Moises Sandoval
Moises Sandoval

Fellowship Title:

The Phantom Migrants

Moises Sandoval
February 9, 1978

Fellowship Year

The Colorado Migrant Council reports that thousands of migrant farm workers earned so little last year that they were unable to return home after the harvest.

Yet, the Colorado State Employment Service, which says that all migrants have returned home, will send recruiters in February through the barrios of El Paso, Laredo, Eagle Pass and Florida to recruit 600 migrants to come to Colorado’s Western Slope region to work in the fruit harvest next summer.

The recruiting, transportation for the migrants and other costs will be paid with a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, the same agency which is the primary funding source for the Colorado Migrant Council.

Such is the surrealistic quality of Colorado’s migrant picture. The various agencies dealing with farm workers cannot even agree on how many are in the state. The Colorado Migrant Council has one figure, the Employment Service another and the State Department of Agriculture a third. The estimates range from 50,000 to 10,000.

Don MacMillan, spokesman for the Colorado State Employment Service, said his agency had no information about stranded migrants and cautioned against using figures that could not be documented. After checking with Nick Pacheco of the Unit for Rural Manpower, MacMillan said: “Nick told me that he was relatively certain that all the migrants had gone back home.”

However, Luis Jaramillo, executive director of the Colorado Migrant Council, said that 5,000 to 10,000 migrants — workers and their families — were stranded after the harvest and that by mid-January 3,000 to 5,000 still remained. Jaramillo conceded that the figures were estimates based on the number of persons served by the Council’s various offices throughout the state and on the reports of outreach workers. But there was also concrete evidence that there were many migrants passing the winter in Colorado.

In one part of the northern area, there were 80 migrant families in January while last year there were only 10, reported Field Services Coordinator Barbara Cambas. In the frigid San Luis Valley, 57 migrant and undocumented families were spending the winter, according to Area Director Angie Bernard. Jaramillo said many migrant families had moved into the Denver area rather than return home although he had no estimate of how many.

All during 1977 — because the stranding occurred throughout the year due to a larger supply of labor than needed — the Migrant Council helped more than 3,000 families with money, gasoline or food so that they could leave the state, Jaramillo said. In the Arkansas Valley, Area Director Dolores Pitman said such aid was given to several hundred families.

In addition, recently settled migrants are having a difficult time this winter. One such family is that of Gregorio Herrero (not his real name.) In mid-January, he and his family were living in a small trailer alongside a barn on a farm near Windsor, Colo. The Herreros had no water, no inside plumbing and only a gas cook stove to heat the trailer. Herrero had worked only four hours the previous week at $2 an hour and the farmer had kept the $8 to apply on back rent for the trailer. Every member of the family — father, mother and three small children — was sick. The only food was that brought by Migrant Council staffers. The farmer was charging the Herreros $50 a month rent and $45 for electricity, although the Herreros had only a single light bulb and an ancient TV set. (The couple said the farmer had refused to show them the light bill.) The cost for gas was $75 for two months.

Herrero had no prospect of a full-time job and no chance of going to look for one. His car was inoperative. And the farmer had also confiscated the title until Herrero paid debts totaling $230. With a tenth grade education, Herrero was very employable in the view of Migrant Council staffers. Barbara Cambas was trying very hard to find the father a job in town and a more adequate residence.

In nearby Johnstown, the five-month-old daughter of another recently settled family had died of pneumonia. Theirs was typical farm worker housing — poorly insulated, lacking adequate heating, without inside plumbing. “There is no way that you can go to that house and look at the conditions there and not say they must have contributed to this child’s death,” said Jaramillo.

Closer to Denver, a grower near Platteville was trying to evict several unemployed farm workers who refused to leave until they were paid $2,000 in back wages. The grower claimed the migrants owed the disputed amount in rent. He had shut off the electricity and gas supply. The Migrant Council had succeeded in restoring service until the migrants could initiate litigation. The workers claimed they were told at the beginning of the season that the housing would be provided without charge.

