Saturday, August 04, 2007

For Family of Migrant Farmworkers, a New Season Is Dawning

The house Jim Blaufuss built on his farm for the Hinojosa family.
Photo by Ángel Franco/The New York Times

Published: August 5, 2007


Minerva Hinojosa and her family migrated north again last month, traveling from the Texas bottom of this nation to its Minnesota top to weed the sugar beet fields of a farmer named Blaufuss. Once here, they each claimed the hoe that felt truest in their hands by carving a telltale mark into the wooden handle.

For Ms. Hinojosa, 22, this is how it has always been: the Hinojosas working the Blaufuss fields, following the rows of beets deep into the green distance, then working back down new rows, their hoe blades getting duller with every hack at the black earth. All for about $22 an acre.

But she also knows how profoundly this migrant life is changing. It hit home a couple of weeks ago when her cellphone trilled while she was working in the fields, her long brown hair tucked under a Texas Longhorns cap.

Holding the hoe with one hand, she flipped the phone open with the other.


Three decades ago, well before she was born, some of Ms. Hinojosa’s relatives began traveling 1,600 miles north, from Weslaco, Tex., to Breckenridge. Jim Blaufuss needed help with his sugar beets, and so a bond between two families was made.

Among those arriving from Texas every season was Eleuterio Hinojosa, a Mexican-born laborer accustomed to traveling far for work, whether to the fields or to the cotton gins that long ago changed the feel of his handshake by taking three finger tops. His wife, Rachel, and their ever-expanding family would join him on those long trips north, including his daughter Minerva, an American citizen who says she has been migrating “since I was born.”

The Blaufuss family eventually built a squat, one-story duplex with air-conditioning on their farm to accommodate the Hinojosas and their many relatives. The workers felt fortunate; not all growers provided housing, and those who did sometimes offered little more than shacks.

The hundreds of migrant families of Breckenridge became a tight but time-sensitive community, here for the sugar beet crop, then gone, some back to Texas, some to Michigan to pick apples. Not all local residents accepted them, that is for sure. But on summer Sunday afternoons, at least, they claimed a town park as their own, for music and barbecues.

“You’d see no white people,” Ms. Hinojosa recalls.

Back then, she was just one of many Texan children running about. Every morning she would take a bus to a supplemental education program for migrant children at the elementary school, overseen by a teacher named Bill Mimnaugh. She studied, played, got fed and stayed out of the fields — at least, that is, until she was about 11.

At 13, Ms. Hinojosa became pregnant. She named the boy David, took a hard look at what kind of woman his mother would be, and went back to school. This meant that every summer she would hoe her rows all day, then head off for night classes at Mr. Mimnaugh’s education program, determined.

Early last month the Hinojosas returned again to that squat duplex in Breckenridge, where they found a freezer full of meat, courtesy of Mr. Blaufuss. “They’re family,” he explains.

But this Texas contingent included only Ms. Hinojosa, her parents, her older brother Jay and her son, David — meaning that the many bunk beds in the house would remain empty.

People in Minnesota say that changes in sugar beet farming, including the use of improved herbicides, have reduced the need for migrants; that adequate housing remains a problem; that cuts in the migrant education program have caused child care and schooling problems for migrant families.

At the same time, the children of migrants are finding different paths, says Jay Hinojosa, 36, who has just changed out of jeans that are damp with sweat. “Some of them pursued education,” he says. “Some joined the Air Force, the Navy. Other family members decided it wasn’t worth it.”

Still, the Hinojosas see familiar Texan faces in Breckenridge, including that of Maribell Molina, 35, who migrates now to work for the Tri-Valley Opportunity Council as a family service liaison for the migrant education program. She says that older migrants return because they need the money, they feel loyal to employers, and they want to set an example.

“To show their kids the value of the dollar,” she says.

A couple of weeks ago the Hinojosas rose again before dawn. Rachel Hinojosa baked the tortillas and made the beans that would be breakfast and lunch. Eleuterio Hinojosa packed the coolers and sharpened the hoe blades with his metal file. Minerva roused David, now 7, and got him dressed. The family of five drove to the field and began hoeing at 5:30.

While David dozed in the pickup’s cab, the Hinojosas hacked at the weeds inhibiting the subterranean growth of the sugar beet, which is used to sweeten your soda, your cookies. After a while, Rachel Hinojosa drove David to the same migrant education program that his mother attended, run by the same Mr. Mimnaugh, who is sometimes called the “Dairy Queen guy” because on Fridays he rewards good students with cool treats.

“The same school!” Ms. Hinojosa exclaims. “I love it!”

The Hinojosas worked their rows, paused to eat, then reached again for their hoes. The sun arced high and hot over the Minnesota flatness. A cellphone rang, and Ms. Hinojosa answered.

“Finally!” she shouted, and the Hinojosas around her immediately knew:

Minerva Hinojosa, daughter of migrants, had graduated with a degree in English from the University of Texas-Pan American, and would be teaching this fall at her alma mater, Weslaco East High School. She is the family’s first college graduate.

Her mother said, “Thanks to God.” Her father said the family should celebrate by hoeing another row. And so they did.

Online: Audio and photos of migrant workers in Breckenridge, Minn., at