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Neighbors: Oral History from Madera, Part 4

This is an excerpt from a new book titled Neighbors: Oral History from Madera, California by local author Lawrence F. Lihosit. The author offers real-life stories by Maderans as well as maps and a chronology of important local events. It is available on-line at books and at these locations; MailDrop, G.B.S. and the Vineyard.

Gloria Vander Laan, Madera resident since 1995

Gloria Vander Laan was born the ninth of ten children to migrant Mexican field workers on April 25, 1963, in Othello, Washington. During the winter months, they rested in their Mexican hometown of Garza Gonzalez, which today has a population of about 250. It is 62 miles northeast of Monterrey in the state of Nuevo Leon.

Married at nineteen, she and her husband moved to Madera, where she began to volunteer at Small Fry and Howard Schools. She later earned an Associate of Arts degree at the local Madera Community College Center.

She has served the Madera Unified School District for more than 20 years as an aide and a para-professional for the physically impaired. Mrs. Vander Laan and her husband reared three children in Madera.

• • •

My grandpa wasn’t around much and my dad was the oldest sibling in a large family that lived in Garza Gonzalez, Mexico. My father learned to hustle. He went to Mexico City where he shined shoes. He also sold coffee to train passengers on the Reynosa line. He diluted the coffee. To go with the coffee, he made candy- dulce de leche (slowly heated sweet milk). The money he earned was to support his mother, brothers and sisters. He did this until he was about fifteen.

My mom was born and raised in Alto de la Zapupera in the state of Veracruz. When my dad met my mom, she was a single mom from Tampico, in the state of Tamaulipas. They married and crossed the border at the Rio Grande swimming. My parents waited for the aduanales (border patrol) to ride by on horseback before they put an inflated inner tube in the water for my mom and my dad swam her across.

Once across, he always had a crew of men and women who worked the fields on the American side. He was a farm labor contractor. On Friday after work, they walked back into Mexico to visit family. On Sunday, he swam my mother back. They did this every week.

Most of my family migrated to Washington. We probably arrived in Othello, Washington, at the end of September and stayed through April. Othello is close to the Tri-Cities (112 miles southwest of Spokane), in the heart of Washington.

They grow apples, cherries, corn, grapes, asparagus, sugar beets and potatoes. My parents worked in factories. We called them subterraneos (underground) because they were very cold. My mom worked at one place where they made French fries for McDonald’s. My dad pruned trees and also worked potatoes and sugar beets.

The school in Othello had lots of children of immigrants and a good mixture of ethnicities. Most of us went to Mexico every year in December.

We lived in Modesto for four years where my parents became farm labor contractors. That’s where we bought our first house. The neighborhood kids all wanted to play at our house because my mom and grandma fed them tortillas, frijoles, rice and pollo.

In the beginning when we were really young, we lived in farm labor camps. It was very pleasant. They had amazingly safe playgrounds where a lot of kids played together. When I was about eleven, my parents bought a mobile home and that was pretty exciting. We moved to a different area of town. Today it’s called Little Mexico.

Back then, everybody lived there: my cousins lived across the street and my church was down the street. There were gravel roads, but nice. My mom had to work a lot. She told me that her goal for the day was to make sure that each day her children had an ice cream or a snow cone from the trucks that drove through our neighborhood.

My parents couldn’t afford a babysitter. When I was about four years old my parents were picking peppers, jalapeños, in Chico, California. My brother George, who was five, my little sister who was about three and I were in the back of our pickup in a camper while my parents worked. Every time my parents finished a row, my mom checked on us. We decided to play comadritas (play tea).

There were metal buckets full of hot peppers in the back of the truck so we cut them up with our fingers and pretended to serve each other food. As we cut the peppers, our eyes started to tear and we rubbed them. By the time my mom came to check on us, our eyes were swollen shut and we were screaming. She got us out of the truck and flushed our eyes before taking us to the doctor.

Once I was older, we got ourselves ready for school. After school, my job was to make sure the house was clean, the tortillas were made. We bought masa (corn dough cooked in an alkaline solution). You put the masa seca (dry corn dough) in a bowl, boiled water and then poured it over the masa and kneaded it until it had a nice soft consistency. We had an iron hand-press. You laid a sheet of plastic over the press’s flat surface, rolled some masa into a small ball, placed it on the press and with a handle pressed it flat. We never used a spatula but our fingers.

