All in the Life <BR>of a Sugar Beet Worker

All in the Life
of a Sugar Beet Worker


Looking for Work, He found a Home

Owosso, Michigan

Donato Hernandez was 16 when his family came all the way to Owosso on a big bus owned by the Michigan Sugar Company. It was 1941.

He looked at the crowded threadbare settlement, far from his Texas birthplace, and saw a garden paradise. In Hebronville, Texas, Hernandez grew up picking cotton. He recalls that it was grueling work. The sacks full of cotton were heavy. The bolls were difficult to pull from the stem of the plant. The spines of the cotton plant would cut up his fingers.

By comparison to that parched, sunbaked, cottony country, Michigan looked cool and green to him. He'd never seen such lush farmland or deep wooded lots, or slow, tree-shaded rivers. It was going to be a long time before he ever again laid eyes on Texas.

Work didnt bother me Even at 16 Hernandez knew how to work hard. He went to work in the fields, and when he wasn't working in the fields, he loaded and unloaded boxcars full of sugar at the warehouse of the Michigan Sugar Company. It was back-breaking labor. "But I was young," Hernandez said. "Work didn't bother me that bad, because I used to get out of work there and we used to come over here and play night."

The Owosso sugar factory was not operating by that time, but the warehouse was still used to store sugar from Alma and Saginaw, according to Hernandez. He had a job making threaded pipes for a while and did a 90-day stint in the service near the end of the second world war, but he was discharged when the war ended.

Mr. Hernandez spent most of his enlisted days in Chicago, where the United States military put him through remedial education courses, after they discovered that he could not read and write English as they thought a native speaker should ? but thats because, in Texas, Hernandez attended a Spanish-speaking school.

After the war, he went to work at the Renowned Stove Co. factory, in Owosso, which was at that time engaged in making airplane wheels and carburetors. He had to lie and tell the company men he was 18, but he got a job and worked there about a year.

The workers who lived in Michigan Sugar's Company housing were free to take any work they wanted in the off-season, but in the summer, they knew they had to go back to the beet fields and stay there until the harvest, late in the year. "It was free rent ? but as long as we worked for them," Hernandez recalled. "We couldn't work for nobody else when we lived there, unless they didn't have no work, like in the wintertime.

People used to go out and work for somebody else, but, summertime came, they had to work for [Michigan Sugar]. We had a little trouble getting hired, too. They knew that we had to go back and work for the sugar beet company. That was the only problem we had."

It was easy for employers to weed out sugar beet workers from the other applicants, because the sugar workers living in company housing had to use "Michigan Sugar Company" as their address, they picked up their mail at the factory.

Sugar Beet Bride

Working in the sugar beet fields one day, Hernandez met the woman he eventually married, Maria. "In 1942, close to 43, I met my wife in there and we got married over here. In 1943, we got married right here in St. Paul's church."

It wasn't long after that announcement that the rest of Mr. Hernandez' family lit out for Texas again. "We decided we're going to get married, and then my folks went back. Everybody went back except me. I'm the only one who stayed here. They go back because they didn't like the cold weather here. I stayed here and decided I'm going to make a family right here. So we had six children. Six boys, no girls."

There were great demands in providing for such a large family. After a while, Mr. Hernandez found work at a General Motors factory in Flint for $1.57 an hour. It was a long commute, and he made the same daily trip for more than 30 years, until he retired.

In 1952, the Hernandez family bought a house on Stewart Street, where some other Mexican-American families had already moved in, and Mr. and Mrs. Hernandez still live there. That could have been the end of a story, but Mr. Hernandez went on to make himself one of the best-known merchants in town.

He founded the Taco House restaurant, with the help of his sons. And from then until recently he had two jobs, one at GM and one in the kitchen. It was in his restaurant that Hernandez first told his story to this reporter, among the crepe paper decorations, piatas and imported Mexican wares. At 77 years old, Hernandez has quite a sweep of history to look back on. His northward migration, factory job and the restaurant are just the beginning. He played in a Spanish baseball league in the 1970s; it was a home-grown league where technical disputes were often settled with bare fists. Hernandez has lost two of his sons, one to a heart attack at 54, and one to a rare incurable disease, he says. Among his other sons are the owner of a limousine service, a factory worker, a power company employee and the new manager of the Taco House.

