In the Lewiston cemetery there are stone markers inscribed with Hispanic names whose graves seem to have been forgotten, graves of what must have been a migrant farmer, his wife, and what seems to be an unrelated little boy, just shy of two years old. Lewiston residents Frank and Margaret Herrera put flowers on these graves whenever they put flowers on the grave of Frank’s mother. The Herreras are Hispanic, too, and they wonder, as we all might wonder, who these people were, where they came from, and who grieved for them when they died.
One thing we do know is that, after months of following the migrant path, perhaps up to Utah, then to Idaho, then to Montana--following the seasons, the crops--they had stopped here in Lewiston and never managed to get back home again.
We know, too, that they could have been either Mexican citizens, or members of an Hispanic family who had been citizens of this country for generations. In fact, their family might have held successive citizenships–of Spain, then of greater Mexico, then of the United States.
For in the more than four centuries between 1541 and 1997, three flags have flown over the southwestern United States, a geographic region that includes the state of Utah. First designated in the 1500s as northern New Spain by the Spanish crown, the region changed hands after Mexico’s successful bid for independence in 1821 and became northern Mexico. In 1848, at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, the region again changed hands after it was ceded by Mexico to the United States under the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.
During this time, many families of both Spanish and Mexican descent had owned and worked land–some of them for hundreds of years--that had been originally granted to them by the Spanish crown. But a large majority of these families would lose their land after 1848, mainly through the imposition of unfamiliar post-1848 tax laws.
Under both Spanish and Mexican systems, taxes were levied as percentages of a farm’s production, something like our present income tax, and were paid most often in kind–in sheep, say, or grain, or cattle. Good growing seasons meant higher tax returns for the government; poor ones meant little or none. We might remember seeing Spain as the oppressor of the New World’s peasants (in Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s “Zorro” movies, for instance), but their property-tax system was nevertheless a benevolent one for farmers scratching out a living on harsh, unyielding crop and pasture land.
Under the systems then current in the U.S. West, however, property taxes were set dollar amounts no matter how low the farm’s production, and were expected to be paid in hard currency. To make a bad business worse for Spanish-speaking citizens, tax notices were printed in English. The result was a wholesale loss of Hispanic-owned land. Try to imagine, for instance, the Internal Revenue Service suddenly sending out to Utah citizens federal income tax forms that were written in Greek--including the innumerable and already bewildering umpteen pages of instructions.
Frank Herrera’s grandfather was one of those who lost his land in Texas after the 1848 treaty, and his family was subsequently among those who followed the path taken by most people skilled only in farming, who no longer owned acreage--they turned to hiring themselves out as farm laborers.
“But the problem we had,” says Frank, who was born in Laredo, “was that we lived on the U.S. side of the border between Texas and Mexico, and the few decent jobs there were, were all taken by Mexicans from across the border. They would come across to work, and then go back home. They’d work for less money; they’d do any kind of work.” Therein lay the impetus for the Herrera family to pull up stakes for part of the year and follow the migrant path.
“At first,” says Frank, “the older ones would travel to farm work in towns around Laredo that had irrigation water and crops to tend, and the younger ones would stay at home. Then we started going farther away.
”The sugar companies would hire contractors and send them down there to recruit people. They’d get $15 a head for a grownup and, I think, $10 for a younger person–this was for the transportation. The contractor’s truck would hold about 15 people and we’d go up to the sugar beet fields in Nebraska, then to Oklahoma to work. That would be only for the summer–three months–then we’d go back home.”
But during World War II, Frank explains, farm laborers were at a premium and the family started going farther afield and staying longer. For Frank, born in 1940 and still young then, it was an exciting time.
“We’d gather for the trip in San Antonio, people would come from all over south Texas, trucks covered with canvas like the old wagon trains–just a big encampment of people. I can still remember all the commotion, the kids chasing each other and screaming, the people getting their stuff ready. The recruiters would get our names and ages, the contractor would get paid. Then we were all ready; we’d get provisions for the road, and move out.
“When I was watching the re-enactment of the Mormon trek across the plains on TV,” he says, “I mentioned to Margaret that it reminded me of when we used to move out like that.”
But as Frank concedes, it must have been hell on wheels for the women who were faced with keeping the family fed and clean during the constant travel. Often there was no hot or even cold running water, for in some states the workers were barred from service station restrooms. And hardly anywhere was there a restaurant that would welcome a truckload of migrant workers, not at any price. Indeed, the migrant path resembled the pioneer trek of 1847 in more ways than the excitement of moving out.
