Share |

Former Migrant Farm Family Reminisces About Youth in NW Ohio

Legal Immigration and the American Dream
Photo by: Kevin Milliken

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted with permission from El Tiempo, a Toledo weekly newspaper. The author recently spent an afternoon with the Lucio family as they relived their experiences in the farm fields as the children of Mexican immigrants four decades ago.

 

More than four decades ago, the Lucio family—seven children and two adults—would all pile into a rusty old 1959 Chevy station wagon for an annual pilgrimage from their Texas hometown to Northwest Ohio—a two-day trip.

The children called the old, beat-up family car the “Flintstone-mobile”—in honor of its rusted-out floorboards and the unrealized fear their feet would have to keep it moving, just like the pre-historic cars in the cartoon.

“We had duct tape and probably had to push it wherever we needed to go,” joked Belinda Lucio Morales, the second-youngest of the Lucio children.

‘We thought it was fun,” echoed Benito Jr., the oldest of the Lucio siblings.

“We used to see the road,” recalled Anna Lucio Cruz. “My dad used to tell us not to put our feet down, because we’d slide under the car as the car is driving. We used to play and throw things down through the floor, because we could see the road.”

Games like that on one occasion led to the loss of the family’s only hairbrush.

“We were getting close to Ohio and my mom and dad had to stop to get groceries,” Anna recalled. “My mom asked for the hairbrush and we realized we had thrown it down, probably somewhere around Memphis or somewhere.”

Bernardina Lucio got mad at her kids, but never did find out until four decades later what really happened to that hairbrush.

“We never told,” said Cindy Lucio Puente. “We weren’t about to rat each other out.”

“If one goes down, we all go down,” echoed Belinda with a laugh.

The Lucios were poor—dirt-poor. But the children never knew it, nor did they care. The purpose of that pilgrimage: to work the farm fields of Northwest Ohio and elsewhere.

The migrant farm family planted and picked every vegetable imaginable—tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, cherries, apples, and more— even traveling to Montana to pick and process sugar beets, Colorado to pick onions and carrots, and west Texas to pick and process cotton.

Those were certainly tough times, but every member of the Lucio family recalls the most important aspect of that era in their family history—everyone was together, and that’s all that mattered.

Four of the seven Lucio children recently returned to those migrant roots to reminisce and show their own children how they grew up.

Benito Lucio, Jr., who now lives in Columbus, met three of his sisters and his mom, who all traveled from Texas, for a reunion-of-sorts near Bloomdale, a Wood County village about 15 miles southeast of Bowling Green. They toured a pickle processing station and a migrant farm worker camp outside of town.

As soon as Anna smelled the cucumbers in a nearby cart, she started reminiscing.

“This is exciting—brings back so many memories of being little, a child here,” she said. “For us, the experience of being migrant farm workers was all about family—being together, playing together, taking care of each other.”

Anna and Cindy paused by giant wooden cucumber crates, recalling how they used to play “house” inside them. But the strongest memory for Anna still came back to family and the strong bond her parents taught by example.

“Despite the fact my parents would put these long hours working, there never was a time that we wanted for a hug from them,” she recalled.

“They could be tired as ever, and Cindy and I could go and jump on their back and hug them, just be clinging onto them while they’re working that field and never once say for us to get off, I’m tired, nothing. Just being with them was good enough for my parents.”

Farm owner Barbara Roseboom greeted the Lucio family warmly, admitting she remembered the older children and their mom.

“This is so great,” she said of the reunion.

But Barbara was hesitant to talk about life back then with the Lucios, leery of a tape recorder and mindful of many years of bad publicity. But the Lucio family opened up quickly, sharing their thoughts and feelings as the experience opened up a floodgate of recollection that flowed freely.

“To have the family here again,” said Benito, choking off his words as he began to cry. “Wow. How far we came, thankful to these folks for giving us the jobs. We lived some wonderful years here. We have so many fond memories, even though it was hard work. It was a fun time.”

Like many immigrant families, the Lucios did what they had to do to make their American dream come true. In that spirit, parents try to give the next generation—their children—a chance at a better life.

78-year old Bernardina, the matriarch of the Lucio clan, nearly broke down in tears when she saw the cucumber fields with her children—recalling how the younger ones would play in the family station wagon nearby while she and husband Benito would pick crops in the sweltering heat down rows that never seemed to end.

