Blackfoot, Idaho, 1909, photo courtesy American Memory
THE MEXICAN EXPERIENCE IN IDAHO
When present scenes have passed away,/And youth’s bright days have flown,/Do not forget these sincere words,--/“Amiga de mi corazón.”/When other lips repeat thy name/With soft and tender tone,/Remember how I love that sound--/”Amiga de mi corazón.”/Or when lamenting o’er some grief/In silence and alone,/Remember thou’lt be then as now--/”Amiga de mi corazón.” Anonymous poem in the Idaho City Boise News, March 21, 1864
There is very little known about the state of Idaho. Some people don't know that Idaho has produced cultivated and notable people. For instance, Philo Taylor Farnsworth invented the television in Rigby, Idaho, in the 1930s; many years later, in 1956, he would present the original television tubes to Rigby High School. The rock group Paul Revere and the Raiders also hailed from Idaho in the Boise area. Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls in Ketchum, Idaho. Another writer, Ezra Pound, was born in Idaho, and Edgar Rice Burroughs—the creator of Tarzan—was a part-time resident of Pocatello. One should also remember that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbed the Montpelier bank in Southeast Idaho. Finally, Idaho’s greatest writer, Vardis Fisher, was born in Annis and went to high school in Rigby; the character of Jeremiah Johnston was taken from his book Mountain Man. Furthermore, Gutzon Borglum—Mt. Rushmore’s sculptor—was born in Idaho as well as the great Sacajawea who guided Lewis and Clark through Idaho and to the Pacific Ocean. Many years later, Chief Joseph would become famous for his valiant defense of his Idaho homeland against a much superior U.S. army. Idaho also had two famous senators--William E. Borah, who supported the income tax, labor legislation, and the direct election of senators and who had Idaho's tallest peak named after him; and Frank Church who had the Salmon River area named after him. Finally, when mentioning Idaho, how can one forget the Craters of the Moon National Monument, Shoshone Falls—deeper than Niagara Falls at 212 ft—and Hell’s Canyon of the Snake River, which is the deepest gorge in North America.
But the fact remains that few people have heard of Idaho. Usually when somebody asks me where I'm from and I say "Idaho," they ask me "What part of Iowa are you from?" And if that were not enough, there is even less know about the Mexican experience in Idaho. In my research on my home state, I have found very little written about Mexicans and Mexican Americans -- my ethnic group. In a sense, this is an advantage to me because I can now become somewhat of an authority on this subject.
The Mexican and Hispanic experience in Idaho goes back to the early 1800s. As early as 1810, Manuel Lisa, a Spaniard who co-headed the Missouri Fur Company with Andrew Henry, was the first known Hispanic to take a serious interest in present-day Idaho. Andrew Henry actually trapped along the upper Snake River Valley and established a trading post there: Fort Henry, the first in southern Idaho and the second in the whole state. Later, Hispanics came to Idaho from New Mexico to work in the state. The influx of Hispanic migration to the state continued when gold was discovered in Northern Idaho sparking the great Idaho gold rushes of the 1860s.
Place names, such as Orofino and Orofino Creek were named by the miners who came to the Idaho gold rush in 1860 after they had depleted many of the mines in California. Gold was first discovered on September 30th of that year at Orofino Creek, a tributary of the Clearwater River, by Captain Elias D. Pierce, a miner who had already searched for gold in British Columbia and California. Although an Easterner by birth, he had become acculturated to Western life. Thus, the floodgates were now open for immigrants from all over the world to work the mines of northern Idaho. Mexicans, who were profoundly experienced in working the mines, were hired to carry supplies to the mines on burros and mules, which were the best means of transportation at the time.
These Mexican packers worked throughout the mining areas of Idaho, including Orofino. Orofino was originally spelled with two words, Oro Fino, which is Spanish for "fine gold". The original town was located about twenty miles east of present-day Orofino. In 1861, it had several stores, butcher shops, and many saloons. The population in Oro Fino at that time was about 500 people, mostly miners. In tradition with the Spanish naming of the town, there was even a hotel named Hotel de Idaho, which is Spanish for Hotel Idaho. But the gold rush did not last long, and by 1868, the town was abandoned and had deteriorated into one of the numerous ghost towns in the Idaho territory. But the Mexican miners looked for opportunities elsewhere. By 1870, these Mexican miners had moved south to Idaho City where they worked the placers in the mountains.
There is another place name in Idaho which was called Alturas County—one of the original seven counties of the state created in 1864—and which has now broken up into smaller counties in central Idaho. But there still remains a lake in the area in Northwestern Blaine County which is called Alturas Lake. There was once a mining town named Alturas, near the lake, but all that remains of it is a ghost town. There was also an Alturas City in Elmore County, which was a part of Alturas County, but that town has also joined the ranks of Idaho ghost towns. The name Alturas is Spanish for "heights" or "high country" and, no doubt, referred to the mountainous terrain in central Idaho. The county seat of Alturas was Esmeralda—located near Featherville on the south fork of the Boise River—another Spanish name which means "emerald". The county and county seat operated from 1864 to 1896, the year in which it broke up into smaller counties. Esmeralda is also another one of the many Idaho ghost towns that are just vestiges of the great mining establishments of the distant past.
The gold rush also encouraged the growth of other Idaho cities. Lewiston, Idaho's "port city" at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers, also boasted a grand hotel named the Luna House, no doubt named after the moon or Spanish surname referring to the moon. Boise also flourished partially to the growth of mining. In Boise, there were a large group of Mexicans residing there. Their barrio was known as Spanish Town and stood as late as 1972 when a fire destroyed a large section of the barrio. This part of town was also called Urguides Little Village, named after Jesús Urguides, a pioneer packer from San Francisco, and was located just behind First and Main Streets.
One can only assume that the names Alturas, Oro Grande, and Oro Fino came from California and were probably brought by Mexican miners or Anglo miners who were acquainted with the Spanish language of California mining, Oro Fino being a common name for California mining towns. It is important to mention that mining in the United States owes a great deal to Mexicans. Mexicans brought mining methods to the United States. After all, mining methods had been refined in Mexico due to the centuries of mining beginning in the 16th Century when silver and gold were mined in New Spain. As early as 1565, a process was developed in New Spain to extract silver from the quarries with the aid of mercury. The first course in mineralogy was established in Mexico City in 1794. Also, in 1802, the Mexican mineralogist Andrés del Río discovered vanadium. Consequently, much of the mining terminology in the United States was derived from the Spanish language: placer, oro fino, hacienda (a smelter), etc.
The Mexicans were also needed as cowboys to work in southern Idaho. In the 1870s, they came to work in the ranches. Vaqueros such as Joseph Amera and Guadalupe Vález had large herds of cattle in southern Idaho. One must remember that Mexicans gave the English language much of the terminology adopted by cowboys. Words such as mustang (mesteño), mesquite, chaparral, lariat (la reata), lasso (lazo), cavyard (caballada), buckaroo (vaquero), stampede (estampida), calaboose (calabozo), vamoose (vamos), mesa, canyon, rodeo, corral, loco, hoosegow (juzgado), etc., were all taken from the Spanish.
Amando Álvarez and brother Paul, posing for picture after their First Communion; Blackfoot, Idaho; May, 1960. Photo courtesy of the author.
The Mormons Come to Idaho
There were several stages of Mormon settlements in Idaho. The first one was in Lemhi , near Salmon, but had to be abandoned in 1858 due to Indian raids. Another Mormon settlement in Idaho was by "sheer accident". The Mormons came to southern Idaho from the Salt Lake City area due to the occupation of Johnston’s army in Salt Lake City and before the northern part of Idaho was populated by miners (These two groups--miners and Mormons--were so different that northern and southern Idaho are distinct largely due to these two groups). On April 14, 1860, the Mormons built a town they believed was still in Utah and named it Franklin, after one of their leaders. It wasn't until the 1870s after a government survey was conducted that they realized the town was in Idaho Territory, thus making it the first town founded in the state. Other settlements took place in 1863, 1873, and 1879. But immigration to Southeast Idaho did not begin in earnest until the 1880s, and according to the Blackfoot News of December 15, 1900, the Mormons built their first church in Blackfoot on Sunday, December 9, 1900. This was years before the Catholics built St. Bernard’s Parish and St. Margaret’s Catholic Elementary School (built in 1919). By the time the Mexican immigrants came to Southeast Idaho, the Mormons were already firmly established there.
I remember the Mormons when we came to Idaho in the mid-50s. They welcomed us with open arms because they thought we were the chosen people due to our our Indian ancestry. The Book of Mormon asserts that the Indians are descendants of the Lamanites who were descendants of one of the tribes of Israel. The Lamanites were cursed with dark skin for disobeying God's laws. Thus, they were damned to endlessly wear dark skin as a sign of the "curse." But God works in mysterious, forgiving ways and the Indians are now considered the chosen people--an interesting flip-flop in Mormon theology. Thus, Mexicans and Indians are favored by the Mormons.
