ContentsPutah and Cache: Capay Valley

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Ramón Cadena: Interview, 1999

Jim Barilla

I had no idea how almonds were harvested when they offered us the contract in the Imperial Valley. In El Centro there was a big concentration camp and here the brazeros arrived by the millions in buses. You had three days to be picked by someone. If not they gave you the option of going to Yuma, Arizona so you could work there and earn your fare back home. I arrived on August 7, 1955. It was 120 degrees at night. The next day this fellow by the name of Ruben Lopez, who was the contractor, came up to us. We were all just standing in a hallway about as long as this yard. He offered us a contract to come and work in Yolo County harvesting almonds. The pay was a dollar an hour and we would work nine hours a day. So I came to Rumsey and started knocking almonds. In those days two of us would ride in the back of a tractor and when it stopped we would start swinging with our mallets. One tree to the next, all day long. By three o'clock on the first day, every time I hit the tree with my rubber mallet it felt like it bounced back to hit my head.


In 1962 I wanted to get married and I felt the need for a house. About a mile north of Will Baker's place you will find a place with three cypress trees. Each one represents my children who were born there. The place is just dirt, stuccoed inside and out. Because I had no funds, no credit in this country, I went and, just with my hands, I started making bricks. It took me nine months from the foundation. Each brick weighed 72 pounds. So I came to the conclusion that by the time I was done I had tromped 278 tons of dirt. The house is still standing there and it will be there forever.

Any kind of dirt will work as long as it's not sandy or gravel. If you happen to buy a lot that has a high spot, you level it to make the bricks. You get the mud and you tromp it. It's just like mixing dough for a pizza; you have to get it to the right consistency. Then you just add the binder; whatever is available—if you happen to have a bale of hay, you just mix it with the dirt and that's your binder. You have a mold, and you make one brick at a time. You set the brick out on a flat surface and with the sun, it dries. Then you pick it up and it's time for another layer.

The only problem I had was with building inspectors. They had a small book; it looked like a copy of the Reader's Digest. Every time I went they tried to tell me how to do it. "Mr. Mahoney, with all due respect," I said, "if I had the money I would fly you out to where my parents and my grandparents and maybe their parents were born and the houses were not even stuccoed and they are still standing there. I'm not trying to be sarcastic," I said, "but look, I don't think you will find the answer in that little book to tell me how to build my house."

So he said, "I tell you what we're going to do. You do whatever you want as long as you allow us to come and watch you work." I said, "Okay, as long as you promise me not to say a word while I'm working because I can't be working and talking, and answering questions." They came and watched me while I was doing it. Finally, on December 17, 1962 I got the final inspection and the house was ready for us. In January I went to bring my wife back. I flew back to Mexico to get married.


It's a beautiful valley for some people who have income other than farming. The old-timers in Rumsey and the Capay Valley managed to survive because they knew how; they had their chickens and their cow and whatever fruit they raised they canned and preserved for the whole year. Now the new farmers are coming here, the youngsters, and they see it as a big farm. But big farms don't have the income to survive. There's only two old-timers left of those I met when I first came 48 years ago. Their children never did learn how to farm.

Anybody can raise almonds. If you read the history, in Spain, and parts of Italy, they raise almonds. It's a dry land tree. You might not get a crop every year but you have the tree. It will produce more if you water it, but then the life of the tree is not going to be as long. You see this orchard over here—right across from me—we've lived here for 28 years and this is the second time they've replaced it. Walnuts, it's a different story. But with almonds, you train them to survive with the least amount of water. They survive.


The only education I had in Mexico was kindergarten and the first few months of first grade. When I was older I registered for classes at a night school, but I couldn't take the classes because the teacher insisted I have a textbook, and I couldn't afford that: I barely had enough to pay the rent and eat. That's when I knew that I had no future in Mexico. But you come to this country and all the doors are open.

The principal of Douglas High School in Woodland said I could have an English language class if I could recruit 15 students. So I started looking. I found one Russian, two Taiwanese and a few Mexicans. My first day of school they named me President of the class because I spoke the most English. My job was to take the names. I was taking the names and making a list and I was doing okay with it until I got to some Vietnamese people. I couldn't make heads or tails of what they were saying, even with sign language. I said, "When you were a baby, what was your name? What name did they give you?" They didn't understand. Finally I wrote something and made a picture, and they said, "Oh," and they wrote their names.

One of the students, a French lady, was a waste of time because she spent all her time speaking French to the teacher. I enjoyed it but I said to the teacher; "Mrs. Riley, please, we don't come to speak French." When you work 10-11 hours a day, and then you come for two hours of class, you don't want to be bothered. After 10 hours of hoeing or shoveling I would get home very tired. I would wash my face, grab something to eat and then get in the car and it would take forever to get to Woodland, but I went to class.

I wanted to go to class because I was under the impression that I was not speaking English, even though everybody knew what I was talking about. I never used the expression "Okie Dokie"—I didn't know what they were talking about. I never said, "What time did you get here?"—I didn't know what that meant. I said, "What time did you arrive?" "Was somebody looking for me prior to my arrival?" Finally my teacher came with a list of words and said, "Learn these. Learn the way we speak in California. Otherwise you'll never get along with people."

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