Elva Treviño Hart (1999). Barefoot Heart: Stories of a Migrant Child. Tempe: Bilingual Press.
What would it be like to grow up as a child in a family of migrant workers? Would the labor be backbreaking and mentally stifling? Or would you feel more in touch with the land by doing “real” work? For those raised in comfortable circumstances, it can be hard to avoid either idealizing or demonizing the migrant worker’s hard lifestyle.
In Barefoot Heart, Elva Treviño Hart gives us the inside story. She was born in 1949, the youngest of six children in a family of Mexican sharecroppers in south Texas. Every summer, her family would travel north to Minnesota and Wisconsin, where they would work in the sugar beet fields for several months, ultimately returning to Texas in time to go back to school.
Elva’s narrative introduces the reader to the Treviño family on the day of their first migration north. They woke up before dawn to catch a ride with another migrant family, as the Treviños didn’t own a car. In fact, they didn’t even own a house but were staying with one of Elva’s uncles. They left almost in secret: the children were too embarrassed to tell their friends at school where they were going.
Upon arriving in Minnesota, they had to figure out what was expected from them in a world they had never seen before. Elva describes her mother and father as emotionally distant but certainly not lacking in strength. They soon figured out the lay of the land. The owner of the farm had small but functional housing set up for the workers, and a local grocery store would let them buy food on credit.
Elva, it seems, also tends to either idealize or demonize her circumstances. On the one hand, she says she learned to be creative because she didn’t have any toys as a child: she had to learn to amuse herself with the rocks and sticks that were available. She describes her family singing and telling jokes as they worked in the fields.
At other times, though, she describes the work in less pleasant terms. At the end of every work day, her family is too tired even to speak. She says, “This family never talked. Hard work, sadness, and silence.” Even so, her mother had to get up immediately every evening to cook dinner. Elva says her mother was often strained to the breaking point—at least once resulting in a graphically-described nervous breakdown.
Elva’s father was strong but dictatorial. He had no time for kindness or even politeness. Elva’s sisters were expected to do the same exhausting work as everyone else (though Elva herself was too young). The children often resented their father for making them work so hard. Elva’s sister vowed to never marry a man “with dirt under his fingernails” who would make her work like that.
All the while, they had to live together in a one-room barn, with no space for solitude or emotional privacy. Elva says she never had her own bed as a child.
The job was paid based on how much work was done, creating a strong incentive to work beyond the point of exhaustion. The hardest workers might be able to earn something close to minimum wage. The children looked forward to rainy days, as rain made the ground too soft to work, requiring a day off, but that also meant they wouldn’t make any money that day.
Even so, the work eventually paid off. The next summer, the Treviños could afford to travel north in their own car. After several years, they had saved up enough to build a small house back in Texas. The work may have been miserable, but it was slowly pulling them out of poverty.
Elva’s father would say, “Work hard, do your homework, finish high school, and then you’ll be set. You’ll never have to work as hard as I did, or for as little money.” His goal was for all of his children to graduate high school, which was rare for Mexican families in south Texas. The Treviños were one of the few families to go home before the harvest, passing up the extra work so that their children could be home for the first day of school.
Another time, Elva’s father refused to let one of her sisters take a job as a maid in a white person’s house. He said, “I don’t want you doing that kind of work. We don’t clean gringo bathrooms. Working in the fields with the vegetables is honest, clean work.” He also refused to let them get jobs as waitresses, because the segregated restaurants in 1950s Texas would only let Mexican patrons enter through the back door.
In Minnesota, Elva was befriended by the farm owner’s daughter, a girl named Kit, who was an only child and had no one to play with. Elva was fascinated by the cleanliness and comfort of Kit’s life. However, Kit’s parents refused to let their daughter associate with the migrants, though she always disobeyed. Even so, it soon became apparent that Elva’s friendship with Kit was unequal: Kit was in charge and had all the power, and Elva resented the feeling of inferiority. Back home, she found herself taking out her insecurity on the girls in her neighborhood who were even poorer than she was.
The seasonal work in Minnesota was regular: every summer, Elva’s family worked on the same farm for about the same number of weeks. But in Wisconsin they had no such connections, and every year had to negotiate where they would work and where they would live. Elva says that this uncertainty was stressful for her parents, but she herself was still young enough to enjoy all the travelling around.
Elva’s family history sheds some light on her parents’ values. Her father was born in 1900 in a family of prosperous ranchers in Nuevo Leon in Mexico. They raised horses and goats, and her uncles carried guns on their hips. They fled to the United States to escape the Mexican Civil War in the 1910s. Elva’s mother’s family was already in the U.S. by then. Elva’s maternal grandfather was also successful—he was educated and wrote poetry—but he was a terrible gambler as well and eventually lost everything he owned. They were sharecropping by the time Elva’s mother was born. Despite their middle-class backgrounds, neither of Elva’s parents had more than a fourth-grade education.
Elva also describes, with evident discomfort, the moral repression and superstition of her parents’ generation. It’s easy to see, through her eyes, why those traditions did not retain their influence on succeeding generations.
Soon, Elva’s older siblings began graduating from high school, and her father became old enough to draw on Social Security and retire from seasonal labor. At the same time, Elva discovered that she was good at school. When the public library first opened in town, she began reading several books a day. She excelled in her classes, played the flute in the school orchestra, and won the science fair.
Elva’s life soon came to resemble that of other American children, but her migrant childhood stayed with her. In south Texas in the 1960s, equality had to be fought for. The schools were integrated just before she entered high school, but she and her classmates still had to fight for equal treatment. Math and science became her favorite subjects as no bias could creep into the grades. If she outperformed her gringo classmates in geometry, then everyone had to admit it.
One summer, she got a job doing farm labor to earn some extra money. She said she wanted to experience firsthand the job her siblings and parents had done for so many years. However, she was disappointed to find the work to be an enjoyable holiday from her usual schoolwork. When taken in such manageable portions, the work contained for her none of the shame and exhaustion her family had felt. Ultimately, she said, “I seemed doomed to an easier life.”
Another year, she took a trip with her parents into Mexico. While her father was in his element on his native soil, Elva felt more foreign. Upon re-entering the United States, she wasn’t sure whether to feel more at home in land of the gringos.
Her success carried her further and further away from her migrant childhood. She graduated as valedictorian and enrolled in the University of Texas. After her first degree, she got a Masters in computer science at Stanford, then got a job at IBM, first working in programming and then in sales. By the early 1970s, Elva was earning six figures selling mainframe computers all over the country. She had no idea how to reconcile this new life with her family’s history. When her father (who had never learned to speak English) asked her how much money she made, she lied and said she made fifteen dollars an hour, and he was proud.
Soon, Elva began to feel like she was selling her soul to IBM in exchange for all that money. She started learning more and more about the art of storytelling, which ultimately resulted in her career as a writer and the creation of this book.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- How much experience have you had with manual labor? What are the differences, in your mind, between working with your hands all day and white-collar work?
- What do you think it would be like to work seasonally with no job security?
- What do you know about the current reality of migrant labor in the U.S.? Elva says there is a lot less work for migrants as so much of the work has been mechanized. Have you had any first-hand experience with present-day migrants?
- Elva’s story takes place mostly in the 1950s and 1960s. What has changed since then in the experience of immigrants in this country? What has stayed the same?
Given her experience of both poverty and mainstream academic success, Elva Treviño Hart is uniquely able to tell the story of Mexican migrant workers in the United States. Barefoot Heart captures the emotional nuances of that difficult experience.
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