The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 2, Numbers 3-4, Pages 18-21
Spring-Summer, 1977

Oral History: A Migrant Laborer Settles Down

By David Hastings

David Hastings teaches at Wenatchee High School.

On June 16,1933 the National Industrial Recovery Act provided funds for Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia Basin Project, one of the largest developments of its kind ever undertaken by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, was begun. The water literally changed the semi-arid desert of Washington into a productive farm belt.

The project area is over eighty miles long (north and south) and sixty miles wide (east and west) with the town of Othello, Washington approximately at its heart. In the fifties farmers and laborers alike flocked to the Basin, so that in 1960 Othello had a population of 2,669 with an ever growing rural community nearby. The people who settled the land came from various places. Some were irrigation farmers before in Idaho or other regions; but many were indeed pioneers to this form of making the land productive.

Irrigation farming and especially the crops produced needed more man-hours than other types of farming. The advent of sugar beets and potatoes required numerous forms of hand labor. Migrant labor was needed because this type of work was only seasonal. A group of people, mainly of Spanish descent, came to fill this need. The Chicano, who had originally come to Washington to work in the Yakima Valley, now was wanted in the fields of the Basin.

Some of these people were second generation from the Yakima Valley, but many came from California and Texas, and many were aliens from Mexico. These people started coming in the mid-fifties and still today many do not speak the English language. A new immigrant not only to the Basin but in some cases the U.S., the Chicano helped develop the vast farm lands. As time progressed in the sixties, food sheds and processing plants were created. A labor force was again required and the people who worked the fields began to work in food distribution and production.

The Basin grew and many other Chicanos came, not only as migrant laborers, but some as farmers and professional people. Many of the migrants also changed occupations - staying the year round becoming farmers, skilled laborers and professional people, and advancing themselves and the communities in which they lived.

Today the migrant Chicano still serves the needs of a seasonal field worker. But many Chicano-Americans are permanent residents of towns such as Othello, providing community leadership and adding their culture to the Basin. Assimilation of these people has occured, but new Chicano immigrants are also influencing the new cities like Othello, in the new land of the Columbia Basin.

Guadalupe (Wally) Zavaleta, age thirty-nine, represents not only the Chicano people but the spirit of Othello as a developing community. Mr. Zavaleta came to Othello as a migrant in 1954. As the community progressed so did Mr. Zavaleta, for he now holds a position of responsibility with the Carnation Potato Processing Company. A community leader today, Mr. Zavaleta's story taken from a taped interview, is a history of importance to all the people of the Columbia Basin.

We came here in 1954. And we lived in the labor camp by Moses Lake. Behind the American Potato Shed is where we used to live. From that labor camp we used to go out and help the farmers thin beets, after the beets we helped the farmers also like in the onions; usually they paid about 10 cents/half-sack of onions. We stayed there maybe six months. After the six months we drove back to Arizona or Texas or wherever home was. Actually I came from McAllen, Texas.

We used to go back and forth. We picked cotton in Texas until September or October and then we headed to Arizona from November to February. After the cotton we headed to Toppenish, Washington and after Toppenish we came to Moses Lake.

The valley [Yakima area] would start the beets earlier than the Basin. At that time we could thin beets in two places. Thinning beets, as matter of fact, was the first job that we had. There was thinning beets, then the hoeing that would last maybe a couple of weeks. Then after the beets we could work in the potatoes, either as a truck driver or in the potato sheds. The fresh market sheds were already started as far as we remembered in 1954.

Migrant living could last many years, going from state to state, mostly those three states, [Arizona, Texas and Washington]. Some people would stay in California for a few weeks or months, but they still came to Washington to do some field work. Some people are still doing this same thing...

My father died when I was four years old. Actually he was just a migrant like we were. My mother was the same thing, just working from place to place to pick cotton or to work in the fields. Field work was about all they were able to handle.

I was a migrant up to 1955 and then I went into the service. I got out in 1958 and that was when I came to settle down here. I first went to Toppenish and then got married in Burley, Idaho. We then headed back to Toppenish for a few years and then came to Othello in 1960. We were still migrants going back to Texas.

