I was part of a three-person team that received grant funding of $16,000 for an oral history project at the the Sauer-Beckmann Living Farm at LBJ State Park. I partnered with park interpreters to deliver relevant, compelling material about the Mexican-American experience in Gillespie County. I conducted oral histories with area residents that were incorporated into books, scripts, digital communications, and TEKS lesson plans for grades K–8.
Lawrence Barrientes, Rocky Creek, TX
Back in the forties, late thirties, my father started migrating to the state of Michigan. We did that until my senior year back in ’59. We’d pick up in May, do the crops, then come back in November. They’d take us out of school here in the spring, put us in school there till summer and then bring us back when school was already started. We’d start school here in Texas at a later date than the other kids. It was kind of a hard life as far as education but that’s what they had to do in order to make a living — pull us out of here and go to Michigan to harvest crops up there. We worked in muck areas doing onion, celery, carrots, picking cherries and stuff. They paid me forty cents an hour. We worked ten-hour days, five days a week, Saturday half a day. You might call it child labor but that was the only way my family — my dad — was able to make a living. There were so many of us. There were a lot of families doing the same thing.
During the winter he’d get little jobs like chopping cedar, cutting wood; he’d do a little carpentry. Come spring, he’d start shearing sheep and goats and that took him into the season when he had to go back to Michigan.
It was hard for me in Michigan. Sometimes when I’d get there I’d be a little further behind, or down here sometimes I’d be a little bit ahead. It was hard for me to try and fall into the chapter of the history book that they were in, or the math, you know. But you have to step fast or step slow. You have to adjust. It’s tough. A lot of times it feels like because of what your parents made you do as a migrant, people looked down on you, like you were less than what you really are. You hear people talk bad about carnival people. Them carnies! That’s the way you’re scarred sometimes. Because you were a migrant, you didn’t fit in. It can scar you. And it did for a lot of kids. You see a lot along the way that can scar you for life. You weren’t accepted some places. That can stay in your mind but you have to put it aside and pick up your head high.
A lot of the old Hispanic men didn’t believe a lot in education. They believed that when a kid got of age he needed to drop out of school and help support the family, and for that reason a lot of kids didn’t get to continue their education. It wasn’t something they put any kind of importance on. They wanted the money. They wanted the kids to help support the older ones. They pulled them out when they were thirteen, fourteen. I know I could have dropped out of school when I was sixteen but I decided I wanted to go to high school and get my diploma. I told my dad I was not going to quit school. I wanted to graduate at Johnson City and I cut myself loose from my dad for that purpose, to come here and finish my high school. He kind of stammered a little and stuttered but I put my foot down and said, No, I want to go to school. But if I wouldn’t have wanted to, he wouldn’t have made me go to school cause he wanted me to work. Back then, twelve kids was nothing. Most families were eight, ten, twelve kids. That was the same with a lot of the German-Americans. You saw a lot of big families. It’s not so much like that now. You have two, three kids, four and it’s easier for you to try and get them what they need.
My dad had to get out of school at a very early age. I think he only went to the third grade. He was self-taught. He learned how to speak English and he learned how to read it. And he was quite a mathematician. If you gave him a bunch of figures he could add them in his head. I’ve worked with kids, young guys, college graduates, who cannot read a ruler. My dad could measure acreage; he could figure out the cuts on rafters; he could figure out square-footage. He could figure out the cubic feet to pour a concrete floor.
Along the way he learned carpentry and picked up the trade of shearing sheep. That was mostly what he did, sheared sheep in this area. He used to sharecrop for a man named Emil Lennig. Emil Lennig was a very loving, kind man. He’s the one who sold us this property. I’m surrounded by Lennigs because we’ve been together from the beginning. He was real good to Dad, took a real good liking to my dad and he told him he never wanted him to leave the area so he sold him this property which was eight acres at the time. We moved in here in 1940. There were twelve of us. I’m the fourth from the youngest. Eight were born on the Lennig property, which is at Hye, and the rest of us were all born and raised in this house that I still live in it. There’s something about this old house…its warmth. We’re going on third generation here. I have a lot of fond memories of my kids running up and down the stairs or my brothers and sisters, same thing. My kids were raised up in this old house. I was born and raised in this house, three of my brothers and sisters. I remember when my kids were little, they’d play jacks out front and at night sometimes you’d still hear the ball. (Taps the table, like a ball bouncing.)
