We didn't go to el Norte to gather flowers*
Don Miguel Gutiérrez is originally from the town of San Diego de Alejandría. There, from his father's own words, the townsmen, and his friends, Don Miguel learned everything that was necessary to take advantage of the migrant experience. But his father, a bracero and migrant worker for many years, did not want his son to follow that same road. If he had spent his life in el Norte, it was precisely so that his children would not have to do the same. He could do little in this respect, his three children travelled up North. The only one thing that he managed to instill in them was an obsession, the need to return.
Don Miguel 's story is peculiar without a doubt. His goal in life was to work professionally his own lands, yet he let pass what others considered to be magnificent opportunities to accomplish his goal. Initially, he was a teacher and a migrant worker until he managed to become a union leader and legalize his situation in the United States; then he became a university student and a teacher until he managed to complete his education as an agronomist. But the same day he received his diploma, he decided to go to el Norte and work, to save money and be able to buy land and a tractor. In the beginning he was the joke of the townsmen, but little by little they began to understand his aim. He had several jobs and then, when he finally managed to get a stable job and a good reputation, it was time to return.
Nowadays, Don Miguel is back living in his hometown in Mexico where he works his own land, subject to the whims of the weather and the vicissitudes suffered by those who grow corn.
*Interview conducted by Víctor Espinosa, in San Diego de Alejandría. May 1992.
My father was born in 1922, he used to work as the official waterer of the hacienda of San Fernando, owned by Don Isidro Gonzales. From childhood he used to help my grandfather in the fields. At age 12 he was sent to school, when he finished third grade, he left town, to attend the seminary in Lagos, and continue with elementary school, but he only studied for a few months because my grandfather lost his job when the hacienda of San Fernando was divided among the agrarianists of San Juan, in 1937. He returned and, for two years, helped them support the family.
During those years things got worse in town, so much that some migrated to Mexico City. My dad received news that there was a lot of work over there and decided to try out his luck in the capital city. He left in 1940, he was 18 years old, he stayed with some friends. He worked for a period of time as a store employee, later he worked at a furniture repair shop until he found a job as a factory worker in Mundet's soft drinks plant.
In August of '42 he heard on the radio that everybody who wanted to go to the United States to work legally should visit the hiring center installed at the football stadium; My dad tells me that, despite the intense advertising campaign by the government, it was rumoured that this was a trap to take Mexicans to the war; he remembers the rumour was spread because, in May of that same year, the Germans sank the freighter "Portero del Llano" and Mexico was obliged to officially enter the war, besides in August, the law for mandatory military service came into effect, also, fear grew among the people when power outtages and emergency drills began to take place in some neighborhoods.
One day, I think it was in October, my dad was on a bus on his way to work, he passed in front of the stadium and saw the lines of people who were waiting for their turn to go as braceros, he decided to get off the bus and stand in line to see what would happen; while he was waiting for his turn he remembered that my grandfather once had told him that if he ever went to el Norte he shouldn't do it illegaly, he had gone to the United States in 1910 and was close to drowning when crossing the Rio Bravo.
When it was his turn, the first thing they did was check his hands, since he had been a farmer, he still had them full of callouses, also they gave him a physical exam. On the third day he left to the United States, on train, with the trip, food, and house fully paid; he tells me that the train had fifteen wagons, full of arms for the gringos, besides, it carried a white little flag in the last wagon.
They arrived to Ciudad Juárez and there they were divided, he ended up in a group formed by only women who didn't know el Norte, when he was told he was going to be in the Imperial Valley, he imagined a truly beautiful place.
When they arrived, my father says, they were all surprised. There were some ranches surrounded by desert, removed from town, with ranchers that worked with percheron horses, and a tractor here and there; they became even more disillusioned when they were shown their houses..., tents, where they were going to sleep.
They started working immediately in the farming of cantaloupe, twelve-hour working days, every day, from six in the morning to six in the evening; six months later the harvest of cantaloupe was to start, but his contract expired and he returned to town, in May, I believe, of 1943. He tells me they arrived, all those who had gone, with good jackets, good jeans, and lots of dollars.
That same year he was hired again, this time they sent him to San José, California, to work in the traque, with a travelling team laying out and changing train tracks. He used to work ten hours a day, they used to pay him 57 cents, ten cents more than in Imperial Valley, but the job was really tough; they had to move the rails, among twelve people, with a pair of pincers called troncas. He had been there for over a year when he received the news that the war had ended; they didn't want to renew their contract anymore. He returned to San Diego on the last day of December of 1945.
