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By Celia Viramontes

Don Luis shivered in line at the snowy desert camp near Utah’s Great Salt Lake that winter of 1945. The icy wind pierced his thin shirt and pants, chilling his skin. Trains carrying war supplies rumbled throughout the railroad yard. Traqueros, track workers, hauled picks, poles, and shovels. He had never labored on the railroad, but he’d learn, earn money and return home at war’s end.

At the front of the line, officials distributed thick coats. Don Luis presented his contract to an official. Purchases would be deducted from his paycheck, the official informed him. Don Luis grabbed a long sheep skin coat. He stroked the warm lining, draped it over his shoulders, and headed towards the railroad tracks.

Two foremen and an interpreter gathered a crew of thirty men. Don Luis huddled with his paisanos, buddies from his village in Mexico. They donned work gloves the foreman furnished them. They were to remove old tracks and install new ones. The transport of soldiers and food depended on the maintenance of the rails, the interpreter explained. They were a vital part of the war effort.

It was the rallying cry Don Luis had heard back home: braceros – strong arms – needed in the United States.

At the start of the war, his brother had labored as a bracero via the Mexican Emergency Farm Labor program. There’s much work here picking beets and tomatoes, his brother wrote in letters from California. So Don Luis enlisted too and traveled to a recruitment center near his village, leaving behind his wife and two young children.

At the contracting center in Querétaro, railroad representatives waited while U.S health officials probed his eyes, ears, hands and arms. He’d signed and received an identification card – Railroad Track Labor Only inscribed at the top. He clutched the documents in his hands and followed the hundreds of braceros boarding the Mexican Railways for the trip north.

Now, weeks later, he lugged rail equipment to repair the tracks that crisscrossed the Utah desert by Lakeside, near Salt Lake City. He and the crew cleared the tracks of debris and shoveled gravel. They ripped up the worn tracks, lifted the corroded railroad ties with tongs and dug out ballasts. He was careful to not puncture his hands, but by mid-day, the gloves were riddled with holes. He slipped on new ones, and ripped them again.

At sundown, Don Luis and the men hauled shovels over their shoulders and trekked back to camp for a meal at the mess hall. Tomorrow, they’d put in another 12-hour day.

In time, Don Luis’ crew grew to include a tall, white fellow – though not American – who assisted in laying the tracks, and an American electrician who spoke no Spanish. They resorted to hand signals, pointing to the tongs, wrenches, and jacks as Don Luis and his buddies set new railroad ties, driving down spikes with a sledgehammer. The electrician drilled holes through rails. Don Luis inserted and fastened bolts. He and the crew replaced ballasts.

At sunset, Don Luis removed his perforated gloves and headed back to camp. Oil dripped onto his shirt and pants. It ran through his fingers, thick like the honey forming inside a honeycomb back in his village. He relished licking the sweet, sticky food off his fingers. Now, in this war-time bracero camp, there were few sweets, for sugar was rationed.

He removed his pants and headed to the washer. He opened the spigot, splashed hot water onto the greased pants and poured soap. Then picked up a wooden stick and stirred. But the stubborn grease and grime remained, so he wore them a second, third, and fourth time.

After two weeks, his paycheck came with deductions for the sheep skin coat and his room and board. But he’d earned enough to buy new clothes. The rest he’d send home.

On Sunday, he and fellow braceros rested on their cots, wondering what lay beyond the desert tracks.

The train will take you into town, the foreman explained, handing Don Luis and his buddies a pass and small railroad company buttons. Don Luis pinned it on his shirt pocket and boarded the train.

It rumbled across a trestle bridge near the Great Salt Lake. El Lago Salado. Don Luis marveled at the briny water with no outlet – so unlike the creeks back home that flowed into a gushing river.

The train pulled into the Ogden depot. Women, men, and children streamed in and out of the station. Troops in town exited train cars. The sounds of English reverberated throughout.

He and his buddies walked into town. At a men’s store, shirts, pants, and overalls hung on racks and storefront windows. Don Luis patted the coins and the check inside his greased pocket and entered. He grabbed a shirt and a smooth pair of pants.

“Cuánto, Señor?” he asked the salesperson. But the man stared in silence. Then finally spoke in the same hurried English sounds that filled the train depot.

Don Luis pointed to the merchandise, placing several coins on the counter. The man took them. Don Luis carried his new purchases back to camp that day, unsure of their cost.

