Monday, June 12, 2006

Chat over some beers

Tonight, I decided to talk to a long-time migrant friend of mine who came to the Migrant Head Start training. He now works as a bus driver for the program during the summer. Back home, he also works as a bus driver for the Head Start program under the Texas Migrant Council. Due to some family ties, I've known him for almost two decades. We call him Soto, although that's not his real name. He got his nickname because he came from Soto La Marina, Tamaulipas in Mexico. He has been coming up north for a long time already. Now, he has a family with a son at UT Austin and two lovely daughters who are about to bloom into their adulthoods. Today was his first day in Oshkosh before the long week of really boring training for him, my second. So, we went to have a couple beers to console ourselves over our ill-fate.
Just to give you an idea of who he is, Soto is one of the hard-working Mexicans who came to the U.S. to make a better life for himself. He has done everything by the book immigration-wise. To sum it up, let's say that he has a good head on his shoulders these days. When he first started, Soto worked with my family in the fields in Wisconsin. One thing about migrants is that we tend to travel in packs. If one person goes north to work, a brother, a sister, a brother-in-law, an aunt, a cousin, or a friend will tag along. This is especially true if there is guaranteed work and lodging. Back then, Soto had just married into the family. Until recent years when he joined the Head Start program, he and his family worked in the fields. For the most part, they have come to the Wautoma, Wisconsin area for work in the pickle harvest. This is all field work. His children have had the opportunity to work in the fields alongside their parents. 
I asked Soto if he ever ventured to other parts of the country for work. He told me tonight that he did venture to Minnesota and North Dakota a little. There is plenty of work out there. He was telling me that you run into Mexicans like you were in the RGV. The only problem is that there is no housing out in those areas. They worked there for a brief period. They decided to leave because of the lack of housing. After working all day, they had to sleep in their vehicles. Given the difficulties, they decided to go back to the Wautoma area, where they knew there was housing available for migrants. Once, they ventured into Indiana, out by Kokomo and Marion. The same thing happened, the whole experience was a hardship for them because they had no social network to help them make the trip successful. As a result, they have preferred to come to Wisconsin to work because of the extensive network of family, other migrants, social services like UMOS, and other intangibles that make it easier to get by. 
I asked him why he still migrates after all these years. He thought it was funny I would ask, but he told me anyway. First and foremost, the weather is much better in Wisconsin during the summer than it is back in the RGV. One summer, he stayed in the RGV because his family got a house through the Mission Service Project, which will build you a home if you agree to work for them to build about 16 other homes. It's a self-perpetuating housing project. He toughed out the summer, but he knew he'd never stay another. Another reason for coming up north to work is that it's a break in the routine. He likes the change of pace. Even though he and his family come here to work, they see it as a sort of vacation from everything back in the Rio Grande Valley. Like he says, "hay mucho pedo alla en el valle". There are too many bad things going on in the RGV compared to up north.  Up here, he feels like he gets away from all the bad news. The third reason why he still migrates is that his family doesn't work in the RGV. This is due to the same problem of there being plenty of work, but low wages. They would rather work hard a few months to make a lot of money, by their standards, than work all year to scrape by. Another reason why they still migrate after so many years is due to custom. They've done it for so long that it's just something they do. It works, so why change?
We chatted about some other things. We hadn't talked in a while, so we were catching up on some stuff. I remember working side-by-side with him in the fields when I was a kid. We also traveled up here and worked at different camps, getting together on weekends for family gatherings. Now that he has found something that pays the bills without backbreaking labor, I'm glad for him. I think that he saw being a bus driver as a way out of working in the fields; yet here he is, in his way, helping other migrants doing what he did for so many years. There is a sense, amongst many of the employees of the Migrant Head Start program, of giving back to the migrant community. Many of the teachers, teaching assistants, child development coordinators, and other Head Start workers are former migrants, or have family with them who are still working the fields. There is an empathetic connection between the Head Start workers and the people who benefit from the service. It's nice to see that the whole program is not an academic exercise for the employees. We do have a few non-Hispanics in the crew who have never experienced the migrant life, but they seem to shrug off the weirdness and do their job.
Well, I have to go to bed. Tomorrow, the CEO of UMOS will be speaking to us. Also, if I stay up late, it will be that much more difficult to stay awake during those boring training sessions. I can't get enough coffee or energy drinks to help fight the sleepiness, it seems. The irony is that we are being taught to make learning fun and engaging for children while we are being bored to tears. A little practice what you preach is in order, in my opinion.
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