bank. She brought over canned meat, powdered eggs, powdered milk and box cheese so we would have enough to eat.

Mom tried to sneak this food into her menu and hide it from Dad, but this was hard to do since these foods were different than most of her cooking.

At first, Dad refused to eat any of it, but allowed us kids to eat it versus starving. Then Dad finally gave in. That is when he named it “Kennedy Food.” This was because Dad felt that he voted for a good man and this was like a payback for all the taxes we paid.

He made my mother promise not to take any more than we absolutely needed. She agreed.

Nineteen-sixty-two was our last year picking cherries. By that year, most of the older kids already moved out. Only Mark, me, Rick, Tina and Baby were left at home. With so few children, it wasn’t worth the trip. Picking cherries was only profitable if you did it in volume.

That last year up north was quite a summer. Two great things happened. I received my first kiss and I got boobs.

My first kiss was special to me.

That summer, I was 12 years old and I became a woman. I just started my period. I had no idea what was happening to me. My stomach started cramping and when I went to the bathroom, there were spots of blood on my underwear. I thought I was getting cursed or something.

My older cousin Maggie was there. “Oh Maggie. I don’t know what’s wrong. I’ve got a stomachache and I’ve got blood in my underwear. What should I do?”She started laughing. “You stupid girl. Hasn’t your mother told you anything?”


“You’re turning into a woman.”


“You have eggs in your body and that’s why you’re getting blood down there. Your body is getting you ready to have babies someday.”“What? I don’t want to have babies. I’m just a little girl.”

She stood up next to me, nose to nose and said, “Look at you. You are tall as me and I’m sixteen years old. I’m a woman. See those little nubbies on your chest? Those are your boobs. Not much, it’s true. But they’re your boobs. You’re a woman, you baby. Grow up.”With that, she left me, exasperated.

I sat down. My head filled up with all the troubles in the world. Was God cursing me? Oh why was this happening to me? Why didn’t Mom tell me anything?

I went back to our family area and laid down on my bottom bunk bed.

“What’s the matter?” Mom said.

“Why didn’t you tell me about being a woman? Maggie told me everything and now I have blood.” I whined and whimpered and then laid back in bed.

Mom didn’t say a word, She handed me a box of napkins. Now why the heck did I want stupid napkins? When I opened the box, I understood why.

That summer, I started getting tingling feelings every time Jamie Casanova looked at me. He was my age. He and his family came to camp for years but I never noticed him paying any attention to me in previous summers.

This summer, every once in a while, when he was standing next to me, he made sure to touch my arm. When he did that, I got hot.

“Why was he doing that? Did he like me? Why?” I wondered.

I didn’t understand it because I always thought I was such a nerd.

I studied myself in the mirror a lot that summer. Hey. Maybe I wasn’t so bad if Jamie Casanova was looking at me.

One Saturday, all the girls were changing into their swimsuits in the community dressing area near the beach. You couldn’t be modest in that environment. If you wanted to get into your suit, you had to bare all in front of everybody.

The majority of girls were well endowed.

At 12, while I was taller than most of the other girls, I couldn’t say the same about my boobs.

“Hey! Watcha got there? No cheechones? Just little nubbies, hey girl?” They laughed.

I was so, so embarrassed. I pulled up my swimsuit straps and ran outside.

Outside the dressing area, I hid near the bushes and I said a prayer, “Oh please God, please. Let me have big boobies like the other girls. Please let them grow.”

Little did I know that God would more than answer my prayers. By the time I was eighteen, I wore a 36 D.

Jamie Casanova didn’t seem to mind that I just had little nubbies. He kept staring at me every day.

On our last day at camp, when everyone was packing into their cars to go home, I decided to run to the bathroom. Behind the huge, community lavatories stood Jamie C. He looked all nervous as he whispered, “Come here a minute.”

My pulse started racing and my forehead was hot. I tiptoed to where he stood. He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me towards him. His lips landed square on my top lip. I was so nervous and hot that I thought I was going to faint. I noticed that he was just starting to get a stubble on his cheeks and they scratched my cheek ever so faintly.

I heard my brother calling me, “Kiki…where are you? We gotta go.”

I pulled quickly away. In a throaty, husky voice that I didn’t recognize as my own I said, “I..I looo…”

“Kiki!!” Ricki screamed again.“I gotta go.” I pulled away quickly and left him standing there.

I turned and ran. My whole body was so hot I thought it would explode.

Ricki had been calling me and was standing on the other side of the lavatory. I grabbed him on my way past and headed towards the station wagon. Ricki climbed in the back window and I quickly followed. I laid down in the backseat and Mom asked, “Where were you and what took you so long?”

“Bathroom…” was all I could get out. My voice sounded strange and I thought, for sure, they could see Jamie’s kiss all over me.

On the four hour ride back, all I kept thinking was, “Can’t they see how different I am? I’m a woman now. I was kissed.” My whole body felt different after that. I really felt like a woman.

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