Sources indicated that these stranded migrants and recently settled farm workers would not be desirable prospects in the Employment Service’s recruiting drive. The Western Slope growers mainly want men who will come without families. The stranded migrants, according to the Colorado Migrant Council, are people who travel and work with their families. They prefer field work to fruit harvesting.

Also, the Western Slope is not a popular work area for migrants and that is the reason growers are having difficulties getting workers. Migrant Council officials said the pay there is lower, the housing more inadequate and the working conditions less pleasant than in other areas. Just last summer, six of 46 workers recruited in El Paso on a job order promising $2.35 an hour for a minimum of 30 hours a week charged that when they arrived in Colorado they were offered much lower piece-work pay. They sued the various agencies, including employment services in both Colorado and Texas.

Sources indicate that the growers had turned to illegal aliens until immigration officials began deporting them. Now the growers have been threatening to seek the certification of aliens as the onion growers did in Presidio, Texas, last year. To head that off, the Colorado State Employment Service applied for the $300,000 grant to conduct an old-style recruiting drive reminiscent of those undertaken in decades past.

One insoluble problem is housing. One source said that one-fourth to one-half of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s standards will have to be waived in the accommodations which will be offered to the workers sought in the coming drive. Of course, poor housing is not unusual in Colorado. An official at an Employment Service Job Center said that the vast majority of housing for migrants is below standard.

The irony of Colorado’s current farm problems is that even as Employment Service recruiters comb the Southwest for more workers, there is hunger, malnutrition, sickness, under-employment and unemployment among workers already there. The unemployment rate in Fort Lupton was reported by a Job Center official as being nearly 40 percent in November. In the San Luis Valley, Angie Bernard said those who had work were not full-time and were averaging only about $50 a week. Asked how they survived, she replied; “As Mexicans we have survival skills from way back. If we have beans, potatoes and tortillas, we somehow get by.” Barbara Cambas said some of the farm workers were limited to such demeaning jobs as sweeping snow off walks and feeding farmers’ dogs. Those who were more fortunate had sporadic work bagging beans or potatoes at warehouses or loading docks.

The Colorado Migrant Council spent $97,000 in direct food aid in 1977. In addition, three food drives were held in the Denver area alone. Similar efforts were made in outlying areas. A conference was being sponsored by the Council in late January to promote the idea of a food bank and to establish better ways among concerned agencies to deal with rural area poor people.

At the migrant clinic in Gill, Administrator Agustin Puente said the patient load had decreased only from 50 to 35 daily between the summer and winter. One of the patients was the father of a family who had just arrived from Texas in a futile search for work they could not find back home.

In the San Luis Valley, which experiences sub-zero cold from November to March, Angie Bernard said there was a lot of strep throat, bronchitis and pneumonia. To make matters worse, health services had exhausted their funds by Sept. 30 and the farm workers were having to rely on their own home remedies. Health services had not been restored by mid-January.

On all counts, 1977 was an extremely bad year for farm workers in Colorado. Not only were there more workers than available jobs but wages were lower than in other years. In some cases workers were paid $12 an acre for thinning beets, which was $1 less than was paid in 1945 when I was employed in such work. A mother and several daughters picked pickles for the equivalent of 38 cents an hour. Other workers earned the equivalent of $1.20 an hour. Many found no work and had to move on.

Mike Garcia, who is in charge of special programs at the Colorado Migrant Council, tells about running into a group of stranded migrants at a roadside on the way to Burlington. There were two pickups and one station wagon in the caravan. “We haven’t found work,” the migrants said. “We are down to about $30 among all of us and we don’t have any place to go.” The migrants had been stranded for several days. They had come from Texas to do beet work and found none.

To understand what happened in Colorado in 1977, one has to consider the migrant stream as a real river, with its head-waters in Florida and Texas. Early in the year, a freeze killed crops in Florida, thereby dumping large numbers of migrants into the stream. These workers moved upward into other states, creating what Luis Jaramillo called “a domino effect.” Workers arrived at the farms where they had worked in previous years to find that others had taken their jobs. So they in turn moved to other areas, displacing other workers. For the first time, according to Migrant Council officials, black migrant workers from Florida came to Colorado. Luis Jaramillo said that the migrants were forced “to literally scavenge” for jobs and this further threw them off in their timetable to appear for jobs farther up the stream. “So you can imagine that you have a lot of displaced persons,” Jaramillo said.

