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Immigration in the basin

The four Alonso brothers are all working for Staunton Farms in Tulelake. They include, from left, Luis, Jesus, Martin and Ramon.

Establishing roots

March 29, 2006 by Lee Juillerat, H&N Regional Editor

TULELAKE - The Alonso family is one that typifies the Tulelake Basin's changing family and racial dynamics.

In the mid-1970s, when Ramon Alonso Sr. left his family in Jalisco, Mexico, and traveled to the Tulelake Basin in search of work, the vast majority of residents were whites. Hispanics traveled through, staying briefly to help with seasonal harvest of potatoes, grain and other crops.

The face and color of the Tulelake Basin, as it has through the American West, has evolved.

The Alonso story isn't unusual. As with many immigrants who have traveled to the United States from distant lands - the Irish, Swedes, Germans, Japanese and countless others - the dream and reality of a better life resulted in the first arrival, in this example Ramon Sr., who then recruited other family members.

Ramon Jr., who was 14 1/2, came in 1979.

“When we tried to cross the border the first time, (immigration officials) told me I wouldn't find work because I was too young,” remembers Ramon, who is now 43. “It wasn't a problem. I was a hard worker. After I started working here I got my brothers to come.”

His brothers, Martin, 41, Jesus, 37, and Luis, 30, soon joined him in the Tulelake Basin.

Ramon began working for Staunton Farms in 1981. His brothers, who worked a variety of jobs, gradually joined Ramon at the farm. Now Ramon, his parents, brothers, five of his six sisters and their families live in the Klamath Basin.

Why they came echoes the story of immigrants.

“There's not much money in Mexico, and not opportunities to work,” Ramon says.

Today, Ramon is the operation's foreman for the farm, which grows potatoes, onions, grain, alfalfa and mint. About 2,000 acres is in grain, 800 acres are in potatoes and the operation has six fields in alfalfa and four in mint.

Ramon's brothers do maintenance and, as Luis puts it, “whatever needs to be done.” The brothers miss Jalisco, a Mexican state near Guadalajara and inland from Puerto Vallarta. They occasionally return in the winter, when they might be off work for two or three months, to see extended families.

“Oh, yeah, I miss it a lot. The heat and the food,” Jesus admits.

“I like Jalisco better but there's no money there,” echoes Martin.

But, as Ramon says, none of the brothers, who are all U.S. citizens, imagine returning to live in Mexico.

In his family, Oscar, 17, and Dianna, 17, both play basketball and other sports at Tulelake High School. Jasmin, 12, played for the elementary team. Ramon's wife, Erma, has a full-time job. The couple also have a young son, 5-year-old Eric. Ramon, who will coach the Tulelake soccer team, is confused by American football - “My son plays, but I don't understand very well that game.”

Ramon says the family has developed a close working relationship with the Stauntons - “We're almost like brothers,” he says.

“By and large, it's been positive for the different sets of families,” agrees Marshall Staunton, one of the Staunton brothers. “There's a sense of teamwork working from family to family.”

Ramon says that when he and, later, his brothers immigrated to the United States, the process was relatively easy.

Luis, who attended Tulelake schools, said he didn't experience any problems because he was Mexican.

“I was treated like any other person from here. It was good at that time, but it's getting bad now,” Luis worries, referring to the increased criticisms of immigration policies and flow of illegal aliens from Mexico to the U.S. “Some politicians are maybe discriminating. I don't see how the illegals hurt the Americans.”

“We're safe,” Ramon says of the extended Alonso family, who are all citizens or have necessary papers. “But they're some people around who, if that law (a proposal that would tighten restrictions against illegals) passes, it will break up families.”

Referring to the alleged widespread sales of counterfeit documents, which President Bush spoke about during a press conference last week, Ramon says that farm managers “try for legals, but if not, are we going to be in trouble?”

Most of the seasonal workers - and those numbers can explode to 350 at Staunton farms during the peak harvest seasons - live in the Tulelake or Klamath basins.

“We've got to face the fact a whole bunch of the farm economy is based on the Mexican folks,” Staunton says. Without migrant laborers to help with, for example, hand weeding onion fields, farmers would need to intensify herbicide use.

Ramon believes that Mexican migrants, legal and even some now classified as illegals, are necessary. As an example, he notes that irrigation pipes need to be set out on 2,000 acres of fields.

“Who's going to do the job?” he wonders.

“The gringos wouldn't work in the fields, not for $7.50 an hour,” Jesus says.

For the Alonsos, some of the challenges faced by Ramon and his father have eased. Ramon struggled with speaking English, but his children know it as a first language.

“My son speaks two languages,” Ramon says. “A lot families want to speak only English, but we try to keep our family speaking two languages. Why? It's better to earn more money.

“This has become home now because we have roots,” Ramon explains. “It's been so many years. We know just about everybody - the gringos, American people, other Mexicans. It's our home now.”




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