Ray Valdez: Following the Crops

Ray Valdez had two grandchildren who attended Dunn Middle School, but he became Grandpa Ray to all of us. Although he has known hard work all his life, he never shies away from an opportunity to be of service. While his grandkids were students at Dunn, he helped out with everything from camping trips to archeological digs, and on Friday afternoons he worked in the garden on campus. His childhood struggles might have defeated a lesser spirit, but Grandpa Ray’s  kindness and optimism are an inspiration.

My full name is Raynaldo Phillip Valdez, and I was born on October 6, 1941 in Pueblo, Colorado. There were 18 kids in my family, 11 boys and 7 girls. I’m number 13 – good luck.

I was born under a tree. There was no house. When I was about a year old, we moved to Grand Junction, Colorado and there again we lived under a tree for a while, until we were able to get into a colony.

My mom was from Cuba, New Mexico, from the Navajo reservation. My dad was from Spain, but I grew up speaking English. I can speak Spanish, but I can’t read or write it.

I can only start remembering things when my mom died. Before that, I don’t remember much. I can remember starting school as a six-year-old when my mom was still alive. Then when I turned seven, I remember we moved to another town called Hunter, and that’s when she died. I was eight. She died of childbirth. All of us were born at home with a midwife. In those days, the white people were very prejudiced. The Mexicans couldn’t go into a white person’s place. Even in the hospital, the doctor was white and he refused to touch my mother because she was an Indian. So she and the baby both died.

From there on, I started remembering a lot more. I guess it’s because we didn’t have nobody to look after us. I was eight and my youngest sister was one year old. We’re all about eleven months apart, except for a span of about three years between two of my sisters where my dad got in trouble and got locked up so there was nobody born during that time.

I remember this big, nice car driving up. I don’t know what kind of car it was, but in those days if you had a car you were doing good. Two men and two women got out and talked to my dad. We were small; we just kept playing. As soon as they left, my dad packed us all up and the next day we headed out. Years later I asked my dad why we left all of a sudden and the reason was that the welfare wanted to separate us because we didn’t have a mother to look after us. There were too many little ones and the man always has to go out to work. They wanted to split us up. Maybe that’s best for some people, but for us, I’m glad my dad did what he did because we’re all close. We know each other. We know where everyone is and we could visit each other. Otherwise, I would never know what happened to them. We all got along. We never fought. We never got mad at each other.

When my mother died, my oldest brother Fred was already in his twenties and married. One of my sisters, Sara, was a year younger than Fred. She’s the one who took care of us. She was married, too, and it made it very hard on her because she had her own family plus all of us. And we weren’t that nice to her. You get a bunch of kids together, and you got a handful! Especially you’re not the mother, and you get one sister trying to tell the others what to do, and it don’t work too good. So we kind of rebelled. I regret it now. I think about it now and I think, man, if I had known then what I know now, I would have never talked back. I would have obeyed. I would have helped her as much as I could. But it’s too late. The older you get, the more you learn.

But it was a good childhood that I had, even though it was rough. I started working when I was seven, thinning sugar beets. You guys know what thinning is? Nowadays it’s different. In those days you used a short hoe and you had to leave the sugar beets twelve inches apart. They used to think that the bigger the beet was, the more sugar it had in it. Now they found out that the smaller it is, the more sugar you can taste. So now they do it with a machine and they leave them close, about this far apart.

So I started working when I was seven and I would always start school a month late and quit maybe two months before school was over. I had to quit and go back to work. So I didn’t get much of an education. I dropped out in the seventh grade. I didn’t like school, and the reason why I didn’t like school is because I was always trying to catch up. If I could have started school the first day of school, I wouldn’t have had no problems keeping up with the rest of the kids. But you guys know if you miss one month of school, you’re gonna be way behind in everything. So I would go there and instead of doing adding, they were already doing division or whatever, and I still hadn’t learned the first step. Then by the time I was finally catching up, it was time to quit again. I’d come back next year and I was behind again.

So I never got very good grades, but I got passing grades. I used to try hard. I never played around in class. They kept me back one year only because my sister cried for me. She was little and she wouldn’t keep still, so they put me back to be with her. That was all right.