In April, we packed up and went to Borden, Montana (near Billings). They have sugar beets there. We hoed it, weeded it and thinned it out by hand. We wore gloves but still got callouses. Some days were hot, but then it might rain. I liked those days because my dad raised his hoe over his head and waved it while yelling, “Vamanos” and we went to Billings to have fun shopping and eating out.

In August, we were in Kerman, picking grapes. We picked Thompson grapes, the sweetest, which are used for raisins. We had to pick 2,000 trays a day. There were nine of us. We started with two rows. My mom said, “Hay que apartar el zurco” (stake out the rows). My brother worked one row while my mother worked another. They each picked 500 trays a day while the rest of us together picked 1,000.

Each took family with them. Some picked grapes, putting them into a metal bucket. My mom and older brother carried a hooked knife to cut the bunches of grapes.

On your knees, you spread the leaves and bugs flew in your face, sometimes bees or spiders. If they got in your mouth, you just spit them out. My little 8-year-old sister put sheets of paper out for the grapes. Called la tabla, it is a folded rectangle about one and a half by two feet.

Before we came, the farmer had plowed a nice flat, even space between rows for the paper layout. We weren’t supposed to step on this area because any indentation could affect the grape drying. So, the buckets of grapes were dumped onto the paper.

At ten, my job was to spread the grapes evenly and take the leaves off. Once the grapes are on the paper, they stay there for the sun to bake them into raisins. When they are completely dried, you rolled them with the paper like a cigarette. You tucked in the sides and roll with the flap facing down and stacked in the row.

In a week or two, the tractors came by to pick them up. They dumped the tray into a bin and burned the paper. These are the brown raisins. The golden raisins are baked in an oven, not by the sun.

Because my dad was a farm labor contractor, he talked to the farmers to see if they had a house for us. Many did. Sometimes, we ended up at labor camps which were pretty run down. It might be one big room, like a warehouse. Our neighbors might have two or three families to a building. They had electricity and gas stoves. Sometimes they had community showers though. The school year began while we were in Kerman but my parents thought that if we were enrolled in a school, it would only be for a few weeks.

At the end of September, we drove back to Othello. This meant that we entered school a month after classes started. It was always fun to go back to Washington but I was always plunged into subjects that I had no idea what they were doing. I fell into that trap of thinking that maybe I didn’t know much. Every time I started a subject, they were already halfway through it. I got bad grades. One time in eighth grade, something snapped. I thought, “I’m not dumb.” I got all A’s. I was going to receive an award but when graduation came, we had to go to Miles City, Montana, where I was the only Mexican. It was weird.

Every December, my dad drove a 1963 blue and white Chevy pick-up and my mom followed in a car. We drove from Othello to Garza Gonzalez which took three days. On one of our trips to Mexico in the early seventies, we were pretty tired and stopped to eat breakfast. My dad, mom and several of my brothers and sisters went in while we waited outside in the cars. They were going to order food to go for breakfast. My dad and mom sat there for probably an hour. My dad finally flagged down a young lady and said, “Excuse me. We’ve been here for quite some time. Can you please bring us a menu?”

She said, “I’m sorry. We don’t serve Mexicans here.”

“You’re Native American, just as brown as we are.”

“I’m sorry. We just don’t.”

My parents came out very upset. My dad liked stopping in Las Cruces, New Mexico. El Paso was too dangerous even back then. He didn’t have much studies but he had a map in his head and he knew exactly what highways to take and hotels to stay in. We only stayed at each hotel once though. Nobody wanted to rent a room to a family with nine kids.

As we pulled up, he would tell us, “Shhh.” He went inside to rent a room. Then, he drove to the room itself. We snuck in, slept a few hours and everybody showered. We snuck back into the truck at five in the morning and then we were out of there.

We continued to McAllen, Texas, and crossed to Reynosa. On the Mexican side, the border guards made us get out of the car and truck. They searched all of our belongings and asked questions.

