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Watch the interview

A 1989 video interview with Rafael Morales and PD columnist Gaye LeBaron is available online in the digital collection of the Sonoma State University Library. Click here to view it.


You don’t have to read farther than the headlines to know that immigration is a hot topic. In fact, it always has been, it has just been pushed to center stage by current events.

If you are among those who find rhetoric about law-breaking, gang-banging, terrorist immigrants unsettling, you might feel the need for a happy immigrant story. If so, this is your lucky day.

I had a nice visit with Candido Morales last week. He is retired and living in Windsor again after more than a decade as director of the Mexican government’s Institute for Mexicans Abroad, an assignment which took him to live and work in Mexico City but also to travel this country, paying regular visits to the many Mexican consulates, tending to the welfare of Mexican citizens in the United States on behalf of the Mexican president.

This kid from Oaxaca, transplanted to Windsor, educated at Healdsburg High, Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University, is, as you might imagine, a source of considerable pride among the Latino community.

I might well write a whole column about Candido and his Mexico City sojourn (it’s on my “futures” list), but this time we are talking about his father, Rafael.

...

Rafael Morales came from the tiny, impoverished Mexican village of Tequixtepec. There, he started a grocery business, mastered reading and writing, and became mayor of his small town, an unpaid job that filled him with “dreaming.” When his grocery store burned, leaving him in debt for the stock, he was determined to find a way to make a better living, telling his wife Concepcion, “the better I go to the north.”

It was 1951 when he made the six-day train trip from Oaxaca to Mexicali, joining the crowd of hopefuls looking for a way to cross the border and find work.

The Bracero program, the 1942 agreement between the U.S. and Mexico predicated on a farm labor crisis created by World War II, was still in effect. It allowed Mexican men to come to this country at harvest time, in groups provided by American labor contractors.

The money they made and their reports of the government-supervised camps — with the luxury of tents that had wooden floors and showers — created a rush to the borders.

Braceros (the word, literally, means “people who work with their arms”) had to be issued “a contract,” as Rafael termed it, to cross the border. Labor contractors could not recruit in Mexico but had to wait until their prospective workers came across with that “contract” green card in hand.

By the time Rafael hit the border in ’51, the promise of Mexican wealth from U.S. wages was so alluring that there were many more hopefuls crowding the line than there were green cards to be found.

...

“Somebody told me there were bracero contracts in Mexicali,” Rafael told me in a 1989 video interview. There weren’t. And that started a kind of wild goose chase through border towns, looking for a legal way to cross. Finding none, he said, he started thinking about “another way to come.”

The “other way” wasn’t easy, crossing through openings cut into the wire border fence that were left unrepaired. Work was available by the day from growers who skirted the regulations of the Bracero program, waiting near the fence to hire, paying almost nothing and leaving the workers to find their own way back. Or not.

Rafael told of sleeping on top of hay bales, nights with no food, of crammed buses back to Mexico when spotted by immigration officers.

“They deported me 24, 25 times you know. And I got tired of that,” he told me.

Rafael, who had learned to play just about any stringed instrument as a young man, fell back on his musical ability, joining with groups of mariachis. He got involved in the Mexicali music community and landed a job in the musicians’ union office because he could, unlike many of the members, read, write and keep the books.

“But still,” he told me, “I had in my mind to come to the United States.” With credentials from the musicians’ union he went to immigration authorities.

He told them he was the ”Secretary of Musicians” headed for the U.S. to buy instruments and that he wanted to go to Stockton, where the instruments were cheaper. They issued him a permit.

“The first time I went back and gave them back the permit. But next time I made plans … to stay,” he said. And that’s what he did.

...

So, after 25 or so bus rides back to Mexico, Rafael was in Stockton, not legally, but far more secure. He worked in the crops, as he recites them: “vegetables, lettuces, onions, peppers and corn and things.” And the worst, potatoes, because it involved the short-handled hoe, still legal in those years, and excruciating for someone like Rafael who had a severe back injury as a young man.

He tells of praying for God to find him another job, and, one Sunday morning, coming from Mass, seeing a truck filled with workers and asking were they are going. “They said to me ‘we are going to Santa Rosa. We’re gonna pick prunes.’ I talked to the boss and he said, ‘OK, let’s go!’