My father was born in Guajillo, Mexico, a little town called Allende. He was born in 1902. When he was about seven years old, he and my grandfather decided they wanted to go to the United States. They walked. He always said they tramped it, like tramps. They walked the railroad track but they didn’t stay on there very long. Most of the time they traveled at night so they weren’t seen. He said it was very, very hot so I think it was during the summer they came over. At that time people wore these cardboard collars and they’d throw them out the train windows. My dad collected them along the way and by the time they got here, he had a big stack of them around his neck. He told me around the second day a train went by. They saw my dad and grandfather walking and they threw a little box out the window. It was tied with string. When they opened it up, it was sandwiches. They’d even cut them in half for them. The next day the train went by, they threw another little box. The conductor was throwing them sandwiches cause he felt sorry for my dad. They were in the middle of nowhere and Dad was so thirsty his lips were starting to crack. They didn’t have anything to drink. He said his tongue felt like it was swollen in his head. He remembered the day they saw a glitter way off in the distance and as they got closer, they could see it was a wood water-tank. It wasn’t until they got there that they realized they were dying of thirst. My grandfather had to hold my dad back so he didn’t drink too fast cause that would’ve harmed him. Along the way they met a lot of people who were real good to them, and they found a lot of people who would tell them to go on, you know, get off their property. Walking at night, they’d run into cactus needles and his feet and his little legs were full of sores from thorns. This is where they settled, in the area of Stonewall.
They had a friend here, a man by the name of Delmacio, the man that my grandfather was directing himself to. My dad always said that Delmacio’s father was from the same town they were but he was born here. He was more or less pretty well established and therefore when they’d send word to Mexico about where to go, where there were jobs, they’d direct themselves to those people. By the time that they got here, Demacio had employment for them.
They did a lot of land clearing between Rocky Creek, Johnson City and Fredericksburg. They cleared a lot of the fields you see along the road. Back then they used mules, grubbing holes (sp?) and axes in order to clear a lot of the stumps. They worked very hard. Most of the people who came out here were just ordinary hard-working people who did stoop labor, hand labor. Most of them lived on farms that belonged to German-Americans and they worked for the German-Americans. There weren’t very many blacks. But if you go to Fredericksburg you will find a black church, a black cemetery so there were a few in the area. But a lot of the hands-on labor that was done around there, was done by the Mexican-Americans.
Dad was thirteen when they finally got enough, capitol, he always said, to go pick up the rest of the family and bring them across. They purchased a truck, went back and got my grandmother and the rest of the brothers and sisters. I suppose in those days if you were here working and had a green card you could get permission for the family to come across. Two of my dad’s brothers and sisters were born in the United States. The rest of them were from Mexico.
I started school right up here, probably about a mile and a half. It was called the Pleasant Hills School. I was in the third grade when they moved us, consolidated with Johnson City but we all started here at Pleasant Hills. It was a one-room school. Matter of fact we were the only Mexican-Americans who attended that school, the Barrientes. Some of the German kids who started school with me couldn’t speak English, and I couldn’t speak English, so we kind of learned a little bit of each other’s languages by talking and communicating. That was pretty interesting. We used to swap lunches, kind of experimenting with each other’s foods. They’d trade us their sausages for our tacos. It was quite an experience that I’ll never forget.
We were dirt poor but we didn’t always know it ‘cause we always had a lot to eat. Dad raised a couple of hogs and we’d butcher them, or we’d shoot an old deer in the season. We’d make sausage or hamburger — we made dried sausage too. We did a lot of the same things.
