Migrant workers prepare to head home for winter

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BOARDMAN, Ore. _ Like a flock of birds flying in formation across the blue sky heading south for the winter, migrant families in the Pacific Northwest are packing their belongings and preparing to return to their homes.

It's been a long harvest for many of the families and this year has been one of the hardest. The heavy rains that fell over eastern Washington in early June ruined much of the onion fields therefore farmers were hiring only a handful of field workers.

Yet, there was a greater influx of migrant workers that moved into this area because California's drought ruined crops there and workers began traveling elsewhere in search of work.

Raul Martinez, 62, his wife, Maria Elena, 53, and the four youngest of 13 children, left their home in LaGrulla, Texas, in April and headed for Pasco where they were hired to pick asparagus.

From April to June, Raul, his son Danny, 27, daughter-in-law, Alicia, 26, and daughter, Doris, 20, worked the asparagus fields from 4 a.m. to about 7 p.m.

After two months of work, the hard physical labor took its toll on Doris and she decided to return to Texas.

``It was too hard for her. She would finish off bottles of Tylenol and her back would still hurt. It's too hard to be bending over all day long. I would see many women that would stop work and cry in the middle of the fields. Alicia was one of them,'' Maria Elena said.

Raul earned about $4,000 picking asparagus and when the harvest was completed, he and his wife and their three sons, Charlie, 15; Jimmy, 10; and Billy, 7; headed to Walla Walla on June 30 in hopes of finding work in the onion fields.

Danny and Alicia and their two younger sons decided to return to Texas. On their way home, their truck overturned near Trementon, Idaho. Danny had fallen asleep behind the wheel. Luckily, no one was seriously injured and the family suffered only minor cuts and bruises.

Meanwhile, Raul and his family were in Walla Walla renting a four-room apartment in the city's southside. After fruitless days, it became apparent that work was not going to be found in the onion fields.

Desperate, Raul began accepting odd jobs such as cleaning yards and fixing roofs. Charlie got a temporary summer job as a recreational aide at the YWCA where he earned about $100 a week. Maria Elena and the two young boys worked about two days picking raspberries in Milton-Freewater. After realizing there was barely any money to be earned there, only $23 was earned, the decided to give up picking raspberries. After 21 days of living in Walla Walla and earning approximately $500, the family decided to once again pack their belongings and move to Boardman, Ore., where they hoped some type of steady employment could be found. ``Move to where we can find some work,'' Raul kept repeating in Spanish. ``If we don't find any there, then we'll move somewhere else.'' Just after four days of arriving in Boardman on July 22, Raul and Charlie began working hoeing onion, potato and tomato fields. The hours were shorter, normally working 12-hour days from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., and they considered the pay to be very good. In about three weeks of hoeing, Raul earned about $1,000 and Charlie earned about $600. On Aug. 20, a week after work was completed, Charlie decided to cut the apron string from his family and set out on a Greyhound bus to return to Texas in time to start high school there. The rest of the family stayed behind with Raul trying to support them by working odd jobs until Sept. 6 when he was hired by Western Empires Corp. to pick apples for about $7 a box. Although this is the first time Raul had picked apples, he said he liked the work because the hours were good, only from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and he earned almost $2,000 in the harvest. Sore shoulders and a stiff back occurred every day. Three times he fell off the ladder while picking apples from the tree tops, but he never received what he would consider ``a serious injury.'' Jimmy and Billy were enrolled at Sam Boardman Elementary School and Maria Elena kept her days occupied by cooking, cleaning, washing and was sometimes hired by friends and neighbors to clean their homes. Now the family is preparing to travel about 3,000 miles to their home for the winter. ``We're just like the birds,'' Maria Elena said with a slight laugh. ``It starts getting cold and we start getting anxious to go home. ``This wasn't a very good year for us in the fields. Last year we earned about $8,000 for the year and I think this year we'll only make $6,000. I think we only have about $1,400 left for the road and to carry us through next spring plus what we'll get from welfare. ``It'll be a long winter but with the help of God we'll be OK. We always are,'' she said.

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