The Collective Memory of Migrant Workers

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Collective memory trickles down through three generations of migrant workers to create, explain and build community.
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“Rows of Memory” by Saúl Sánchez is the story of three generations’ persistence to survive when faced with personal hardships, poor working conditions and low pay.

Rows of Memory (Univeristy of Iowa Press, 2014) offers an insightful look into the lives of Spanish-American migrant workers. Author Saúl Sánchez grew up in one such family on the border of Texas. Following the crops uprooted his education a number of times, yet he managed to succeed academically and move beyond his migrant past without losing admiration for his family’s persistence. In the following excerpt from the introduction, Sánchez explains how the collective memory of migrant workers created the world in which they lived.

I write this memoir to leave behind some testimony of a way of life that has disappeared perhaps forever. It is a personal narrative based on experience, taken from memory, and written years after the episodes it narrates. These episodes may not sound exalted or seem like exceptional accomplishments to the reader, but they are to the author. They are exalted because the people who appear here sacrificed a great part of their lives, and in some cases all of their lives, for the benefit of their families. And they are exceptional because it is the narrative of a people who not only survive for years under shocking living conditions but also because most of those individuals who appear in these pages managed to triumph in their lives. If we also add the fact that these people spoke Spanish and not English, it is not difficult to understand why they embody those exalted and exceptional qualities that one finds in epics.

This memoir comes from collective memory. It is not a critical history such as is written by academics. The English historian David Lowenthal, in his critical study of heritage and history, says that collective memory builds community, creates identity and, in the final analysis, makes history possible. My intention is to bring that heritage back to life and massage it gently in order to hear its voice echoing through time. In this case we are talking about events experienced by three different generations: my grandparents, my parents, and me, the author. Chronologically, this is a period of time that begins just after the Mexican Revolution and ends some time during the Vietnam War.

If we want to understand in depth the ancestral heritage represented by these generations, then we should know something about their language. The words used in English, “migrant” or “migrant worker” or “migrant farm worker,” to identify the members of this community of migratory agricultural workers were not used by us. They were, and still are, used by English speakers to refer to us. I purposefully place emphasis on the term English speakers. It is another way of saying that we have a double identity, one in English and one in Spanish. For us, during those times, English speakers were the gringos. A person who speaks in English about this topic brings in a different perspective: that of someone looking at us from the outside. Since we expressed ourselves in Spanish, we knew very well that saying to each other “I’m a migrant” or “I’m a migrant worker” sounded ridiculous. The truth of the matter was that we lived in our own universe. It was an organic universe full of vitality; it had its own flavors, its own images, its own color. We did not need to classify ourselves; we knew very well who we were.

We had many ways of identifying ourselves. “The people” was the most common expression used: the people from Texas, the people from The Valley, the people from Monterrey. The part of the country that we returned to at the end of the working season carried strong emotional associations for us. We honestly thought that each group had its own personality, its own traditions, its own way of life which corresponded to its geographical origins. The people of Monterrey were thought of as being cheaters, for example, while those from The Valley were considered sloppy workers, and we, of course, were the good workers. They probably felt the same way about us. It was precisely for that reason that there were several categories of people, because it depended not only on the region of the country they were from but also upon the circumstances they found themselves in. During festive occasions, for instance, the people were called la palomilla (working class). With that name, one was really adding sort of a fraternal tinge to one’s countrymen because one had certain things in common with the group. The term could be heard in baseball games up north when the Mexicans played against the gringos. It was heard on weekends at the dances that were held in the barracks and labor camps and especially when there was plenty of work to go around. Quite to the contrary, though, if things were going badly those same people became la peluza (low class) or la chusma (poor masses) or los chicaspatas (unwashed masses). When there were too many people and there was not enough work, one would say, “Where did so much peluza come from?” When the cheaters offered to work for less, we would say, “The chusma is here,” or “Let’s get away to where there aren’t so many chicaspatas.” It was our way of debunking the competition. It was how we let it be known that things were going badly, that work was scarce, that there were too many people looking for work. There were also braceros (guest workers) and mojados (wetbacks). They worked at the same things we did, but we considered them different and thus the name. We knew they had something to do with the government. The Mexican government sent them, the United States used them, and we sometimes dealt with them, sometimes not. When we referred to them we would say, “They are Mexicans,” or, “They are raza” (of Mexican descent). It was our way of saying that we had something in common, that we understood each other, that we even looked a little bit alike. But work was work even if the politics were different.

