Interview: Mike Lopez, the son of a farmworker crew leader

Date of Interview: June 18, 2021
Interviewed By: Chuy Ramriez
Posted: July 28, 2021

Mike Lopez describes the typical composition of farm labor crews during the 1950s and 60s and the financial arrangements among packing sheds, crew leaders and their crews.

Mike:  So, for the first six years, I was raised in Weslaco. Very big family, Bro—primos y primas—uuf! I don’t know—treinta, cuarenta—sepa la madre. It’s funny because when we would visit my grandmother on Saturday or Sunday, you’re talking about fifteen, twenty kids there—at one time.

Chuy:  And your grandma lived in the neighborhood tambien?

Mike:  On the other side. Ella vivía on Illinois Street, donde vivía Ramiro Cavazos—en el parquecito. Ahí vivía.

Chuy:  Two questions about that: Where were you, growing up, in the hierarchy de Chicanos in your neighborhood or barrio or North Side and describe your home—physically—describe your home.

Mike:  Frame house, small yard.

Chuy:  Twenty-five-foot lot.

Mike:  Twenty-five-foot lot.

Chuy:  Toilet or outhouse.

Mike:  I think it was a toilet but outside.

Chuy:  So, it was a flushing toilet.

Mike: Flushing toilet, outside.

Chuy:  Shower?

Mike:  With a shower outside. Era shower stall with stucco en las paredes. We would take turns. Un cuartito, a living room, another cuartito, the kitchen and maybe semi-storage room in between. Eso era. Estaba chiquito.

Chuy:  Did you go to church?

Mike:  Yeah.

Chuy:  Did your mother take you or did she just tell you to go?

Mike:  No, we would go on Sunday.

Chuy:  Did your dad go?

Mike:  Sí. We would go on Sunday to church. Estaba cerca ahí. On Saturday afternoon, because  the parents or the fathers had something to do like grocery shopping or a function of some sort, we would all end up at my abuela’s.

Chuy:  The kids, all the kids.

Mike:  The kids. Todos—yo y los primos. Estaba mi abuela, mi tío on a twenty-five-foot lot—in two separate houses—in two separate lots, but next to each other.  Mi otro tío, el rentaba. Mi abuela owned y mi tío owned. Pero mi otro tío didn’t own. Anyway, that’s toda otra historia porque mi primo we grew up together. Nosotros éramos tres primos muy acercados because we were almost two or three weeks apart (in age). Era Ángel, Güero— se llamaba Jesse. Pero era(mos) Ángel, Güero, yo. We grew up together. There is a story there. He posted on Facebook—I didn’t see it—but my sisters did. He posted this long story. El estaba en Los Angeles. He posted on Facebook the drama that he felt because of me because I was the favorite porque mi jefito historically entre la familia was the provider, both for my family, for my abuela, mis tíos y mis tías. He looked out after everybody.

Chuy:  He probably gave everybody jobs and made them part of his crew.

Mike:  Yeah. He gave everybody jobs. Cuando necesitaban tirones de dinero, then they’d go to  him. So, yo era…

Chuy:  You were kind of special compared to them.

Mike:   Yo era bien consentido and it traumatized my cousin.

Chuy:  Well, sure. He had a complex.

Mike:  He had a complex all through his life. He wrote several freaking pages about that. So, mis  primo/as se enojaron porque in their eyes he put my tío (his dad) down explicando…

Chuy:  His father.

Mike:  His father–expicando, “Mi jefito wouldn’t do this and he wouldn’t do that and Mino—mi jefe le decían Mino,Maximino—would do this and he was the patriarch and Mike was the favorite y a mi me tiraban a loco.

Chuy:   Interesting.

Mike:   Interesting stuff. Toda una historia de mi primo. Eso bato era medic en Viet Nam. Me mandaba retratos feos. People blown up—soldiers blown up next to him. Parchando y estaban terribles. I lost them all en dos cajas que me trajo Güero—Eddie Garza y Güero se las trajeron cuando me moví de Austin para acá y me las perdieron.