It was hard to make friends because we were the only Mexicans, and the white people didn’t want to hang around with us, so we used to play by ourselves. We didn’t mind. We were used to it. And we kept moving around, but the welfare wouldn’t leave us alone. They’d always find us. From Pueblo, we went to Mack, Colorado, which is about sixty miles from there. And they can find you. Then we moved to Fruita. There were a lot of little towns, about thirty, forty miles apart. So we kept moving around but they kept finding us. Finally, the last place we were at was in Montrose, and that’s where they found us again, so my dad said let’s just leave the state. I was fourteen then. I was already working full-time for a ranch. I didn’t go to school no more. I dropped out. In those days they didn’t care if you went to school or not.

It was hard work. At the end of the day I’d be so tired, but the worst part was that we didn’t have enough to eat. When I was about four years old, I came close to starving because there was nothing to eat. I survived. I’m still here. But during the Depression, my family lost two brothers and one sister to malnutrition.

I don’t remember my mom. We were always working or too tired. I don’t remember ever being around her. My brother sent me a picture of her once. Her name was Manuelita. I don’t even know her last name. My dad met her when she was twelve. She had her first child at twelve. The family she was with used to abuse her a lot, so my dad did her a favor by taking her. I don’t think they meant to fall in love. They just fell in love because they hung around together. It happens. There was no law about it then. Nowadays the law protects us in a lot of ways.

Think about it. You guys have it made! You don’t even have to wash dishes nowadays. My grandchildren have it made. They’re learning, too. They know so much more than I did, and they have so much.

I didn’t even have books. But enjoy what you got now. You kids have got it made. You got everything.

Life was hard. In Colorado you get about three months of summer where it gets real hot. You have to pick all the crops in those three months. That’s why I had to drop out of school to help.

But then in the wintertime, you’ve got the sugar beets. The cold don’t hurt them any. So can you imagine being eight, nine-year old in the snow out there about a foot deep topping sugar beets? I don’t know if you know what topping sugar beets is. In those days the sugar beets grew big, about this tall – they weighed between five, ten pounds apiece. It don’t sound that much but you had to pick ’em up with a machete. You use the point of the machete to pick up the sugar beet, and then you put ’em on your leg and you cut the top off.

Well, you do that all day, and those sugar beets come out of the ground and they’re cold, there’s ice on them. You don’t have no gloves ’cause you can’t afford gloves. You gotta work from sun-up to sundown, seven days a week in the sugar beets. So you might have been eight, nine years old and doing that instead of going to school and playing, having fun.

Sometimes the only meal I used to get was when I went to school ’cause they used to feed us hot lunch. And that was the only meal I’d have, at lunchtime. I used to eat anything. I never liked sugar beets, but I used to eat everything, ’cause I knew I wasn’t gonna get nothin’ more.

I didn’t know what prejudice was, so I felt like I was being treated better than everybody because they used to make me eat by myself. I even had my own bucket to wash my hands in. Then they stuck me in the back of the room where I had to sit by myself, but nobody bothered me. I thought I was bein’ treated special. I didn’t care. It never hurt my feelings.

Now when I tell my granddaughter Katie, she gets all upset. I say, “Why you upset? I was treated better than the other guys. I didn’t have to deal with nothin’!”

They had a rule that if you didn’t eat all your food you couldn’t go out and play, and the guys didn’t like the red sugar beets, so they used to hand it to me, and I used to eat it. So I thought I was being treated better than everybody!

I never felt bad ’cause I always had my brothers and sisters there. We were only eleven months apart, so when I was in the fourth grade, I had one in the third grade, one in the second grade, one in the first, and we’d play together, sort of like being at home. We’d go to the swings and everybody would take off – they’d leave the swings to us. It was good! I mean, actually it was really good. I don’t ever remember being sad in school because of that. I used to walk around happy all the time.