Upon arriving, he found my grandfather's health very deteriorated, he died in March of '46. My dad stayed to take care of what he had left him: a field farmed with chick-pea and a few animals; he couldn't leave anymore for el Norte.
That year, as soon as he harvested the crop, he left again for the United States. One time, he was hired in Irapuato and was sent to the state of Montana, to work in agriculture, because there was no more work for Mexicans in the industry, only in the fields. He worked in the beet fields, with a small hoe known as the "shorty", famous because they had to crouch all day.
That time they paid him by contract, according to the number of sacks he collected; five from San Diego and one from Arandas, to do the job in two months, because they were going to take them to Wisconsin, to harvest potato. During the very last days they worked until 10 at night to finish the job.
They took them by train all the way to Wisconsin, but they arrived before the potato season was due, meanwhile they were sent to harvest cherry, in little buckets, narrow at the botton and wide on top, that were cashed at 25 cents each. My dad could barely make enough to eat, besides they didn't pay them until after they had finished the job for fear that they might desert. Since these were very remote states it was not that easy to find people to work in the ranches; they stayed there for several days but the potato season would not arrive, so my dad got in touch with a compadre that was working close by and had a sister in Chicago. Taking advantage of being close by, he made up his mind, because he was carrying money, he was spending little and at that time he hadn't gotten married to my mom.
They left by train, he travelled for 15 hours, feeling a little afraid because it was a novelty to walk around as an illegal, he tells me that any gringo he saw wearing a uniform, he confused with the guys from immigration.
In Chicago, he arrived to the house of his compadre's sister. He found a job immediately at the packing factory, they paid him 95 cents and he worked from eight to ten hours; his task was simple: to put the sausages in a set of wheeled baskets so that the women could pack them. He had only been working there for three months when the month of December arrived. Him and his compadre began chatting about the town celebrations: the strolls around the plaza, the serenades; since they were single, they returned to San Diego, out of pure nostalgia; but when they arrived to the border, as soon as they were getting off the bus, the migra caught them, in Laredo, and they were jailed in a basement for some days. Later they were taken all the way to the other side of the bridge and were freed on the Mexican side. They arrived to San Diego on January 6th, two days before the town celebrations were over. As soon as he arrived, my dad was offered a job at the presidency, as the town's treasurer, he didn't know anything about politics but since a lot of people were going to el Norte, and besides only few knew how to read and write, without noticing he spent ten years working at the presidency, without leaving San Diego, until in 1962, Samuel Correa stepped in as the new president. They didn't get along and he was discharged. He decided to return once more to the United States.
But, this time he didn't leave as a bracero. That year, a first cousin offered to help him fix his documents, since he was in good terms with the owner of the ranch where he worked, he got him a letter of "promise of work", where the rancher requested him to work; the paperwork took six months.
He left in August of 1962 to Santa María, California, with his cousin, to harvest strawberry, but they paid very little. Besides, he didn't like strawberries, not even to eat them; after two months the season was over and he preferred to return to his hometown.
The following year he left to Soledad, California, with one of his sisters. Her husband had taken her to live with him and one uncle, who had been the first from San Diego to arrive in that place, and who had already started accomodating other relatives from town. His first job was as a dishwasher at a camp where they fed braceros. He didn't like it because they only paid him 50 dollars per week. He lasted a week and asked his uncle for a job. He told him that, at the ranch where he worked, there was only one vacancy for a position as a waterer, but warned him the job was very tough:
-You get wet a lot and those who work there complain of suffering from rheumatism. The good part is that there's always work and they give you lots of hours a day.
My dad answered that he had not gone to el Norte to gather flowers; they gave him the position as a waterer. He used to work fourteen hours a day. He would start at six in the morning, when it was still dark, and he would get out when it was already dark; he didn't need to pay rent because he used to live in the ranch. He liked the job, he learned it well, and stayed to work there for twenty years doing the same activity. He would come and go: for six to eight months he would work in several ranches and then he would return to San Diego, where he would spend the rest of the year working his lands, 60 hectares that he bought back in 1964, thanks to el Norte, he managed to have up to fifty pigs and ten cows. In 1970 he, once again, went to Chicago, because back in town his friends were telling him that one could make more money and work less, but, in the end, the truth of the matter turned out of be very different. In Chicago he worked at a factory that paid him 2.5 dollars per hour, but they would only give him eight hours per day, the required forty hours per week, he would earn, at most, ninety dollars per week, because the newly arrived were not allowed to work over-time, while in California he would make less money, but he could work from twelve to fourteen hours a day, which would let him make more than 100 dollars per week. In Chicago he ended up working for the city, in Public Parks and Gardens, he used to earn three dollars per hour, the problem was that he never liked the weather.