Although hes seen two lifetimes of work, Hernandez especially wants to talk about his wife when he is interviewed. "Id like to have her in [the picture], because shes very important to me," he said. "Shes a good wife. I try to take care of her now. She took care of me when I was sick." Sometimes he worries about her health, he says. His wife suffers respiratory problems, probably because she worked in the fields more than he did, he says. "She used to work in the fields. She breathed that pesticide stuff. Now shes having trouble," Hernandez said. Dont want to go back He could have moved back to Texas when he retired from General Motors, but Hernandez has never thought of leaving Owosso. He came here looking for a job and decided hed found a home.

"Now that I had a chance to go," he said. "When I retired and stuff like that, I couldn't go, because I don't know anybody over there. I got sisters over there and I got one brother, but I don't know anybody else.

"All my friends, all my relatives, are here. All my sons and stuff like that. I don't want to go back over there."

Guild strengthens Mexican-American Community
at Owosso, Michigan

Argus-Press Staff Writer

It is smaller than it once was and garners little attention, but the Guild of Our Lady of Guadalupe is part of the sinew that binds Owossos remaining Mexican-American community ? and many who have moved away. When it was formed Nov. 6, 1958 the guild known as Our Lady of Guadalupe consisted of 25 Mexican-American women.

The founders were two sisters, Eustacia Reyna and Aurelia Ruiz. Their mother, Trinidad Almanza was also a member. They were all former residents of The Colony, the settlement owned by the Michigan Sugar Company where itinerant laborers lived during the sugar beet season.

More than four decades later, the guilds membership has decreased to about a dozen. The only original members remaining are Eustacia Reyna and her sister Maria Hernandez. The members are still former residents of The Colony, or their children. Many of them have known one another since their teenage years or earlier, said Isabel Cantu. Were all family. Weve known them for years, she said. I enjoy going to them because we talk Mexican, and I enjoy talking Mexican.

Cantu said there are Mexican-American families that have come to town more recently, but they are not as tightly knit as the established families. We see them in church, she said with a shrug. The guild still holds an important place in the small and long-standing Mexican-American Community of the Owosso area. Guild members meet at a different home on the second Wednesday of every month, except during January, February and March. Their meetings typically consist of a Rosary and hymns and prayers from a novena, a small book of prayers for such occasions, followed by a business report.

When the guild met in June, the members were busy preparing for the guilds annual Fourth of July picnic, an event that draws guild members and their friends and families from several counties and occasionally a few from out of state. The guild normally holds a rummage sale to pay for the picnic, for which a pavilion at Bentley Park is rented.

Eustacia Reyna says Owossos Mexican-American population has shrunken in recent decades, she points out a number of homes on her street where families have long since moved out or passed away. But the Guilds picnic is an event that brings many of the scattered relations and their children back.

Its not much different from any other Fourth of July celebration. This years picnic included shoe-box races, a cake walk and horseshoe throwing. There was also a pinata. The feast brought dozens home to Owosso, some of whom traveled from Lansing or farther to attend.

Every Dec. 12, the Guild holds a noon mass in honor of the virgin of Guadalupe, considered the patroness of the Americas. Nine days of prayer, Dec. 4 through 12, lead up to the mass. Known as the Novena, the holiday shares the same name as the prayer book used in its observance.

Guild members pray at a different members home on each of those nine days, before celebrating the mass at church. Guilds that pray to the virgin of Guadalupe are not uncommon in Mexican-American communities. Reyna says her children belong to various guilds in Lansing and elsewhere, although they are not as committed as she or her mother. I think the younger generation is getting away from it, she said. But she tries to impress upon them the importance of keeping the tradition, telling them, we dont want to give this up. The virgin of Guadalupe is revered all over the Americas, but especially south of the border.

As the story goes, the dark skinned patroness appeared to a peasant named Juan Diego on Dec. 9, 1531, on the barren hill called Tepeyac, as he made his way to mass. She identified herself as the mother of Jesus Christ and told Diego that a church was to be built on the hill. With much persistence, Mr. Diego was able to relay the command to the local Bishop, who believed the story only when the virgin sent her emissary back a second time, with roses cut from atop the normally barren hill. When he opened his cloak to reveal the roses, it was emblazoned with a likeness of the virgin.

The church was soon built and has been replaced three times over the centuries, most recently in 1976. Some 10 million visit the shrine yearly. The miracle was officially recognized by the Vatican in 1745.

Out of the Colony

Argus-Press Staff Writer

Donato Hernandez remembers when Bennett Field, the municipal softball diamond at the top Chestnut Street, was a settlement for workers in the sugar beet fields.

Hernandez family came here late in 1941, following the harvest season north, and they spent the fall working in beet fields and living in a place known as "The Colony," a cluster of 20 shacks owned by the Michigan Sugar Company and used to house itinerant workers.