That evening he lay on his cot. Inside the room, a radio played country music. Braceros scanned the dial until the familiar sounds of a ranchera streamed from the speakers. Don Luis reminisced. How was the baby? And when the oldest asked, “Where is my Papá?” he contemplated his wife’s reply:

“Tu Papá está en Estados Unidos. No tarda en regresar.” “Your father is in the United States. He won’t be long in returning home.”

But braceros murmured late at night. Some fellow villagers, ill or injured, hadn’t returned after a stint on other U.S railroads. Wives and mothers had implored officials in both countries, eager to learn the fate that had awaited their husbands and sons in El Norte.

Still, Don Luis and his buddies toiled where Chinese and Irish laborers once had. Nearly a century ago, they had leveled roadbeds and blasted mountainsides in the Sierra Nevada and helped build the U.S transcontinental railroad where the Central and Union Pacific connected east to west.

When the roaring trains had quieted, Don Luis gathered pen and paper. Dear family, he began. I am well, and working on the railroad. How is everyone? Please write me. He remembered to write Section 97, his worksite, on the mailing envelope.

Winter gave way to spring, followed by summer. Don Luis worked, ventured into town on Sundays, and sent money home.

One day, the foreman approached him. He’d been re-assigned to other duties.

In subsequent days, Don Luis positioned himself miles away from the crew, as instructed. In the distance, his section gang crouched near the tracks, their bodies on the line, grease flowing like honey and spilling onto their overalls and pants. He visualized his paisanos, the American foreman and the interpreter, the towering white fellow and electrician who communicated in hand signals – all together now, arms and hands setting down rails and ties.

The earth rumbled beneath his feet. He recalled the foreman’s directive.

He readied the small device filled with detonating powder – a torpedo, the foreman had called it. He bent towards the tracks and strapped it to the top of the rail. Up ahead, the train lurched. Its wheels clattered near the flagging zone, then spun over the torpedo, emitting a loud bang. The driver slowed the train, circumventing the track workers. Don Luis sighed.

He stationed himself at the zone each day, flagging oncoming trains, his distant gaze fixed on his section gang.

One August day, the foreman gathered the men. Don Luis watched his lips move with excitement. An interpreter stood by.

Muchachos,” he began, “the war has ended.”

On his next visit to Ogden, he witnessed trains roar into the depot with returning soldiers, a family awaiting each of them. Some exited on crutches. A child rushed to a man’s embrace; a woman caressed his face.

Outside, U.S flags waved from business rooftops. Men and women tucked newspapers into their forearms – Peace and Victory splashed across headlines. He needed no translation for these and other words he’d acquired: check, depot, torpedo, letter, tracks, home.

The war was over. So was his work contract. Amid the swaying flags and victory chants, he reveled in a quiet joy that soon he’d be home.

But the rolling stock and railroad equipment would come slowly. In Idaho and California, beet workers and other agricultural braceros needed transport too. Repatriation would begin with them.

Autumn turned to winter. Don Luis arose at dawn, labored on the tracks and retired to camp at dusk. On Sundays, he ventured into town. Victory celebrations had come and gone. Fathers now strolled down sidewalks with their children.

But at night, by the dim light inside a bracero camp, he’d still write, “Dear family,” to begin each letter.

Then the chilly air abated. Spring was on its way.

In the distance, a whistle blew. A train rumbled into camp, its wheels clanking against new tracks.

Don Luis looked out on the railroad yard. Gone was the snow that had greeted him more than a year before. The children must be grown, he reckoned. The baby was now walking alongside his brother. He’d look for tracks of their small feet on the dirt road leading to their adobe home.

He unpinned the railroad company button on his shirt, packed his sheep skin coat and pants. Maybe this train would deliver him home.

___

Celia Viramontes was born and raised in East Los Angeles, California, the youngest daughter of Mexican immigrant parents. Her public policy research on immigration and education has been published in numerous academic journals and books. Through writing, she delves into the often untold stories of immigrant communities, their aspirations and struggles.
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By Olivia Segura

[dropcap1]T[/dropcap1]he wooden mess hall was filled with the warm smells of coffee, eggs and bacon. Over 300 workers from Mexico filled up on breakfast for the long day of harvest. The bell rang. They grabbed their sack lunches and jumped onto trucks that took them to the almond and plum fields.