“Because we were all together, my entire family was together, that’s what I liked about it,” she said with a faint smile. “I had them all nearby.”

Bernardina, still a hint of an accent in her voice, stated she was very proud how her children turned out as adults. Now she can relax and enjoy more than a dozen grandchildren growing up.

“Sometimes I think I would do it again,” she said. “I would pick pickles again. But we used to pick cotton. That I would never do again. That was hard work. Picking cotton was the worst thing.”

That comment drew a laugh from her children, because they knew firsthand how tough it was to drag a bag of heavy cotton down rows of a farmfield until it could no longer be carried.

The Lucio siblings immediately picked up hampers—baskets used to hold cucumbers in the fields—and recalled how they used to play with them alongside their parents.

“My dad would get angry with us because they needed the hampers and Cindy and I would take them and build houses with them,” recalled Belinda with a laugh. “Then we would have to walk a long way and take them the hampers. It was hilarious.”

Anna explained those same hampers were used to hold up a mattress and box springs the children slept on each summer—six baskets, one in each corner and two others strategically placed so the bed would not collapse.

The Lucio sisters posed for pictures with the hampers in a cucumber field, while husbands and grown children snapped photos. The rows of cucumbers stretched as far as the eye could see.

“It would take us all day to get to the other side,” explained Anna. “Oh my God, it looked like it was a mile away. It looked like we would never finish, get to the end. But we managed.”

There was only one aspect to working the fields Anna disliked—getting up early in the morning, usually around 4 or 5 a.m.

“The mornings were super-cold, and the fields were all so wet,” she recalled. “They had dew on them. That’s the only thing I don’t miss and hated—the wet cold, field. We were just drenched until noon. I’m so glad I’m not out here now.”

As Anna stood next to the field she shared stories and recollections with her grown son, 25-year old Danny, who’s studying to be a civil engineer at the University of Texas.

“No regrets, it was a way of life,” she explained. “Well, it made me who I am and I’m proud of it. Don’t ever regret being a migrant worker. I know what hard work is and now I appreciate everything I have.”

Anna told her son she began working at the age of nine, cleaning beans from a huge pile “that was so big it would cover us.”

“I can see how hard it was, a lot of fields there,” he said. “You actually take for granted where the produce comes from.”

“I remember that scene right there,” said Anna, as she pointed to a caravan of wooden cucumber crates being pulled by a tractor with a handful of migrant workers aboard.

“They would hand the hampers up to be dumped into the crates,” said Belinda. “That was hard to do—but they would make it look easy. Maybe I pretended I couldn’t do it, so they wouldn’t make me do it. But my brothers would—go across each row and as they filled the hampers, you lifted them up and threw them over to fill up the crates.”

Belinda also recalled how her parents would never lose sight of their seven children, even while working the fields. She explained that they would park the family station wagon next to the rows they were picking—and pause to move the car at regular intervals.

“That way they could always keep an eye on us. We would run down the row and jump on my dad and just be clinging on him—but I didn’t weigh much then,” she said with a laugh. “When we were young, we would play on the fields. But then rules came into play about pesticides and children, so they had to keep us in the car.”

“I remember having fun, because we would play in the car and I would look up to my brothers and sisters,” recalled Cindy. “I wanted to be out here with them.”

As the family station wagon became their playground all day, the Lucio children stated they were never bored. Instead, the younger children would have cucumber fights or play the mom to cucumber “babies.”

“Whatever food we had for the day—they were always bitten,” recalled Cindy. “We would just taste it. At the end of the day, my dad would get so mad, because we would just make a mess. We would make little mud pies or pretend we were witches. It was fun.”

What made it fun, according to each of the Lucio children, is the fact that they were a tight-knit family who relied on each other for everything. They shared good times and bad—in the fields, or alongside. Anna recalled one hot, stressful day when she was a teenager. Looking up in the sky, she saw a plane and imagined there were people aboard heading on vacation.

“I started kicking hampers, because I was thinking while everybody else is vacationing, we’re out here in the fields,” she said.

“I questioned my mom, why do we have to be born poor and working the fields with long days. I remember I was in tears. What calmed me down is mom said ‘Ok, we’re poor, but look around  you. We’re all here together as a family, I have you all here with me and there’s a lot of love. We might not have money, but we’ve got a lot of love. I’ve got you all here. What else do I want?’”

