I grew up picking. If you’ve ever had green chili from Chipotle or any Mexican restaurant, you’ve tasted one of the many things in my father’s garden: tomatillo, my personal enemy. They can grow on large bushes that can surpass a house and produce thousands of tiny, green spheres. Picking them wasn’t the issue; it was peeling them. A dry, papery leaf surrounds the tomatillo, and a sticky substance is excreted to keep the leaf in place. Sitting in the hot sun for hours combined with rubbery hands was never a great combination. It was never for my benefit either; I never ate the chili my mom made. The tomatillos were either crushed and served as a side for the adults or placed in a bag and thrown into a freezer. Other things grown in the garden were tomatoes, banana peppers, jalapeños, squash, corn smuggled from Mexico, beans, mint, potatoes, garlic, onion, cilantro, red peppers, honeydew (up until we got a mouse problem), and the occasional strawberry. I hated it. Utah summers are dry, arid, and blisteringly hot. If I wasn’t standing under the swamp cooler, I was standing with my head in the freezer. I couldn’t complain; if I did, my family would tell me how they had it worse, much worse.
Both of my parents were born in the middle of nowhere in the state of Michoacan, Mexico. My father lived in a shack by the river, and my mother lived in a house made of mud on a mountain. I have an old family. Many of them were born in the late 50s or early 60s. The eldest of my mother’s side, Rosario Maria MorenoRodriguez, or to me, Tia Chayo, was born June 26, 1953, and she was responsible for taking care of her siblings. My grandpa would disappear for long periods, and my grandma was preoccupied with trying to scrape up food for nine children. My Tia is the cool big sister. She always reminds people to recycle, invites you to her yoga/meditation class, and shows you videos about intergalactic wormholes and how The Greys are here as messengers of Christ. She always has open arms, tons of almond milk, and a large puff of white hair; she is a Mexican Einstein by all means. Like many Mexican-Americans, my Tia Chayo came to the United States for a better life, “to be poor in America was better than to be poor in Mexico.”
In the 1890s, a boom in mining and agriculture in the Southwest became the epicenter of Mexican migration. During and after the Mexican Revolution, many Mexicans fled the violence of their homeland in search of better opportunities. Many people came from rural areas where their source of income depended on the land and livestock. They searched for stability. This flow of migrants would fluctuate well into the 1930s and 40s.
Mexicans were thought to be stronger than other migrant workers, such as those from Asia and Eastern Europe. It was believed that Mexicans were able to withstand unhealthy work environments, were docile, taciturn (unable to communicate; dumb), and physically strong.
These notions were believed thanks to the so-called “science” of an older form of eugenics. Migrant workers were not given any rights, as they were seen as temporary workers and would return to Mexico once the work was done. However, it was never that simple.
My Tia Chayo wanted to become a nurse. After finishing the middle school equivalent in the close town of Coalcoman, she was invited to go live in the large city of Guadalajara in Jalisco. There, she would be enrolled in admission classes to get into college; attending high school was only an option. She finished her classes but was not admitted. It would be another year until she would be able to apply again. During this time, she had been working at a textile plant learning how to sew; she hated it. She barely made enough to pay for the bus and a sandwich. This continued for a few months until she returned home for a holiday. When she got there, she witnessed the state of her family.
“They didn’t even have shoes,” she said. The phone went silent. “They didn’t have enough, and I did what I could, but it was like I was running out of time.” After seeing how her siblings were starving, malnourished, and unable even to clothe themselves, she knew she had to do something.
“I wanted to be successful, a professional, in Mexico. I didn’t ever want to rely on the U.S., but that was just a dream, and my family needed help.” So, with the help of her brother, who had immigrated to California, she crossed the border and headed to Watsonville, California.
There are many ways to immigrate to the United States. There are legal ways, and there are illegal ways. The stereotype is that Mexicans jump a wall, but that is not the case. The wall does not cover the entirety of the U.S. –Mexico border. There are many places where the wall stops and continues only many miles after. Many try it on their own. Gathering supplies and traveling by foot, led by a guide or a Coyote. Many people do not make it this way; it is the option of desperation. If you are not caught by border patrol, you are double-crossed by the coyote and sold to Narcos. My father crossed with the help of a Coyote, the first couple of times at least, but he did not travel by foot; he had to lay on a truck bed and be driven across the border. Also on the illegal spectrum lies the method that my mother and my Tia Chayo crossed. You pay a person to falsify a passport. The trick is to find someone who looks similar to the person trying to cross, hoping the guard doesn’t look too closely.
Once she was in, my tia met with her brother. He didn’t have a place of his own and lived in an abandoned house with nothing but a wood stove for heat and cooking. Before living there, he had lived in his car. My tia left all her stuff, and she was taken to begin picking in the fields within the hour.
Watsonville is located near Santa Cruz and is only about an hour away from San Francisco. The temperature never rises above 70 degrees, and it is perfect for growing and harvesting strawberries. To this day, large fields of strawberries line the highway leading to Watsonville. The strawberries from this particular region are richer, bigger, juicer, and even redder. My tia had to learn how to crouch down and pick the strawberries so as not to ruin the plant. At the end of her first day, she only managed to fill five small boxes. She was paid 40 cents a box.
Farm work, picking, and cultivating are labor-intensive jobs. Many people develop hip and foot pain from working only one day. Picking always ran the risk of having a limb or extremity severed by the machinery. Workers were not allowed breaks or lunches. There were no bathrooms. If you left your post, you were fired. Many had to sneak to relieve themselves in the bushes. Fields were sprayed with pesticides while people were still working, and the chemicals led to several congenital disabilities for generations. Migrant workers held no rights.