Chuy:  Fijate. Oh, my gosh.

Mike:  Se pusieron bien pedos y me perdieron dos cajas. The pictures were in there. Anyway, we  all go anca mi abuela (a casa de mi abuela) y los jefes—they go wherever—grocery shopping or do whatever. Luego de rato, el jefe would go play his cards or whatever. So  la abuela would do this big pot—frijoles—y luego cortaba either salchichon or weiners y lo echaba. Luego hacía un p—che stack de tortillas así y luego decía, “Come and get it.” Me acuerdo de eso.

Chuy:  It’s interesting that you talk about this cousin of yours whom you describe as having a severe inferiority complex that has accompanied him all his life and apparently has affected him even as an adult. Here’s the question related to that. One of the theories that I work under in what I write about is the role of the crew leader in a community—en el barrio. The role of the crew leader is often times, an intermediary or a mediator. In the sense that he has even though minimally, he has gone out of the enclave and he talks to people beyond the enclave. He gets a check. He can go to the bank. They know him at the bank. Right? His children may not be perceived as working as hard as the children of other families. Right? And therefore, they’re having a better life.

Mike:  Yeah.

Chuy:  And he’s also a patriarch because often times, in the traditional culture, the patriarch  doesn’t need to be the oldest person. It just has to be the person who asserts himself or herself. It could be a matriarch who asserts herself. And those are the people who spend the time to learn stuff that someone else doesn’t care to learn or be responsible for. Does that make sense to you?

Mike:  Yeah. That’s exactly the way it was.

Chuy:  And the troquero business—what I call the troquero and crew leader business here in the  ‘40s and the ‘50s, at least where I grew up, every neighborhood had a troquero or a crew leader. And a crew leader with fifteen, twenty relatives—that was his crew. He didn’t have to go anywhere.

Mike:  Yeah, that’s true. Yo tenía dos primos hermanos who followed him all his life.

Chuy:  Yeah. Those were the models.

Mike:  They were older.

Chuy:  Those were the models that existed in the ‘40s and early ‘50s. The models of entrepreneurship and of success. Because what else could you do, Mike?

Mike:  Yeah.

Chuy:  So, you see, you described to me a traditional, segregated barrio in South Texas. Right?

Mike:  Yep, pretty much.

Chuy:  Small houses, families living together, sticking together, finding security and comfort in  the relationships that they have with family and always a patriarchal or matriarchal figure.

Mike:  Yeah, exactly. Así era.

Chuy:  So, you moved to Donna. That’s where you’re going to start now.

Mike:  So, la jefita le dice eso y entonces el jefito dice, “¿Sabes qué? Hallé una casa en Donna. We’re going to move to Donna.” Dijo la jefa, “Donna? ¡Que lejos!

Chuy:  “We’re stepping down.” She wanted to go further.

Mike:  Yeah, she wanted to go someplace else. Anyway. Ya vino y le enseño—a todos osostros—nos trajo a nosotros—the house where I grew up on 6th Street. Previously, it had been a church f some sort. I don’t think it was a major religion—Pentecostal—a lesser religion.

Chuy:  Sure.

Mike:  Una iglesia that had been converted into a home—into a house. We moved ahí.

Chuy:  I see.

Mike:  On 6th Street. That’s where I grew up. I was six years old.

Chuy:  So, describe that neighborhood. Where was it in Donna? Let me tell you, about Donna. I know Donna had an East Donna.

Mike:   Yeah, it was on the better side. Not the Anglo side porque the North Side. It was rich,  established Anglo, well-paved, utilities, todo el carnaval.

Chuy:  On the North Side.

Mike:  On the North Side. South Side—you had Middle Donna—which was 1st Street through

about 12th Street. That was kind of middle class—maybe a little upper middle class. Por ejemplo, on Main Street—yo estaba en 6th Street—Main Street, four streets down— la gente que vivía ahí—por ejemplo, el papa de David Rodriguez, Mario Rodriguez y esos, he had a career with Knapp Sherrill. He was a major officer.