As soon as our family arrived in Blackfoot from Caldwell, the Mormons were at our doorstep. You see, they are fervent missionaries who believe that it is everyone's duty to preach the gospel AND the tenets of the Book of Mormon. Everyone is expected to go on a mission in their younger years and it is hoped that they also go on a second mission after they retire, in their older years. I remember the missionaries coming to our house to teach us about their church. But my father, who was a staunch Catholic, refused to have anything to do with a new religion, much to the gratitude and blessing of the local Catholic priest and the Pope in Rome. But other Mexican families fell prey to the Mormons who comprised over 80% of the population in the Snake River Valley of Southeast Idaho. There was one particular family, the L-------s, who converted to Mormonism and was quickly ostracized by the Mexican community. This family was shunned by all of us and was accused of being vendidos who sold out to a foreign culture. The L------s quickly got assistance from the Mormons in the way of food and clothing. Their situation was very similar to a POW giving in to enemy demands: the traitor is shunned by fellow prisoners and eventually court-martialed and shot. Although we were not that extreme, social and cultural peer pressure was intense. The family eventually returned "to the fold" and saw the error in their ways. Right or wrong, this was the "Mexican way" in the 1950s.
Álvarez family picture. Left to right: Tony, Debbie, Tina, Cathy, Carlos, Valerie, and Antonio. Blackfoot; circa 1971. Photo courtesy of the author.
When our family arrived in Blackfoot in 1955, the town was already 77 years old. It was founded in 1878 to provide a station for the railroad. Some people may argue that the town was founded earlier, but it wasn't much of a town, then, where trappers, traders, and miners made camp near the Cottonwood trees, thus first calling it Grove City. The town was founded on the location of the homesteads of W.M. Lewis and Watson N. Shilling, near the current intersection of Bridge and Broadway. It was a wild town when it was founded and was run by the cowboys of the area who did pretty much what they wanted in their town. The town got its first newspaper--The Blackfoot Register--on July 10, 1880, which was published by William Wheeler. In its first issue, the newspaper boasted of the benefits of the town and the surrounding area, which had "rich loamy soil for agricultural purposes", that could be irrigated from the Blackfoot River. The paper also predicted that the town was going to be the end of a passenger division of the Utah and Northern Railroad, which would connect Ogden to Butte. Blackfoot actually became the principal supply point for the mines in Custer County, which were also discovered in 1880. The paper also mentioned the ferry boat that transported passengers across the Snake River and it mentioned its proximity to the Oregon Trail. The town boasted of four first class general merchandise stores, a jewelry store, a livery stable, four saloons and the Keeney House--its hotel--, a restaurant, a meat market, two blacksmith shops, a barber shop, a lumberyard, etc. If anybody got sick, there was a physician/surgeon, but there was no lawyer if somebody got in trouble with the law. Finally, the advertisement ended with the promise that the town was "as desirable a place to live in as any town of its size in the western country."
But in 1955, I still sensed the Old West nature of the town. One of our neighbors (who was surely in her 80's) would sit us down and captivate us with stories about her life as a little girl in Blackfoot and how she would see outlaws ride their horses through the streets of the small, wild town doing damned near anything they pleased. My calculation was that this must have been around 1885-1890. Her descriptions of the town were not much different than the descriptions of the wild, untamed small Mexican towns that my father would describe for us about his childhood in the "Old Country" of the 1910s and early 1920s.
I also remember the Indians, who came from Fort Hall, in their Indian outfits and their braided hair. Blackfoot was indeed a strange mixture of cultural diversity, with the Indians, Mexicans, and white Mormons living side by side. I was especially struck by the Indians and their colorful outfits and "strange" language. I don't see as much Indian traditional activity anymore except for the pow wows and Indian dances at the Eastern Idaho State Fair. It is sad to see these traditions slowly disappearing. Indians have lost most of their land to white people and I hope they don't lose their traditions which is all they have left in their rich history.
The next important chapter in the Mexican experience in Idaho was a result of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The Mexican Revolution displaced many Mexicans and was the cause of the influx of many refugees to the United States, some of whom went to Idaho. But it was a dangerous time for Mexicans in Idaho. The anti-Mexican sentiment in Idaho increased on March 9, 1916 when Francisco "Pancho" Villa invaded the United States in Columbus, New Mexico. This event created a crisis, especially since there were 500 Mormon squatters in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, in the path of Villa's retreat from Columbus. Senator Borah (R) from Idaho urged the Senate to consider national readiness in case Villa's actions sparked a conflict. In Boise, citizens offered to "raise a regiment of cowboys from the Rocky Mountain states for immediate service in Mexico".8 Idaho's governor mobilized the National Guard. The Second Regiment left Boise on July 7, for Nogales, Arizona where they stayed to "protect" the Americans on both sides of the border.
It is interesting to note that although the Mormons in Mexico were Mexican citizens, they always considered themselves Americans. This peculiarity of Americans agreeing to emigrate to Mexico to become Mexicans in order to reap the benefits of the land--but never intending to make the transition in culture and loyalty--was not a new phenomenon . In the 1830s, one should remember Stephen and Moses Austin's settlements in Texas when Americans had promised to settle Texas in order to gain free land in exchange for becoming Mexican citizens and obeying Mexican laws. But history teaches us where their true loyalties lay. The local Idaho papers, such as the Pocatello Tribune, made no secret of their feelings towards Mexicans and called them "greasers" in their March, 1916, headlines. But, despite the discriminatory practices in Idaho, the Mexicans still came to the Northwest to evade the Mexican Revolution and its devastating effects.
Railroads and Boxcars
Álvarez family. Left to right: Carlos, Francisca, Lupe, Paul, Amando, and Antonio. Boxcar in Rising River; circa 1958. Photo courtesy of the author.
My brother-in-law's family, the Pérezes, were such immigrants. When the elder Pérez came to Idaho, he worked the Union Pacific railroads which were criss-crossing the state. These railroads had come to the state in the 1870's and 1880's with the Utah-Northern Railroad and the Oregon Short Line. Many towns were established at important crossroads as a result of the Utah-Northern Railroad which started at Ogden, Utah and was supposed to stop at Soda Springs, Idaho. But building continued northward and helped establish towns, such as Pocatello, Blackfoot, Taber, etc. The Oregon Short Line was also active in Eastern Idaho. By 1900, it had arrived in Rigby, Idaho. During this time of railroad building Mexicans worked in the Union Pacific Snake River Yards. The Union Pacific Railroad had been hiring Mexicans since the early 1920s to help build and repair the tracks criss-crossing the state.
The Mexican railroad workers were housed in old boxcars that were no longer useful to the railroads. Later, these boxcars were used to house agricultural Mexican workers who came to Idaho to work in the fields. My family lived in such boxcars. I remember living in these small makeshift homes. They were particularly uncomfortable in the winter when nights were extremely cold. Consuelo, my oldest sister would wake up early in the morning to relight the coal stove so that the boxcar would be sufficiently warm by morning for the rest of the family. My father, who was a carpenter in Mexico, would do his best to make the boxcar as comfortable as possible, but a boxcar is a boxcar. So, in order to make our lives more tolerable, he would tell us stories at night to entertain us.
His storytelling has stayed with me to this day and has helped me structure some of my stories with the wit that I have inherited from him. Unfortunately, television corrupted our lives. In the summer of 1957, as soon as my father had enough money to buy a television, he immediately went to Blackfoot to bring one home. He told my mother that he intended to buy a television but my mother didn't believe him because of his constant joking and teasing. But he was apparently serious about taking the family into the 20th century with the technological wonder of the idiot box. I remember the first show I saw on television was Superman, starring George Reeves.. Consequently, we were all mesmerized by what my fifth grade teacher had appropriately called the idiot box. Only today can I appreciate what she meant by that. Kids don't read enough anymore and are dependent on the "idiot box" to do the thinking for them.
As I've stated earlier, agriculture eventually became more important than railroad building and mining. Agriculture became a large industry thanks to the irrigation projects which brought valuable water from the rich underground lakes in southern Idaho. The Pérez family made the transition from railroad work to farm laborers. As laborers, they worked in the beet fields and in Idaho’s famous Russet potato fields. They also moved irrigation pipes because the land in southern and southeastern Idaho was too rugged and irregular for gravitational ditch irrigation. During this time many of the Mexicans and Anglo farmers worked side by side, but the Second World War changed the nature of farming in the state and Mexican workers began growing in numbers to the point where most of the farm work was done by mexicanos. Thanks, in large part, to Mexican labor, Idaho is first in potato production and has been since 1959. It is also second in sugar beet, alfalfa seed, and pea production; and third in hops and mint production. Bingham County, known as the Potato Capital of the World, is famous for its potatoes, which cover 60,000 acres in the county, more than any other county in the United States.
World War II and its Effect on Idaho
There was a need to bring in Mexican laborers since the Second World War had taken many of the Anglo youth to fight Germany and Japan. This was a repetition of the same situation in World War I when thousands of Mexican workers toiled the beet fields of southern Idaho. In World War II, more than 60,000 men and women from Idaho served in the armed forces. That was 11% of the state's population, higher than the national average. Consequently, the United States Employment Service, at the request of the beet growers, sought out Mexican nationals to work the fields. The result of this effort was an influx of thousands of Mexican laborers who came to this country in what was called the Bracero Program, an agreement with Mexico which was signed into legislation by Public Law 45, on April 29, 1943. This law permited legal entry into the United States of thousands of Mexican workers, many of whom made their way to Idaho. This was the second chapter in the Mexican experience in Idaho.
Now most of the farm labor was done by Mexicans, both documented and undocumented. The Bracero Program was such a successful enterprise that even after it ended, shortly after the Second World War, the Mexican influx to the United States continued unabatedly. Yet, although Executive Order No. 8802, which was issued on June 25, 1941, was supposed to protect the Mexican workers from abuse and discrimination, unfair treatment of Mexican nationals was uncontrollable. The situation worsened to the extent that on October 12, 1945, the Mexican consul in Salt Lake City, I.A. Pesqueira, informed the state of Idaho that no more braceros would be sent due to the discriminatory practices of the Anglo bosses.
