By Myra Lee Adams Goff
The Sophienburg Reflections program is in its 39th year recording local people talking about various aspects of New Braunfels life. Herb Skoog began the program at radio station KGNB in 1976 as a bi-centennial project. For the first time in this program, we have first-hand information about the activities of an unusual New Braunfels family. The Gilberto and Benita Martinez family shared some of their experiences growing up as migrant workers. What’s unusual about the Martinez family, with nine children, is that they all grew up in New Braunfels and all but one still live here.
Gilberto was born in Santa Monica, Mexico, about 50 miles from Piedras Negras. Benita Lagunas was born in Guadalupe County. Gilberto and Benita met in fields when both families were migrant workers. In case you don’t know, migrant workers traveled around picking fruits and vegetables that were ripe. Certain crops had certain times that had to be harvested. If that didn’t happen, the crops were ruined. The work force had to come from areas all over the country. It wasn’t a full time job, so most migrant workers had another job back in their hometown. In this case, the Martinez family called NB home and still is. Before mechanized picking machines, the migrant worker was absolutely essential to the agricultural scene.
The nine Martinez children are: Yolanda Martinez, Ignacio Martinez, Sylvia M. Moreno, Teresa M. Lopez, Roland Martinez, Rafael Martinez, Alicia M. Crespo, Armando Martinez, and Gilberto Martinez, Jr. To this day, every Saturday evening the family meets at their parent’s house for fellowship and remembrances about old times. They cook together, which is something they all learned from their mother. Love of cooking is important to Ignacio who has run the Knights of Columbus fish fry every Friday night. And Teresa has been with the Landa Street Dairy Queen for 38 years. She now manages it and is well known to “regulars” at this establishment.
Most of the migrant worker stories are about their times traveling and about the lessons of life that they learned from their father. The Martinez family would usually leave in May heading for Indiana, Michigan or Florida. They returned to NB just after the Comal County Fair was over at the end of September. Being a Catholic family, they would carry a large picture of the Virgin Mary in the truck everywhere they went. That picture is still at the Martinez home.
To get to their destination, they would drive around the clock for 24 hours. They would pull over at a gas station and sleep in the car or truck. The whole family worked in the fields picking tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, and picked cherries in Traverse City, Michigan. They picked bell peppers in West Palm Beach, Florida. Snakes in the fields were a big problem in Florida.
Individual pickers, or in this case, families were paid by how many boxes or buckets they could pick. Gilberto had as a goal for his family – 1000 boxes and sometimes more a day. When the Martinezs reached their destination, they were given a one-room house, sometimes as big as 20 feet by 20 feet for all eleven to stay in. The dad would get the whole family up at 4:00 o’clock in the morning. They had to go to bed early around 5:30. The children complained that they had no time to play with the other children in the camp. They said that it was too light outside to go to sleep. Gilberto fixed that problem by painting the windows black.
A favorite family story took place on the road when their dad stopped at a gas station to fill up. He went in the station and ordered 11 hamburgers. When they were on the road again, the hamburgers were passed out. When everyone had a hamburger, there was one left. To their horror, they discovered that they had left behind the youngest, Gilberto, Jr. at the gas station. They turned around and thankfully found him patiently waiting for them.
All of the Martinez children started their elementary schooling at Lone Star Elementary and finished high school here at New Braunfels High School. School was often difficult because during the picking season, they would lose about two months at the beginning of the year. They managed to overcome the loss of time.
Doing research on migrant workers, led me to believe that the Martinez family did exceptionally well despite the hardships suffered by most migrant workers. Or was it their attitude about it that gave them strength? Generally migrant worker’s children do not go any further than 6th grade in school. Poor housing conditions and high rates of pesticide exposure, poor health treatment, eye injuries were just a few of the conditions that went along with the job. Being aware of the dangers of pesticides didn’t come along until the 1960s.
A farm worker’s income was mostly paid by the bucket, earning as little as 40 cents a bucket. At that rate, farm workers had to pick two tons or 125 buckets to earn $50. Minimum wage laws apply only to workers on large farms.
After the Civil War, migrant farm labor began when agriculture became a dominant business. Before that time, most people farmed their own land, no matter how small.
Conditions of migrant farmers came to the attention of the general population with the writing of the book “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. It was also made into a movie. In 1960 a documentary called “Harvest of Shame” on CBS by Edward R. Murrow had a big impact by making people aware of a bad situation. This documentary put conditions of the migrant worker on the political scene and some improvements were made.
In the 1960s and 70s Cesar Chavez organized migrant workers using nonviolent tactics learned from the Civil Rights Movement. This movement is called “United Farm Workers Union” and was organized in 1972.
The year that Chavez organized the migrant workers was the last year that the Martinez family picked fields. While traveling on the road they heard of the 1972 flood in NB and headed for home to help family members left behind.
The lessons learned at home from their parents have made this family successful. They learned love of family, loyalty and happiness under adverse conditions.