Unfortunately, the freeze in Florida was not the only disruptive influence in 1977. Faced with low sugar prices and a new sugar act not yet through the halls of Congress, growers planted corn instead of beets in many instances, thus eliminating many jobs. The drought was not as serious in Colorado in relation to intensive labor crops as it was in other areas. Jim Sabin, Migrant Council researcher, said there was sufficient water for 90 to 95 percent of the crops utilizing migrant labor. But it did cut down yields in some areas. More disastrous in the beet-growing farmlands of northeastern Colorado was a late spring ice storm which destroyed power lines to the deep wells from which the farmers draw their irrigation water. Luis Jaramillo said that along the Kansas border in one area there was a 50 percent reduction in crops requiring hand labor.

Undeniably, the undocumented worker is putting the migrant in an economic squeeze. Migrant Council officials spoke of families “who were literally chased out of the fields because farmers found some other laborers who would do the work for less pay.” Estimating the number of undocumented workers is even more risky than trying to count migrants. “Guesses” are that up to 20 percent of the workers close to the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and up to 80 percent of those in the eastern edge of the state are undocumented immigrants.

Cheap alien labor is particularly appealing in the northeast because the farmers are caught in a rising spiral of fuel and power costs. Irrigation water has to be drawn from artesian wells several hundred feet deep. Thus the working conditions of farm laborers are worsening. Sabin said some of the workers had to live in chicken coops and ditches. Enforcement of state and federal housing standards, said one official cynically, is fairly good within a three-hour drive from Denver but practically nonexistent in the northeast.

But even close to Denver the process of getting agencies to respond requires unflagging perseverance and proverbial patience. Barbara Cambas said it took a whole year to get authorities to come to inspect a camp near Brighton, a mere 20 miles from Denver. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration never responded, she said. But the State Health Department finally sent inspectors. They made a list of violations and gave the grower 30 days to correct them. Returning, they found the improvements had not been made and told the grower he could not continue to house workers in the camp. The grower said fine; the season was over by then and he no longer needed the workers. Next summer, said Barbara Cambas, she expects the process to begin all over again. Incidentally, the grower was so incensed about the inspection that he lined up his workers outside the camp and demanded to know who had reported him to the Migrant Council and State Health Department. Among other things, the camp was infested with bugs.

Sad to say, even enforcement of recently toughened state regulations has a bad consequence for migrants. The San Luis Valley is a good example. Though the housing was substandard, there were once enough units to enable migrants to bring their families. Now many of the houses, hotels and motels have either been condemned or improved to the point where the migrants cannot afford the rent, said Angie Bernard. Thus the trend is for migrants to come alone, putting strains on the heretofore tight-knit migrant family structure. Angie Bernard said that approximately 800 men now come alone to the San Luis Valley. “There is no place for them to cook breakfast in the morning before they leave for work,” she said. “When they get out of work there is nothing for them to do but drink.” The end result is that social ills seldom seen before — alcoholism and broken homes — are now on the increase. The picture is not much brighter in the rest of the state. Some farmers have burned down their shacks rather than improve them. The Migrant Council reported that 6,500 housing units are needed in Colorado.

Frustrations in getting a living wage for the migrants are no less vexing. Barbara Cambas tells of pulling the family making 38 cents an hour out of the field and, with mud up to her knees, driving with them to Denver so they could testify at a meeting attended by the governor. Later, she was not certain whether the gesture would have any effect. Despite laws to register and control labor contractors, the exploitation of workers continues. Migrant Council officials told of instances, especially in the northeast, where the contractors would negotiate $25 an acre for thinning beets and then tell the workers that the grower paid only $15. The contractor would then keep $5 and the migrants would get $10. Only six percent of the contractors are said to be registered.

