At the age of two, my parents moved me and our family from El Monte to the rolling, fertile hills back of San Juan Capistrano in Southern California where he grew vegetables.
While we lived there until I was 11, my best friends were from the white families in town, not because the Mexican kids were social outcasts, but because the whites formed the nucleus of the public schools, the lone Protestant church, the Rotary and Lions clubs and the Chamber of Commerce.
Many of the Mexican children in the town of about 1,500 attended the parochial school run by nuns at the historic San Juan Capistrano Mission. Their parents were shopkeepers, custodians and farm laborers.
I suppose there was an unspoken caste system in effect. I recall my father and mother referring to the Mexicans and poorest whites as "living on the other side of the tracks."
It was an idyllic community growing up where everyone got along, at least in the mind of this pre-teen. I respected the Mexican kids because the boys were better athletes and the girls were pretty and some earned better grades than us white kids, especially the lazy ones like myself.
I do recall in late World War II and perhaps in the early postwar years, Border Patrol agents raiding the barrios of Santa Ana, the county seat, and hauling away dozens of families to the border for deportation.
In San Juan Capistrano, illegal immigrants -- called wetbacks in those days -- was a non issue. All the kids I knew were born either in their homes, at the local clinic or the nearest hospital in Santa Ana. Most of the parents were native born. However, the legal status of their grandparents and great-grandparents was questionable although I don't think any of them carried birth certificates everywhere they traveled. .
My father hired a few "wetbacks" as he called them when the labor force was drained and he desperately needed hands to cut cabbage or pick peppers. He joined the San Diego County Farm Bureau labor co-op which hired thousands of Mexicans through the "Bracero" program and subsequent programs approved under the sanction of the state and U.S. Department of Labor.
My father cursed a lot but seldom so vehemently at the competing vegetable growers in the Coachella Valley in Imperial County where many exploited illegal immigrants in their labor force. These growers treated the migrants as dirt, did not provide them with shelter as required by law, deducted withholding or payroll taxes they kept for themselves and skipped paying them their last week's wages. All my dad asked is that all the farmers play by the same rules.
Julio Castro was my dad's crew foreman for 50 years and to this day never asked nor knew whether he was in the states legally. I for one, could care less. He treated me as a son and taught me more about farming in one summer than my dad did in a lifetime.
One of the reasons Mexican labor is sought by Border States employers and households is not so much they work cheap and paid in cash in our shadow economy but as a whole are much better workers than the local whites. I know that from personal experience as a landscape contractor for 10 years. In my case, the whites were chronically late reporting to work and couldn't take the hard work digging ditches in the blazing summer sun. I finally hired Mexicans only who showed proof of documentation and paid all of them $2/hour above minimum wage and more. I regret I couldn't afford health insurance for them, let alone myself.
The standard joke I told my old cronies at the newspaper was not in the least intended as a racial slur but a fact. "Place a shovel in the hands of a Mexican laborer and stand back and watch a Picasso at work."
Okay, all this is foreplay leading into immigration reform efforts by the Arizona Legislature in the most blazon step yet taken in America. The bill, yet to be signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, would require police to determine a person's immigration status if they thought the person was in the country illegally. The crime would be a misdemeanor if they can't prove citizenship. Under current law, Arizona police can ask for citizenship papers only if the person is suspected of committing another crime.
The prospects of enforcing the law in Winslow, Arizona, a city of 10,500, has divided the community into squabbling camps as if picking a scab off an old wound that never existed much like it was only at the bottom of the problem barrel in San Juan Capistrano when I was a child.
As I read the Winslow story unfolding on the pages of the Los Angeles Times I saw my own version of white and Mexican friends torn apart and turned against each other for no good reason other than an outcry for social engineering under the self-righteous flag of true American patriotism and rule of law.
Police Chief Stephen Garnett declined comment to a Times reporter because he had yet to talk to his command staff -- a black, Native American and Hispanic -- and city leaders on what course of action to take. Officer Afton Foster expressed personal misgivings. "It will make us look like bad guys pursuing people because of the color of their skin."
"At some point in time, it will boil down to this: If we enforce this new law, we are not going to be able to afford to take care of some other pressing law enforcement issues," said Jim Ferguson, city administrator. He worried about the manpower drain on the 26-officer department transporting undocumented immigrants 30 miles away to the nearest prison. Let alone the prospects of breaking up families, leaving the children on state welfare programs.
Winslow City Atty. Dale Patton Jr. said: "I've practiced law for 30 years and I've seen real criminals. But most of these people are not criminals. For the most part they are good, clean, hardworking people who just want to earn a living for their families."
Winslow City Councilman Tom Chacon, who was born and raised in Southside, Winslow's barrio, said: "It's scaring the hell out of people. It's a step backward. I remember when Mexican and African American children were only allowed to swim in the municipal pool on Fridays. On Saturday, the city drained the pool then refilled it for the white kids."
The Times reporter interviewed Mexicans who were upset with the expected new law. Among those supporting it the strongest was Marie Lamar, 81, a lifelong resident who said: "Political correctness is a disease like typhoid and malaria. Until we are all law-abiding citizens, the system will never work." She intends to report suspected undocumented residents to police, and "complain to the City Council if the law is not enforced."
One of the town's wise old men is former Mayor Allan Affeldt who owns the elegant La Posada Hotel near where the Los Angeles-to-Chicago Amtrak line stops twice daily. "I don't think there will be an ugly fight here, because we simply can't afford to enforce this law," he said.
"I predict the City Council will declare, 'Of course, we will implement the law -- when we have the resources to do so.' . . .
Readers comments are welcome as long as they remain civil. We reserve the right to delete any comments that are vulgar, libelous and totally irrelevant to this posting. -- Jer