But undocumented immigration continued from Mexico and the mojados were willing to risk the prejudice of their Anglo bosses in order to find a higher standard of living. The next chapter of the Mexican experience in Idaho was the result of this wave of post-Bracero immigration to the United States. My family had heard about opportunity in the United States while living in Rioverde, San Luis Potosí, Mexico. My family first ventured to Texas where we could not survive economically. In Texas my father heard about Idaho and greater economic opportunity. Although conditions in Idaho were not ideal--deplorable conditions in the Nampa area had forced a strike by Mexican workers which closed down four migrant camps--they were still better than conditions in Texas. Like many migrants before and after us, we contracted with a troquero named Carlos García to go to Idaho. He told tales about Idaho and how much opportunity there was in that state. The troquero convinced my father to find more clients for the Idaho trip in exchange for free transportation for our family. My father's boss, a German nicknamed "La Madama", was grievously upset upon hearing of our family's departure. She had become dependent on my father's hard work and carpentry skills and even promised him more pay, but it was still not enough for us to survive on.
So we boarded a truck to our destination. Although the truck was small it was large enough to carry several families. The families got to know each other very well. Our long journey and comradeship resulted in a strong compadrazgo between the men. It also resulted in a strong friendship among the children. I, personally, became a life-long friend of the other children: Ramón Orozco, and Cristo García.
Yes, there was time for clowning. Left to right, kneeling: Longino Orozco, Cruz, Severiano. Caldwell labor camp; June, 1956. Photo courtesy of the author.
Caldwell and Blackfoot, Idaho
We arrived in western Idaho in 1955 and set up our home in a labor camp near Caldwell. There was plenty of work there picking peaches and apples. In the 1950s farming was not as mechanized as today. There was a great need for potato pickers, beet thinners, and irrigation pipe movers. As stated earlier, this work was almost exclusively done by Mexican laborers. This was the heyday of Mexican labor in Idaho. I remember the migrant labor camps, the old cars starting up at predawn and taking the workers to the fields before sunrise, including me.
I also remember the labor camp and all the activity revolving around it. There were public baths there for the migrant workers. This was an opportunity for the women to get together to gossip and exchange the news of the day. The men would also exchange news and discuss current events in the area. Not everybody could work in the fields and some of the children found other ways to make money. My brother Carlos would sell raspa to the workers and other children. My whole family was very industrious and selling to our migrant neighbors was another way for the children in my family to make a living.
But as usual, the grass was always greener on the other side. The troquero, Carlos Garcia, told us of better opportunity in eastern Idaho, so we boarded the truck again, and headed east.
We arrived in Blackfoot, Idaho in 1956 and we set up our home in some cinder block rooms at the sugar beet factory in the outskirts of town. The sugar beet factory was built to process the sugar beets in the area. There was also a set of rooms built like barracks where Mexican workers would live while they worked at the factory or in the countryside. Sugar beets were an important crop in Idaho ever since they were first grown in the state by Austin Hallingsworth, in 1898. Actually, the first sugar beet factory in the state, was built in Idaho Falls just 26 miles north of Blackfoot, in 1903.
It was in Blackfoot where my father decided to end his migratory life. In the summers, we worked in the beet fields, and in the fall, we picked potatoes. We worked from sunrise to sundown. We worked hard all day and came home dead tired from all the work. The sugar beet factory, built in 1904 by the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, was actually a migrant labor camp when we arrived. The Mexican kids would play late into the evening. I still remember playing bare-footed at night and cutting my foot on broken glass just outside of our home. My only remedy was cotton and alcohol--no stitches or doctor.
From the sugar beet factory, we moved to the labor camp in Taber. We thinned sugar beets and we moved irrigation pipes. The labor camp was bustling with activity. There were many families from Mexico. Many of these families had come together from South Texas, where they had crossed the border from Mexico. The labor camp was like a small town and everybody knew each other. The men were all related by compadrazgos. In a sense, the labor camp was a self-sustained community. Some of the women sold candy and pop. The potato fields sustained us with potatoes for our meals. The goats and pigs provided us with meat.
Although the Mexican workers were far from being rich, life was healthy and violence-free--and the air was fresh and clear. The only source of entertainment was bike riding and watching the train go by the camp. Sometimes the children would put nails and pennies on the railroad tracks to see them flattened. Other times, I would lay down on the highway and see how close my brother could get to me on his bicycle without hitting me.
I also remember that the Big Southern Butte, the Middle Butte and the East Butte were just a few miles from our labor camp and seemed to keep a constant vigil over us. They rose out of the plain in majestic grandeur and were like guardians protecting the land and the Mexican farm workers. They were the mighty pillars that were created hundreds of thousands of years ago to stand guard over the desert and the irrigated land to the south. The Big Southern Butte is the largest and youngest of the three buttes and rises 760 meters above the Snake River Plain. It is 300,000 years old and half as old as the 600,000 year old East Butte, whis 28 km northeast of the Big Southern Butte. This butte is only 360 meters high, half as high as the Big Southern Butte. The Middle Butte is only 4 km from the East Butte and is 350 meters high, almost the same height and the same age as the East Butte.
It was amazing that in such a desolate place where sagebrush prevailed, these buttes stood over this land in their supremacy and protected the land from the encroaching atomic energy complex to the north and west. It was also amazing that in such an isolated spot one could still find place names in Spanish. Just five miles northeast of the Big Southern Butte, there is a small town called Cerro Grande, meaning "large hill". One can only conjecture that it was named after the Big Southern Butte. Cerro Grande is more of a train station than a town. As a matter of fact, it is right in the path of the Union Pacific Railroad which also passes through Taber.
After working in Taber for a year or two, we moved to a farm in Rising River, near Blackfoot. The farm was called Ramona Farms, named by Sim Johnston and his wife Claudia, after Spanish names they knew in California. In Rising River, we also thinned beets, picked potatoes, and moved irrigation pipes. The farms in Rising River were controlled by Japanese farmers. Names such as the Ugaki brothers: Jack, Yuzo, etc., the Matsuura brothers, and Mosa Tsukamoto, were common in the Rising River area. Interestingly enough, it was always the Japanese who were the bosses while the Mexicans who were their subordinates, but credit must be given to the Japanese farmers for their work ethic and the high value they placed on education. Although the Japanese and Mexicans were similar in many ways--work ethic, strong nuclear families as opposed to individualism, etc.--, I believe that the key that made us so evidently different economically, was that the Japanese placed a very high value on education. The Japanese encouraged their children to go to school and continue their education in college, while the Mexicans encouraged their children to quit school and work with their hands to bring in more money for the family. Since I was the youngest one in my family, I did not suffer such a drastic fate, but my oldest brother and sister, Antonio and Consuelo, were taken out of grade school in Texas to help support our family. Although they had no choice, I believe they are bitter about their fate to this very day and have had to pay a heavy price.
Among the Mexican people that we encountered in Southeast Idaho, were Francisco Lucio, Arcadio Villaseñor, Longino Orozco, Severiano Galván--my padrino, Enrique García, Josefa Rivas and her sons Matías and Tomás, Simón Rodríguez and his wife Juanita (who came shortly after we arrived in Idaho), Ángel (Joe) Hernández (who never married), Salvador Sánchez and his wife Josefina, José Ramos, José Flores and his wife Ángela, Enedina Hernández, José Acosta, Esteban Varela--a local disk jockey, and the Pérez family. These may not sound like a lot of names, but one must remember that these people were there in the 1950s. Many of these people are still in the Blackfoot area, but a lot of years have transpired and now they are grandparents and great grandparents. Many of their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren are still in the area. One can see how these families have grown. Two of these families alone had over 12 children in the immediate family.
Some of the people I remember from my childhood are now gone. Most notably, Sim Johnston is the patrón who I remember the most. He will always be remembered as a kind person to the Mexican workers. He died in June, 1995 at the age of 69. I hadn't seen him since the 1960s and can only remember him as a much younger person who worked hard with the Mexicans in the farms that he owned.
The House on Fisher Avenue
My parents had always dreamed of having a house. My father had tired of living in boxcars and cinder block dwellings. His dream was to have a nice house for the family. His dream came true when he bought a house in Blackfoot on Fisher Avenue. The whole family had saved dearly for this house. We had to trade in two trucks plus give a down payment in cash for the house.
It was an old dwelling but it was made out of cement and brick and my father knew it had a solid foundation and would outlive all of us. We didn't know much about it other than the fact that it projected a distinct, dominating personality. Our neighbor on the corner told us stories about its many earlier inhabitants....the house had been built in the early 1930s and had seen many people come and go, literally.
Our neighbor, who was old enough to have seen it built, remembered the house when it came into being. The house added life to the neighborhood and gave it character. There were healthy tenants as well as inexplicably sick tenants who became ill as soon as they took up residence in the house.
One particular episode, according to our elderly neighbor, was that of a young boy who inopportunely came down with a fever and died in one of the house's chambers. I heard our neighbor's stories and scoffed at her incredible tales of horror and fright. You see, a Mexican boy was supposed to be too macho to be foolishly afraid of death. It is true that we Mexicans had our Llorona and believed in susto, but only the viejas hid behind their rebozos and prayed to the Virgen de Guadalupe to save them from the ghosts and brujas who were constantly hovering over all of us. Consequently, a tale about a dying boy in our house did not frighten me....until my brother Carlos experienced the ghost's presence firsthand.