We were up in the ranch then. We never got to come into town. That’s why we were so innocent, I think. We didn’t have nobody to teach us any bad things. We didn’t know nothing. All we did was play and work. I don’t think I came into town until I was about fourteen years old. It was Montrose, Colorado. First time I saw stoplights, stores, and all that. Up until then I had to hear it from my brothers, or I’d see the stores when we were going by on our way to another town, but I never got to go in. Then all of a sudden we moved to Montrose. I was thirteen or fourteen. That’s when I started learning about people being prejudiced.

I went to a bigger school. There were more Mexican people there. There were three other guys there and about seven girls that were Mexican. I always stuck to myself, but pretty soon they started making friends with me. And I started being friends with them ’cause they treated me good.

I still remember this white guy went by and said something to me and I just smiled at him. Then this guy said, “Hey! Don’t let him get away with that! Look what he called you!” I still didn’t know what it meant. So then we were going to a game, and he explained to me what it meant, so then I went up to the white guy and settled it with him. But that’s when I started getting in trouble in school. Right after that I dropped out of school ’cause it wasn’t worth it no more.

My favorite place was Mack, Colorado. It was a big open farm and there were hills, and we just had a lot of time to work, and in the wintertime when there was no work we used to do a lot of playing and you could go for long hikes because there was no houses around. At nighttime you couldn’t see any light at all. We’d just go walking, throw rocks, and play, just enjoying ourselves.

I went back last year. The ranch is gone. The house is knocked down. But I did find the house where my mom died. That’s still up. Nobody’s living in it. And behind it there’s about sixteen or eighteen narrow iron beds all thrown in the back. It’s a small house. I don’t know how we all lived there. We used to sleep side by side, all eighteen of us.

It was an adobe house, and I still remember we had a bad storm and we were afraid the roof was gonna come off, so my dad and my older brother tied ropes over it. The ropes are still there holding the roof down. I’m surprised they haven’t rotted and fallen down. They’re no good, but they’re still there.

My best friend was Gigi. There were eighteen of us in my family and there were seventeen in his, and everywhere we went, ever since we were little, we traveled together. I don’t know why they followed us. They followed us to Mack, they followed us to Fruita, they followed us to Austin, to Montrose, and then when we moved to Arizona, not even a year later, they followed us to Arizona. Then from Arizona we went to Chico. That’s where I got married. And they followed us to Chico, and they’re STILL in Chico. Gigi is my age. He’s very short — he’s probably shorter than five feet — and I guess he’s still my best friend.

I remember one time we were at the ranch in Mack, Colorado and we had this old beat up tractor tire. And we rolled it up top of the hill – it was a pretty good-sized hill – and we seen him coming. Me and my sister and brother said let’s put him in the tire! “But he won’t get in.” “Oh, he’ll get in. We’ll get him in.” So here comes Gigi.

“Gigi, hurry up!” So Gigi comes running: “What’s the matter?” “Oh, we’ve been gettin’ in this tire and rolling down the hill, and it’s fun! You gotta try it!” He says, “No, no. I can get hurt.” We said, “Oh, we been doin’ it all morning already.” We were lying, you know. So he got in and we rolled him down the road and that tire took off fast. Faster than what we figured on. But maybe about two hundred feet ahead there was a big creek, and there was a bridge over it, and we aimed the tire right at the bridge, but of course it didn’t stay where we wanted it. It went to the left, and instead of staying on the bridge, it went into the creek. Oh, I thought we had killed him! We ran over there and he was crying. We bribed him. We told him if he told on us we wouldn’t be his friend no more. He didn’t tell on us. We used to play a lot of tricks on him.

We weren’t big kids. We were small and skinny. We didn’t get to eat very much, and Gigi fit in that tire in just right. He still remembers that.

Finally one of my brothers married into Gigi’s family. We’re just like brothers. We grew up together. We used to follow the crop. Different towns. Pick peaches, cherries, pears, then after the fruit you go into the regular ones…like potatoes, carrots, sugar beets… We did it all. Lots of sugar beets. Lots of potatoes in Colorado. We went to Colorado, California, Arizona, Utah, Oregon.

