IMAGE: Oil pumps, similar to the ones we encountered in Oildale. Getty Images.
Once we had our permanent resident visas, our mother wanted to leave right away for the United States. Our father wanted to wait. It was in August, a time when he had plenty work. He thought it would be best to save some money before embarking on the trip north. Our mother felt differently and said that not much would be saved if we waited. She also felt that we would miss precious opportunities to pick fruit in northern California.
We ended up leaving right away. One morning, the eleven of us piled in the 1952 Ford station wagon with a few belongings and took off for the U.S. immigration office in Calexico. We only had twenty dollars with us, but we weren’t bothered by it. The plan was to find work quickly and make plenty money right away. Lots of work would be waiting for us, we thought.
Processing the paperwork took a couple of hours. It was getting late. I don’t know if it was preplanned, but we spent the night at the house of our father’s cousin and his family. They lived in Westmorland, a little over thirty miles north of the border. The following morning we took off for L.A. and beyond.
Most cars were pretty big then. Our station wagon was, anyway, but it wasn’t big enough for the nine of us kids, two adults, plus our personal belongings. We had to tie down our wares on top of the vehicle. Most of them were stored in boxes. Someplace close to Indio, part of the cargo got loose and soon flew out and landed all over the highway.
Our father stopped the car and got out to pick up the stuff. I got out too and helped. It was dangerous. There were blankets, sheets, clothing, and can’t remember what else, spread out on the asphalt and one side of the road. We picked up most of it. It was embarrassing. Once the cargo was again secured, we continued our journey.
Nothing much of significance took place on the trip after the cargo mishap near Indio, except, I must admit, I was a little scared riding in the car once we got on the freeway prior to Riverside. There were several lanes moving in the same direction and they were all moving fast. It was scary. The only nice thing worth enjoying on that crowded and surrealistic road was looking at the oranges hanging on the trees that lined the freeway. It was one orchard after another.
A few miles north of Los Angeles, we stopped at Canoga Park to look for work picking green onions. We knew of the place because a neighbor in Mexicali had worked there as a bracero (temporary worker) and had mentioned that he always made good money there. It was backbreaking work, though, he had warned us.
The owner of the farm was of Japanese descent. He gave us work and told us what to do and how much he would pay. I can’t remember if he paid by the bucket, by crate, or by weight, but the bottom line is that we didn’t earn much. We made a little over ten dollars for about two hours of work of all of us combined. It was hard. One had to bend down over and over again to pull the stems and the onions from the soil. It really got tough after a while. No one worked more than an hour except me. I was the oldest boy and I had my pride and didn’t want to quit. After a while, our dad went to the farmer and told him that we were done. He paid us and a few minutes later we were on our way to California’s central valley.
Our green onions picking experience taught us a couple of things. For one, we learned that farm work wasn’t easy. We also learned to appreciate any kind of work. Two days later, we were wishing we had it. Right after our failed try at picking onions and prior to going over the Grapevine and Tejon Pass, we stopped at a small grocery store and gas station in Castaic. We bought gas for the car and bread and cold cuts for us. The twenty dollars we had brought from Mexico were now gone and so was part of the ten dollars and cents we had earned in Canoga Park.
We had plenty opportunities to eat on the road. Every so many miles our dad had to stop to let the car cool off. It kept overheating. To make matters worse, one of the younger girls kept getting car sick and throwing up. It’s tough going over those mountains.
It was late by the time we got to Bakersfield, the next place where our dad wanted to look for work. We spent the night in the car, in Oildale, next to highway ninety-nine and several one-arm, hammer like oil pumps. It was difficult to go to sleep with all that noise and the creepy silhouettes made at night by those pumps in eternal motion. Early in the morning we drove to the farm employment office in Bakersfield. There was no picking work available, we were told, but were advised to try the next big town to the north: Delano.