Mr. Hernandez, now 77 years old, remained an Owosso resident forever after. The Colony, and others like it, are what created the citys Mexican-American population: many people came from the south looking for agricultural work and then remained in the area, because they found better-paying jobs.

Mr. Hernandez can name many of them: the Robledos were the first Mexican-American family to buy property in the city; the Almanzas moved from The Colony to a farmhouse on Cleveland Avenue. There were also the Bartolos, the Lopezes, the Trujillos and many other families.

The Michigan Sugar Company recruited workers from Texas and carried them northward on a bus, residents of the colony recall. They lived at The Colony rent-free and worked in the fields for about 10 cents an hour, depending on what type of work they were performing. Different rates were set for planting, weeding, blocking and harvesting.

The 20 small cottages at the colony were arranged in a semicircle around what is now the outfield of the softball diamond. A driveway with one entrance from Chestnut Street formed a loop in front of the cabins.

Each house was divided into four rooms, with separate entrances so that one family could occupy each room. The crude cottages were without electricity or plumbing. Water was drawn from two taps in a grassy area enclosed by the loop of the driveway.

Four outhouses were shared by the entire settlement. The residents did their heating and cooking with coal or kerosene stoves. Cots were the only furniture provided by the sugar company, but some families brought their own furniture and household goods. Others had none.

Although the housing was crude, its residents were content with it, Hernandez said. The accommodations for itinerant workers were about the same wherever his family went. A number of people had small gardens. Some kept chickens. One or two of the residents had cars, at different times. About 30 children of farm workers attended Roosevelt School.

Most of the families purchased food and other provisions on credit at local stores. The sugar company ran a line of credit for each family which would be deducted from their pay at the end of the harvest. Workers were not paid until the end of the season. And once the field work was finished, many of them moved on, because it was difficult to find other work locally.

None of the former residents seems to know when The Colony was built, but Hernandez says it apparently was taken apart some time in the 1950s, when the softball diamond was created. Several of the houses were moved to nearby streets, west of the colony.

On a recent visit, Hernandez pointed out four houses on Cleveland Avenue. There were other settlements in the area, including at least one more in Owosso. Local historian Helen Harrelson says there was a colony in St. Charles that lasted longer than the one in Owosso.

Early Mexican-American Laborers faced
Housing Discrimination when they Stayed

October 7, 2001

Argus-Press Staff Writer

Their story could have been the American Dream, but prejudice and discrimination made it a story of American shame. The Robledos were the first Mexican-American family to purchase a home in Owosso, but in 1944 the city didnt entirely want them.

Although they opened the way for other Mexican-American families to move to the area still known as Dutchtown, the Robledos also learned a bitter lesson about the nation they called home. Ramundo and Rafaela Robledo came north from Texas with their six children in 1944.

Like other Mexican-Americans, they were brought to Owosso on a bus by the Michigan Sugar Company, which needed workers to weed and harvest sugar beets from the fields. It was hard work, some of it during winter months, and it paid only 10 cents per hour.

The Robledos had a big family, and with many hands lightening the work, they were ready to purchase a house on Tracy Street late in the year of 1946.

When the neighbors found out, there was a backlash against Mexican-Americans buying into the community. A group of women went to the Owosso City Commission on Dec. 9, 1946 and demanded that the city take action to prevent the Robledos from moving in. The Owosso Argus-Press of the following morning states:

"Three ladies, residents of Tracy Street in the southwest part of the city, appeared before the commission to protest against the action of three Mexican families buying property in that neighborhood.

However, they were told by Mayor J. Edwin Ellis that there was nothing the commission could do under the U.S. Constitution, which makes no difference between race, creed or color."

The white neighbors subsequently attempted to force the Robledos to sell them the house, according to Tony Robledo, one of Ramundos sons, but the family was defended by a local attorney who appeared unconcerned that they had very little money to pay him at the time. Tony Robledo now lives in the house that his parents fought to purchase.

And like his parents, Tony Robledo became a fighter. In the 1960s he became a protester both for civil rights and against the Vietnam War; he says he smuggled conscientious objectors into Canada throughout the latter part of the war.

In 1969, he caused a shake-up in local law enforcement by complaining to the Michigan Civil Rights commission that police Maced him while he was held in a jail cell ? because of his race. A deputy was fired after admitting that he maced Robledo, who was handcuffed at the time. And the Corunna police department ceased to use Mace.

The housing discrimination was not limited to the Robledo family. Donato Hernandez, owner of Owossos Taco House recalls that many homeowners in the area were reluctant to sell houses to Mexican-American families. He didnt buy his home until about seven years after the Robledo family did so.