Moreover, Frank’s mother, Lucia Prada Solis, pictured at left, did the trip as a woman alone, traveling and working in the fields beside her children. And except for a few seasons during the war years when she worked as a seamstress in a Laredo clothing factory, the migrant life was her family’s sole means of support. It had to have been a relief for her to finally settle for a while in Lewiston.
Frank tells us that when Lucia fell ill with cancer in 1960, she wanted to go back to Laredo to die. “She wanted to see her home and her other sons, so I took the back seat out of the car to make a bed for her and we went down. It was August and it was hot in Laredo, too hot. She said,’Let’s get out of here. I’ve seen my boys and my mom’s grave and all the other things I wanted to see. Let’s go back to Lewiston where it’s cool.’”
So Lucia came back to Lewiston to die, and because there was no further reason for Frank to go back to Laredo, he stayed here, as did some of Margaret’s family.
In the material I’ve read on Hispanic culture, there is repeated reference
to the loyalty within Hispanic groups–they stick together, they take each
other in, they share. “Families would come up here all together,”
Frank explains, “sometimes all from one town, all related.”
So it’s no surprise that Margaret’s sister, Rose, lives not far from her
in Lewiston, another sister, Socorro, lives in Wellsville, and Margaret’s
younger brother, Louis Mendoza
--who is the mayor of Franklin, Idaho--lives only a few miles away.
In the 1990 Census, Hispanics made up 2.5% of Cache Valley’s population; today it’s estimated as much higher. In Utah as a whole, Hispanics are now around 10% of the population. Ogden City Councilman, Jesse Garcia, reported not long ago in a Salt Lake City Tribune article that the percentage in his city is approaching 20%. In fact, Hispanics are reported to be the largest minority in the United States.
At present, Lewiston has over twenty Hispanic families and about that many Hispanic children are enrolled in Lewiston Elementary School. Richmond reports ten to twelve Hispanic families, and there is a large enough population of Hispanics in the Franklin-Preston area to necessitate an LDS Spanish-speaking ward up there. In fact, there are Spanish LDS wards throughout the state. In Preston a significant number of Hispanics attend St. Peter’s Catholic Church in which mass is bilingual. And Logan’s St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic church is among many in the northern Utah area that offer a Spanish mass.
Although a substantial number of our Utah Hispanics have been born in the United States, many with a long history of citizenship, they are still looked upon almost universally as immigrants. “They ask us how long we’ve been here,” laughs Margaret. “What part of Mexico we’re from.” The Herreras take this stereotyping good-naturedly--they’re part of the valley here, enjoy Lewiston, and feel secure. They both have good jobs, and own a home in Lewiston and a rental property in Logan. What’s more, their children experienced happy childhoods here. Their son, Abel, is a USU graduate with a degree in finance and works as internal auditor at Lewiston State Bank. Their daughter, Christina, teaches Spanish to first graders at Sunrise Elementary School in Smithfield.
But too often the word ‘immigrant’ is a ticket to conflict with the more settled citizens of the country. It’s so easy for us to forget that, with the exception of Native Americans, all our forebears have been immigrants themselves–the United States is in fact a nation of immigrants. I’m only a second-generation American myself–my grandparents were both Irish immigrants. Nevertheless, successive waves of new people, from a new country, a new region of the world, have invariably met with hostility and rejection by the children and grandchildren of immigrants that had come before.
Conflicts of culture aside, the flash point is almost always economics.
Throughout history, U.S. citizens have felt strongly that newly arrived
immigrants would jeopardize their jobs and lower wages. And it’s
true that these newcomers have historically been willing to work for less.
But the jobs they took at lower wages have been overwhelmingly the ones
that the more Americanized and educated descendants of former immigrants
wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.
In a very real sense immigrants--past and present, in cities as well as rural areas--are also pioneers. Nearly all our forebears have moved out into unfamiliar territory, working long hours at ofttimes back-breaking labor while contending more often than not with an unfamiliar language, always faced with new customs and laws–and then eventually overlaying all this with contributions from their own folkways and work ethics. It’s what makes the United States as culturally rich as it is; it’s what makes the history of places like Lewiston so appealing.
The graves of Marla
S. Vaca, Frank Vaca, and Florentino Montalva, 21 months in the Lewiston
Cemetery, Joan Shaw
Photo of Lucia Prada Solis, 1898-1962--Yesterday's Working Mother; photo taken 1935, Frank and Margaret Herrera
Photo of Roberto and Frank in a field, working, Frank and Margaret Herrera
Photo of Frank and Margaret after their wedding in 1966, Frank and Margaret Herrera
Photos of Frank and Margaret today and of Abel Herrera, Joan Shaw