Friday, July 17, 2009

Vanishing breed

Raul Gomez, 67, has worked in fields all across the United States and has been coming to the Alliance area to work for more than 50 years. This year might be the last. A new chemical, eliminating weeds, has put most of the migrant farm workers out of work.

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

July 15, 2009, Alliance, Neb: While in Bridgeport, I noticed a building with a sign in it signifying it was a migrant health clinic. I made a few phone calls and discovered the medical staff would be there Tuesday afternoon.

I arrived later that afternoon. The clinic was empty, except for the staff.

"Just a few years ago this waiting room would be filled with parents and families waiting for medical assistance," Kimberly Kurtz said. Working for Community Action Partnership, Kurtz and others, help migrant farm workers, their kids and families, provide health care and schooling.

But the assistance programs and the migrant farm workers are headed for possible extinction.

A new chemical sprayed on the crops migrants used to hoe weeds and thin, has virtually eliminated the need for their labor.

Migrant farm workers, and their families, would seasonally arrive in April or May in the Nebraska Panhandle. There they would find fieldwork until the end of potato harvest in late September or early October.

After a breakfast break, where Raul and his wife Dominga ate jalapenos and tacos, the pair assists each other getting up and back to the fields.

"All these fields used to be filled with migrants hoeing weeds. You would see truckloads of workers going by every hour, " Raul Gomez, 67, said as he wiped away the sweat from his face.

Gomez has been coming to this area for over 50 years and has worked in fields from the east coast to the west, from the south to the north.

This year will probably be his last. There are no jobs. He managed to find work in a 97-acre field for himself and his wife, Dominga, 65, his son, Rod, 42, and Rod's son, Rigo, 17. They are paid $7 dollars an acre for their work. Raul used about half of what he made just for the gasoline it took to get him and his family to work.

Workers are packing up and heading back to Texas. Gomez lives in Mission, Texas. Some workers have managed to find some odd jobs at the farms where they have worked for past 20 to 30 years.

Technology and chemicals have just about ended the life of the migrants. There will be work for them at potato harvest time. But it won't be worth it for the migrants to show up for about 30 days worth of work.

Peter Ozuna, 67, uses his hoe, that once was used to weed and thin crops, to pull down old insulation in a shop area. Peter found his farm employer, where he has done fieldwork for more than 20 years, was able to give him odd jobs to do at the farm.

Children of migrant workers arrive for school at about 6:15 in the morning. They walk slowly off the bus clutching blankets, yawning and, for some, a little crying, as they make their way to the place where they stay and learn until 4 p.m.

Ubaldo Gonzalez, 62, has been coming to the Alliance area for farm work for over 30 years. Here he is packing his truck and is being helped by his grandson, Ray Valdez, 10. Ubaldo and his wife, Mirba, 60, left at 4 the next morning, heading back to McAllen, Texas, which is about a 24-hour drive if one drives straight through. He'll return later for the potato harvest in September.

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