"There was a time that we had trouble buying houses here," Hernandez said. "I was refused to buy a couple of houses. The neighborhood, I guess. They found out that I was going to buy a house. They talked to the owners and then they changed their minds. "Theyd say that the place wasnt for sale anymore. They changed their minds. We got the drift, though. "I guess they had a bad experience with Mexican people."

Hernandez attempted to buy two houses that were subsequently withdrawn: one on Morrice Road in Owosso Township and another near Roosevelt School.

When a house at Chipman and King was offered to him for $6,000, he refused: "I said no. I dont think theyll sell it to us. Because that was a little higher neighborhood."

In 1952, he bought the house on the southeast corner of Stewart and Tracy, for $5,000. He and his wife still live there today ? about two blocks from Tony Robledo.

"Over in this neighborhood," Hernandez said, "they started selling to the Spanish-speaking people, so thats why I bought over here on Stewart Street. There was a little discrimination at that time."

(Today, housing discrimination is prohibited by the federal Fair Housing Act, the Michigan Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Owosso Housing Discrimination Ordinance. The federal act makes it unlawful to claim that a house is not for sale because of the buyers race.)

Hernandez is quick to defend the community, however, because he felt more welcome here than in his hometown of Hebronville, Texas, where he recalls that his father had to make his purchases at the back door of white-owned businesses.

"That never happened to me in Michigan," he said. "But it did happen in Texas. That was another of the reasons I picked to stay here. It was a better way. The people treat me better." Going on 60 years old, Tony Robledo said that Owosso has improved over the past few decades. He says he feels welcome here now.

"Its different now. Its a lot more tolerant now than it was then," he said.

The Robledos might have had to fight to get the house on Tracy Street, but shortly thereafter two other Mexican-American families moved into the area. (Its not clear whether they are among the three mentioned in the Owosso Argus-Press article.)

Then the Robledo house became a gathering spot for most everyone in Owossos Mexican-American community, including past and present residents of The Colony.

The Zamoras would come over and the Almanzas and others. There was a Victrola to play records on, and then the band would arrive ? consisting of friends and distant relatives ? playing Mexican folk music on guitar and accordion. People would eventually come, from Lansing and Saginaw and other parts of the state for celebrations at the Robledo house.

Tony Robledo learned how to dance in that house, and so did an entire generation of young Mexican-American men and women from Owosso and elsewhere. There were other battles ahead. But when the music was playing in the little house on Tracy Street, and the people were kicking up their heels to the folk music, the world was their private party and it didnt matter at all what the neighbors thought.

Son of Trailblazing Parents
Battled for his Country,
then for Civil Rights

October 7, 2001

Argus-Press Staff Writer

Tony Robledo lives in the house at 813 Tracy Street that his parents purchased in 1946. Its probably the most important home in Dutchtown. The Robledos, reputedly the first Mexican-American family to buy land in Owosso, can be credited not only with transporting a great many of the families that settled in the area, but with knocking down the barriers that kept them from staying in the community.

Ramundo Robledo, Tonys father, drove the sugar company bus for several seasons, dipping down into Texas to scoop up busloads of Mexican families for work in the sugar beet fields surrounding Owosso.

The Robledos themselves lived in the same company housing that they brought the field workers to stay in, the settlement at the top of Chestnut Street, known as The Colony.

After several years, when the Robledo family tried to purchase a house on Tracy Street and live outside of The Colony, there was a neighborhood backlash: three families appealed to the Owosso City Commission to keep the Mexicans from moving in. But Ramundo and Rafaela Robledo stood up to their prejudiced neighbors, and the Owosso City Commission refused to side with the unjust busybodies.

The Robledos were the fighters who first opened up the neighborhood for other families. Tony Robledo, like his parents, was another fighter. But he started out as a different kind of fighter: he was a street scrapper and a boxer before he chose the political struggles that his parents strained with by necessity.

From fist fighting with boys in school, Tony Robledo went on to learn how to box from a local firefighter named Dick Lake. He won a Lansing District Golden Gloves Championship in 1959, and when he volunteered for the service, he was soon taking part in an armed services boxing league. As a boxer in the Army, Robledo revealed what looks like a taste for fighting the establishment: He entered a contest with a superior and made a point of beating him as soundly as he could manage.