Aside from these generalizations, the people also created their own subcategories for identification purposes, and these varied according to the quality and talent of the individual. In picking cotton, or spuds, or cucumbers, or tomatoes or fruit, we were just pickers. We were known as thinners while doing sugar beets, as cutters while cutting spinach, and as packers in the packing sheds. There were the truck drivers, the weighers, the contractors. Each made a living in his own way. The truck drivers owned their vehicles, and some of them knew enough English to make deals with the growers who needed laborers. The drivers ferried workers back and forth and took that burden off the grower’s back. For their services they charged very well: the workers paid them to take them back and forth, and the growers paid them for the workers. The cotton harvest in west Texas lasted roughly between August and November, and it was during that time of the year when weighers took to the fields. The most enterprising amongst them, I remember from listening to their stories, peaked between 1900 and 1950. It was during those years that Mexicans picked by hand most of the cotton in Texas, Arkansas, and California. Those old-time weighers hung their scale on a two-by-four nailed to the side of the truck, and there they weighed every single sack full of cotton brought by the pickers. It was rare to see a weigher go into the fields to pick. Most spent their time keeping an eye out or smoking their aromatic weed while they waited for pickers to come in for a weigh. If they saw that their friend looked a bit worn out late in the day, they’d offer him a draw from their smoke to lift his spirits and help him pick more. The more cotton pickers brought in, the more money they’d make.

The contractors can still be found where there is fieldwork and there are people in need. For us there were good contractors and bad contractors. The bad ones were the more interesting ones because there was always more scuttlebutt about them. They took advantage of people, they were greedy, they had a lustful demeanor. People did not trust them. That was how we knew who the bad contractors were. They always brought in new workers. The others, the good contractors, treated people with respect, and the people, in turn, followed them. Many had other good qualities: they would lend you a few dollars when you were broke, they would stop along the road on long trips to let people go relieve themselves, and they were just fair with everyone.

Then there were the loafers, the ones who always tried to avoid work or who looked for ways to get away with the least effort. Flojo (lazy bum) was the nicest word used to refer to them. The word was used in mixed company, amongst men and women or young and old, and no one felt seriously aggrieved. Arrastrado or rastra (lazybones) was a bit more delicate; not just anyone could call you an arrastrado or a rastra to your face. To call someone güevón (loafer) or güevona (loafer) meant that things were getting really serious. That refined term would be used amongst people who knew each other well or with outsiders if one wanted to insult them. There were two other categories which were considered even lower: mantenido (welfare bum) and sinvergüenza (shameless bum). These were serious fighting words. You’d better be prepared for what was coming if you used them. There was a lexicon for authority figures as well. We could always tell who the people from Monterrey were because they called the boss amo. People from The Valley called him patrón. For us, the workers from Texas but not from The Valley, he was simply el viejo (the old man).

Finally, there was another way we could tell who was who. This was an observation that was used to establish, in general terms, a migrant’s chronological status. It told us, for example, which generational cycle a person belonged to. The elderly ones, the family members from the first generation, sprinkled their conversations with references to grubbing, to working with pick and shovel, to topping (cutting off the tops) sugar beets. They would tell us how they had lived in tents set up in the open and that they travelled in Model T’s. Their migratory cycles were limited to areas around the state of Texas. They began to arrive from Mexico during and just after the Mexican Revolution. Their sons, the next migrant generation, made the transition from pick and shovel to crop pickers. At first they made their way picking cotton toward the coast around Corpus Christi; from there they extended their travels in the other direction, toward Lubbock and other points out west. Some went all the way to Arkansas. The workers from this generational cycle had their heyday between the two World Wars and lasted through the 1950s when the mechanical cotton pickers came in and displaced them.

In our family the transition from the second to the third generation, to which I belong, begins with the journeys up north. Those long journeys into the heart of sugar-beet country constitute the third migratory cycle. People soon started going up toward the Red River Valley in the states of Minnesota, Iowa, and North Dakota in search of work. There they found a well-established sugar-beet industry with factories such as Great Western Sugar Company and American Crystal Sugar Company. These companies were really the ones responsible for initiating the third cycle. It started when they began sending their recruiting agents to Texas to find workers to do the beet work.

Each of these generations distinguished itself in its own way. One of my mother’s uncles started college at around sixty years of age. He received a degree in theology four years later and served in the Presbyterian Church. Two aunts on my father’s side became businesswomen during World War II. They operated kitchens for braceros in California and were financially successful. At least three uncles fought in World War II and one in Korea. They left the fields, learned English, overcame obstacles, and opened the door for us. We — my generation — started in the fields and some of us ended up graduating with bachelor’s, master’s, and even doctoral degrees from American universities.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Rows of Memory: Journeys of a Migrant Sugar-Beet Workerby Saúl Sánchez and published by University of Iowa Press, 2014.

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