Once a migrant worker …

THE GREAT López-Palomo Family Reunion is now history. I am sorry that circumstances prevented my sister Mariana, and others, from attending. The gathering was a huge success but it would have been so much better to have them there among the rest of us.

I first came up with the idea of a reunion more than a year ago and finally decided to push for it and pick a date about a year ago, not really knowing whether we could pull it off. Over that time period, I spent more time worrying about what needed to be done to make the reunion a reality than I did actually doing those things. But, with the valuable assistance of my niece Elsa Pipes and others, we managed to take care of them.

Still, my concerns continued, fed by the self-knowledge that I am a disorganized organizer and a terrible leader. The reunion took place over three days, starting with a poolside get-together at a nephew’s beautiful place outside of town (thanks, Pete and Jeannie) and ending with a backyard gathering Sunday afternoon at the home of María Luisa, my oldest sister. The main event was the reunion at a veterans hall in Gilroy.

I managed to fret about how each would go up until the moment they started. And each time after everyone had gone home, I asked myself: What the hell were you worried about? Don’t you know your own family? Don’t you know that this bunch of wonderful and wonderfully crazy people instinctively knows how to have a blast, and they need neither meticulous organizers nor elaborate plans nor fancy venues to do so? Don’t you know that the only thing these people need to enjoy themselves is to be with each other?

One of highlights was a talk by niece Sandy Gonzalez-Palomo about the extensive genealogical research she has done on the Palomo and López family. She has managed to find the first Mexican Indian to use the last name Palomo, back in the 1600s, and she has traced my mother’s side of the family to Europe. (I also mentioned the results of my DNA test, which showed that my siblings and I are 43 percent Indian and 48 percent European, with some Middle-Eastern and African blood.)

AS THE GUY who put this thing together, it was up to me to act as the presider, or MC of the reunion, a job I have never liked or sought. But I had a friendly, loving and forgiving audience, and so I managed to get through that – until I decided to read something my brother Alejandro had written 16 years ago, about life as a migrant worker, and had asked me to edit. I had forgotten about it until I ran across it the day before I left for California. [The full text is below.]

I started off OK until I got to the beginning of his first paragraph: “First of all, let me tell you that I am a migrant farmworker.”

That did it. Those five words – I am a migrant farmworker ­– unleashed from deep within my soul a tempest of emotions that I had been suppressing all this time that I had been dealing with our family’s past in preparation for this reunion.

I paused for a long time, hoping that my normal voice would return, but eventually I decided that I had to go on, so I continued, in tears, pausing at times to try to control my emotions.

Had I known reading those words was going to have that kind of an impact on me, I never would have started to read the paper, but it never occurred to me that they would.

I’m still trying to figure out why they did. Maybe it’s because reading them in front of my older brother and sisters, who lived through some very difficult times (much more difficult than those faced by the rest of us), reminded me that no matter what our successes, no matter how far removed we are from our life as workers of the fields, we are still and ever will be, defined by our lives as migrant farmworkers.

MIGRANT LIFE WAS what formed us and it is through the hard-edged prism of migrant farmworkers that we see the world, even today. It is what steels us to face the stark realities of the world and it is what softens our hearts when around people facing tough challenges.

And it is what keeps us united and close, after all these years and even though some of us rarely see each other anymore.

 

***

 

Following is what my brother, Alejandro Palomo, who worked most of his adult life as a postman, wrote in response to something he heard on the radio:

The other day, you and your co-host had a forum on the worst jobs you have ever had. I wanted to call you but I get too emotional of this subject and decided to write to you instead.

First of all. let me tell you that I am a migrant farmworker. When I was about 10 years old we, my parents and other seven siblings started to migrate to North Dakota to work in the sugar beets fields, amongst other things. Our migrant season started around the middle of April and did not finished till the middle of October. That mend that we missed school for the best part of the school season.

The work on the sugar beet fields consisted of three phases: 1) hoeing the newly planted beets, 2) weeding the beets after they are almost full grown, and 3) topping the full grown beets. It is hard to say which of the three were the worst jobs but let me start with the very first, hoeing

This had to be done with a hoe with a handle cut to about 8 inches long.

jandoelidaanniversary.jpg

Alejandro and Elida Palomo

There was only two ways that this could be done, 1) to bend over and hoe with one hand and with the other hand take out all the weeds and other beet plants that were left behind, 2) get on our knees and do the same thing.

Our workday started at about 6 am and lasted until about 6 pm with about a 30-minute break for lunch and maybe a 15 min break in the morning and another in the afternoon. The farmers at that time did not consider us humans and did not provide us with proper toilet facilities and good drinking water in the fields, the one-room homes that they provided for us were no better: no electricity, no inside plumbing and straw mattresses to sleep on.

The second phase was a little easier because we used long hoes and we could afford the leisure of fewer hours a day.

However the third phase, topping, which was done in the month of October, and anybody who has spent October in North Dakota knows that it is very cold and even colder to us South Texans.

Again, this work had to be done bending over or squatting, from about 6 am to 6 pm. Try to imagine being on your knees or bent over for about 12 hours on a very cold day.

Topping the beets meant that we had to cut the top (leaves) off the beets and, in order to do this, we used a machete that was about 18 inches long and it had a one- to two-inch beak, or hook in the front. While on our knees, we would take the machete on our right hand, pick a beet with its beak, bring it to our left hand and with the machete we would top it. Try to imagine doing this for about 12 cold hours.

Some times it was so cold (no insulated clothing at that time) that it felt like we were hitting rock with the machete. One cold day, and I’ll never forget that day, I must have been all of 14 years old, I hit that Goddamn beet so hard that I cut about one quarter of my left thumb off, fortunately it grew back.

A few years back while trying to tell a relative-in-law about how hard we worked when we were young, he interrupted me and said, “Don’t tell about hard work, my sister worked in a bakery at the age of 12.” And I answered, “My brothers and sisters would have given an arm or a leg to have worked in a nice warm comfortable bakery”

I heard a few months ago that the short hoe had been outlawed and all of the sugar beet topping is done by machine. There is a God after all.

 

 

About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
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2 Responses to Once a migrant worker …

  1. Thank you for sharing this. It is such a powerful image he paints of what it was like. I would have cried reading it too.

  2. Emily Grotta says:

    Wonderful tribute to your roots. The American melting pot (what a quaint idea in this day of “build a wall” and “deport the XXX…) brought so many to the country with dreams and hopes of a better world. Some managed to achieve it in one or two generations, others took several more.

    And now? What are we seeing? Backward pedaling. I never thought I’d see what is happening in this wonderful country of ours.

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