In Othello, we did the same thing, thin beets and work at Pacific Fruit. Chef-Reddy (largest potato processing plant in Washington) started in '62. 1963 and '64 many migrants decided not to travel anymore. They decided to stay here and make Othello their home. I started at Chef-Reddy in '65, that's when I decided to quit going back and forth. It took more than a year to get adjusted to this type of work and living. When you work as a migrant you are actually your own boss at times. When we worked in the fields and the farmer would come up to you and say, 'look you guys are not fast enough, you're taking too many breaks, or you're doing this and that. 'If we thought the farmer didn't like what we were doing and he didn't want us, we would say 'pay us, we quit,' and then take off.

Yah, there was a freedom. You could just get your hoe and say I'm going to measure my part and I want you to pay me. That is the way we use to do it. I think that's why many migrants don't want to quit. There was always plenty of jobs.

I would say that I would like to be a migrant again and live those happy days because of the freedom and no headaches...When I was just labor sanitation (processing plant job) I would either be on grave yard or swing shift. Sometimes I had to work over eight hours. When I was a migrant I would only work days and when it rained you had a day off. If it rained for a week you had a whole week off. When you settle down and get a steady job you have to work all year, but as a migrant you only work about 150 days.

Migrants in 1965 began working in the sheds, buying homes and new cars. They decided to stay and live in Othello for they would be better off than any other place and their kids would get a good education. Education is important for the first thing our parents told us, 'if you could only go to school and get a good education you wouldn't be here like us. If you have a good education, you'll have a good job and you 'U be out of the sun.' Education really helped the migrant.

I worked in Chef-Reddy from '65 to '70. Then I moved over to Franklin Potato Growers which then was Far West, and Carnation [potato processing plant] took over three years ago. At Chef-Reddy, I was promoted to package supervisor. At Carnation I was production supervisor and now shift supervisor. There are very few migrants who are supervisors. I guess I was one of the lucky ones. I obtained some education at Big Bend Community College. I took the management course which helped me.

The reason we are here is that we were treated better here than in the South. The farmers always paid top wages and the working conditions were better. We got along with the farmers. Some people I knew, when they went back to Texas and ran out of money, called a farmer and 'pow' money was sent to them. The J.C. s would say join the J.C.'s, we would like to have lots of Mexican people. The Moose Club would say the same thing. The Lions, too, were happy to see you there. Actually it all depends on us.

Even the police force tries to get Mexican people as officers. They really don't have to do that but they come up and say we would like to have one or two guys on the force to have a better relationship. To me this place is one of the best places we have ever lived. This community is open for us to join any organization. You can go to any store here and be treated just right, just as if you've been here many years.

(Mr. Zavaleta discusses other aspects of assimilation.)

I don't feel right sometimes in places like Freddies or Cimarron (restaurants in Othello). If you are in Benavidezs or Zavalas you feel like you belong. They're Mexican places, they serve Mexican food and you eat the way you want. That's why many of the Mexicans don't go to those other places, only Just on occasions. My son (Ricky, age 16) doesn't have the same problems. He goes and stays with his friends.

There are two clubs in towm, the Latin-American Club and the Guadalupana Club which belongs to the Catholic Church. Both clubs have lots of members. The Latin-American club works with the Mexican-American Commission on problems that the Mexican people have. The Guadalupana Club puts on the Mother's Day Fiesta and dances for teenagers to keep the Mexican culture.

There are some people here that are pretty strong about it (Mexican culture). They want their kids to learn their culture and not forget it. We don't push, sometimes they [Zavaleta has three children] ask and we give them the information, but we don't speak too much about it. We like the opportunities that our children have.

When I talk to Ricky I tell him to learn everything he can in school unless he wants to be a migrant. Ricky doesn't know anything about being a migrant. I think we stopped traveling at the right time. Children has stopped many, many migrants to stay here and forget about being a migrant.