After defeating his first opponent?the 149.5-pound Russell Bennett?with relative ease, Robledo was set up to fight with the Second Armys light welterweight champion, Sergeant Fred McFerran. The fight took place in front of about 1,250 enlisted men at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

He didnt think he could knock McFerran out and he didnt think the judges would give him a decision against a superior rank, he said. "I knew I wasnt going to get the fight. There was no way they were going to let me win," he said. Just before the fight, he asked himself, "HolyWhat did I get myself into?" But Robledo seems to thrive in the role of underdog. He took a steady pounding in the first round, because he got flustered and he kept circling toward southpaw McFerrans strong hand, he recalled.

Then Robledo collected himself and gave as good as he got during the opening of the second round. "I landed some good ones on him," he says. Late in the second, he turned the battle completely. The decisive moment is captured in an unbylined article, clipped from an Army newspaper: "from out of nowhere came a short, blasting right to the midsection of McFerran, stunning him. Robledo followed with a flurry of lefts and rights to the Second Army champs head, forcing him to give ground and retreat to the ropes," the article says. Robledo spent the third round "scoring terrific rights to the head and face of his opponent," who replied only with "token" punches.

Robledo won the fight by a split decision and his fellow infantrymen went wild. "Everybody erupted, man. It was like something Id never seen before. I mean everybody?like I said, they were all recruits?everybody went crazy." The crowd carried Robledo out of the ring on their shoulders.

With the Vietnam war raging, Robledo volunteered for active duty in the conflict. But he was sent to Germany where he helped form the bulwark against an invasion of dreaded Soviet troops. He was armed with a then-top-secret weapon, code-named "Davy Crocket." It consisted of a 51-pound nuclear warhead that could be launched up to 2.5 miles from the thin barrel of 120 mm or 155 mm recoilless rifle; their proximity to the target required the troops to fire a barrage of these small warheads into a two-square-mile targeted area and then to flee in the other direction.

When he returned to the States after a tour of duty, Robledo began fighting authority more directly. He started to protest against the war at campuses around the state, joining up with Students for a Democratic Society, a group that organized the earliest opposition to the war. He helped to smuggle conscientious objectors across the border to Canada, from all parts of the United States. Usually hed drive AWOL draftees to the far northern reaches of the Lower Peninsula, or just across the Mackinaw Bridge, where hed pass them along to another operative for the next part of their journey.

Although hed volunteered for military service, he came to see the war in Vietnam as a rich mans war, fought by the nations poor men. On the two-block stretch of Tracy Street where the Robledo family lived, seven young Mexican-American men were called to the war and two of them came back disabled, Robledo says. "I came home very disgusted after I got out of the service," Robledo said.

When he wasnt fighting to end the war, Robledo protested in favor of civil rights at campuses around the state. Robledos rebellion against the countrys Vietnam policy was surpassed only by his postwar bar fights and scuffles with police around the county.

Owosso Police Chief Nelson Gates recalls that as a patrolman he would sometimes be called to a barroom where people would be strewn out across the floor, like human dominoes; then he would know that Tony Robledo had been there. Whats worse, Robledo became known for getting into boxing contests with the police, when they came to haul him away.

"He was always trying to beat one of us up," Gates said. It was one of those scuffles with police, on May 17, 1969, that led to Robledos complaint with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.

Robledo admits that hed hit his wife after an argument and that when Owosso police arrested him for it, he hit three of them before they cuffed him and hauled him off to jail.

He eventually had to serve three days for his transgressions. That normally would have been the end of the story. But this time, Robledo says, a Corunna police officer and a deputy sheriff sprayed him with Mace the night he was arrested, when he was already handcuffed and detained in a holding cell.

And that was after one of them told him he was "the wrong color" to be talking back and fighting back against police, Robledo says.

The jailers and police from that era are nowhere to be found, officials from Corunna Police Department and from the Sheriffs Department said, when asked about the incident. And their records dont reach back 30 years into the past.

But Robledos correspondence with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission shows that a deputy working in the jail admitted to Macing Robledo and was immediately fired.

The Corunna police department stopped using Mace as a result of the same complaint. After that, Robledo told the state he was satisfied and withdrew the complaint.

Now 60 years old, and mellower, Robledo has said that he believes the Owosso area is a much more tolerant place. How much of that tolerance resulted from his familys efforts would be difficult to gauge. But its evident that the Robledo toughness can be decisive in a moral battle.

Although Tony Robledo was undeniably a little rough around the edges in his youth, it might have been that fierce quality that made him an effective, although not a genteel, advocate for inalienable rights. Civil rights, after all, are not handed out, but are demanded by people who dont have them, as Robledo says.

As the Owosso Sugar factory looked in 2003.

More About the Owosso Sugar Company

More Shiawassee County Michigan History