In 1962, Cesar Chavez began the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). He became the voice and image of the Migrant Worker Movement. He demanded fair wages, better work conditions, and rights for migrant workers—his means of protesting involved fasting, marching, and boycotting. Many movement members also created picket lines that often resulted in violence, not from the protestors but from armed forces and meddling people.
My tia could only support working in the fields for a few months. The labor had taken a toll on her body, and she wanted to do something else. So, she began to work in a cannery where kale, spinach, and various kinds of produce were canned and distributed. The crop would come in from the farms/fields and then be sorted out by workers. The good produce would be
packaged, sealed, and sent to grocery stores. Supervisors liked my tia’s handwriting so they made her write the tickets and labels for the shipments. It was there that she discovered a sad truth: the best produce went to stores, but the rejected food was sent to the army and military families. The cannery paid her $6.61 for writing labels, but in 1985, the owners announced they would pay everyone $4.75 an hour, regardless of post or years worked.
The cannery workers were part of a union called the Teamsters, which was usually only for truck drivers. When the wage drop was announced, the workers went on strike. “I was going to get something out of this protest,” my tia said, “I was going to learn English.”
During the worker strike, my tia enrolled at Carillo University and became a volunteer for the union. There, she was allowed to attend school and work for the union. She was tasked with translating documents and contracts from English to Spanish, which greatly benefitted her education. She only was able to attend school for a semester, as she wasn’t able to pay for any more. However, she did continue to learn from watching TV, movies, and reading books.
The union had begun to gain more and more attention in places other than California. My tia was sent to Detroit, Michigan, to deliver a speech about the movement to other Mexican-Americans. She was given donations for the union, and from that, a food bank was established for families.
My tia never got involved in the picket lines: “I never believed in violence. I wanted nothing to do with all of that. I once saw someone bring sacks of potatoes, but inside were large rocks that would be thrown at workers who weren’t part of the strike. People didn’t know that the owners had contracted criminals from the prison nearby, and that’s who they were throwing rocks at. Then there were people who weren’t even from the union, gueros, white people who would show up and start violence, and we would be the ones getting shot at, not them. I wanted nothing to do with that, so I became a secretary instead.”
Cesar Chavez was invited to join my tia’s movement, and he came. He spoke with the men, and his sister-in-law, Dolores Huerta, talked to the women. They were educated on how to make demands peacefully, as well as how to work with the pickers. If the pickers stopped working, then the cannery ran out of work. Senator Jesse Jackson was also invited, and he came as well. My tia was tasked with being his bodyguard as he gave a speech. In the following days, they would travel to San Francisco to speak at a university on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“He gave me a kiss on the mejia after speaking,” she laughed.
“What’s that?” I asked.
She giggled slightly, “The cheek, mijo.”
During this time, my tia was learning how to drive. On her first attempt, she crashed into a house and a woman, covered in flour, came out screaming, “‘Shit! Shit! Shit!’ I didn’t know what that meant or if it was even flour, but we’re gonna say that it was.” When she got her license, she was offered a job driving a van, “I worked for Universal Studios. They were making a movie called The Lost Boys. I would drive the actors and crew everywhere. The director [Joel Schumacher] even made me his family’s personal driver. I made a lot of money.” Many of the cannery workers had to find other jobs during the strike, many of them, much like my tia, worked odd jobs just to pay the bills. Their ambition, determination, and courage eventually made the cannery and farm owners back down. Workers were given fairer wages, basic amenities, and rights.
Movements such as these were everywhere in California, and it did not take long until other places fell in line. My father was one of many traveling migrant workers. He worked in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, and New Jersey. He traveled as the growing and picking seasons changed. He was able to benefit from these protests. He had a bathroom, didn’t have to worry about pesticides, and was paid relatively better. But the struggle continued. Although migrant workers were given more rights, Mexican immigrants still held no rights. My father was chased several times by ICE. “La Migra,” as it was referred to, would show up randomly to farms and deport anyone they could get their hands on. To this day, Mexican-Americans are stripped from their homes and sent back to Tijuana. Many are from different states or countries, yet they are left behind in this foreign place. Raids are still common in workplaces. As reported by the NILC, the National Immigration Law Center,
Agents seal off the workplace’s exits and make arrests, detaining workers and sending them to remote detention centers without warning. Federal funding for immigration enforcement is now eleven times greater than funding to enforce federal labor standards at millions of workplaces across the country. This discrepancy in priorities leaves workers increasingly vulnerable to wage theft, different forms of discrimination, and workplace health and safety violations.
Rights for undocumented workers, Mexican workers, have come a long way; however, much work is yet to be done. In the small town of Watsonville, California, a seemingly small protest gained momentum and set a precedent for many more strikes to come. Because of my tia’s protests, Hispanics have been able to be a part of the local government and make a better life for themselves, just like they intended to do when migrating here. “My siblings helped me by continuing to work. I was on my own path, my own journey. We took care of each other, but this was something I needed to do. Era mi historia, mi decisión, nuestra oportunidad. Entré como trabajadora del campo, pero salí como trabajadora del gobierno. Yo no tenía límite.”
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “migrant labour”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 31 Aug. 2021,
https://www.britannica.com/topic/migrant-labour. Accessed 23 April 2022.
Team, WOW. “Cesar Chavez Timeline.” Cesar Chavez Timeline, https://castle.eiu.edu/wow/classes/fa06/cctimeline.html.
“The Farmworkers’ Movement.” Equal Justice Initiative, 11 Nov. 2019, https://eji.org/news/history-racial-injustice-farmworkers-movement/.
“Worksite Immigration Raids.” National Immigration Law Center, 2 June 2020, https://www.nilc.org/issues/workersrights/worksite-raids/.
Young, Julia. “Mexican Immigration to the United States: A Brief History.” Time, The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, 12 Mar. 2015, https://time.com/3742067/history-mexican-immigration/.