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Local Media Story – The Monitor

Working on autobiography, Edinburg woman recalls childhood as a migrant worker

Madeleine Smither | The Monitor

A pearl is created when an irritant enters a foreign body, an oyster. A grain of sand, perhaps — the oyster protects itself by wrapping the object in lustrous, crystalline layers until it is unrecognizable — a polished, natural gem born from pain.

Emma Gonzalez was born into a life of labor, and her years spent in an irrigation ditch in a foreign land cultivated her courage and compassion. Her parents left Mexico with a third grade education seeking a better life for their children in the United States — a familiar story. The pair became migrant field workers, and like many families in the Rio Grande Valley and throughout the country, they took their family with them to help forge a living.

“I was confined within that life,” the 60-year-old woman said. “But only because (my parents) had no other choice. Field labor was all they knew, and wherever the opportunity came to go, they went.”

Gonzalez’s transformation from the fields to prosperity is the subject of a forthcoming autobiography she continues to work on.

At 5 years old, Gonzalez was packed up and moved to Ovid, Colo., where her parents and siblings picked beans, onions, potatoes and other crops. Too young to work, she was dropped off in an irrigation canal in the dark before sunrise and her family drove miles away to work their way through the fields toward her.

“That was terrifying for a 5-year-old to stay somewhere alone,” she said. “It was that feeling of, ‘What did I do?’ … Suddenly I’m abandoned in this canal, left with a canister of water and food containers. They went off to the fields and, in my eyes, they just fell off the end of the world.”

Alone in the canal with no toys or distractions, Gonzalez said she would tug at the tails of field mice hidden in the walls, searching for someone to play with. She’d use her imagination to pass the time, always watching the dots in the distance, waiting for them to become recognizable figures as the sun set, and they continued to work in the last vestiges of light.

Gonzalez said she was lucky — her family worked for the Kobayashis, a Japanese family who gave the family a place to live on their property and always sent the Gonzalez family home with a few bushels of their crops to plant for themselves. The head of the family, Tom Kobayashi, would turn out to be a life-changing figure in her life.

The second or third year that Gonzalez spent with the Kobayashis, she saw a set of costume pearls in the window of a five-and-dime.

“The beads caught my eye, the pearls,” she recalled. “They were fake of course, but I used the little allowance I had I saved to buy a strand of those pearls and I wore them every day to the field. I was in a modeling mode, like, ‘hey I’m in an irrigation ditch with little rolls of dirt in my neck and a smudged face, but hey, I got my pearls on.’ … I think over the years they symbolized sort of a different life that I would seek.”

At 8 years old, Gonzalez overheard a crucial conversation between her parents that would set her on a very different path.

“My antennae were always out looking for stuff as a kid — you kind of eavesdrop. … I heard my mom and my dad talking one night in Spanish … in a whisper, ‘Tom says that I have to put her in school. It’s the law.’ So at 8 years old, I was put in school,” she said. “So I got a late start, but it was him. He specifically stressed to my father that I needed to get my education. I would be in the field if that hadn’t happened.”

Gonzalez was a voracious learner — greedily consuming books given to her by kindhearted teachers and other families the Gonzalezes worked for who took notice of her situation and her work ethic.

“ … These people helped me realize that there was a lot more to life,” she said. “Just because I had been born into that life didn’t mean I had to stick with it and they opened those doors for me in a lot of ways so I am just eternally grateful to them. If it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t be where I am in life, and accomplished what I have.”

Gonzalez went on to graduate from Edinburg High School and attend The University of Texas-Pan American for almost three years before dropping out to get her real estate license, and then work in the criminal justice field. For nearly 12 years, she worked as the crime victim’s coordinator for Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra, advocating for families and victims of crimes like murder, rape and manslaughter.

Two years ago, due to a technical error in a grant application, Gonzalez said, she was laid off.

“It was a little difficult to accept … it wasn’t so much that the office needed me — but the people involved in these heinous crimes needed

someone. And that someone wasn’t there anymore — that was me. And I wanted to be there more than anything, and it just didn’t happen. These people needed help,” she whispered, holding back tears. “That was their last stop to get help … You don’t just brush people away, hand them a piece of paper and say, ‘Go fill it out. Good luck.’ You take them by the hand and guide them. … You fight for them.”

Months before she was laid off, Gonzalez began to have vivid, sometimes recurring, dreams.

“I want to say there’s an inner sense in every person — you have that sixth sense, that perception, that knowing — you don’t know why, but you know something is going on. And I didn’t know what that would be,” she said. “This dream, this vision, was already warning me of a big change coming into my life. … Each (dream) was showing me a different aspect of my life during that 10-year period (working in the fields), and it was telling me to write about it. For months before I got laid off it was giving me this message: ‘Emma, it’s your time now.’ I thought, ‘What? Am I going to kick the bucket or what?’”

Finally, a dream came that told Gonzalez that she needed to write about her experiences as a migrant worker and share them.

So last April, she went on a pilgrimage to Colorado to find the places and people that had shaped her life and document them. Though many of her teachers, as well as Tom Kobayashi, had passed away, she connected with other friends and mentors, and a strange confluence of events brought her another revelation.

She returned to the irrigation ditch where she had spent so many months, crouching in the ditch as she did as a child. With a hand to her chest, she was a little startled to realize that she was wearing a strand of pearls.

“I was in the same ditch except this time the pearls were real, and I think it was just an affirmation that I had made it. They’re not worldly, expensive pearls or anything but they’re real and they hold a value,” she said. “The value I saw was that the simulated ones represented something that I was going to be.

“I came here to give thanks to those that were here, those that have passed on, and to the new generations of the community that would give that support to a stranger coming into their little town, and who could walk away with something as monumental as I did.”

