"Resilience": Chapter 5
Dad loved our country and was a proud American. He knew so much about hard work and sacrifice and wanted to instill his work ethic in each of us. Dad was also a realist. He experienced the pangs of racism. He realized by sharing his own experiences he was teaching us to separate the frailty of our fellow man versus the opportunities we could attain in our great country if we applied our work ethic and education. He often said, “In America, anyone with a good education who is willing to work hard and has the resilience to overcome obstacles can be successful.” We took these lessons into the cherry fields and later, we took these same lessons into our adult lives.
In the cherry fields, entire families joined ranks, starting their work day at 6:00 am each Monday morning, ending their day at 6:00 pm and working half a day on Saturday. We worked in the Traverse City area picking Cherries from June through the end of July.
The farm owners paid about fifty cents a lug. It took two full buckets of cherries to fill a lug. On a good day, a hard working adult could average 1 – 2 lugs an hour or about 12 – 16 lugs a day. When my oldest brothers were around, they used to race to see who could pick the most cherries. I think the record was twenty-five lugs in one day.
By the end of the week, Mom had a tidy sum. She collected the lug vouchers twice a day from the owners who came around in their tractors to collect them. We generally raked in about a hundred fifty dollars cash a week. Mom saved about fifty dollars for groceries, with a few extra dollars put away to give to Dad when he came up for a visit. The rest she handed out in allowances to all the kids. The money you received each week was based upon the amount you produced. This taught us another good lesson about work. The harder you work the more you are paid.
Throughout the week, at the end of each day, we went to beautiful Lake Leelanau to swim. We went to the area of the lake reserved for all the migrant workers. There was a great sense of camaraderie at these camps. We were poor hard-working Mexican-Americans working and playing together.
There were so many kids in the camps that in the early evenings, after swimming, we gathered in the huge yard area near the barn and played games. We played softball, volleyball, kickball and frozen tag. Sometimes we made up games. I remember sliding down this big hill on pieces of cardboard. It was similar to sledding with no snow. It was so much fun.
Sometimes, the farm owner´s daughter Janice joined us. She was my age and a tomboy just like me. I liked Janice. She was my friend. She was about my height and she was athletic, like me. We were as good as most of the boy players and we played most evenings. Janice was always getting in trouble with her mom though. Her mother constantly yelled at her to come inside and quit being a tomboy. We were never short of children even when Janice wasn´t there with us.
On Saturdays, we rushed home from work at noon to take a shower and clean up for our trip to the city. We had separate community shower houses, one for males and another for females. After we showered and dressed, we lined up in front of our mother with our hands out. She neatly laid our earned dollars in our palms. The big boys got the most, but there was always money for each of us.
At about two in the afternoon, we headed into Sutton’s Bay, a bigger town with a movie theater. Once there, we went to the drug store and drank sodas or we went directly to the movies. Saturday nights there were often dances and music. Everyone joined in on the fun. The rhythmic sounds filled the air as we swayed and swirled to the Latin sounds. We played more than just Latin music though. We were also just like other kids in America, listening to Elvis, Johnny Mathis and all the Motown sounds from Detroit. “He’s So Fine” was one of my all time favorites.
Every other week, Dad drove up from Lansing and spent the weekend with us. It was a four hour drive, but it was worth it for him to see us.
On Sundays, we got up early, dressed up and went to church in Lake Leelanau. It was a pretty little church. They saved the 11:00 mass just for the migrant workers and said the Mass in Spanish.
Sometimes, various religious groups visited the camps to “save us.” It was kind of funny. Here we were, hard working, religious people trying to scrape a living together and these people were coming to save us. Mom asked us kids to stay away from them since we were Catholic and they were not. Mom didn’t mind too much though. So we went with the workers, sang their songs, colored their coloring books and listened to them preach. They even brought us old clothes in boxes. The clothes were the worst. They had little second hand sweaters and dresses in old fashioned styles. I grabbed a sweater but Mom made me take it back. I handed it back to the lady and just sort of shrugged. She looked like she felt sorry for me. She just didn’t get it. Sure we shopped in the second hand stores for our clothes, but we picked what we wanted and paid for it with money we earned.
My parents were not big believers in handouts. The whole time Dad was laid off from the factory, he refused to take welfare. He said we should rather starve than take something for nothing. “It will ruin you!” he said. “Never take anything you didn’t work for, otherwise you will get lazy and grow to depend on the handouts!” The only time we received any kind of support was when my father was laid off in the early 60´s. My mother would stretch a dollar as far as she could by cooking beans and rice at almost every meal. Mom also canned tomatoes and chili peppers. Her homemade salsa, beans rice and home made tortillas were delicious. Even with all of her efforts, she sometimes had difficulty stretching her dollars. Once in a while she received “Kennedy Food” from her sister, Aunt Lucy. Another time when Dad was laid off, Aunt Lucy´s husband was also out of work. She picked up “Kennedy Food” from the area food bank. She brought over canned meat, powdered eggs, powdered milk and box cheese so we would have enough to eat. Mom tried to sneak this food into her menu and hide it from Dad, but this was hard to do since these foods were different than most of her cooking. At first, Dad refused to eat any of it, but allowed us kids to eat it versus starving. Then Dad finally gave in. That is when he named it “Kennedy Food.” This was because Dad felt that he voted for a good man and this was like a payback for all the taxes we paid. He made my mother promise not to take any more than we absolutely needed. She agreed.