The Lucio children saw metal-sided outbuildings where migrant farm families live during the summer. But these buildings feature dorm-style living, with indoor plumbing and satellite TV.

“This housing that they have now is a five-star hotel compared to what we had,” said Belinda with a laugh. “It was a shack with bunk beds all over the place—four bunk beds with hampers holding up the box springs. There weren’t any dividers. Two bedrooms, that’s it.”

“We had outhouses and gang showers,” explained Anna.

“Yeah, this is way, way better than what we had,” echoed Cindy. “I guess we couldn’t complain because we didn’t know any better. But now that you see it, you’re like, ‘Wow’ -- compared to what we had.”

The Lucio siblings also had to pump their own water from a well.

“We used to hate to have to go get the water, because carrying it was so heavy,” said Belinda.

“It was great, though, the quality of it—spring water,” countered Anna.

Anna recalled a time when she was 13 years old and her mom needed a washboard.

“We didn’t have any money, so my dad took us to the dump,” she said. “Talk about Toys-R-Us. That was Toys-R-Us to us. We found so many toys, brought them home, washed them. We were happy—and mother found her washboard. It became a ritual.”

That quickly turned into a weekly trip to the dump—and the Lucio children would restock on old toys.

“It was wonderful for us,” said Anna with a laugh.

“The interesting thing is I don’t think we realized how poor we were,” chimed in Belinda. “Because to us, that was just the way of life. That was just who we were, and to us, it was nothing that we felt sad. We were indifferent about it, just something we did. We didn’t know any better. To us, this was our life.”

“A social worker used to come to the camp and tell us we were poor,” joked Benito. “We were like, ‘We’re poor?’ We had beans, tortillas, and chiles. We’re fine. The poverty line was for what—measuring water, what? We didn’t know.”

“I have to credit our parents for always enrolling us in school,” said Belinda. “We never went long periods without being in school. If we left the valley on a Thursday or Friday, we’d be enrolled in a school by Monday.”

Benito and Anna were older, so they had to stay behind and help work the fields.

“The only time we went to school was when it was raining. We would stand under that tree while it rained, waiting for the bus,” said Anna, pointing to a nearby oak. “The times that we went, that’s how I got interested in Bowling Green State University, because we took a field trip and toured the campus.”

Anna spent a year-and-a-half at BGSU before transferring back to a university in Texas to complete her degree.

That early schooling also included a field trip to the Toledo Zoo, a place the Lucio kids had never been.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s other animals,’” Anna recalled, as she shared a big laugh with her siblings. 

Bernadina, now 78, chimed in to explain why her oldest children worked alongside her in the fields.

“They were 13 or 14, but we said they were 16,” she said. “We lied.”

Labor rules at the time prevented migrant children from picking crops until they turned 16 years old. The younger kids could help, but only on Saturdays.

The Lucio family was on the road from April to early November each year, returning to Texas in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The rest of the time the Lucio children were in school full-time.

All seven Lucio children now are college-educated, bilingual, and each giving back in some way.

55-year old Benito,, Jr., the oldest child, is a monitor advocate and ombudsman for the Ohio Dept. of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) migrant farm worker program.

Anna Cruz, 52, is a retired school administrator who serves as an educational consultant at the University of Texas, an expert in parental involvement and Internet-based continuing education opportunities for recent immigrant and migrant families.
Belinda Morales, 41, returned to Texas to be an educator in suburban Houston, where she was recently named Teacher of the Year in her school district.

39-year old Cindy Puente, the youngest of the Lucio children, is a special-needs teacher in San Benito, Texas.

The other three Lucio siblings who couldn’t make the trip also are making their mark. Mike is a Green Beret who just returned from a tour of duty in Pakistan. Reuben is retired from the Air Force and now works for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Yolanda is a medical librarian.

“They all did very good—because they wanted something better,” Bernardina said. “So they all went to college and they’re doing much better than we did. One of my sons said he was going to school because he didn’t want to go back to the fields like we did. He didn’t like school, but he said he was going to do it because he didn’t want to be in the fields with us.”

Now other migrant farm families are traveling the same road the Lucios did—hoping to achieve that same American dream.