Gonzalez said that now she has a new mission: to finish her autobiographical account with the working title Field Mice, and perhaps go on to write children’s books that could inspire and educate.

A grain of sand, a child, a forgotten laborer, may be nearly invisible — only one among billions, but Gonzalez would see them all become pearls.

“My life’s work is: Leave the fear,” she said. “There’s no place for it. It doesn’t exist. I left it back in the ditches and canals. … Be who you want to be. Whatever it is,” she advised. “Find the means to get where you want to be and don’t look back. … Who you are — that essence of you — will take you where you need to go. … You can be more than this.”


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The Monitor – April 21, 2015

‘Field Mice: Memoirs of a Migrant Child’

For Emma Gonzalez, most of her young life was chosen for her. Since the age of 5, she spent day after day, year after year, working as a migrant child in the crop fields of Colorado and Texas.
Gonzalez would spend her days alone in an irrigation ditch as her parents and half-siblings picked beets, beans and cotton from early morning to well after dark. For a 5-year-old child, being left alone that way was frightening.
“It was a traumatizing time for me,” Gonzales said. “You don’t know why you’re being left alone and you have a tendency to think ‘What did I do? Why did you leave me here?’ I tried to blame myself like I had done something wrong because that’s kind of like a punishment or time-out.”
Spending long days in the fields, Gonzalez made friends with nature, specifically, the field mice that lived within the mud banks along the irrigation ditches.
“These little critters would hang around the irrigation ditches right at the edge of the canals,” Gonzalez said. “I remember sitting there and I wondered why there was mud crumbling off the edge of the canal, so I’d dig my fingers in there because I was curious and I’d see these little pink tails sticking out — it was a mouse. People gross out when I tell them that, but I had to entertain myself with something. Eventually, I’d give them little chunks of tortilla and they’d hang out with me for a while.”
Over 50 years later, Gonzalez, 62, self-published a book of memoirs “Field Mice: Memoires of a Migrant Child” depicting her memories as a migrant child for about 10 years.
Gonzalez began her literary journey after experiencing recurring dreams and visions of her life as a migrant child while working as a crime victim’s coordinator for former District Attorney Rene Guerra in Hidalgo County.
“The stories were coming in dreams, physical sensations and images,” Gonzalez said. “They were all in that era of when I was a migrant child.”
After winning a portrait of Mother Theresa in a raffle, Gonzalez was struck by inspiration and realized penning these stories was something she was meant to do.
“Mother Theresa was very instrumental on getting my stories out,” Gonzalez said. “She hung in my office for almost nine years. She was kind of like my co-pilot there for a while. She was my inspiration to keep writing.”
Due to insufficient funding, Gonzalez was laid off from the District Attorney’s office. After spending many years aiding victims of crime, she felt as if her life had derailed.
“I took it very hard when I was laid off just because from one day to another we were notified that our grant was denied,” she said. “I was lost out there for a while. Still writing and looking for a more permanent job, but didn’t come across anything — so I ended up completing the book.”
As a child, Gonzalez would migrate from Colorado to the Texas panhandle and back to South Texas with her family, “going where the work was,” she said. Because of the constant travel, Gonzalez would spend up to three months not enrolled in school. Her teachers from Ovid, Colorado would pack a box with learning materials and books so Gonzalez could stay on track with her education.
“My friends and teachers in Colorado were the most compassionate and dedicated in helping me with my schooling,” she said. “They took a kid in that knew one or two words of English and took on the challenge to teach me English. I wasn’t just another kid in the class for them, I was someone special that they needed to work with closer and they came through.”
According to Gonzalez, it was her experiences with those teachers that made her want to continue her education.
After her father passed away, Gonzalez and her mother settled in Edinburg. She graduated from Edinburg High School and attended the University of Texas – Pan American.
Gonzalez was able to reconnect with her childhood friends in Colorado after making a reunion trip with her husband in 2013. When talking about the book with her friends, she received support and compassion.
“They were so excited about it,” Gonzalez said. “They couldn’t believe I had thought about them and that they were in my book. I told them ‘You guys never left my heart.’”
In hindsight, Gonzalez realizes working the fields was the best her family could provide in order to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
“My family only knew field labor,” Gonzalez said. “This is what they were born into. They weren’t trained for any other jobs and didn’t have any education. I distanced myself from my own family quite a bit only because I was looking for something greater than just working the fields and contributing to the household. I didn’t want that harsh life working 14 hours a day doing hard labor.”
To Gonzalez, her book wouldn’t have been possible without her strong faith and determination to learn. She plans on finishing a sequel “Path of Pearls” by the end of this year.
“Education is up there next to God,” she said. “Education is a way out of a lot of things; poverty, ignorance. School is the best way to arm yourself. If you have that under your belt, you can conquer just about anything in your way.”
“Field Mice” costs $16 and can be purchased at Gonzalez’s publishing website, countyrd34publishings.com.

The following is an excerpt from “Field Mice: Memoirs of a Migrant Child”:

‘Show Me Some Money’

The first three years were the most difficult ones for the family, simply because we were at the mercy of the idiot foreman who transported us to and from Ovid. Although it was a grueling trip, I looked forward to the fume-choking adventure twice a year, first to Ovid and then the pit stops along the way in the Texas Pan Handle.
I knew Dad realized what he was facing. I heard him complain and cuss even more than the previous two years. These “pioneers” were burned out, at least that’s what I sensed from overhearing conversations between Dad and what was left of his family’s stock pile of workers. Perhaps he felt there was no turning back, at least not for him. So, he pushed on, with hope.
Earnings were minimal from all those months of hard labor in Ovid, but I remember him saying it paid a lot better than in Texas. Dad explained that we were paid on the number of rows thinned and weeded. It must have been pennies/cents on the dollar.

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