Nineteen-sixty-two was our last year picking cherries. By that year, most of the older kids already moved out. Only Mark, me, Rick, Tina and Baby were left at home. With so few children, it wasn’t worth the trip. Picking cherries was only profitable if you did it in volume.
That last year up north was quite a summer. Two great things happened. I received my first kiss and I got boobs. My first kiss was special to me. That summer, I was 12 years old and I became a woman. I just started my period. I had no idea what was happening to me. My stomach started cramping and when I went to the bathroom, there were spots of blood on my underwear. I thought I was getting cursed or something. My older cousin Maggie was there.
“Oh Maggie. I don’t know what’s wrong. I’ve got a stomachache and I’ve got blood in my underwear. What should I do?”
She started laughing. “You stupid girl. Hasn’t your mother told you anything?”
“You’re turning into a woman.”
“You have eggs in your body and that’s why you’re getting blood down there. Your body is getting you ready to have babies someday.”
“What? I don’t want to have babies. I’m just a little girl.”
She stood up next to me, nose to nose and said, “Look at you. You are tall as me and I’m sixteen years old. I’m a woman. See those little nubbies on your chest? Those are your boobs. Not much, it’s true. But they’re your boobs. You’re a woman, you baby. Grow up.”
With that, she left me, exasperated. I sat down. My head filled up with all the troubles in the world. Was God cursing me? Oh why was this happening to me? Why didn’t Mom tell me anything?
I went back to our family area and laid down on my bottom bunk bed.
“What’s the matter?” Mom said.
“Why didn’t you tell me about being a woman? Maggie told me everything and now I have blood.” I whined and whimpered and then laid back in bed.
Mom didn’t say a word, She handed me a box of napkins. Now why the heck did I want stupid napkins? When I opened the box, I understood why.
That summer, I started getting tingling feelings every time Jamie Casanova looked at me. He was my age. He and his family came to camp for years but I never noticed him paying any attention to me in previous summers. This summer, every once in a while, when he was standing next to me, he made sure to touch my arm. When he did that, I got hot.
“Why was he doing that? Did he like me? Why?” I wondered. I didn’t understand it because I always thought I was such a nerd. I studied myself in the mirror a lot that summer. Hey. Maybe I wasn’t so bad if Jamie Casanova was looking at me.
One Saturday, all the girls were changing into their swimsuits in the community dressing area near the beach. You couldn’t be modest in that environment. If you wanted to get into your suit, you had to bare all in front of everybody. The majority of girls were well endowed. At 12, while I was taller than most of the other girls, I couldn’t say the same about my boobs.
“Hey! Watcha got there? No cheechones? Just little nubbies, hey girl?” They laughed.
I was so, so embarrassed. I pulled up my swimsuit straps and ran outside. Outside the dressing area, I hid near the bushes and I said a prayer, “Oh please God, please. Let me have big boobies like the other girls. Please let them grow.”
Little did I know that God would more than answer my prayers. By the time I was eighteen, I wore a 36 D.
Jamie Casanova didn’t seem to mind that I just had little nubbies. He kept staring at me every day.On our last day at camp, when everyone was packing into their cars to go home, I decided to run to the bathroom. Behind the huge, community lavatories stood Jamie C. He looked all nervous as he whispered, “Come here a minute.”
My pulse started racing and my forehead was hot. I tiptoed to where he stood. He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me towards him. His lips landed square on my top lip. I was so nervous and hot that I thought I was going to faint. I noticed that he was just starting to get a stubble on his cheeks and they scratched my cheek ever so faintly. I heard my brother calling me, “Kiki…where are you? We gotta go.” I pulled quickly away. In a throaty, husky voice that I didn’t recognize as my own I said, “I..I looo…”
“Kiki!!” Ricki screamed again.“I gotta go.” I pulled away quickly and left him standing there.I turned and ran. My whole body was so hot I thought it would explode. Ricki had been calling me and was standing on the other side of the lavatory. I grabbed him on my way past and headed towards the station wagon. Ricki climbed in the back window and I quickly followed. I laid down in the backseat and Mom asked, “Where were you and what took you so long?”
“Bathroom…” was all I could get out. My voice sounded strange and I thought, for sure, they could see Jamie’s kiss all over me.On the four hour ride back, all I kept thinking was, “Can’t they see how different I am? I’m a woman now. I was kissed.”
My whole body felt different after that. I really felt like a woman.