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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

Working as a bracero in the farmlands of California, Miguel had heard about the city, its crowded streets, its restaurants and its nightclubs.

Nearly a year after arriving in the United States, he was transferred to an orange-packing facility in a rural town that was close enough to make a weekend trip. At the bus station, Dinah Shore’s “Hit the Road to Dreamland” played on the radio while he ate pancakes and eggs over easy. He boarded the bus and found a seat next to the window. On the drive he fell asleep. A fellow bracero nudged him several times to show him the ocean but Miguel just opened his eyes for a moment and fell back asleep. As the bus got close to downtown, he awoke, straightened up, and pasted his face to the window.

The bus snaked through Chavez Ravine as Miguel got his first glimpse of City Hall in the distance. The white stone tower was the tallest building in town. He leaned forward in his seat, willing the bus to move faster. As the bus rumbled down Main Street, he felt that his eyes were not big enough. Crowds of people marched along the sidewalks while trolleys, buses maneuvered the streets, and cars honked and revved their engines. Cafes buzzed, with well-dressed men and women discussing what seemed to be important business.

The bus pulled into the Greyhound station and Miguel made his way through the streets. Along Broadway Street, windows displayed fashions he had only seen in movies. He began to count the theaters and imagined all he might see at The Palace, The Orpheum and The Million Dollar.

After walking for some time he reached City Hall, the building he had seen from the bus. He walked up the stairs and saw men in suits rushing in and out of the glass doors. He saw, too, his own reflection – a farm boy in work clothes. He turned and headed down the stairs and found a hotel facing City Hall offering rooms for two dollars a night. He sat on the twin bed and re-counted the money saved from his work in the farmlands of California.

He moved each bill from his hand onto the bed. He thought about the day he left his village in Mexico without saying goodbye to his father; the weeks he spent camping out at the Estadio Azteca with thousands of men in Mexico City waiting to be selected as a bracero; the day he first arrived by train in Colusa County to work the fields. Now, at nineteen and a year after entering the United States, he had finally arrived in Los Angeles, the city he had imagined.

Miguel hid most of the money in a sock and placed it in a jacket in the closet. He headed back to Broadway where he paid 35 cents for a full meal at a cafeteria called Clifton’s. He bought a navy blue suit, white shirt and tie at a shop nearby, and then headed to Plaza Olvera for a haircut and a shoeshine. There he asked the men at the barber shop where he could go to hear music. That night, he stood in front of the Paramount Ballroom in Boyle Heights.

The legendary club was built of brick in 1924, the year Miguel was born, and stood two stories tall near the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Mott Street. He looked up at the seven arched windows on the top floor that reflected moonlight and the shadows of people dancing. He walked through the large wooden door, climbed the stairs to the bar and ordered a coke.

Moving to the beat of the big band, he looked out on the dance floor below. A circle was forming around a short guy dancing the jitterbug. Women outnumbered men; the war was on and the men were away. Most of the men in the club were braceros like him who had come from Mexico to harvest crops. Too shy to dance, he watched from the bar all night until the place closed, and then returned to the hotel. He took the bus back to Fillmore on Sunday and told his buddies Roberto and Dionisio about his trip.

From then on, they would work in the fields all week, and go to the City for the weekend. They nicknamed Roberto City Hall because he was the tallest; Miguel was Huero because of his light complexion and blue-green eyes; Dionisio became Shorty.

In Los Angeles they met El Chiberico from Puerto Rico and Walla Walla, another bracero who had picked crops in Walla Walla, Washington and always talked about “Walla Walla this, Walla Walla that.” One night they also met Jorge, a local guy, who told them his mother had a garage for rent. The next week they abandoned their farm jobs and moved to the garage in East L.A.

On the way into the city, they passed the Hollywood Bowl and heard cheering and the drumming of Gene Krupa, the big band drummer who was later arrested for possession of marijuana. Miguel found a job as a busboy at the Trocadero on Sunset Boulevard through Jorge’s brother, who was a bartender there. The brother was a sharp dresser and gave Miguel rides to work in his Buick. Miguel’s friends found jobs, too. They worked all week to spend their money on dressing sharp and dancehalls.

Their first stop on Fridays was usually El Brasil where Miguelito Valdes sang “Babalu,” as the horn section wailed in the background and Valdes played the bongos. Next was La Bamba where Lalo Guerrero sang songs in Spanish and English. Guerrero asked Miguel one night why he was not off fighting in the war. He was from Mexico, Miguel said, and had come to the United States as a bracero to help the war effort working in the fields.

Miguel and his friends often ended the night watching a friend named Tony race his car against others on Broadway. Tony was a good-looking Mexican-American rebel with a notable limp. It was a crazy scene and police did not interfere, as the streets were free of traffic at 1 am.

Miguel switched jobs and worked at the Brown Derby restaurant. Then he worked room service at the Biltmore. One night, he got an order that the other room-service guys offered him money for. He declined their money and went himself. In the room was the world’s richest man, reclining in a chair while beautiful young women gave him a manicure, a pedicure, and a facial. Miguel wheeled in the order, arranged the food and was called over by the man’s assistant, who tipped him a dime.

“That is how the rich stay rich,” he thought. Downstairs, the workers wanted to know what happened; he told them.

On another delivery, a woman was getting out of the shower and asked him to pass her a towel. He was very shy about it, and got red faced when she called him a cutie. He passed her the towel and left quickly, but never forgot her.

Hotel work was more interesting than the fields. But he lived for the city’s nightlife. He saw Duke Ellington at the Million Dollar Theater. On the first note the crowd stood up cheered and never sat down again. At the Shrine Auditorium, he saw a battle of the bands between Benny Goodman and Harry James. He admired the Pachucas in sharp tailored dresses and dark lipstick but they wouldn’t dance with him because he was not a Pachuco. That didn’t matter. There were plenty of girls. One night after the Avalon closed Miguel walked out with seven girls and they went to eat tacos at a Mexican restaurant across the street from Chinatown.

Miguel learned English, mostly by watching films like “To Have and Have Not” with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. His English improved to the point where he translated for his buddies helping them get jobs, order food and anything else they needed. He picked his clothes carefully, striving to be the best dressed, and bought the best he could afford. A few times he was mistaken for a Hollywood actor.

Years before, as a teenager in the quiet hours of the morning while tending his crops, Miguel had imagined what life would be like beyond his village in Mexico. Now he was becoming an Angelino and he felt at home.

One spring morning in 1945 the streets awoke with people, cars, buses and trolleys. More than a year had passed since he had moved to the city. The war had ended weeks earlier and Miguel was walking downtown. He found himself in front of City Hall. The white stone gleamed. The tower of the building had impressed him since his first visit to Los Angeles. Now he again walked up the stairs to its entrance. Businessmen hurried in and out. He approached the glass doors and saw his reflection. He was a tall handsome man in a suit who had contributed to the war effort with his work in the fields. Yet he was no longer a farm boy.

He opened the door for the first time and walked inside.

____

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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