Migrant Council staffers say minimum-wage legislation frequently has some clause which effectively excludes the migrant. They add that even when migrants are covered there are frequent violations. However, Colorado is not unique in that respect. The American Friends Service Committee conducted an analysis of wages on 25 different farms in Ohio in 1976, according to the National Association of Farm Worker Organizations, and uncovered 262 violations of the federal minimum-wage law. In 49.5 percent of the worker weeks in the study, the minimum wage of $2 was not paid.

Getting migrants out of farm work is a big priority for the Migrant Council, but the educational standards to qualify for job training slots under the Comprehensive Employment Training Act often frustrate that aim. Ms. Cambas said 98.9 percent of the migrants in her area do not have a fourth grade education. Yet, the Headstart program, which could begin to change this sad picture for the next generation, is being cut down this year from eight centers to four. The program takes young children out of the fields and places them in a learning environment where parents won’t have to worry about them. Otherwise, they have to be locked in cars while the parents work or allowed to play unsupervised, often around dangerous farm machinery. “Last year we served 1,300 in the whole state,” said Ms. Cambas. “This year we will have only 600.”

Budgetary attrition is another problem sapping staff morale. The Migrant Council, an organization founded a little more than a decade ago, was once a $4 million program. Now the budget has shrunk to $780,000 and next year it will be only $695,000. Many outreach and office services have been curtailed. Because of understaffing, there is a large turnover of personnel.

Against a backdrop of decreasing services, the erosion of migrant earning power is continuous. A study prepared by Dr. Robert D. McCracken for the Migrant Council in 1976 shows that for the last eight years the percentage of families earning under $2,500 a year has not changed appreciably. Consequently, said McCracken, there has been a 50 percent reduction in farm worker purchasing power due to inflation.

Even then the migrant is often turned down for social services on the basis that he has no address, hasn’t lived in the county long enough or cannot present records of employment. Some migrants may work in six different fields for six different growers in a single week, Migrant Council outreach workers report. Often they are paid in cash and no records are kept. Social security deductions are not always made or credited. Ms. Cambas said one grower had deducted for social security from all his employees but had none of their social security numbers.

Frank Rodriguez, whose job is to develop jobs outside of agriculture for migrants, says that prospective employers tell him: “We don’t like to hire wetbacks, “erroneously assuming that migrants are all illegal aliens.” When he does succeed in placing migrants in other jobs they often experience discrimination and humiliations which force them to quit. But there are some outstanding successes which give Rodriguez and the Migrant Council heart. One had experience in construction before coming to Colorado as a migrant. He is now a supervisor in that trade. Another is a woman who, while working in the onion fields, was sickly and had such a low image of herself that she seldom ventured an opinion. Placed as a nurses’ aide, she is healthier, confident and unafraid to express her views.

Another remarkable success story is that of Agustin Puente, administrator of the clinic in Gill. He did not start formal schooling until he was 13 and and completed only the fourth grade, as his family spent only three to four months of the year in Texas before moving out each spring to work the crops from the Rockies eastward. The family finally settled in Colorado where the Migrant Council enrolled Agustin at a local community college. After earning a GED high school equivalency certificate, he went to the University of Colorado, also under a Migrant Council education program. He completed four years of college.

Rodriguez himself is one of the Council’s successes. His family once followed the crops from Texas to Colorado, Idaho, California and Arizona. Unlike Puente, he did attend school long enough to earn a high school diploma. When the family settled in Colorado he attended a local community college, studying sociology while teaching English as a second language to other students in their homes. Then he came to work for the Migrant Council.

Abelardo Delgado, poet, educator and, now, the research director for the Migrant Council, writes: “…the day is coming when misery will die…the day is coming when farm workers will pick up their children and go for vacation a green spring…” But that day for the migrant as a culture, given the cruel economic and social forces which oppress him, seems very far away.

Received in New York on February 9, 1978

©1978 Moises Sandoval

Moises Sandoval is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner on leave from Maryknoll Magazine. His fellowship subject is latinization in the U.S.: a study of the Hispanic population explosion and its implications for the nation’s foreign and domestic policies. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Sandoval as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation and to Maryknoll Magazine. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of the Foundation.