Miguel had arrived at the labor camp in May, a month prior to his 18th birthday. A year before, news filled his village in Mexico about the agreement between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mexican President Miguel Avila Camacho to bring Mexican workers north to rescue U.S. crops from spoiling during World War II.

With a handshake, Miguel pre-sold thirteen bushels of wheat for thirteen silver coins from his father’s farm and ran away from home. He got to Mexico City and camped out at the Estadio Azteca coliseum with thousands of men waiting to be selected to become Braceros, farm workers sent north to help save the crops and feed millions of U.S. soldiers. Weeks later, he was put on a train with hundreds of men headed north. They arrived in El Paso, Texas switched to U.S. trains escorted by the Air Force and continued to California.

He arrived in the town of Colusa in 1943. That year Mexico sent 64,000 men to help the United States. As newspapers in New York and Los Angeles ran headlines of the war — “Allies Reach Palermo” and “Germans Fight to Stave Off Doom” – out in Colusa the local papers reported daily on the Braceros’ progress:

“170 Mexicans Here by Friday” and “Mexican Labor Pours into Colusa, 650 in Sight.”

Colusa County built housing at the fairgrounds to welcome the men. With retired Army Captain Herbert in charge of the Growers Association Labor Camp, the men learned army protocol. Years later, Miguel would still make his bed military style and talk about how he and the other Braceros served as soldiers in the war effort.

The day Miguel received his first paycheck he walked out to the road. Within fifty feet of the camp’s gates a man stopped to pick him up. No bracero, he learned, ever spent much time walking on the main road without someone offering a lift. Miguel and the driver greeted each other. Neither spoke the other’s language, so they sat, smiled and nodded. The man dropped him off in town.

On Market Street, the local newspaper snapped photos of the Braceros. “These young and swarthy Mexican huskies have just been fitted at the J.C. Penney company store, healthy enthusiastic and ready to go,” read one caption.

Miguel walked into a store and with the help of gestures to a sales person he bought underwear, socks, shoes, a shirt, a hat and his first pair of Levis. He put the clothes on in the store. He smiled at his new look, gave the cashier five dollars and got change in return. He threw out his worn clothes and walked on to Market Street.

Miguel was full of hope and proud of his decision to leave home. But the work on the fields was rough.

In August, three months after their arrival, his group was sent to a field covered with trees bent under the weight of almonds begging to be picked. He and the others put their lunch sacks aside and placed large tarps under the trees. Miguel picked up a rubber sledgehammer and hit the tree trunk. Almonds stormed down like hail. Workers scooped them off the tarp and packed them into metal bins.

They moved row by row as the sun beat down.

The heat reached over 100 degrees when the whistle blew at noon. The men grabbed their lunch sacks and sought shade under the trees. Miguel pulled out an apple and admired it before taking a bite. He had never seen such a huge apple. Next he began to eat the sandwiches. They tasted odd, so he did not finish them. The break ended and the men returned to harvesting the burdened trees.

Two hours passed. As he worked the sun pierced his eyes and he began to feel light headed. Now cold sweat ran down his face. His stomach cramped and the ground beneath his feet turned rubbery. He looked out to the field. All over men held their stomachs. Others bent over vomiting and some sprawled on the ground.

The foreman ran back and forth yelling orders. Miguel was pushed into a truck full of sick, disoriented men. As they moved through the roads he fought the urge to vomit. Every bump and turn felt like a kick. He heard the blaring sirens and the roar of passing trucks. He tried desperately not to lose control.Image for Story

That day 105 braceros took violently ill in the fields and packed the two hospitals in Colusa County.

Men were treated on the floor of every corridor, x-ray room, waiting room, and ward of the rural hospitals. Only two doctors were on duty. The nurses, Red Cross and town volunteers joined to help the men. A handful of locals spoke Spanish and ran from patient to patient interpreting for the medical staff.

The sound of his thumping heart filled Miguel’s ears. He was able to walk and moved through this chaos. He did not understand. He left home, went hungry and homeless to get to the United States. When he registered in Mexico City he was told that he would be serving his patriotic duty saving crops to fight the enemies of the Americas. Now he and his compatriots were poisoned. He found an open door and ran.

