Every year from April to October, the Sánchez family traveled—crowded in the back of trucks, camping in converted barns, tending and harvesting crops across the breadth of the United States. In 1951, Saúl Sánchez began to contribute to his family’s survival by helping to weed onions in Wind Lake, Wisconsin. He was eight years old. In this excerpt from Rows of Memory: Journeys of a Migrant Sugar-Beet Worker, Sánchez invites us to appreciate the largely unrecognized and poorly rewarded strength and skill of the laborers who harvest the fruits and vegetables we eat.
When I was young I used to hear members of my family say that our ancestors had come to the Winter Garden Valley of Texas at the beginning of the twentieth century, and that they came from the same area: the border between Mexico and the United States. What I have been able to ascertain is that they arrived during the time of the Mexican Revolution in the case of our maternal grandfather and a little after that in the case of our paternal grandparents….
[O]ur grandparents didn’t just decide one day to abandon the cotton fields in Texas to go up north and do sugar beets. It was an incremental transition. Their method of decision making was logical for those times. People acted as members of a family rather than as individuals. And they were traditional families, they were bound by powerful family ties. The decisions made by the elders, especially the older brothers, directly influenced the lives of all the members of the extended family.