A lot of the German-Americans in the Stonewall area belonged to the butcher clubs. Dad was one of the members. But the Hispanics in this area had what they call a junta. They had no insurance, like burial, so a group of men, say fifteen to twenty people, would get together at different households on weekends to have their club meetings. Everybody would contribute dues and then when a family member passed away, they’d take money out of the kitty in order to bury them. That was something that the Hispanic community did. They kind of stuck together on that because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to bury their dead. That went on even into the fifties and sixties. There was what was called the Mexican cemetery at Stonewall and when one of the family members passed away, all the men would go dig the grave and then they’d help bury the body. They got their money for the expenses from la junta. I learned that from my dad — unite yourselves, you know, take care of each other.
My Dad believed that the way we respect people is the way they respect you. He taught us to respect other people’s rights but never hang your head low. He taught us to be good people. He didn’t believe in going to church but he always sent his contribution with us. He believed in God and he read his bible here at home. He always wanted to teach us: pay your bills on time; be good family people; bring up your kids to believe in what you believe in. I have so many memories of him. He was a funny character. But my biggest memory is that he taught us how to be good people.
My mom believed a lot in, not superstitions, but medications. Like if you had an earache she’d blow smoke in your ear or she’d heat Vicks and put that in your ear. Now that was real good for it. Or she’d mix horehound and kerosene for a cough. There were so many things like that. If a baby was bloated, she used to make this thing with lard and baking soda. She’d make a paste and rub them with it and all of a sudden, you’d hear this little baby passing gas. And fever? She’d take Willow tea. We couldn’t afford aspirins. Nowadays they sell it in herbal stores. We survived on herbal remedies. But a lot of the people in this area believed the same thing. Some of the remedies we used as Hispanics; they as Germans used the same thing. So there you go. We learn from each other. Even though we’re different colors we’re all — if you look at it, our cultures all kind of stem back to a lot of the same things. Even though someone might be born thousands and thousands of miles apart, we use the same stuff to survive with.
We had to make due with what we had. If you got a pair of shoes, you better hang on to them cause that’s the only pair that year. There were wealthy people around but there were quite a few kids in this area who were poor because they didn’t have what a lot of other kids have. In this area most of them are land-rich but they’ll say they’re poor. But if you have six, seven, eight hundred acres, you’re not poor by far. If you have to you can sell a little chunk of land. I consider that we were poor cause we didn’t have that much. Dad made a fairly decent living part of the year but then we couldn’t waste.
My dad had an old guitar but he didn’t let us touch it. And I have uncles who played the violin so they’d have these little parties. Two, three families would get together, say at my house, and they’d have it out there in the open, out in the yard. Back then most of the yards were swept yards. They didn’t have grass. It was a swept yard. Maybe they had a guitar or a vihuela, an old gentlemen would have an accordion. They’d start playing. Pretty soon they’d have a little dance out there. They’d stay into the night. If you wanted to have a wedding or something, you’d probably have one in Alford. And Hye used to have a dance hall. They’d get permission to use it for that occasion but most of the time the families around here would gather at somebody’s house. That’s where they’d have their get-togethers. Bachacas is what they called them.
I can remember hearing accordion music since I was a little boy. And until today, I still love it. It’s happy music. We used to fill Prince Albert cans full of marbles. It makes a vibrating noise, similar to the accordion. My brother and I would pretend like we were musicians and my sisters would dance.
People used to visit each other more in those days. We used to have people visit from Spring Branch and stay with us for the whole week. They’d drive up in these old cars, and stay two or three days. I always knew when company was coming because Ma would send us to catch an old rooster or something and they’d butcher it. But most of the people in those days didn’t go. We never went anywhere. ‘Course Dad and Mom would go visiting. Sometimes they’d load us up in that old truck and visit a family in Stonewall or Fredericksburg. We’d go to the ball games in Stonewall. This old beer joint across the lane had rodeos. The men folk would go to the rodeo and they’d leave the ladies here with my mom and they’d visit. But most of the time we’d all be stuck here at home. That’s why we enjoyed going to Michigan so much because all the families who went had kids our age. We’d play baseball after work. On weekends we’d all get together. They’d throw us in an old truck and we’d go to the carnival, or to the lake to picnic. Until this day, I still go back to Michigan — I have two sisters living up there — but I still go see the old stomping grounds, visit the farms that we worked at. I still enjoy it because that was part of my childhood. They’d put us in an old truck. They had these canvas tops and there’d be three, four, five families in that truck going to Michigan, going to work. This guy, William Bollhaus, furnished that truck for my dad. Dad would be the crewleader and then at the end of the crops he’d get a bonus if Bollhaus made a lot of money — which he always did.