Years later, he would not remember how he traveled miles to a nearby camp. But he found a shower and opened the cold valve. The water felt like a storm. He stood there washing the toxins from his body in a panic. The room grew dark as the sun went down. Still, he stayed in the shower, and went in and out of delirium for hours.

Then a voice.

“Son, are you okay?”

A grower took him back to the main labor camp. When they arrived Miguel saw men congregating in front of the mess hall as police and county officials investigated. Those in charge only spoke English.

The braceros understood very little. They talked among themselves trying to make sense of the situation. Some talked about deserting and going back to Mexico. Miguel learned one of the men from his home state had died. He heard of others near death.

Officers escorted Asian mess hall workers to waiting police cars. Rumors spread that the workers were Japanese and had intentionally poised the Mexicans to sabotage the War Food Program. Over a third of the men were in the hospital. Those at the camp refused to eat and did not sleep much that evening.

In the newspaper the next day, the headline “U.S. Forces Raid Japan” shared space with “105 Mexicans Victims Food Poisoned.”

This was Colusa’s first large emergency. State and federal representatives investigated the cause of the poisoning. The official statement was that the outbreak was due to excessive heat combined with a lack of refrigeration for the hundreds of lunches served.

The Mexican government sent a representative to address the fears of the Braceros and ease tensions between the growers and workers.

The California Department of Public Health recommended an immediate change in food distribution to laborers. No deaths were officially reported but Miguel never saw his paisano again and the Asian workers never returned.

In the days that followed, announcements in the papers urged the community to volunteer. The mass food poisoning had depleted the harvest crews. There was no time to lose. The plums were ripening fast and would spoil. The growers had been counting on the Mexicans to rescue the crops, but many of the workers were still recovering. Townspeople turned out to run the dehydrators and drying yards to produce prunes out of the fruit.

Captain Herbert assigned Miguel to the plum fields. Layers of scattered fruit and branches covered the fields. Strong winds had blown much of the fruit to the ground.

Still weak from the food poisoning, Miguel knelt slowly and began picking up each piece of fallen fruit and placing it gently in the bin. Into the night, he and the other able-bodied Mexicans harvested the fruit.

And so, with their work, as they’d promised, the braceros saved the crops in Colusa.

____

 

Olivia Segura was born in San Jose, California to immigrant parents from Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and lived, studied and worked in Mexico City for several years. She took the TYTT workshop to begin documenting her father’s life.
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True Tales

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By Celia Viramontes*

The train screeched to a halt in Empalme, Sonora. Don Luis adjusted his wide-brimmed sombrero over his head and clutched his small bag tightly to his chest. It carried the barest essentials: one change of clothes, including a thin shirt and a pair of pants for the journey that lay ahead.

outpics1He dipped his hand into a pocket and retrieved the identity documents he’d need to be contracted as a bracero. The men filed out of their seats, adjusting their norteño hats. Empalme represented one more stop along their journey –a junction, as its name in Spanish implies, a temporary way-station en route to El Norte.

Men sat cross-legged, others propped themselves against each other, their hats slumped over their faces, shielding them from the Sonoran heat. Lines of aspiring braceros snaked around the station. They shuffled their feet, kicking up dust, waiting for the bracero list from their home state regions to be called.

The loudspeakers above the station crackled for a few seconds. Braceros perked their ears, standing at attention. The contracting was finished for the day.

Don Luis, joined by two paisanos from his home village,dug his hand into a pocket. Against his coarse fingers, he felt the smooth round pesos inside the lining of his pants. His buddies did the same. Put together, this would buy them arroz y frijoles at the food stand.

¿Y ahora, qué?” And now, what? He turned to ask his buddies, as sunset neared. He wiped sweat off his forehead.

They joined the throngs of men leaving the station in search of shelter. Dust coated their shoes and sandals.

By evening, Don Luis and his paisanos walked the neighborhoods of Empalme. Men, women, and children spilled from their homes. They lounged in their front yards, scantily dressed in thin shorts and t-shirts.

Un peso,” a man in shorts said to them, as he walked across his small yard. “¿Cuántos?” he asked, leading them into his house. How many?

“Tres,” Don Luis was about to say. But by then, ten braceros gathered at the door. They each drew into their shirt pocket, pants, or bag. One peso per bracero. The man led them indoors, as Don Luis and his paisanos laid cardboard slats on the ground. For a peso each, he furnished them with a piece of floor. It beat sleeping on the hot Empalme roads, nakedly exposed to passers-by.

