I remember the day I found out my family were migrant farm workers. I was sitting in my tio’s kitchen, and we were talking about something, I think it was about Cesar Chavez or something, and he said it, “You know they were migrant farm workers, right?”
At first I thought it was a joke, because come on now. Only illegal immigrants work as migrant farm workers—illegals or the Joads from “The Grapes of Wrath”. But this wasn’t the Depression, so there is NO WAY that MY grandfather, a Tex-Mex born and raised in AMERICA, would be picking fruit for a living!
I remember coming home, and asking my mom about it. “Tio Lou was joking around, and he said you guys were …that you picked fruit …haha”. My mom said, “That’s right.” Whoa whoa whoa! What??? “Your grandfather would drive from Texas up north, working all summer on the different farms.” She sounded so nonchalant, like she just told me to pass the salt.
What the hell? Was everyone playing a mean joke? We live in Villa Park Illinois, for God’s sake! There’s a Target five minutes away! From what my ignorant mind could grasp, migrant farm workers were like sharecroppers—freed slaves that got ripped off by the big bad white man. I couldn’t reconcile the fact that my grandfather, the gentle mechanic with the wicked sense of humor, was picking apples while some guy named Zeke yelled at him to “git.”
My mom just kept talking. She said that when they moved to Chicago, my grandfather took them along to the farms. It was like an adventure for her. She was 13 years old, and she and my Tia Gloria tried to help by working in the lettuce fields. They were supposed to pull weeds, but ended up pulling all the lettuce. They got fired their first day on the job.
She was smiling as she told me about it …I couldn’t believe that—I mean, how humiliating. “Why are you being so calm about this, can you see how awful it was for you?” My mom replied, “Awful for us? No. You see, a lot of the people …I don’t want to say they worked professionally at it, but they were used to that kind of life. I remember my friends would be pulled out of school because it was time for their families to go work in the fields. Some of them would never come back. When we got sent back to the camp, you know, for weeding out the lettuce, there were a couple of girls that were sent back too. We were laughing about the whole thing, but they were crying, because they knew they would get in trouble with their parents. You see, I knew with our dad we would be okay. He didn’t want us to work, but we had wanted to try. I mean, we really worked hard. That poor lettuce really suffered.”
The story unfolded with such gentleness, just a woman sharing her memories with her daughter. My mom ended by saying “We should always walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s one thing to see something like that on TV or hear a story, but it’s another thing to know what they are doing, to know how hard it is. It makes you that much more grateful for what you have. Your grandparents wanted us to go to school, not work long hours in a field. It’s a different world out there.”
I thought of myself at 13 and how my biggest problem was having to wear generic gym shoes instead of Reeboks. I thought of my mom at 13, trying to work hard to help her family, but knowing deep down that it wasn’t entirely necessary …and I saw those two other little girls crying because that’s all they had. We just sat quietly, my mom and I. We sat there and all that kept running through my head was …God, I have SO much to learn.