There was a basement in our house that was cold and damp and had a musty presence about it. It was left vacant and nobody thought of using it for a bedroom until Carlos decided he needed more privacy and wanted to sleep alone. His first few days in his new bedroom were non-eventful, but one morning he came to breakfast unusually early and recounted the horrifying events of the previous night. He revealed the strange presence in the basement of a person whose cold hands tore at his hair and pulled him with superhuman strength. Carlos even showed us the redness around his neck where something had pulled his hair. My father and mother took an immediate interest in his story. They had heard the tale of the mano fría, which was well-known in Mexico and was, in essence, the cold hand of death. Yet, I was skeptical and scoffed at the whole affair. Needless to say, Carlos never returned to the basement and the room was left for many months as he had left it that morning. Nobody bothered going to the basement until my brother Paul, who was another skeptic, decided he was too old to share a room with me and decided to sleep in the basement.
Paul was as courageous a Mexican as anyone would ever see. He was constantly getting into fights at the school with Indians and would take his machismo to the Mexican dances where he also engaged in brawls with the other mexicanos. Consequently, there was little that could frighten such as seasoned person as Paul....until he moved to the basement.
Again, the first few days in the basement were uneventful for Paul as they had been for Carlos. But one morning, he came out of the basement earlier than usual and related a story which was a carbon copy of Carlos's tale several months earlier. At this point, even a skeptic as I became more interested and conscious of the fact that some evil being had taken up residence in the basement. After that morning, nobody in the family dared go to the basement and it stayed in the same condition as Paul had left it that day, until the family moved out of the house.
But my father did find the time to sprinkle the basement through the door with agua bendita which our priest had blessed specifically for that purpose. My father hoped that the demon in the basement would stay confined to that area but I believe my father was too late. I began having similar experiences as Paul and Carlos, even though I wasn't sleeping in the basement. These experiences have followed me to different parts of Idaho, overseas--while I was in the Navy--, and back to the United States. I still feel the presence of the mano fría at night and yearn for holy water to rid the presence of this demon which haunts me. Perhaps I should stop thinking of our old house on Fisher Avenue and the basement where it all started. Perhaps my disdain for the supernatural is coming back to haunt me; my machismo is being tested but it is nothing agua bendita can't cure...................perhaps I should see a priest.
Sheepherding and Borregueros
Sheepherding has always been a big business in Idaho. It reached its peak in the 1930s when there were 2.4 million sheep in Idaho. Today, there are about 145,000 sheep in the state. These sheep were originally herded by Basques. The Basques have always been the largest group of sheepherders in Idaho. They would sign contracts to come to the United States and agree to stay for a particular length of time. Their influence has been so great on the state that Idaho has the largest Basque population in the country and Boise has annual Basque celebrations. Since the Basques speak Basque, English, and Spanish, we were able to communicate with them in Spanish. I'm sure that Mexicans and Basques are probably related somewhere along our European lineage. As a matter of fact, the Basques played a role in the colonization of New Spain. Juan de Oñate, the first colonizer of New Mexico, was of Basque lineage. Furthermore, The Verásteguis were a Basque family who owned San Diego, the hacienda in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, where my mother was born. There are surnames in my immediate family lineage that are of Basque origin, such as Almazán, Zúñiga, and Moya. Consequently, we were closer than we imagined at the time.
I remember the Basque borregueros , as we called them, who herded sheep in Rising River and Aberdeen. They were excellent workers who seemed to enjoy their solitary work, their only company being their faithful dogs. They would visit us and stay for coffee and conversation, then return to their wagons and their sheep and dogs. I admired them almost as much as I admired the Mexican workers who also left their country to work in a foreign land. But travelling and adventure is in our blood as one can see by the explorations of the Spaniards in the New World and the wanderings of the Aztecs from Aztlán to Tenochtitlán. Today, many of the descendants of these Basques have different jobs, in construction, government, hotels, and business, especially around Boise. But my recollection of them is living in the wide open spaces under the stars and with their faithful dogs. Most of the borregueros today are Chileans, Peruvians, and Mexicans, although it must be stated that Mexicans were involved in the sheep industry as far back as 1930 when “Mexicans to the number of about 100 resided in the county…and were engaged chiefly in agriculture or were connected with the sheep industry.”14. We have now inherited the responsibility of fattening the sheep for food and wool and we are now the inheritors of this business. But sheepherding is not new to us. It should be noted that Mexico's greatest president, Benito Juárez, was once a borreguero. And so today, even though the business is waning and may be gone in ten years, the tradition continues with the Mexicans in Idaho.
What Are We?
We Mexicans are an interesting lot in Idaho. I remember when I attended the Public Schools in Blackfoot, Mexicans were considered a sociological novelty. The Indians from the Fort Hall Indian Reservation which was next door, outnumbered us by a large margin. They didn't consider us Indians and yet weren't sure if we were white. We were something in between. They would get together in large groups and ridicule me by calling me Taibo, a Shoshone Bannock term for "white boy". It took me a while to learn what the term meant, but I knew all along that it wasn't nice by the laughter the term provoked.
I also remember the white girls also thought of us as a novelty. We Mexicans were a small group compared to the Indians and the white girls considered us interesting "specimens". They would flirt with us all the time and admit that they liked us because we were different and we believed in having a good time. None of us Mexicans came from educated, well-to-do families; we were all from migrant families. Since we worked hard and didn't have the educational background to worry about such things as the Stock Market or international affairs, our attitude became a product of an "earn money today and enjoy it immediately for instant gratification" syndrome. Thus, the girls, most of whom were from Mormon families whose parents suppressed their social behavior, would prefer us to their male Mormon counterparts. Consequently, they would take advantage of any occasion to sneak out of their houses to join our small Mexican palomilla for a night on the town with booze and parties. After all, we were young and restless and needed to let off steam like the cowboys of the 1880s who went "plum loco" after their long cattle drives from Texas to Dodge City.
It wasn't until the 1970s that we Mexican teenagers started questioning our own identity. The Chicano movement was belatedly affecting our state. We were told that we weren't Mexicans; instead, we were Chicanos and should be proud of it. Although this was a movement that hit other states much harder that Idaho, it really didn't affect us that much. We were first generation Mexican Americans and some of us were Mexicans. Our ties to Mexico were still very strong. Consequently, although some of us called ourselves Chicanos, we were still Mexicans by culture. This phenomenon was evidenced by our Hispanic student organization at Idaho State University in Pocatello. It was named MASO: Mexican American Student Organization. Although this group was formed in the early 1970s, several years after the Chicano movement started, we were still calling ourselves Mexican Americans and our culture was still very "Mexican."
Mexican Traditions Prevail in Idaho
We Mexicans are very traditional people. Although we were thousands of miles from Rioverde, Mexico where my family is from, we always maintained our tradition: our language, religion, and customs. We never spoke English at home and were reminded that Spanish was a beautiful language not to be forgotten. My father never understood the concept of being americano and always assumed that all Americans of Mexican descent--regardless of which side of the river we were from--were mexicanos. Thus, if he heard us speak English he would scold us and remind us that we were mexicanos. Although I did not realize it then, I have come to appreciate the fact that my father's view of language and culture was a blessing since I grew up speaking English and Spanish without an accent. On the other hand, many Chicanos who were forbidden to speak Spanish for fear that they would not learn English, now speak both languages with an accent. many Chicanos also never learned to speak Spanish because it was forbidden by the white establishment as well as their own parents who erroneously thought that their children would get a head start in the United States if they spoke only English, even at home. This is a sad commentary about the effects of prejudice in this country.
Another tradition which we maintained at home was our strong Catholic faith. I remember doing my First Communion and Confirmation and my padrinos being very proud of me. The padrinos were chosen by my parents and I had no say in the choice. As soon as the ceremonies were over, the padrinos would forever become compadres to my parents and would never be called by any other name other than compadre and comadre.
One of the difficulties of being a Spanish speaking Catholic in Idaho was that church services were conducted in English. My father would take the whole family to church every Sunday for our weekly worship. My parents never understood a word that the priest was saying but they were acquainted with the rituals of the mass. But it still must have been difficult for them not to get the full meaning of the mass, especially the sermons. Fortunately, today it is much easier for Hispanics in Idaho to practice the Catholic faith in Spanish. In my home town of Blackfoot, there are Spanish language services every Sunday and the church draws capacity crowds of devout Mexican Catholics who come from miles around to attend mass. When I visit Blackfoot, I still make it a point to attend mass in Spanish at my old church. It has changed very little since the 1950s and 1960s and I especially admire the old stained glass windows which relate visual stories of Jesus' miracles and life in the Holy Land.
Mexican Against Mexican at the Saturday Night Dances
Discrimination was nothing new to me in the 1950s Idaho that I remember. As soon as the first Hispanics set foot on Idaho soil, they felt the destructive malevolent effects of prejudice and discrimination. The Mexican Government was so fed up with discriminatory practices in Idaho that it cancelled its Bracero relationship with the state in 1948. We Mexicans had no way of fighting the powerful white establishment and its oppression and discrimination so we lashed out against ourselves. This is a sociological truth regardless of the ethnic group in question. I remember my father would always lament why we Mexicans had to injure and kill one another when the logical reaction was to unite against white oppression.