The men laid the cardboard in neat rows. Don Luis laid his back on the cardboard. Its hard edges rubbed his spine. He lay next to his buddy. He wanted nothing more than to sleep and dream. It must be two in the morning now. He licked beads of sweat off his lips, salty like the rest of his body.

Salty like the lake next to the railroad tracks that he remembered from his first stint as a bracero. Destination: Salt Lake City in Utah. Los Estados Unidos had asked for brazos, arms to be put to work in the fields and on the tracks during the war. Those first braceros had boarded the train flashing the “V” for victory sign. Some had returned in ’43 and ’44, wearing jeans and belt buckles, and their wallets a little fatter.

So he’d followed their lead and boarded a train in Mexico and a bus at the U.S-Mexico border bound for Utah. The bus made a final stop in Reno, Nevada, where he’d slept two nights in barracks before arriving at the snowy bracero camp. Don Luis and the men shivered in their thin shirts. To battle the cold, he purchased a sheep-skin coat that ran down the length of his pants. With it, he survived the cold blasts working on the railroad tracks.

Now, he yearned for even a driblet of that icy wind to extinguish the heat radiating from his body. It never came, and neither did the sleep.

At dawn, the men rose from their cardboard beds and headed to the contracting station. A swarm of braceros paced back and forth. They waited. And waited some more.

The hunger pangs were not long in coming. Don Luis dipped into his pant pocket.

Ni un cinco,” he said. Not a nickel.

They left the station and soon found themselves on a street on the outskirts of Empalme. A man summoned them over. He stood outside his yard pointing to trash cans on the side of his home, a water hose, and a littered sidewalk.

“Clean the debris and trash from the sidewalk. Use a water hose to wash it all out. Just be sure to not splatter too much mud.”

They worked through the hollow in their stomachs. When all was done, they had earned a few pesos each and a meal for the day.

That night, it was back to the cama de cartón. Don Luis rested his head and body, in search of sleep. But it wouldn’t come, just like the work contract that hadn’t come today.images

At dawn, a smaller number of braceros congregated outside the contracting station. Loudspeakers blared out names. For the unlucky, it was the call to surrender. Holding their small bags at their sides, braceros trudged back to the depot and a trip back to their village or some other place to try their luck.

Don Luis watched them go. They boarded just as they had arrived: with small bags tucked under their arms, sombreros atop their heads. But bowed lower this time.

Just then a fleet of buses circled the station and pulled into the depot. Brakes screeched. Doors opened wide. The men filed out of the bus, some carrying boxes.

Don Luis walked towards the bustling crowd. Suddenly, he spotted a familiar face. A voice drew near, as a hand, calloused just like his, reached for a handshake. It was a good friend. He carried bags.

“I’ve been all over,” he said.

The man began to rattle off all the places he’d been, all the things he’d seen. Don Luis stopped him short.

Mire, no me platique tanto. No hemos comido. Denos algo.” Look, don’t rattle off so much. We haven’t eaten. Give us something.

The paisano reached into his pocket, and dropped several pesos into Don Luis’ hands. He put his arm over his shoulder. Then he gathered his belongings and headed towards the buses departing south.

Don Luis took the money. The aroma of rice and beans from the food stand beckoned him. For the first time in a long time coins clinked in his pocket, weighing down his pants. The money carried them through another three days.

He and his buddies waited each day at the contracting station. The coins in his pockets dwindled. And then the loudspeakers crackled.

Ya salió la lista!” At last, the list of braceros.

Outside, Don Luis played with the few remaining coins in his pocket, turning them over and over in his fingers.

He hadn’t yet stepped inside the contracting station, but already, his mind was churning. If he was lucky enough to get a three-month contract, he’d walk into a money order station and send almost all his money home. With a six-month extension on that contract, he’d buy cloth for his wife and the girls to order tailor-made dresses. He’d get shirts and pants for the boys.

And if the dollars stretched far enough, he’d buy a battery-powered radio for his family. It would be one of the few in his village back home without electricity. He’d package it all with great care and tie it with twine inside a sturdy brown cardboard box.

___

Celia Viramontes was born and raised in Los Angeles. This story was taken from the book, Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles, which grew from writing workshops given by Sam Quinones at East Los Angeles Library. Contact her at oclaa@yahoo.com
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