In 1974, when he returned to the United States, I told him that I wanted to go to el Norte, my dad was opposed to my idea, he told me that so much sacrifice and trouble were precisely so that his children could study and wouldn't have to go on struggling in another country, where in the end they would be exploited almost as if they were slaves.
He returned to the United States, like every year, he told me he was going to take me to visit, but not until he could fix my documents, so that I wouldn't have to be smuggled in; but I had already come to an agreement with my friends, and with or without their consent, I wanted to experience in my own flesh what was this famous Norte like; I didn't have the need, because my father always tried to give us what we needed, besides, by that time, it had been two years since I had found a position working as a teacher in San Diego' s High School; that's why I waited until school vacations arrived. I left in August, along with other three friends from town, on the way to the border; but weout of luck, the migra caught us several times and we had to return without having seen the United States. Even then, that was my initiation travel, and that's the one I remember the most.
I remember that we were, Chuy Echeverría, Miguel Ramírez, and one son of Cirilo Rocha. Supposedly, Chuy Echeverría had gone once and was the one who knew the famous trail from San Marcos and Carlos Bad. He told us that one had to get to Tijuana, to the neighborhood Libertad; that from there one could see a pair of antennas and that one had to follow the light through the woods, without the need for a coyote, because once knowing the road everything else was very easy.
Chuy told us that in order to avoid problems with the famous cholos, who used to gather in the neighborhood Libertad, we were going to leave in the evening, at dusk, so that we could see, more or less, our trail. We were walking and hiding, then we would peek out, but in one of those occasions, Chuy and I peeked out, and the border patrol discovered us and came after us, we looked for a place to hide, but the migra found two of us. We were close by, hiding about 5 meters away, behind some shrubs, but since they had only seen two people, they were satisfied with them. They caught them and left, the bad thing is that they took away the one that knew the trail. "We spent sometime without knowing what to do, we ate and kept walking further in, what else could we do! We walked almost for the entire night, soon thereafter everywhere was like a party, we came across a lot of people, complete groups that were heading to the same place, we joined one of those groups and followed them for a good while. When we got annoyed, we kept going on our own and crossed through a tomato orchard; by then, it was dawn.
We waited until light came out, and when it was finally daybreak --but being a little naive--, in order to not get lost, we decided to walk by the highway, no sooner than later a border patrol spotted us, they asked us what were we doing around there.
-Nothing, we answered.
-Then, let's go back to Mexico.
Well, let's go.
What else could we tell them! They kicked us out right away and, in the morning, we were already eating menudo in Tijuana.
We tried twice again to get in, we could not find those who had been caught. We were carrying some money because we were prepared, but those who had been caught were put on a plane and sent all the way to León, Guanajuato. So, for them the adventure was over very soon.
The other guy became discouraged. He was running out of money
-I am going back, he said.
-Well, let's go.
We went back.
When my father found out, he told me that if I really wanted to go, I should leave when the work season starts, in March, and not in August when work is close to being over.
I asked for a leave of absence at school and the following year, in 1975, I invited another friend and, we left, in March, along with my dad; he went all the way to Soledad and left us in Tijuana, with Jesús Aldana, a coyote from San Diego, so that he would help us cross. This time we got in without any difficulty, they smuggled us in a van all the way to Los Angeles, we payed 300 dollars each; when we arrived my dad had already obtained a Social Security card for me, as for my friend, they told him that in order to get his Social Security he needed to prove he was a legal resident, otherwise the migra was going to go after him, since we had already given out our local address we couldn't stay there anymore, we left for a month to work in the beet fields, in a little ranch that was located 30 miles away from Soledad. We used to work from six in the morning to twelve noon, at that time the migra would stop by the ranch, in their daily itinerary they used to conduct all the way from Salinas. Those who carried no documents with them, stopped working and hid inside a ward; they would come out until after three in the afternoon and would work for three more hours.
When we noticed that the migra was not showing up at the house, we returned. I worked for a while at the ranch, with my dad, until I found a better job, at a company that dehydrated garlic and onion. At that time my dad had already started the paperwork to fix my documents; after several applications they told us to go to the office immediately, before I turned 21 and the process became more difficult.