“We came into Grace Ranch — Grace Brothers Ranch,” he said with a distinct tone of finality. As well there should have been, because — although he didn’t know it at the time — it was Rafael’s lucky day.

“I remember I just had 50 cents in my pocket — 50 cents!” he told me on the video.

“In the evening I am kinda hungry so I ask a Mexican fella over there, ‘How can I find something to eat? I have 50 cents.’ ”

This was the Grace Brothers prune orchard on Westside Road, a long way from a snack bar. When the word came back that “the boss” was buying dinner and somebody was sent to bring back enough hamburgers to go around, Rafael was stunned.

“And we eat,” he said, still sounding surprised after nearly 40 years. “ I don’t spend my 50 cents.” This was indeed a brave new world.

...

When the Grace prunes were picked and dried and sent to the packing sheds, most of the braceros headed south for the border and a winter at home. But not Rafael. He decided he would find a job. And stay.

Looking for work, without a car or even a map of the area, meant walking the roads, from early morning, and asking. That’s how he met Harold McClish.

McClish was a prune rancher who “had very little Spanish,” said Rafael, who had no English. He said “Necessito trabajar.” And McClish understood.

He asked Rafael if he knew how to drive a tractor. Rafael remembers telling him “I come from Oaxaca. I know some things but I don’t know very much.” But he added, “I can learn.”

The rancher asked if he knew how to prune and Rafael gave the same “I can learn,” answer. Apparently McClish understood, or just liked the straightforward approach.

Rafael remembered that he said, “Well, I’m going to give you a job!”

Some things were lost in translation — like 20 young fruit trees when the pruning instructions were given in English. But McClish was forgiving. And Rafael learned. He learned to prune, and how to drive a tractor. He learned English in a class at Santa Rosa Junior College, riding back and forth to classes with McClish, who was taking aviation ground school for a pilot’s license.

...

Rafael worked on the McClish Ranch and lived there, invited to holiday dinners, the beneficiary of Mrs. McClish’s baking skills. He didn’t see his wife and children for seven years. Meanwhile, letters were sent regularly to Oaxaca and money enough to keep the children in parochial schools. Education was very important, not only to Rafael, but to Concepcion as well.

In the late ’50s, the McClishes built a family house on the ranch and Harold McClish filled out the forms and wrote the letters necessary for Rafael to receive his green card. After nearly six years in Windsor, learning many new skills, he was a legal resident.

And with that came green cards for his family. In June 1958, Candido remembers, after some misgivings about leaving her lifelong (and ancestral) home, Concepcion and the children traveled by bus to the border, where Rafael was waiting.

When prune orchards morphed to vineyards, the McClish Ranch was sold to Rodney Strong of Windsor Vineyards. At the McClish family’s insistence, foreman Rafael was part of the package. So Rafael continued to learn — this time grape culture. He earned enough to buy a house of his own — two houses, one to rent, if I remember correctly. And he worked for Windsor Vineyards until he retired.

...

Sounds like the happy ending I was talking about doesn’t it? But wait. The four Morales children, one born after they came to Windsor, are college graduates. Candido we know about already. Evelia is a retired teacher; Connie, the youngest, is a speech therapist in Gilroy; and Hugo, the younger son, who left Healdsburg High with a scholarship to Harvard, graduated Harvard Law School and founded Radio Bilingue, a wide-reaching public radio network in Fresno. He is still president of the network, work which earned him a coveted MacArthur “genius grant.”

Concepcion, a proud mother, still lives in Windsor and, in her 90s, makes frequent trips home to visit her family in Oaxaca.

Rafael died at age 87 in 2006, covered with honors — as a co-founder of Latinos Unidos, as a pillar of his church, as an enthusiastic string player in a popular nine-piece orchestra that played at Latino events, as a dedicated community volunteer and a substantial contributor to schools and community projects in his native village.

The letters — those letters home to Concepcion and the family, collected by Hugo on a visit to Tequixtepec when he was a student at Harvard — are about to be included in a book of bracero letters edited by a professor from the National University of Mexico.