Listen: Sound Portrait of a Migrant Family

MPR’s John Ydstie presents sound portrait of a migrant family working the sugar beet fields of the Red River Valley.


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NEAL ST. ANTHONY: And now we turn to the second portion of this midday program. Every summer, thousands of Mexican-American migrant farm workers journey to the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota to tend to the sugar beet fields. From the time the sugar beets sprout from the ground, the permanent residents witness an exotic cultural infusion into the valley, there is a different language spoken in area stores, and weekly masses are regularly spoken in Spanish.

But few residents of the Valley and even fewer of us in Southern Minnesota have much contact with the migrant families. We know little of their work, thoughts, or hopes. John Ydstie of Station KCCM in Moorhead prepared this sound portrait to better acquaint us with one family as we visit them in the fields and in their home.

GUILLERMO FLORES: My name is Guillermo Flores. I come from Crystal City, Texas. And I'm here in Glyndon, Minnesota, working with WV Grover and Sugar Beets Fields.


JOHN YDSTIE: Guillermo Flores is 40 years old. He began working in the sugar beet fields when he was 10 years old in the summer of 1947. Then he came to the Red River Valley with his father and mother from Texas, a trip of almost 1,500 miles. The trip hasn't ended and the miles now number almost 100,000.

In the early days, he was given a short handled hoe, and he followed his mother down the endless rows, taking out the weeds that she'd missed. Now 30 years later, his five children follow him.

For Guillermo and his family, the summer is a tenacious search for that final row. The search is more profitable now than it used to be. Guillermo's family of six workers can now make between 4 and $5,000 in 6 to 8 weeks. But why does he continue this difficult occupation, and what goes through Guillermo's mind as he continues his search row after row, day after day, field after field?

GUILLERMO FLORES: Well, I think about going back to Texas but have some money. That's one thing that I think when I'm in the fields. I say, well, I hope everything goes right. Because I want to make money, sometimes I say I hope we get a good rain so that growers can make money, I can make money. So that's what I think when I'm in the field. I say but sometimes I hope it rain so we can rest a couple of days or three or four days rest, but sometimes I say, hope it doesn't rains because work wouldn't get done.

This season the beets we've been having nice days, you know, cool days, but sometimes we get pretty hot days and it can drive you nuts to because you got to keep going even if you sweat and it's hard, you know? But got to work, say, 20, 25 days straight, then you can lay off for a couple of weeks, then you feel better. And the way my family, we were seven, so if we don't work, it's hard for seven as a family to buy clothing and shoes and everything. Now when it's wet like right now, by the time you get done, you got to have another pair of shoes.


I think that a guy shouldn't do it, but you got to do it if you want to make some money, you know. Otherwise if you don't go in the fields, somebody's got to do it. But like I said, I come here from Texas, come here because I like the state. And I think I'm used to doing the sugarbeet job.

I guess because I like to travel too, because when I'm in Crystal City, I get tired down there, then I come here to here Glyndon, Minnesota, and come here and feel pretty good. Then by the time I go back to Texas, I feel tired from here and I feel good down there. Just keep me balanced. I feel more free, like I say, here where I'm staying right now with this grower. It feels like just my second home. These people here who I work I know them and they know me how I work, and I think we get along pretty good.


JOHN YDSTIE: It's been a short morning in the fields today. Last night it rained, so this morning the Flores family started work at 10:00 instead of 7:00. But even though they waited, their shoes and hoes are now covered with sticky black [? gumbol. ?] Both are scraped to the mud. And now it's time for the only break of the day, the noon meal. For this, the family will leave the fields and drive the short distance to their house, a mobile home near the grove of trees that surrounds their employer's farmstead.



JOHN YDSTIE: Inside the house you can smell something cooking, and the family sits down around a large table for a meal of tacos and frijoles.


JOHN YDSTIE: Back in the field after lunch, the sun has burned away the clouds and dried the soil. The morning coolness is gone as well.

GUILLERMO FLORES: We don't work in close group. Sometimes I get a cleaner role, I go ahead, and sometimes I'll been behind. So we're not all together, you know. So sometimes just when we meet, we say, How's things going, or you tired, or how you feel, or you still can handle for another four or five rounds.



GUILLERMO FLORES: So we talk just sometimes when we meet. But we won't be like working by the hour, you know, slow then say we got to keep going. Because the harder you work, the sooner you get done. And beets is one thing that if you're going to work slow and kind of lay around and say, well, then it's going to get big and everything then it's going to be harder, you know.


GRACIE FLORES: My name is Gracie Flores, and I'm a daughter of Mr Flores, and I'm 18, and I live in Crystal City, Texas, and we work here with Mr Grover.


JOHN YDSTIE: Gracie Flores is the oldest of her parents children. At 4 feet 11 inches and 100 pounds, she looks like the youngest. She wears a big, blue shirt that billows in the prairie wind and a large hat to protect her face from the sun. Because she's small, she occasionally falls behind the others as they work.


GRACIE FLORES: Since I was little, I told my dad that I like it here, I would like to live here, but like I said, only the future can tell you what's coming up. Over there in Texas, it gets real hot to work and nothing's-- there's not that many jobs. Like where we live at, there's just the field work, and then like my dad says, labor in the domonic camp factory. And then almost everybody comes over here and there's beets, all my friends, and I think it would be the line to call freedom. I guess I enjoy it like my dad. I like to work.





Sometimes I forget that I'm in the field. I start thinking about school, my friends, and usually I write to my friends and that's about it. But then the next thing I know I'm there just working. Sometimes I start whistling, singing, or something just to forget that I'm there. Then my dad starts singing sometimes.


GRACIE FLORES: I do like it, but you know, like my dad, he's sending us to school and I would like to be somebody instead of just working all my life and beets. But then when I get married, maybe my husband will-- I guess he'll probably be working at beets too, but I'm not really sure yet until the time comes. It's like I started working with my dad around when I was, well, 10, 12, I guess. And I like it, but I would like to be somebody else, like work in an office or thing. That's it, come on, going to school, because like my dad says, it's a pretty hard job to do, and I guess everybody knows that.


GUILLERMO FLORES: I let her do something else, but like I say, beets I do for a long time, and if I had an easy job besides the sugar beets that I get good wages, you know, then I think I can [? better ?] do. I gotta do it I do it for, say, about 25 or 30 years already. So I think don't make no difference now.

JOHN YDSTIE: Guillermo Flores, a migrant worker.


NEAL ST. ANTHONY: This sound portrait of a migrant family working the sugar beet fields of the Red River Valley was prepared by John Ydstie, with technical assistance by Dennis Hamilton and Roger Gomal. I'm Neal St. Anthony.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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