Chuy:  Knapp Sherrill was a canning company.

Mike:  The canning company—he was like an assistant office manager o algo así. Tenía su posicioncita ahí por años y años. He was on the school board.

Chuy:  Okay.

Mike:  Token mexicano. Albert Rodriguez. El señor de aquellas pero token mexicano. Era de ellos.

Chuy:  Sure.

Mike:  Y nosotros vivíamos from 1st to about 12th Street, two streets past Main. It was kind of middle class mexicanos. Y luego tenías el Golfo que era 13th Street through 21st. Ahí era el barrio de el Vis (?), Arredondo, los Padilla, Casianos—not quite as, if I may use the word just to drive the point porque it’s relevant to right now— “well-off”. “Well back then is not “well-off” today. Well, this was a little bit more “well-off y luego tenías the other Chicanos y luego tenías el barrio…

Chuy:  East Donna.

Mike:   de East Donna and East Donna was a lower, lower income.

Chuy:  East Donna would be like what we would find in a colonia these days. First generation  mexicanos moving in—very low education, unskilled—that kind of environment. Right?

Mike:  Yep.

Chuy:  Okay. So, was your neighborhood a racially or ethnically mixed neighborhood o puros mexicanos? Or was it beginning to see some mixing?

Mike:  There was a little bit of mix. On 1st Street tenías los Edwards—hillbilly mexicanos— Freddy Edwards. La mama de Freddy Edwards—racista—she would not hide it. But they were right in the middle of pura raza.

Chuy:  Um-hm.

Mike:  There were a couple of Black families—Adams—Charlie Adams and los Jackson. Within that neighborhood, next to us, estaban los Bryant—weird family—bien apartados. The females—no communication with us—they were kind of—what’s the word—not Mormon..   (MENNONITES?)

Chuy:  Latter Day Saints? (Latter Day Saints are the MORMONS)

Mike:  Like Latter Day Saints type. Very reserved but a little bit unkept. The place was totally  unkept. Tenían junk all over the place.

Chuy:  So whatever Whites lived in your neighborhood were maybe folks who could not live  across the tracks.

Mike:  They could not live over there. Yep, exactly.

Chuy:  There was a sprinkling of them nómas.

Mike:  Nómas esos. It was just the Bryants, Edwards. Black families eran los Adams and  Jacksons and maybe another Anglo family and that was about it.

Chuy:  And this is while you’re going through high school.

Mike:  Yes, all through elementary and high school.

Chuy:  And so, you had how many elementary schools in Donna at the time?

Mike:  Two.

Chuy:  This is looking at the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Mike:  Two. Tenías the upper and middle-class income elementary school.

Chuy:  It was on the North Side.

Mike:  On the North Side y tenías the barrio elementary school on 11th Street, between East Donna and —era around 13th Street.

Chuy:  So, when you were going to school, the whole district had just two elementary schools.

Mike:  Two elementary schools.

Chuy:  And which school did you go to?

Mike:  That was one of the impacts in my life—not knowing yet the full impact. Pero the  elementary school on 11thStreet le decían “La escuela de los burros” because it was viewed as (having) a lesser status. The drop-out rate was high. Back then families didn’t look at the drop-out rate. Nomas sabían que…

Chuy:  Estaban burros ahí.

Mike:  Sí. Que iban a la escuela esa y se volvían problema—gang type stuff, lower income, teachers were not viewed as the best teachers—that type of stuff. Aca (the) Anglo school—a lot of the Anglo students…

Chuy:  What were the names of the schools? Do you recall?

Mike:  I don’t remember.

Chuy:  Okay, but there were two schools.

Mike:  I want to say this one was South Elementary and this one was—it had somebody’s name—Anglo name.

Chuy:  So, you were in the Anglo school.

Mike:  I got sent there when I went from—3rd, 4th and 5th grades were in East Donna. Then, I got sent to that school—the one on 11th Street. My mom had a fit. And she had a fit not so much because of the reputation of the school—that had something to do with it—but not so much—but because why was I going to go all the way to 11th Street when this school was four blocks away? I could just walk. ¿Y porque no me dejaban entrar? We had no  status in the town, you know. We were newcomers.