We traveled by truck. Believe it or not, we all used to fit in a big flatbed truck. All we took was our clothes — if we owned two pair of pants, that was a lot — our blankets, and a couple of pots so my sisters can cook. That was it. We drove all day and we’d pull off to the side of the road maybe two hours before the sun was down. That way my sisters can make tortillas and fried beans and potatoes, whatever we had. But one thing for sure, we’d have tortillas every time — homemade, not from the store. We’d stop and try to find a place where there was a river so we’d have water to drink and water to cook with. Nowadays you can’t do that – the water’s too polluted. In those days, I used to drink the water right from the ditch.

Soon as the sun went down my dad made us go to bed and keep quiet. But you were tired anyway. You worked all day — you were tired! My dad didn’t like too much noise. He was very strict. He never hit us, but we knew he meant what he said. If you teach a young child that what you say you mean, you don’t’ have to hit them. Just by the tone of your voice, they know you mean it. My dad would say, “Go to bed” and we knew it was time to go to bed. Even after I got married, my dad would tell me something, and I knew I had to do it. (He died in 1968.)

And my dad taught us to respect everybody, no matter who it is. He never allowed us to disrespect anybody. It don’t matter if they were being mean to us; we couldn’t be disrespectful. He’d always tell us, just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you gotta be smart-alecky or dirty or anything like that. That got nothin’ to do with it.

But we had some rough times. First time we came to California, we went to Cucamonga, by San Bernardino, back toward the hills. So we got there and we were broke, and it was raining. There was work. My dad read the newspaper, and he knew there was work. But we couldn’t work if it was raining. So there we were. We’d eat tortillas with chili twice a day. This went on for about three days. We had nothing else to eat. One day I told my sisters, “You know what? Let’s go get some lemons.”

We were hungry. We had to eat something. So me and her and my little brother took off walking, the three of us, and we found an orange orchard. Say! Oranges are better than lemons! They’re sweeter. So let’s pick some oranges! So we’re picking oranges and all of a sudden these Mexicans come out and say, “What are you doing?” So we told them, “We’re picking oranges so we can eat.” They were very, very good to us. They gave us some tacos that they had. Oh, they gave us a bunch! That day I went home, and I ate fifteen of them. As skinny as I was, I ate fifteen tacos! Next day they brought us some more, until work picked up and we started buying our own food. They helped us a lot.

Everywhere you go, you could run into those camps. When I came to Santa Maria I came to Lompoc first and I was by myself then, and I didn’t have nowhere to go. I was sixteen years old. Then I seen this camp. See, in those days, if you owned a farm and you wanted workers you would send back to Mexico and ask for ten or twenty guys. You’d have to give them six months of work and the government would let them come this way even though they didn’t have papers. But they were under a contract and you had to furnish work for them for whatever time you put down.

So anyway, I was sixteen when I got to Lompoc. And I think, “What am I gonna do? I don’t know nobody there.” So I see this camp and I walk into it. I was just learning Spanish, so I talked to them in English, and they all just looked at me. But I knew a little bit of Spanish and I told them in Spanish that I was hungry. So they gave me something to eat and asked me where I was working. I said, “I’m not working.” So they put me to work there. I was there for about two or three months and that’s when I went to Santa Maria.

That’s where I met my wife. I was sixteen years old, and she was fifteen. We got married when I was nineteen. Her parents didn’t want us to get married. I don’t know why. They didn’t think we could make it, I guess. But we ran off and got married in Chico, and we been together ever since – 42 years. We went back to Santa Maria and stayed there to this day.

When my older brother got married, he married a girl from Frankfort Germany. Her family was very wealthy. He lived there in luxury for a few years, nothing but the best, and then he brought her over to meet us. Oh, did she regret it! She went into shock, man! Her mother was so shaken up, she told her daughter, “Divorce him!” Her daughter said, “I married Fred. I didn’t marry the family.” I seen her last year, and we were talkin’ about old times. She said, “Oh, I thought you guys were a bunch of Indians.” I said, “We ARE Indians.” She said, “You were wild.”