One of the ways that we lashed out against ourselves was through the display of machismo in the Mexican dances. In Blackfoot, Pocatello, and Idaho Falls, I remember numerous fights in which we Mexicans would cut up each other with sharp knives. It was like a ritual because these fights never took place during the week in the fields where we worked. If a fight was brewing, it would always wait for the spectacle which was the Saturday night dance so that everybody could see how macho we were. The fights were always over women, which must have been flattering to the ladies. I remember always being on the lookout for someone trying to kill me. I was never careful about the girls with which I associated. Consequently, the ones who already had boyfriends were always getting me in trouble...could I help it if the girls liked me? There were frequent occasions when my friends would warn me about a jealous guy who was "going to get me" at the dance. After years of attending these dances, I finally realized how ridiculous it was to be on the lookout for my jealous adversaries. The ugly hand of white oppression resulted in irrational and senseless homicides and suicides in which I lost close friends. Some of my friends went to prison for murder when they tried to demonstrate their machismo. Others should have gone to prison but were let go.
Finally, I decided to stop attending these ritualistic spectacles which we called bailes and I never went back. My friends tell me the dances have mellowed considerably and I don't know if this is good or bad. I wonder if our traditional concept of machismo is on the wane and we are losing another part of our cultural traditions inherited from the Spaniards and Aztecs. Only time will tell.
Robert Kennedy comes to Blackfoot
Robert Kennedy comes to Blackfoot High School. Left to right standing: Milton Eskelson, the author, and María Morán. Robert Kennedy is sitting. January 3, 1968. Photo courtesy of the Blackfoot News.
In 1968, I was 17 years old and still quite naive about foreign and domestic affairs. I remember hearing about Robert Kennedy coming to Blackfoot and was really excited when I heard he was coming to our school. Although he was coming to talk to the Indians from the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, we Mexicans wanted to see him too. After all, he was Catholic, as most of us Mexicans were, and we wanted to see somebody like him who was of national prominence and of our faith, especially in a predominantly Mormon area.
He arrived at noon and just in time for lunch. María Morán and I were just coming out of study hall, which, surprisingly enough, was held in the cafeteria. When we saw Robert Kennedy come in with his food tray, María and I decided to stay and try to talk to him. We knew that he wanted to talk to the Indian students, but we had to find a way to see him, anyway. María suggested we get an autograph and I found a piece of scratch paper on the floor and quickly proceeded to his table. Both of us stood behind him and clumsily argued about who would ask him for the autograph. Finally, I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him for an autograph. He smiled and signed one for María and me just as the photographer from the Blackfoot News was taking our picture!
When I got home and showed my mother his autograph, she cried with joy. She had mourned the loss of John Kennedy and hoped that his brother would also become President. But a few months later, Robert too, was dead and my mother cried again. I never saw Robert Kennedy's autograph since then. My mother probably stored it in a safe place, too safe for me to find. Now that she, too, is dead, I often wonder what happened to the autograph; yet another secret taken to the grave.
Mexicans and Indians
People fight over the most selfish things. There was a time when the Indians and Mexicans at Blackfoot High School did not get along. Unfortunately, there were precious few of us Mexicans in the school to intimidate the Indian student body, which was about half the total population.
On a certain occasion, one of my friends, Agustín C*********--who had already dropped out of school--decided to pick a fight with the biggest Indian from the tribe. Agustín wasn't a big guy but he had a bad temper and wasn't afraid of anybody, at least so we thought. There had been rumblings among the Indians against us. We weren't quite sure why they hated us. Perhaps it was because we didn't fit in to their scheme of reality. They weren't used to Mexicans being in Blackfoot. They had always thought their surroundings should only include whites and Indians. After all, they had experienced much history with whites and most of it wasn't good. They knew we weren't white, but they also knew that we weren't Indians. Consequently, they were perplexingly suspicious of us.
It was spring and the weather was getting hot as were the Indians' temper--and Agustín's. As stated earlier, Agustín bad mouthed the largest Indian in the school, Steve B******. Agustín foolishly challenged him to a fight, but since Steve was outnumbered at the time he promised to meet Agustín at noon on the following day. Consequently, the fight was set for the next day. We felt nervous because we knew we were greatly outnumbered in the school, but we Mexicans are macho guys and we all carelessly showed up to school the next day......except Agustín.
The Indians bided their time for their chance to pounce on us, and calmly waited until after our school assembly. We knew we were in trouble because we could see them all staring at us--all 100 of them--, and there were only six of us Mexicans, sort of like the Alamo in reverse. We wanted to escape from the gymnasium where the assembly was taking place, but there were too many teachers around. As soon as the assembly ended at high noon we made for the door, but the Indians cut us off at my pick-up and surrounded us. The teachers were too scared to stop the fight and stayed inside the school looking out the windows. Everybody pulled out their knives, chains, and even a bayonet, which Simón Rodríguez had brought with him. We knew we had no chance to escape and little chance of beating 100 Indians. We were in trouble! Fortunately, a cop who was making his patrol past our school, saw the crowd and intervened to stop the fight. Everybody ran to escape him, but he grabbed bodies left and right and caught as many Indians as he could. We let him catch us, since we considered him more of a savior than an enemy. He was the lesser of two evils, I suppose like the choice the Germans had of surrendering to the Russians or the Americans--not much of a decision!
Needless to say, we went to jail, but since most of us were minors, we were released, except for Héctor Rodríguez, Blaine F****** and Steve B*******. But before we were released, we had the opportunity to scare one of the Indians who was placed in our cell by mistake. The poor soul begged to be released screaming that he wasn't a Mexican, and we Mexicans assured the guards that, indeed, he was a Mexican but had become hysterical over the traumatic experience that he had been through.
It was such a shame that Agustín couldn´t make it that day. His machismo had definitely suffered a severe blow and his reputation with us was tarnished. He was never the same after that, and we were never the same toward him. He had let us down and had broken his loyalty to our palomilla and we could not forgive him. He was never one of our best friends after that and we ostracized him forever "from where the sun then stood". To this day, when I see him I still think of that incident and his cowardice, but I think he suffers more than we could have ever suffered that day because he's had to live with the shame of deserting his friends. Such is life in a small town with many Indians and just a few Mexicans. Such is life when loyalty is everything and cowardice is the vilest, abject characteristic any human can have...... especially for us macho Mexicans.
Vietnam Comes to Idaho
My brothers were not American citizens and it was difficult for them to join the service because of that fact. They tried enlisting in the early '60s but to no avail. It was interesting that when the U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated, there was no longer any concern about their citizenship. The Army wanted them! Thus, my brother Carlos was able to join the Army and get his U.S. citizenship in one swoop.
When he left for Vietnam in 1965, I could never have imagined that I would be going there six years later. Vietnam was our longest war. I was only 14 years old when Carlos left to Vietnam and I was very naïve about the war, but I wanted to learn. I remember writing letters to him asking for Vietnamese coins and stamps, something to collect about Vietnam. I also asked him for a South Vietnamese flag, which he never sent me. Years later, I realized that these mementos were not necessary because I had gone there also. In 1971, I had an unfortunate low lottery number and I knew I was going to get drafted. Knowing this I joined the Navy to "see the world", but I ended up seeing a war instead. I was stationed on the USS Meyerkord, a destroyer escort, which was attached with the Seventh Fleet at Dixie Station and Yankee Station. We participated in coastal bombardment (gunfire support) in South Vietnam and aircraft carrier escorts off the coast of North Vietnam.
My experience in the Navy greatly expanded my horizons. I met Hispanics from all over the United States and Mexico: Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Mexican Americans. I remember the Navy had an excellent race relations program to try to foster a greater appreciation of our different cultures. Nevertheless, Mexican Americans and Mexicans were still at the "bottom of the totem pole". Our ship did not have Hispanic officers, although there were Filipino and Black personnel in the higher ranks. This fact was my initiation into social consciousness and an awareness of inequity which made me champion the mexicano struggle for equality through our civil rights. The other Hispanics were really very similar to me in culture. It was an enlightening experience. We were united to gain certain objectives. I was instrumental in ordering Hispanic magazines for the ship, subscriptions we did not have, as opposed to Jet and Ebony, which the ship was already subscribing to. Thus, I became more socially aware and class conscious about the oppression of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
Mexicans at Idaho State University
After I got out of the service in 1975, I realized that the only way to fight poverty and oppression was through education. While I was still in the service, I took several tests to try to get a head start in college. I passed two USAFI tests, the CLEP exam, and a physical ed. exam. I also had the G.I. Bill which I planned to use fully. Thus, I was well-prepared for college.
As stated earlier, the university is located in Pocatello, Idaho, a city with 53,000 people. The town was named for a Shoshone Indian chief by that name who allowed the railroad to pass through the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. The city is nicknamed the “Gate City” because it stands at the western entrance to the Portneuf Canyon. In the 1800s, it was at the junction of the Montana and Idaho divisions of the Oregon Short Line railroad and was a center of much activity, another reason for its nickname. The Pocatello area was inhabited by Shoshone and Bannock Indians thousands of years before Lewis and Clark crossed the state north of this area at Lemhi Pass. Actually, the Bannock Indians were a band of northern Paiute Indians who had migrated to this area from southeastern Oregon; the Bannocks called themselves Panakwate, but the white fur trappers mispronounced the name, which sounded like Bannock (a Scottish word) to them. The city of Pocatello is located about 10 miles south of Fort Hall, which was founded by fur trappers from Hudson’s Bay Company, but the town did not start growing until the gold rush of 1860. The miners required supplies and food to get them their work in the mines. Thus, Pocatello became a center in the Portneuf Valley for stage coaches and the railroad. In 1882, now that the railroad had brought much activity to Pocatello, it became necessary to build a hotel—the Pacific Hotel, which accomodated the residents. Pocatello grew even more when the railroad transferred shops from Idaho Falls to the Gate City along with families who worked in them.15 When the gold mines were depleted, the Portneuf Valley turned to agriculture as a viable industry. Already established, Pocatello continued to grow in the valley and became a full-fledged city by an act of the legislature in 1892.