Once legalized, finding a job became much easier, but I hadn't abandoned the idea to continue studying. When I returned in 1975, coincidentally they had just opened a senior high-school in San Diego; I enrolled immediately. I kept working at the junior high-school and, during the holidays, I would go with my dad for three or four months to the United States.
I kept doing the same until I finished high-school, in 1977, and with the money I had saved from my job as a teacher in San Diego and as a day-laborer in the United States, I went to study agronomy at the University of Guadalajara. At the same time I tried to transfer my teacher's poition to Guadalajara, but it was not possible so, I asked for a leave of absence, but without going back to work.
But it so happened that my savings, which were 20 thousand pesos, vanished. I had no money to continue studying and besides, I already wanted to get married, so I stopped studying for a year. In 1978 I left, once again, to the United States, this time with a fixed goal in mind: save money to get married and continue studying. When I had saved some three or four thousand dollars I returned. Two months later I got married, I returned to work at the high-school in San Diego, without forgetting my plans to finish studying agronomy. Later I asked for my transfer to Ocotlán and, at the same time, I planed my return to the second year at the university. To do this I first had to change my teacher's post to an evening shift in Jamay from where I would journey every day all the way to Guadalajara, to attend the University, in a little car I bought with the money I brought back from the United States.
In little time, and thanks to the political connections I had as a teacher and to my friendship with the municipality's president of San Diego --they cornered the district deputy, who had some good strings in the Department of Public Education--, I was able to find a teacher's position closer to Guadalajara: in Cajititlán.
In 1983 I graduated, at last, as an agronomist, and to my parents and friends surprise, I decided to return, once again, to work in the United States. I remember that everybody was against the idea, but I had my reasons: I never stopped thinking about the United States, because I had already proved that, in fact, it was possible to save money over there. The biggest problem for those who leave is that the idea of saving is very remote. They don't have a strong enough will, or the capacity, to save their earnings, because in general they earn a lot of money. I knew that, and my intention was to buy a tractor, because I've always known about agriculture, and I wanted to work in that area, here in my town, in my land.
To my friends, it was madness that I was leaving to the United States, because, in fact, I was at my best as a teacher, I had gotten involved in Union politics; at that time I was the teachers' union general secretary for the entire zone, that was an excellent title, because in the central zone, we were only 22 people managing every political affair of the 47th section, that was a lot weight, because the political matters are decided in Guadalajara, not out here, in the towns, at that time, the General Secretary could voice his opinion, just as the inspector, about temporary posts or proposals for upcoming positions, which gave you certain power and many people used that to make money, but since I had always considered that I was going to leave for the United States, I didn't even doubled the post I had, that's why, in everybody's eyes, it was a foolish idea to leave, once again, for the United States.
I knew the job I was going to carry out over there was physical work that required a lot of effort, nevertheless, I also knew that if I didn't leave then, I was never going to leave, so with all the pain and heartache I left to the United States at the end of my studies, in September of 1983.
I arrived to Soledad, with Abel, my youngest brother,. At that time David was still over there, the other brother I had taken to el Norte for the first time back in 1976.
In the beginning I worked in the harvest of lettuce, it even occured to me that the best way to make money was with the corrida, in the Valley of Salinas, which entailed to continue working in the harvest of the different crops cultivated, ranch by ranch. During my travels I lived in a car, a Volkswagen Beetle that only had the driver's seat, and where I installed a wooden platform, very well padded for sleeping, I even had a heating plate in the car.
In the beginning I had to withstand the teasing of my friends from San Diego, they laughed at me because I had spent my life studying to end up harvesting lettuce just like themselves; I remember their teasing didn't bother me as much because I had a very simple argument to quiet them: I was making good money, at a time when it was not possible to work in Mexico, because the economic recession was going through its most critical stage.
The only thing I didn't like about the corridas was that I had to be going from one place to the other, that prevented me from being in school, that's why as soon as I was able to, the first thing I did was study English, because I knew that was the basis to find better jobs. What I learned at school in Mexico helped me, no doubt, but over there, people judged me because of my accent, because if you arrive there speaking broken English and with a Mexican accent, they look at you like somebody who doesn't know how to speak English and who cannot do anything, at least that's the insecurity they create in you.
I had one year working in the corridas when my dad, already tired, due to 20 years as a waterer, retired in the United States. I tood advantage of the situation and stayed in his place for three years; with that job I was able to save more. Soon thereafter I bought a house in San Diego, aside from the one I already had in Guadalajara, in Residencial Poniente.