Well, we didn’t have no mom. We didn’t have no one to keep an eye on us. Sometimes my dad would leave to follow the railroad track. Wherever there was work on the railroad he would follow it. Sometimes it was California, sometimes it was Nevada…different places. So we were alone with no one to keep us in line.

But we never got in trouble because there was nobody around to get in trouble with. I’m sixty-two years old, and I’ve never been in trouble. Now my younger son – he’s always in trouble. I ask him, “Don’t you think for yourself? Don’t you know what you’re doing is wrong? Then don’t do it. Forget your friends.”

When I was growing up, I could have drunk, but I didn’t. I did smoke for awhile, but when I found out it was bad, I quit. I’m still healthy.

And I’m glad we had a big family. I wouldn’t want it now, though. Not with everything so expensive. You need an education. Nowadays, you don’t get an education, you gonna end up in the field.

7 Responses to Ray Valdez: Following the Crops

  1. RAY VALDEZ says:


  2. Elixeo Flores says:

    Ray Valdez is my uncle. I know his story well. I feel a great sense of pride in all that he has accomplished in his lifetime. For all the adversity he has faced in his life what I remember most is how he always made us laugh. What he has shared here is only a small glimpse of what life was like back then. It is strange that despite the constant struggle, those times are most often recalled fondly. I think the difference is family. We remember those times fondly because of the love of family. Therein lies the true blessing. I love you uncle Ray!!

  3. Geneva Valdez says:

    My dad,Ray Valdez, is one of the strongest men I know. Over the years my two children and I have had the privilege of hearing him tell us these stories. The remarkable stories have made my father into the man he is. He’s a strong, creative, smart, loyal, Christian man. He has survived a great number of ups and downs and still has a smile on his face and counts his blessings for his health and his family.

    Katie and Marco have been fortunate to have their grandpa Ray volunteer at Dunn school and The Family School in Los Olivos since they were 5 years old up until they were 13. He faithfully helped at both schools for not only Katie amd Marco’s class but all the classes at Dunn middle school and the family school.

    Thank you, Dad, for all those years volunteering at the schools and for being there for my kids and for me. You have done so much for me and my family over the years that I could never repay you for all the time, love and kindness you have shown us.

    P.S. When I get a chance I want to post the paper my son Marco wrote when he was in 6th grade. It is called, The Native American Storyteller. My son creatively writes about his grandpa and how he feels about the stories he tells.

    • cynthia says:

      Your father is an inspiration, Geneva, and I’m so glad we had the opportunity to interview him. I remember him always good-naturedly helping out at the middle school. I sent you a private message.

  4. Geneva says:

    Native Story Teller
    He tells me all kinds of different stories,
    My mom tells me he’s crazy and that they’re not true,
    But he just keeps going and flowing like a river and nothing will stop him,
    So I listen and enjoy.
    Half I don’t believe but some I can,
    But the stories are all wonderful.
    This crazy story teller is my grandpa Ray,
    Half crazy and half genius.
    He is Native American with dark rough skin.
    His hair is spiked up and it looks like steel wool.
    His body is muscular and he looks like a cranky old man,
    But he is as kind as you can ever imagine a grandpa could be.
    He tells me how lucky I am that I don’t have to work,
    He laughs as he tells me that I can’t work to save my life,
    Then gets into a story about how he worked in the field.
    He’ll tell me all kinds of stories in his serious and deep voice.
    Some make me laugh and others make me sad,
    He tells of his dad telling him that he’ll work for the rest of his life,
    Picking fruit and picking cotton, picking and picking.
    He tells of how he met my grandma and
    Not matter how scary, sad, romantic, or suspenseful his stories are,
    I’ll always love them and him,
    true or not true.
    By Marco Phillip Cromack

  5. Geneva says:

    I found a poem that my son wrote when he was a 6th grader at Dunn School. I find it to be powerful and insightful. I love my dad and enjoy all the stories he has told. The stories are remarkable and many times unbelievable but more than not, they are true. I visited his brothers and sisters and have heard many of them tell the same stories of survival. Watching my dad sharing and talking to his brothers and sisters over the years has made me more aware of how resourceful, brave, intelligent, and inspiring the Valdez family were and continue to be.

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