“Are you selling this?” (This was before N.A.F.T.A. and bringing American goods for resale in Mexico was a good business, but illegal.)

“No. We have lots of children.”

Once we finished, we all sighed. It felt like a sense of freedom, probably because it was vacation and we weren’t going to work in the fields. The trip from the border to Garza Gonzalez only took about two hours. Once back in our own home, we had to clean it up since it had been empty for months. We mopped the floors, aired it all out and my mom decorated it more every year. In the beginning, we had well water and an outhouse. Over the years, we connected to the city water and sewer systems. The house must be about 3,000 square feet. It is pretty big. There are three huge bedrooms, a big pasillo (hall), a big porch, a living room, dining room and a kitchen. The floor is covered in tile.

We went to the plaza every night and stopped at all the little stores to buy sodas. We liked Coca Cola with peanuts in it and paptitas adobadas (potato chips). We talked to everybody. People all sat outside at night because it was hot. Everybody kept an eye on all the kids. An arroyo (gulley) ran through the whole town so during the day we swam in amazing water holes and jumped and dove off of cliffs. There were snapping turtles too. My brother fished all day for mojadas, which was the original name of Garza Gonzalez. Everybody was related. My grandmother lived down the street. She had had eight children and each one of them had eight or nine so we were a huge family. All my cousins were there and we spent the night at each other’s house. My mom and dad rested, visited family and worked on the house they were building almost all of their lives.

I started high school in Kerman. I was doing well and we switched to Central High (in Fresno). I stopped caring about education, dropped out of school at fifteen and started working at Sun Giant Raisin Plant. It’s on Shields near Kerman. It had four warehouses and they packed raisins for export to foreign countries. We used to stamp the wooden boxes. Each building was made of metal. They had a pitched roof that must have been thirty feet high on center. The largest building might have been 1,000 feet long. Raisins were brought in with big wooden bins, laid on a conveyor belt and washed. My job for ten hours a day was to sort. I removed mushy raisins and sticks off the belt. The conveyor belt was really loud. You couldn’t hear yourself talk. We had two fifteen-minute breaks and a half hour lunch. A couple of ladies who lived down the street from us worked there and during lunch, we sat on a bench outside and ate burritos my mom had made.

I also worked tomato machines in Huron. The machine had blades that dug under the ground. It ripped up the plant and then shook it so the tomatoes fell onto a conveyor belt. A guy at the end of the machine took all the leaves and stems out. We sorted green and red tomatoes. Red ones went into a truck trailer bound for Campbell’s Soups or Hunt’s or other places. There were six people on each side of the machine and four more at the end. Those were twelve-hour days. When I got up at three-thirty in the morning, my legs felt like they were about to come off. We did get to try a new machine with lasers. The lasers kicked out the green tomatoes. What used to be sixteen people on a machine was lowered to eight.

Within a year, I met my future husband. He was my brother-in-law’s best friend. We started dating when I was eighteen. My parents decided to move back to Texas. I was the last one at home and followed them to Laredo. Bill and I wrote letters. He came to Texas on my birthday and proposed. He wanted to marry and go back to California but I told him that I couldn’t do that to my family. I had to marry in my church. We married legally in Texas and three months later, drove to Garza Gonzalez where we married in the church.

We settled in Fresno. I had some little seasonal jobs like at Toys R Us. Bill became a pastor at a Fresno church. We moved to Alturas, California, which is in the northern part of the state, near Oregon. After two years, Bill decided to return to secular work. We moved to Madera in 1995, but I had been coming to Madera County all my life.

I did a lot of volunteer work at a pre-school called Small Fry and also at Howard School. I met some wonderful well-educated friends like Jennifer Bursey, Maggie Lihosit, Betty Manfredi and Mrs. Battering. They all told me, “Go back to school!” I went to Madera Adult Ed and took their G.E.D. practice test. I was very nervous since I hadn’t been in school for so long. They told me that I needed to brush up on math. A month later, I took the test: five tests in one day. I passed. Next, I enrolled at the Madera Center (community college). I earned my Associate of Arts degree there. My children and some of the women who helped me went to the graduation.

I wouldn’t change anything.

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