Besides, working in irrigation allowed me to become more stable. I studied whatever occurred to me: courses in mechanic, welding, laminating and painting, writing and editing, philosophy, even a teaching course for teachers, there was a moment when I felt that I could understand and write perfectly in English, but I still had some problems speaking; even then, and despite having a good job, moved by the wish to make progress, I began working as a mechanics, for eight months, but still I did not stop looking in the newspapers for an opportunity to find a better job.
On one occasion, there was an ad which said that the Department of Agriculture from the Monterey County, in California, was looking for agricultural technicians to help various researchers in different tasks; I decided to fill out an application for myself and one for my wife, a few days later, after having gone through an evaluation, I was hired. I remember the evaluation was very simple, they had me identify plants, calculate insecticide doses, very elementary tasks, compared to all I had studied in Mexico, besides they required that you had experience in agriculture, plants and farming, and the use of agricultural machinery; my transcript, which showed all the courses I had taken, and my experience as a waterer were very helpful.
I worked for some researchers from the University of California, I was being paid by the Department of Agriculture from the Monterey County. It was an interesting job. It was a team of seven people that included researchers with international recognition in entomology, herbicides, herbiculture, irrigation and fertilizers; in the beginning, in economical terms, it was not the best job I've ever had, I used to earn between ten and twelve dollars per hour, the problem was that I could not work more than eight hours a day and I was being deducted a lot in taxes. With time I gained their confidence and they started calling me, on the weekends, to do little odd jobs with the county ranchers, with that I was able to make better the pay. I had been working with them for a year when I reached the five year limit I had decided to stay, regardless of how much I had saved by then; but, I was so comfortable in the best job I had ever had, that I decided to stay for six more months.
In december of 1989 I let them know I was going to leave my job because I wanted to try out and succeed in Mexico; probably it is not going to work, I remember I thought, but I have to try it out; one of the researchers promised me a better job, another one told me that if I ever returned to the United States, even if it was for a week or two, that I would have a sure job with them.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, I decided to come back because I had reached the time limit I had imposed on myself, besides I wanted to live in Mexico for a while, and I don't know if I'll ever go back; in December of 1992, it will be two years since I returned; I came to work in agriculture, I had a bad first year, I invested a lot of money and, in spite of having a good harvest, I definitively spent more money than what I made, but I am going to farm again this year and I hope to have better luck.
The lands I currently have are the same my father purchased back in 1964, thanks to el Norte, but sold in 1970, because he was never able to profit or benefit from them.
In 1988, two of my brothers and I bought the same lands, because here you are worth more if you own, especially, real estate; having lands gives you prestige. One of my brothers wanted to buy land for housing but I convinced him to buy farming land. We used to do well back when the three of us lived in the United States; David is currently the manager at a potato packing factory; Abel, the youngest, I found him a job as a waterer at the ranch, now he is a welder.
I remember we used to talk about the lands everyday, always with the same illusion to make progress, my brothers are still in el Norte, they come back temporarily; their intention is to come back definitively, because they know very well that here you are somebody and over there you are nobody; it does not matter the job you may have, how ever good it may be; they, for example, have good jobs, regardless, they are nobody.
We were looking for some good lands on sale, we found out that my father's compadre wanted to sell his. Since we knew the terrain, because it had been my dad's, we knew the place was beautiful, so we bought it; we paid ten thousand dollars in cash and five thousand dollars every six months, in total we paid forty thousand dollars.
Before coming back we brought a tractor, several vehicles, and agricultural equipment and implements; that's why since I arrived I devoted myself completely to agriculture. I farmed close to forty hectares, all with corn because there was a very large demand for pasture in the local market, but it was a difficult year. As a farmer I consider I treated well the terrain, I spent a lot of money on it, but it did not yield the expected results, in the first place because the rain came late in the season, it started raining in July, and once it started, it did not stop raining until September, even then I had a good harvest, but when I had everything ready to begin grinding, on the sixth of January, the rain came down and dampen the entire harvest; I was close to loosing everything, I owed 45 million pesos. The following year, I farmed again but I was more moderate in my expenses.
I was invited to participate in the political campaign with one of the PRI factions in the municipality, because they knew I like politics and have prestige, because I am a migrant who finished my house with what I earned in el Norte; besides I am one of the few that can come back from el Norte and give out from 30 to 40 millons of pesos at any one moment. The elections were tight because one of the PRI factions rallied with the PAN, but the PRI won, in spite of having lost in the town's three polls, we won thanks to the votes coming from the surrounding ranches. Don Jesús Hernández, also a migrant, became the municipality's president and I, the secretary to the president of San Diego de Alejandría.