Border Town Ballad
By Laura Schultz
Growing up in a border town, California in the 1950’s was the best of times—and a time of great awakenings for all of us country folks as well as the nation. The town of my youth, El Centro, was a thriving hub of California’s agriculture that was often referred to as “The winter salad bowl.” The mostly family owned farms grew ¼ of the nations’ fresh vegetables, particularly lettuce. It was a magical playground for kids in the country. Our town was a place of extremes where summer days withered under scorching heat and most of us tried to drench ourselves in a neighbor’s cool, refreshing swimming pool. The sounds of the days were filled with the growl of farm machinery and the nights were filled with cricket songs.
The ground we walked on was hard and filled with cracks and fissures and the crunch under our boots in the lettuce fields was enjoyable as a child. Unpredictable earthquakes slept under our feet as the town was located at the southern tip of the San Andreas Fault line. And we never knew when the earth would shake from another violent episode. As a result of the juxtaposition to the San Andreas, the earth’s crust was constantly being torn asunder and earthquakes of a magnitude 5+ were not that uncommon.
On the rare occasion of gloomy weather, thunder roared from the sky with torrential rain that followed, creating pools of mud. The irony was that while thunder scared me tremendously, a horse named “Lightening” was my best friend for years. Amazingly he jumped the fence on the corral as a warning sign to us, whenever a sizeable earthquake was mere minutes away.
Nestled a mere 10 miles from the Mexican border, El Centro was in many ways an idyllic setting. Being in such close proximity to Mexico held both challenges and opportunities as I grew up. However, most of my early childhood was much like an episode from the tv series “The Andy Griffith Show.” In the fictional town of Mayberry on the tv series as was true in El Centro as well—ducks, goats and sheep were a child’s beloved pets along with the occasional dog or cat. While watching “The Andy Griffith Show” on our black and white television set, I was comforted by the fact that the setting of the show in Mayberry was much like our cozy community. Many of the moms in the 1950’s were homemakers like June Cleaver in the tv series “Leave it To Beaver” and the dads all went out to work like Ozzie from “The Ozzie and Harriet Show.” Like the families in these tv shows, we grew up without the contradictions of modern urban life.
The migrant workers, many of whom crossed the Mexican border in the wee hours of the morning, were filled with hopes and dreams of a better life for their families back in Mexico. They picked the lettuce and other crops in the hot sun in El Centro and the surrounding farm communities like ours. All but the younger children, had faces like roadmaps that marked the many other places they had been. Depending on which crop was in season in various locales, the workers referred to as “braceros” during that era, travelled to other towns in California to pick grapes, cantaloupes, watermelons or other sweet delights. These very proud workers brought with them a cornucopia of Mexican culture including dance, music and historic art. These wonderfully creative displays from Mexico were proudly shown at major events in El Centro such as the annual County Fair and the yearly Christmas parade.
We spent our days laboring in the bounty of what grew aplenty with the aid of the nearby Colorado River that was harnessed for its life giving energy. But mostly what the workers received was a life on the road living in barren shacks and weary nights filled with sore backs. This was the plight that the migrant knew all too well. The toil of long days with meager financial rewards was a difficult life during the 1950’s and is still not easy for many who must travel to many locales to find seasonal work.
The rich hues of green, orange and white from crops such as carrots, alfalfa, cabbage, cotton and luscious-looking lettuce fields formed a creative geometrical design that was startling as one peered down from a tiny puddle-jumper plane. These four-seater planes which carried visitors down the narrow runway into town often shook mercilessly while in flight and were uncomfortable for most of the passengers. The tiny airport brought planes in from urban areas such as San Diego and Los Angeles. However, most of the passengers were farmers who were travelling for farm related business or family members who came into town to visit their relatives. We rarely got a tourist who came merely to visit our sleepy town.
The lovely patterns of lush crops that could take one’s breath away from a momentary glance from the airplane, were a stark contrast to the proximity of drab, dreary yucca cacti amidst mounds of sand –just a short stint away from the center of town. I can still remember the sweet smell of freshly cut hay as well as the pungent aromas of the cattle feed lots. One of the most notable sand dunes was affectionately called “Heber Beach”, though there were certainly no waves in this portion of the “Colorado Desert.” As children at play, though, we were having too much fun riding our horses and frolicking to notice too many negatives around us at that time. Everything seemed to be a normal part of farm life.
The winters brought a blanket of frost that covered the ground and froze many crops year after year, much to the dismay of the farmers who made their living on those winter crops and “lost their shirts”, as my father used to say. But when summer came upon us when temperatures were sizzling at 115 degrees, it was unbearable for any homo sapien, let alone for exhausted cattle and horses who grazed all day on alfalfa, hovering near any shady spot they could find.
While I was still a naïve child about the ways of the world, a sugar manufacturing plant moved right on the perimeter of town to extrapolate the succulent juice of the farmer’s sugar beet crop. This industry while welcomed by farmers at the time– may have signaled the beginning of the end of the family farms as we knew them. Slowly and insidiously, agri-business and other companies bought up this preciously rich land that had been in families for generations. And what transpired in the next few years in El Centro and other towns in close proximity had tragic consequences for the town and its residents. Change was all around us as the country was about to struggle with its own growth, changing landscape and population explosion. As I look back at my childhood in this California border town with great nostalgia, it will still always feel like home.