The university itself, became a reality at the turn of the century when Senator Theodore F. Turner of Pocatello lobbied for an educational institution in Pocatello. Finally, Governor Frank W. Hunt signed Senate Bill 53 which established an academy in the city in 1901; Miles F. Reed became its first president. The Academy resided in the Main Building and had 40 students registered at its opening. In 1915, the Academy became Idaho Technical Institute; later, in 1947 with the signing of the 29th Legislature’s bill by Governor C.A. Robins, the Institute changed its name to Idaho State College, after a 20 year stint as a part of the University of Idaho (Southern Branch). The University finally gained its current status as Idaho State University in 1963 when Governor Robert Smylie signed the bill creating the University.
When I attended college, I met up with my old teen-age friends from the Blackfoot area: Héctor Rodríguez, Abel Ramos, Noel Ramos, Rubén Rodríguez, and Roy Urrea. I also made new friends with other Mexicans from the Snake River Valley: Nasario Páez, Johnny González, and Joel Fernández. As has always been the case with me, there were so few of us, that it became practical for us to stay together for self-preservation and to achieve our goals.
It was incredible to think about our accomplishments. All of us were either first generation or second generation Mexicans and we were actually getting a college education. Several of us had worked side by side in the beet and potato fields and now we were sitting side by side in a college classroom! It was an incredible experience now that I think back on this part of my existence. Indeed, it was the best time of my life: I was back in Idaho with my friends but in a much better financial situation for my family. The four years that I had been away from Idaho and my friends had made me appreciate the state that much more. Since I left Idaho in 1978 to continue my education in Colorado, I have never experienced the good times that I left behind. Perhaps I'll never be as happy as I was when I lived in the boundless, delightful land of Idaho.
In my recent annual travels to southeastern Idaho I become a part of the most recent chapter of the Mexican experience in the Gem State. The labor camps where I used to live are now deserted like the ghost towns of the 1800s. All that is left is memories that stir up the senses of sound, touch, smell, and the sight of the hustle and bustle of Mexican activity in the countryside. But now the Mexicans coming to the state work in factories, drive air-conditioned tractors, and are beginning to work in blue collar and white collar jobs. The progression of lifestyle for the Mexican workers is improving. I now see many of the children of Mexican laborers attending college and getting degrees. I only hope that they do not forget the rich past of their parents and grandparents that has made their lives easier. But my memories still remain of our glorious past in the state that is little known to many and known to only a handful of fortunate souls.
Fortunately, today more attention is paid to the Mexican and Mexican American contributions to the state of Idaho. For instance, in Weber, a town in southwestern Idaho, the Wilder school district has been celebrating Cinco de Mayo since 1986. At the Holmes Elementary School, the third graders have been celebrating this holiday and getting their parents to participate, thanks to paraprofessionals Connie Nava, Helen González, and María Carrillo. Yet much more needs to be done to enlighten people about Mexican contributions to the state. Otherwise, our Mexican children will grow up with an inferiority complex and will never know how vital Mexicans have been to the growth and improvement of the great state of Idaho.
The Migra Comes to Idaho
But although life has improved for Mexicans in Idaho, there is still the dreaded Migra that shows its ugly head to the Mexican farmworkers. Many of my friends were undocumented workers and I knew that my father had come to this country numerous times to work as an undocumented worker. Yet I was never really afraid of the Migra because I was an American citizen from este lado, but I couldn't help but get nervous when I saw the G-men come to our labor camp. I remember one day when I was working in the fields seeing the Migra instinctively stop where I was working to ask for directions to the labor camp. They asked me if I spoke English and I said Sí. Then, they asked me if I knew where the labor camp was and I pointed in the opposite direction. I never saw them again although I still remember their pick-up kicking up dust and being engulfed by the vast, dusty fields and heading nowhere.
In February, 1979, there was a string of Border Patrol raids on the farming communities in potato-growing Southeastern Idaho, where I was raised. Hundreds of undocumented workers were apprehended and deported. In St. Anthony, there were over 100 Mexicans--men, women, and children--deported. There was even one elderly gentleman deported who was disabled by a farming accident in a potato field.
These deportations are a sad commentary on prejudice and the irrational laws of this land. One must remember that these workers are needed in Idaho. Nobody else will do the hard work they do. I remember working in the fields picking potatoes, thinning beets, and moving irrigation pipes. It was very rare to see people other than Mexicans and Mexican Americans doing this kind of work. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of non-Mexicans who worked the fields. During all the summers that I worked in the fields I only remember three Navaho Indians and two blacks who worked with the Mexicans side-by-side. On all other occasions, the fields were only populated by the hard-working Mexicans who toiled from sunrise to sunset and seldom complained about the hard work.
Today, there are more than 100,000 migrant workers in Idaho in the summers. As was the case with our family, most of these migrant workers are texano-mexicanos. Without us, the agricultural crop in Idaho would definitely fail. The population has greatly increased since the early part of century. The 1920 census listed 1,125 residents of Mexican birth. Yet by 1991, the Idaho Migrant Council estimated that the Hispanic (mostly Mexican) population had swelled to more than 58,000 in the southern Snake River Valley.
Friend of Álvarez family picking potatoes. Rising River; October, 1955.
Migrant Life Continues
It is said that the grass is always greener on the other side. With Mexican laborers, this saying is very appropriate and fits like a glove. My father would always hear of yet better places to go to where the work was easier and the pay was better. Two such places were Murtaugh and Glenns Ferry, Idaho.
Murtaugh was located in southern Idaho between Burley and Twin Falls. The farmland around Murtaugh is one of the richest in the state. Consequently, many Mexicans go to that area to work in the fields. Actually, there had been Mexican workers in the Twin Falls area since the 1920s when they were contracted to work the beet fields. The work we were doing in the area was the very same kind of work that our forefathers had been doing in the same place, in the beet fields, but many years before. Nothing had changed.
I found out about this work in Murtaugh through Agustín Castorena, a close friend of mine who was somewhat of a hippie and a "head". His family had been there the year before and they encouraged me to go. Consequently, I joined the family in 1970 for the summer trip to Murtaugh. Although there was plenty of work--who else would want to do it?--in the beet fields and there was plenty of money to be made, the fields were no picnic. We worked in the sun all day thinning beets. Our hands were blistered after a hard day's work and we still had to prepare our meals in order to eat. But this was the kind of work that we were expected to do. Mexicans were the only ethnic group who worked the fields and we were well-liked by our white bosses because of our work ethic.
But all was not blood, sweat, and tears. There were occasions when we would go to nearby Murtaugh Lake and enjoy the scenery. Other times we would drive up to the nearby mountains in the Sawtooth National Forest and look down on the Snake River Valley, which was a beautiful sight on a clear day. On special occasions, all of us would get together in the car and drive to Twin Falls and nearby Shoshone Falls—plunging deeper than Niagara Falls at 212 feet—and the Blue Lakes. Naturally, we would drink beer and enjoy the scenery, including the white girls who would always want to talk to us. This part of Idaho is a must to see because of its beauty and innocence. I wonder what stories some of the Mexican laborers would take back to Mexico about this scenic state.
Another scenic part of the state, although not as beautiful, is Glenns Ferry, which is close to Mountain Home where the Air Force Base is located. The rush to work in Glenns Ferry was like another gold rush to the Mexicans from Southeast Idaho. Some Mexican families brought the news about work in Southwestern Idaho that was easier and paid more. One couldn't pass up such a great opportunity. Since we knew all about hard work, we were certainly taken by the notion of an easier life with more money. Several Mexican families bit the bait and went west. My friends, Héctor Rodríguez and family, and Ramón Orozco and family went to Glenns Ferry as soon as they heard about it. My father, who had probably done enough traveling in his life opted for field work in the Blackfoot area. But we did go one summer for a weekend to scout the fields. I remember the beautiful Snake River Canyon near the Three Island Crossing State Park, and how high the canyon walls were situated above the river. The farmland where my friends worked was on top of the mesa above the river. The activity at the migrant camp near Glenns Ferry reminded me of the migrant camp at Taber ten years earlier. It was a busy camp bustling with the activity of the Mexican laborers going to and from work. I also remember the white girls in town who were crazy about Mexicans. To them, we seemed always to be partying and having fun. They needed this type of company because of their secluded lives. Consequently, the Mexicans were the perfect formula for them. As teenagers, fun was all we had in mind. But the white girls did not know how hard we worked. We had fun because we had to release the pressure created by oppression and hard work. Consequently, the white girls only saw one side of us, which was fine because our social life with them was all we were looking for.
Aaron and the Hippie Years
The anti-establishment movement that hit the United States in the late 1960s and early '70s also affected our small teenage Mexican group. We were taken in by the rock music of the period and everything that goes with it: long hair, tie-died t-shirts, free love and peace.