We were planting celery for Bollhaus when the accident happened. The machine they used had chain driven sprockets that ran the wheels — the old cleat wheels — and it got stuck or something and my dad was going to reach in there and try and help it along. The chain came over his hand and caught it in between that and the gears. It took one finger off and the other one almost but they saved it. He lost this one (first finger, right hand) and almost this one (second finger.) It scared us. We thought he was going to die. I remember him holding a handkerchief over his hand. They said that’s what saved his other finger that he held on to it. When they took him to the hospital they were able to do a lot of stitching and save his one finger but the other one was completely off. I would have passed out but he didn’t. He said he looked and his finger was gone and he picked it up. That’s when he wrapped everything in the handkerchief. I would have been on the ground for sure.
Dad worked for Bollhaus for twenty-eight, twenty-nine years. The last year they had to bring him home. They found cancer in September but he was up there until December. He was unable to travel because they gave him chemotherapy and stuff. He died in February. He was in and out of the hospital. He was very sick. He lay right there in that bedroom and he had these little-bitty strokes and finally he passed away in February.
My dad never wanted us to make waves. That was the only thing I didn’t like about his beliefs. Be satisfied with what they give you. You know, be satisfied that they even hire you to do a job. Whatever pay they give you. If they give you fifty cents, don’t ask for more. He didn’t want us to make waves but that was the way the old people were; they were timid. They were afraid that if they’d say something they were going to get kicked out, or not be hired at all. They grew up with that fear.
I’ve always tried to encourage kids I see along the way to try to reach out and get themselves a better job. Don’t wait for social security. Have something set aside. Get a job with some kind of retirement so you don’t have to depend on social security. I try to teach my kids and other kids along the way that it’s out there. Sometimes you make excuses. You feel sorry for yourself but you need to get out there and hustle. You need to want to get out there. Achieve your goals even though sometimes it’s hard. They see you come up above water and they stick you back under. But you have to believe what you believe and go for it.
In 1963, my wife was pregnant. I was making thirty, forty dollars a week so I had to get out of here. I went to Michigan and I was making a hundred dollars a week so I stayed. After nine years, I decided I wanted to come back home. I left my job where I was doing three, four hundred dollars a week and came here. I made a hundred twenty-five dollars a week but I wanted to live in Texas ‘cause this is where my roots were. This is where I wanted to be. I worked here a year and then in 1970 I heard they were hiring in Stonewall. They called us Landscape Technicians but really what we were doing was transplanting trees. I got the job and was approached by the superintendent. He asked if I wanted a permanent job so I jumped on it. I went to work for the State as a seasonal. Three months later I went on as a permanent and, man, I felt so proud to be working for the State of Texas!
After I got in, I never stepped on anybody’s toes. I worked hard. There were people looking at you but I managed to go up the ladder. I topped out. I achieved my goals. I always told myself I’m going to go as high as I can here in my career and when I retire I’m going to retire with a satisfied feeling. And I did it. I retired from the LBJ State Historical Park August 31 of 2002. I worked there thirty years and seven months, so that was quite a while, but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it very, very much. I was a lead Ranger and I also took care of the wastewater plant for the state of Texas. I held the license for about twenty-eight, twenty-nine years. We took care of the buildings; the electrical; all the water and utilities. We took care of the grounds, the deer that we have there. We were also interpreters at the Visitor Center.
We had a lot of visitors from Mexico that came to the State Park who didn’t understand why, if this was part of Mexico at one time, why there wasn’t a blend of our culture, of our people, represented in this part of the state?
I didn’t make a lot of money at the park but it was a steady job, a steady income. Every month I could depend on that check coming in. I put my kids through school. They all have good jobs. I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I’m working with my grandkids and hopefully they’ll turn out to be great kids. Every generation will do a little bit better than we did.