Chuy:  What were your options?

Mike:  Yeah. So, she went on her own. El jefito no. El jefito said, “Tengo mucho que hacer. Vé tu y a ver que. See what they say.” She went and they turned her down. And she was adamant about it, and she asked to meet with the principal. Y peleó, y peleó y peleó and they accepted me.

Chuy:  Is that right?

Mike:  Yeah.

Chuy:  Now, did she speak English?

Mike:  Yeah, oh, yeah.

Chuy:  She was articulate.

Mike:  Yeah. La familia de la jefa was a lot more educated.

Chuy:  I see. Well, because they came from Salt Lake City.

Mike:  Yeah, a lot more educated. Ya hablaban ingles, y tenían high school diplomas. My dad’s  family—I don’t think any of my tíos and tías graduated from high school.

Chuy:  Now, you started school in East Donna?

Mike:  Yeah.

Chuy:  So, how far was that?

Mike:  I went to 3rd and 4th grade.

Chuy:  But, how far—physically, geographically—was it?

Mike:  Oh, well, you’re talking about—I was on 6th Street to 24th Street–¿de cuantos bloques estas hablando?

Chuy:  Abou eighteen blocks. You walked?

Mike:  Yeah, or…

Chuy:  Bussed?

Mike:  No, Mom would drop me off—when she had a chance. We only had one car. We had the truck and eventually two trucks. But the second truck was more like an extra truck. Estaba más “cateadita.”

Chuy:  Sí. Kind of a back-up.

Mike:  Yeah, kind of a back-up. And we only had one car. When that was available, she would drive.

Chuy:  So, what grade level did you start at the North Side school? Fourth grade or fifth?

Mike:  Fifth.

Chuy:  Okay. Describe those—how were those classes? What was the mix there?

Mike:  It was mixed—Anglo and…

Chuy:  About 50/50?

Mike:  I’d say about 50/50, yeah. And I was lost.

Chuy:  You were lost?

Mike:  I was lost. The level of teaching was higher over there and I came from—I wound up  coming from 3rd and 4thgrade at Guzman School. It was named Guzman afterwards. From that school straight over here—¡no hombre!

Chuy:  Guzman School was previously the Mexican School in the ‘30s and the ‘40s.

Mike:  The Mexican School, yeah.

Chuy:  So, you went to the North Side school.

Mike:  North Side School y las maéstras talked faster and the English they spoke was not quite understandable by me. So, estaba un poquito perdido. I struggled. I struggled the first year, but then I caught on.

Chuy:  What year did you graduate high school?

Mike:  Nineteen sixty-five. I skipped. Back then, there was a program—I don’t know why or what—I think I did at one time. If you were in a certain grade level, they would jump you from 6th grade—no—from 7th grade to 9th grade. You would skip a grade.

Chuy:  Probably, they would look at the grades.

Mike:  Yeah, versus some of my colleagues that were in junior high with me. They still stayed there one more year. Yo me fuí a high school—9th grade. So, I was—when I graduated I was seventeen. That was 1965.

Chuy:  Okay, 1965. Did you work during high school and what did you do?

Mike:  I worked con el jefe—weekends. On the weekend, I worked with him. I don’t—this is what’s not quite clear. I don’t know, as a junior, when I was in the 11th grade, I worked at Caceres Grocery Store. It was my 11th year or it might have been my 12th year.

Chuy:  Caceres Grocery Store? What street was that on?

Mike:  It was on 11th.

Chuy:  Eleventh Street. That’s the South Side thoroughfare, right?

Mike:  Yeah. South Side. Main Street is 9th Street. Y luego en 10th Street estaba City Hall y todo  eso—the Police Station. Y luego estaba 11th Street, right in the corner. A block in from Business 83, estaba Caceres Grocery Store.

Mike Lopez

To Learn More About Mike Lopez

Mike Lopez Interview

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