One of our best friends was Aaron. Although he wasn't Mexican, he might as well have been. He was older than us, probably in his late 20s or early 30s, but he thought quite young. At that time, I was really taken by the music of the times and Aaron was the expert on music, although his official expertise was art in which he had a Masters degree. But music was another of his treasured pastimes. Aaron kept his albums in his home, which was a boxcar. He had the most exotic music. His collection consisted of over 1,000 albums from all over the world. Although he was no librarian, he knew where every album was. I remember visiting his boxcar just to talk about music and listen to his albums. He expanded my horizons about music of all kinds, especially music from India.
As I mentioned before, Aaron lived in a boxcar and was quite content living there. But it must be mentioned that his abode was by choice and not out of necessity, as was the case with us Mexicans. Also, he lived next to his parents house so that he could lean on them if need be.
In the summers, he would move to his tree house, which was also next to his parents' house. I remember going up to his tree house one day and getting a tour of his room. Aaron really was ingenious in finding new ways to live. But, since he wasn't married--and never will be--, he was quite content. He had plenty of time to meditate, paint, and listen to music. Although he was quite skilful in these areas, he had a child's mind which was manifested in his inquisitiveness and open-mindedness. He accepted everybody, including our small Mexican palomilla. As a matter of fact, he was quite fond of Mexicans and Mexican culture, having traveled to Mexico in the mid-1960s.
I remember his fascination for don Juan from the Carlos Castañeda's books. He would go on journeys with some of us into the mountains in search of don Juan and visions. Some of my companions and he would swear that he had conversations with don Juan. These visions and the supernatural were a vital part of our Mexican culture and we did not doubt their authenticity. We knew they were true.
I paid him my last visit when I had to leave town to go into the Navy. I said goodbye to a good friend of mine and we promised to keep in touch. When I got my first leave after boot camp, I went to visit him at his boxcar. Immediately, I felt that I had aged and that I didn't fit into his realm. There was another group of younger Mexican kids visiting him and listening to his music while he exhibited his art. It was the same age group as mine when I used to visit him. He talked about Carlos Castañeda and herbs and music. My visit wasn't long, it didn't have to be. I said goodbye and haven't seen him since, but I know that he will never age as long as teenage kids visit him and keep him young. I guess he'll live forever like Quetzalcóatl and will return someday to bring back the heyday of my Mexican memories in Blackfoot. I know he's still out there in the same boxcar and tree house and still young. Although he was older than me when I met him , I know that he's much younger than me now. The fountain of youth which eluded Ponce de León was not in Florida, but in Idaho. Someday, I'll learn to be like Aaron.
The Rock Festival near Sun Valley, Idaho
Although Idaho is usually one of the last places to hear about current trends, the Rock n' Roll scene, which had taken a different direction spurred on by Haight-Ashbury and the Hippie movement, hit the state a couple of years after taking off in San Francisco. Several Rock Festivals had already taken place before Idaho had its own: Woodstock, Isle of Wight, and Watts Glen. The Idaho extravaganza took place on a small farm near Sun Valley. It was well advertised and our Chicano group was determined to make the pilgrimage to the land of the Sun.
On a Friday morning, Pablo, Dennis, Agustín, Daniel and his girlfriend, and I left Blackfoot for Sun Valley, 150 miles away. We didn't have much money, so we knew we would have to sneak a couple of guys in the trunk of my 1964 Pontiac when we got to the Festival entrance. It was an adventure we would never forget. After all, we were going to be entertained by Wolfman Jack, himself, as the emcee of the whole event. We also planned to rendezvous with other local heads from Blackfoot. We anticipated plenty of topless girls to go around and spirits, and....you know.... the rest.
It was late afternoon when we got to the Festival. As planned, we hid Daniel and his girlfriend in the trunk--Pablo was too fat--so that we could save on the ticket fees. The valley was already bustling with the activity of the anxious crowd getting drunk and high and preparing for the appearance of the first bands that evening. We knew that Pacific Light and Electric, Oliver, and other third-rate bands would be appearing on Saturday, but, what do you expect, this wasn't California. Yet rumors abounded from the freaks that the Stones, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, and a slew of other first-rate performers were coming to the valley! Something to smoke and drink about! That night, Wolfman Jack kept us entertained with stories of horror and intros to local bands and wannabe Rock n' Rollers. The moon was full and Wolfman Jack was howling like a rabid animal, possessed by the moon's hypnotic spell. It was a strange experience as we saw people coming over the mountain with hiking packs, like gypsies wandering across the land. There were freaks from Montana, Utah, Oregon, and all parts of Idaho, sharing their possessions and their old ladies with anyone who wanted to indulge. What a scene of tripping, drunkenness, and orgies! Finally, night turned into day and the all-night, perverse debauchery was over. Morning had come.
That morning, we prepared for the day with coffee and booze and pills. I remember going up alone to the side of the mountain to try to get a view of the whole event. All of a sudden, I heard a hypnotic noise and saw a chain of dancers performing what looked like a snake dance. The music was hypnotic. I thought I was on a really weird trip and only imagining what I was seeing. Little did I know that this was my first experience with the Hare Krishnas. Today, they just hang out at airports.
The Devil Comes to Idaho
The devil, like God and Jesus Christ, is very much a part of Mexicans' lives. Somehow, we Mexicans have been cursed with having to take him everywhere we go, he has become a part of our luggage. He no longer is isolated in Mexico where he was confined for centuries. Now he has come to the United States with the Mexican laborers.
I never questioned my parents about the devil's existence. They believed in him and so did I. I remember an incident in Caldwell, Idaho, in the mid 1950s when my mother gathered us all together in the house and did not let anybody outside, just like she had done when the Migra would come looking for us in South Texas. But this time, it wasn't the Migra who had come to look for us, but the devil, himself.
The sky was dark except for the moon which was a strange color, almost blood red and waxing. My mother warned us that it was fighting the sun and that the result could be catastrophic. I was frightened, just as I was with the Migra, but in a different way. I knew that if the battle continued, the whole world would end, thus ending the fifth sun, like the Aztecs had predicted hundreds of years ago.
I could not peek out the window and was forced to pray to God and all the saints--past, present, and future--and even the Virgin of Guadalupe.....anybody that could help us. During all of this time, my mother kept peeking out the window and describing what she was seeing in the great battle between the sun and moon.
Finally, she sighed a sigh of relief and pronounced a lull in the fighting. The battle had ended and the devil had tired of playing games with humanity and, as the Spanish saying goes, had not disappeared, but had retired to plan his next mischievous and despicable crisis for humanity. We were safe for the time being. Our lives were spared. I never questioned my mother and what she had seen. In Mexico, the devil is much more prevalent than in the United States. People live side by side with him and sometimes even scoff him and Death as they do on the Día de los Muertos. We Mexicans are very sensitive people and can detect the supernatural and draw it out of our psyches easily, not like the Gringos who are so cold to God, the devil, and Death. If my mother saw a battle in Caldwell, Idaho, much like that of Armageddon, then so be it. I know that the devil came to Idaho and he's probably here to stay.
Mexican Against Mexican
Unfortunately, due to the fact that we Mexicans were oppressed and discriminated against in Idaho, as well as throughout the United States, we had no choice but to lash out. But against what or whom? We couldn't fight the white system because it was too strong. Consequently, we fought ourselves. It was a sad sociological truth that we had no choice. We had too much penned up inside and we had to find a release. This is a sad commentary for us, but it was a logical course since we had no alternative.
In Southeast Idaho, we worked hard all week in the fields and lived poorly. We saw the rich white folks and their fancy houses but we had been conditioned to believe that our current lot was our fate. One of the ways to let off steam was to prove our machismo to the women. Consequently, we killed and were killed. One of my close friends killed two tejanos in a Blackfoot bar simply because they insulted his manhood. Another friend of mine killed another luckless soul at a Mexican dance. The circumstances were never quite clear. Several of my other friends committed suicide because they saw no future in their lives as fieldhands and farm laborers and opted to end their suffering.
I remember that even the Indians were afraid of us. One of my observations was that the Indians used knives and seldom used guns. On the other hand, we Mexicans carried guns because we believed that if we were going to do a job, we were going to do it right. We never thought of the consequences. Sometimes I would ride with some of my friends who carried guns in their cars and boasted about how they were going to blow somebody away. The Mexican dances were the "main event" for most of these engagements. I remember a Mexican dance at the Mangum Barn, just outside of Blackfoot, when I found a gun by the entrance. I'm glad I found it because there was always somebody out to get me and--who knows--maybe this was the gun they intended to use on me....or the gun I would need to defend myself.
The Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, a part of the DOE (Department of Energy), used to be called the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission). In 1951, the AEC provided the town of Arco with electricity albeit for a short while. Arco wasn't too far from where I lived in Taber, no more than 50 miles. When my family moved to Taber, we never realized that we were so close to the AEC and that it was such an historic place. I remember seeing the buses that took the workers to and from the atomic energy plant. At that time there were few if any Mexicans and Mexican Americans working at the plant. The buses usually just passed the farm laborers in the fields as oblivious to us as we were to them.
But times have changed since then. Today, many of my friends work there. Graciela Rodríguez, Dennis López, Pablo Flores, and half of my sister's in-laws, the Pérez family, all work at the site. Thanks to the site, the city of Idaho Falls has prospered tremendously. It seems to be the only city that did not suffer from the recession of the 1980s. Today, the city is booming thanks to employment at DOE.
