Ernestina Cataneo has been coming to Ripon to work as a migrant for half of her 30 years. She was born in Texas, lived most of her childhood in Mexico, and came to Ripon for the first time with her father when she was sixteen years old. She spent the summer working in the Green Giant factory, and then in the fall her father left her in the care of acquaintances so she could attend school for a year.
“It was bad,” she says of that lonely, difficult year away from her close-knit family. “I didn’t know any English, and they didn’t teach me much at the school. Now it’s different, but then everyone spoke pure English and nothing else.” She never stayed through the year again, but has continued to return each year for the canning season.
“Each summer we came – it used to sometimes be May, or as early as April, and we stayed until November. My dad started work first. Now it’s later – we start in June and they let us go in October.”
When Ernestina was 18, she met the man who became her husband working at Green Giant. She and Guillermo have continued the same lifestyle together, working for as long as they have jobs at what is now the Seneca plant in Ripon, and returning to Del Rio, Texas for the winter. “We work seven days a week, twelve hours a day, as long as there’s product. If they don’t have any product [green beans, potatoes, carrots or beets] then there isn’t any work, but we often go a whole month without a day off.” She works a day shift and her husband works a night shift so there is always someone to take care of one and a half year old Marianne, and nine-year-old Giselle.
“I have worked outside, in inspection, in the warehouse, and putting tops in the canning machine. This year I checked salt and temperature and weight of the cans. My husband works in the warehouse, stacking crates on pallets twelve hours a day. The first few weeks, he gets very tired, but after a while he gets used to it. In Texas he works at whatever he can find – construction, cutting lawns, whatever. We never know if he’ll get work or not, so what we earn here is sometimes all we have for the year. We have to save a lot.”
Ernestina ears $7.20 an hour with no benefits, although she would get Workman’s Comp if she were injured on the job. She and her family return to Texas every year despite the hardship, because that is where her family is. “My mother was sick for a long time, and I’m from there – all my family is there. That’s why we go back.”
Ernestina considers how life has both changed and stayed the same during her years of coming to Ripon. “Well, I’m a woman now, not a young girl, and I have my own family. I’m not alone!” She notes a big difference between her experience of school in Ripon and her daughter’s recent years here. “Before, there was a little communication with the families, but not much. Now they pay a lot more attention to the Hispanic kids, and try to help them learn more English. That helps a lot. Giselle loves it here, she doesn’t want to leave. She’s cried a lot about it. In Texas, the students and teachers are mostly Mexican. I think they have a different character in the schools there. The teachers here have a really good character. Giselle feels comfortable asking for help, she’s not afraid. There, they scare her.”
In part because of Giselle’s experience at the Murray Park Elementary School, Ernestina would consider staying here year-round. Her mother has died, reducing the pull of Del Rio. But her husband, Guillermo, disagrees. “I like it here, but he hates the cold!”
Thinking about her life as a migrant, Ernestina says, “Well, it has its advantages and disadvantages.” She looks around her at her spare apartment, without table, chairs, couch, normal beds, bureaus, or carpets. “I don’t have any furniture,” she says. “It’s hard not to have things, but when you have to move so much it’s hard to have them too.” The family of four sleeps on one double and one single air mattress, and has a folding cot and playpen in the living room – the only additional furniture in the house.
“I can’t make a lot of friends either, because I leave them. And I never know what’s going to happen the following year.”
At least, she notes, she doesn’t have the added insecurity of illegal status. Ernestina is a citizen, and her husband is a legal resident. “He’s whiter than I am, and everyone looks to him to speak English, but I, the brown one, speak more English and I’m the American citizen!” Her husband obtained legal residency status through a 15 year wait that began when he was three years old.
Ernestina wishes that more Americans understood what drives Mexicans to come here. “A lot of people here don’t understand our lives. We come to better the lives of our families. A lot of people seem to think we want to leave our families behind. It’s not that we want to, it’s that we have to.”
“I don’t have much education, and the only work I know is this. This has been my whole life. It’s all I know, and I like it, and that’s why I do it. What I would like is that Giselle study so she can have a different life than I have. I want her to have something to live by, a way to take care of herself, when I’m not around.”
This interview was conducted in Spanish and the quotes translated into English by the author.