Published in the February 15 – 28, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life
By Mike Gonzales
A man killed my father in a bar brawl. I sat by the curb waiting for dad to return. At age 4, I did not yet realize that death was forever.
I was born in Mexico 65 years ago to very poor parents. My father sold produce at the local outdoor market. My mother sewed and tended to six children. My brother and I sold Chiclets and shined shoes to survive. I remember always being hungry. At the age of 7, my widowed mother brought the three youngest kids to Arizona, leaving the other children behind. We were staying with our relatives when she met my stepfather-to-be. He was a hard-working man who was in charge of braceros, Mexicans who were in America on work visas.
When I was a boy of 10, my step-dad would drop me off at 5 a.m. in the farm fields so I could work alongside the men. I spent long hours picking onions, cantaloupes and watermelons. The temperature often hit 100 degrees. Sometimes I would get sick from the heat. But the men were kind. They would tend to me. I was not allowed to whine or complain. At the end of the day I would get a candy bar and some Pepsi. No Little League, no summer camps for me. Just work. But I was happy and I never went hungry again.
In the summer of 1963, everything changed. My step-dad decided to pack us in our station wagon and head north. I did not realize what a huge risk that was for my dad. He had a secure job and a nice house provided by his boss. But he believed our family would have a better life by moving to new work opportunities. At the time, my mom had a couple of kids in diapers and was breast-feeding one of them. I was sad to leave behind my friends and our comfortable environment.
We started in Visalia, picking crops and living out of our station wagon. We worked our way all the way to Yuba City. We picked pears, onions and tomatoes. I remember seeing my mom breast-feeding the baby with one arm and picking produce with the other.
My dad was amazing. No one could keep pace with him. I remember liking it because I got to throw food at my sisters. I look at the pictures now and I think we seemed like characters from John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” It brings tears to my eyes thinking of all the obstacles my parents went through to give us a better life.
Finally, our family settled in San Jose. Dad found a job at a cannery where he worked at night. During the day, he’d work in construction. He taught me the value of hard work. We lived with friends until we got enough money to buy our own house. I started high school at Andrew Hill and got a job at a gas station. My dad taught me to be responsible and accountable. My mother taught me to believe and to be passionate and to have will and drive. My mom was the most compassionate, loving, giving and caring human being I ever met. Because of her I make every effort I can to make this world a better place to live. I’m living my dream.
Did you ever hear about a frog that dreamed of becoming a prince and then he became one? Well, that’s me. My accomplishments are many, from being a valedictorian of my eighth-grade class to not having a boss since I was 19. I won numerous awards in wrestling, played college football at 5 foot 4 inches and 140 pounds, won numerous track awards, and was a sponsored racquetball pro at a gym. But out of all my accomplishments, the ones that I am most proud of are my daughters and my grandson.
I have four daughters and Gage is my grandson. My oldest, Nicole, teaches here in town at Stratford School. Lauren got her degree in chemistry and is working on being a teacher. Ciara is about to become a nurse. And Britt, my youngest, is now drug-free for more than a year. Gage was playing hockey at age 4 and his teacher says he is a pleasure to have in her class. I got custody of him at 6-months-old and he is now 8.
Let me say something from the heart. Immigrants love this country and all it stands for: life, liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness for all, not just the privileged few. After hearing and reading about all the recent negative rhetoric about immigrants, I feel compelled to say something about immigrants because I am one.
People say immigrants take jobs away from naturally-born Americans, but that’s not true. Wherever there are tough immigration laws, farmers lose money. It turns out those laws mean there is no one to pick the crops. In Georgia, the government once tried to make prisoners pick the crops. Their laws did not work. Picking crops was too tough for the prisoners. So the state of Georgia relaxed its laws and allowed immigrants to pick again.
Whether we are immigrants from this generation or a previous generation, whether we are from Mexico, Pakistan, Germany or Italy, our stories unite us. This country is like no other country. America is a land where a four-year-old boy could have his father killed in a bar brawl and beat the odds to become someone. That’s me. Only in America!
I am Mike Gonzales. I am an American. I own a window-cleaning business here in town. Thank you for going through my immigrant’s journey with me. And next time some restaurant server brings you water and chips and salsa, or someone mows your lawn, or someone cleans your room at a motel, please think about their own journey. Remember, immigrants have an epic story to tell. They all went through a lot to get here to the promised land of the United States of America.
Mike Gonzales is a window washer in the South Valley region. He wrote this column for Morgan Hill Life.