On a recent trip to Idaho, I decided to pay a visit to Graciela at work. She is a secretary at the site and has been there for many years. She was really surprised to see me and I was impressed with her professional status at the office. I wonder if she remembers as vividly as I do our past on the farm. I remember working with her and her family in the beet fields and potato fields. We were unskilled laborers at the time. But today, she would make her parents proud.
I've also mentioned the Pérez family. They too have bettered their lives thanks to the site. This family also worked hard in the fields and they have managed to work themselves out of poverty.
I get a lump in my throat when I think about how we Mexicans have managed to work hard enough to overcome poverty. But I hope we don't forget our past because it has helped shape our character. Today, I still see new immigrant Mexicans near the site. I imagine some will return to Mexico voluntarily, while others will be deported. But of those who stay, there will be some who will somehow manage to "move up in the world" like we did. I wonder if their memories of their past will be as vivid as mine. Only time will tell.
I had just returned home for good from my second stint in Vietnam when another crisis appeared in my life. I had no idea where the Teton Dam was located, but one morning on June 5, 1976, I heard that the 310 foot-high earthen dam was breaking up and would surely burst open. Although I lived in Pocatello, about 75 miles from the dam, the panic had set in and had reached our city. Many of us went to Blackfoot, which was 21 miles north of the city, to pile up sandbags along the new Riverside Shopping Mall, next to the river. We had precious few hours to protect the stores from the rising river. Th flood had already wiped out two thirds of Rexburg upstream and had left 14,000 homeless. Eleven people had already died in the flood and we wanted to prevent a similar situation in Blackfoot.
Consequently, Héctor Rodríguez, Pablo Flores, and I went to the mall to pile up sandbags. The local merchants provided free sandwiches, donuts, and coffee to the workers.
I suppose we didn´t work hard enough to save the mall from the flood. Although we worked into the night, the flood was too strong for us. The following day, we got word to abandon our efforts to the uncontrollable, overpowering water. A few hours after we left the mall, the water from the river flooded all the stores. It was amazing to see this catastrophe develop before our very eyes. Although the dam was 55 miles north of Blackfoot, the effects of the flood could still be felt in the area. Fortunately, the Federal Government footed most of the bill for the damage caused by the dam, but the experience was something Southeastern Idaho would never forget. It is true that we failed to protect the mall from the flood but our work was not in vain. The crisis strengthened our friendships. It was amazing to see Anglos, Indians, and Mexicans work side by side to protect our mall. It usually takes a crisis to bring people together. But it's sad that we have to wait for these catastrophes to join hands in friendship.
On the Reservation
The Fort Hall Indian Reservation is next to Blackfoot, just across the Blackfoot River. It is located between Pocatello and Blackfoot. Consequently, in order to travel between Blackfoot and Pocatello, one has to drive through the reservation. The fort was established by Nathaneil Wyeth in 1834 on the mouth of the Portneuf River and on the south bank of the Snake River. The reservation was created on July 30, 1863 with a treaty between the U.S. Government and the Shoshone Bannocks. It was much larger than it is today, but white people slowly ate away at the land and took more and more. It got to the point where the Shoshone Bannocks took the U.S. Government to court in 1938 over their loss of land which they claimed was set aside for them in the 1863 treaty.
The reservation has rich soil in which potatoes, wheat, barley, and beets are planted. Consequently, it is necessary to find workers to till the soil and care for the crops. Nobody will do this work except Mexican migrant workers who are willing to give away much of their lives in drudgery hoping to "make it" in the land of opportunity. I worked there when I was a teenager, pulling weeds in the potato fields. It was stoop labor and the work was hard. At that time, I worked with the Rodriguez family, which was like a second family to me and had taken me in. We spent long hours in the fields pulling weeds. Pay was measured by the acre; so the faster we worked, the more money we made. Our fields were located next to I-15, just outside of Fort Hall. It was amazing to see the contrast of unskilled laborers toiling the fields next to the most modern of interstates and its automobiles. I wonder what these drivers thought when they drove by us as we worked. The Anglos were probably on vacation from their high paying executive jobs, while we had the most slavish of vocations that ironically placed potatoes on their plates.
I remember, on another occasion, when I worked with another Mexican laborer moving irrigation pipes. He was from the Mexico City area and spoke no English. In a brief moment of repose, we talked about our work in the fields. He told me how he was abused by the white boss and was forced to move an excessive amount of pipes...much more than I was moving. He had no choice. He was a mojado and could not complain. But since I was an American citizen, I took it upon myself to rail the boss for his abusive tactics. Needless to say, I did not stay long in those fields. I found farmwork elsewhere where treatment was better and where my conscious was at rest. I don't know what happened to the mistreated farmworker. Perhaps he was treated worse, like the young servant who Don Quijote thought he had helped only to find that his master whipped him unconscious after Don Quijote had left the scene. But my conscience was in a state of rest and tranquility knowing that I had stood up to the powerful white master.
Years later, while in college, I would spend a lot of time in Fort Hall, but this time as a traveler on I-15, and I would see Mexican laborers in the same fields that I had worked. I reminisce over a few beers with my friend Héctor Rodríguez, whose family I had worked with in the 1960s. We talk about our experiences on the reservation, our hard work and our beer drinking. The years are passing us by but the memories are still as clear as they were when we worked in the fields.
Back-breaking hoeing. Unidentified farm workers (Longino Orozco is in the group); Burley area; circa 1955. Photo courtesy of Ramón Orozco.
Today, the Mexican population is still growing in Idaho. There are still labor camps being built in the state, camps which are in much better condition than in the past. Anhaueser-Busch recently built a labor camp in northern Idaho, north of Bonners Ferry, in 1986 for 150 Mexican workers who will help harvest the hops which are used for the company's beer. Labor camps in northern Idaho are also nothing new. There were Mexicans in this part of the state in the 1800s where they worked in the mines. By 1945, there were Mexicans working in the forests near towns such as Coeur d' Alene where they planted seedlings.
But the labor camps that I remember are gone. I have visited them and they are mere ghost towns today. At one time, these labor camps were bustling with excitement and activity. There were labor camps all over southern Idaho, from Caldwell to Blackfoot and Arco. But today many of these camps are mere vestiges of their past. The old, dilapidated dwellings are now desolate and deserted. These labor camps were pillaged long ago and little is left but tumble weeds and the haunting souls of Mexican laborers who have settled in. The blowing wind has covered the antiquated buildings with layers of dirt and silt like the ancient cities of Meso America. Today, all that remains are the memories, but they will stay with me forever; and I swear I can still discern the labor camps from a distance, off the Idaho highways, on hot summer days; but the heat blurs my vision and they become espejismos....mere espejismos of my past.
1. Idaho's Latin Americans, Laurie Mercier, p. 6
2. ibid., p.7
3. The Idaho Encyclopedia, Compiled by Vardis Fisher, (Caldwell: The Caxton Printers, Ltd.,
1938), p. 85
4. History of Idaho, Leonard J. Arrington, v.2, p.285
5. Rocks, Rails and Trails, Paul Karl Link and E. Chilton Phoenix, (Idaho Museum of Natural
History, 1996), p. 47.
6. The Blackfoot Register, 10 July, 1880, p.2, column 2.
7. Pocatello Tribune, 13 March, 1916, p. 1, column 6.
8. Salt Lake Tribune, 11 March, 1916, p. 2, column 2
9. Greater Blackfoot Area Chamber of Commerce
10. Oh! Idaho, Autumn, 1990 p. 56
11. "Mexico Clamps Labor Ban on Gem State," Idaho Statesman, October 13, 1948, p.7, c.1.
12. Merril Beal, A History of Southeastern Idaho, (Caldwell: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1942), Vol. II,
Ch. 22, "Development of an Agricultural Enterprise."
13. “The Geology and Volcanic History of the Big Southern Butte-East Butte Area, Eastern
Snake River Plain, Idaho,” Dallas B. Spear, dissertation of Doctor of Philosophy, State
University of New York at Buffalo, September, 1979, pp. i-ii
14. History of Bingham County, Idaho by Frank Hartkopf, Thesis submitted to the Department of
History and the Committee on Graduate Study at the University of Wyoming, in
partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts; Laramie,
Wyoming; 1942; p. 6.
15. Blackfoot News, 4 January, 1968, p. 6
16. Arthur C. Saunders, History of Bannock County, (Pocatello: The Tribune Co., 1915), p. 123.
17. NEA Today, Dec. 15, 1990, vol. 9, p. 7
18. National Catholic Reporter, April 6, 1979, vol. 15, p.1
19. Fort Hall and the Shoshone-Bannock, Edited by E.S. Lohse and Richard N. Holmer, p. 10
20. “Treaty with the Shoshone-Northwestern Bands, 1863”; Laws and Treaties. Indian Affairs.
(Washington, D.C.: G.P.O., 1904), v. II (Treaties), pp. 848-853.
21. “Claims of Shoshone or Bannock Indians Living on Fort Hall Indian Reservation, Idaho,
Against the United States”, House of Representatives, 75th Congress, 3d Session, Report
No. 2340, May 11, 1938.
22. History of Idaho, p. 286
23. Patricia K. Ourada, Ph.D, Migrant Workers in Idaho, 1980, p. 47.
Copyright Amando Álvarez, 1999
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