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The bracero and the boss played by the rules, and an American success story was the result

In Pacoima more than 50 years later, the two meet again, and it's a hero's welcome for the rancher who helped a teenager get his green card.

February 22, 2009|Hector Becerra

Samuel Perez never spent a single day on American soil as an illegal immigrant, thanks to Clarence Martin.

More than 50 years ago Perez entered this country as a teenager on a federal program that allowed him to work as a bracero, a field worker, at Martin's cotton farm in Texas.

In the narrative of the Perez family, Martin is a legend, in large part because of the opportunity the burly farmer with a Texas drawl gave the Mexican teen: In 1957 Martin told Perez he was going to get him a green card.

Just one month later, a lawyer Martin hired gave Perez the news: "You can go anywhere now," he said.

By 1959, Perez had used that opportunity to land a job at a General Motors plant in Van Nuys; he worked there 34 years, while doing gardening on the side. He put all 11 of his children through college. And he told them about Martin.

In the family lore, Martin "was like Santa Claus. 'Is he real or not?' " said Omar Perez, 30, a sales manager for a dental manufacturing company.

More than a half century after the farmer and the fieldworker parted ways, one of the Perez children found the Texan who had given his father a ticket to America.

And a few weeks ago, the two men and their families reunited in Pacoima with a hero's welcome for Martin.

Perez led his former boss and his wife to the living room where 12 university diplomas -- one of them a postgraduate -- hang on the wall next to a framed painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Perez's 10-gallon hat hung on a coatrack, and some of his 14 grandchildren walked shyly up to shake hands with the Martins. Perez leaned forward on a sofa.

"I think Uncle Sammy must be very happy, because out of all my 11 children, I never asked for welfare. My sons and daughters are very productive. I'm very lucky, Clarence."

Applied on a lark

In the mid-1950s, Samuel Perez was working for Pepsi Co. in his hometown of Morelia in the state of Michoacan. One day when he was 19, a man gave him an application for contract labor in the U.S. On a lark, he applied. At a center in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, American farmers inspected his calloused hands.

"They weren't just going to hire any lazy bum," he recalled.

He took a train to the border before ending up in Eagle Pass, Texas, where he was sprayed with DDT and loaded into a cattle truck for the ride to Friona, Texas. Most of the town's residents, then numbering 1,700, were white.

As it is now, it was a cattle and agricultural hub in the vast northern stretch of the Texas panhandle. The town, recently designated the "Cheeseburger Capital of Texas," has about 3,800 residents now. Most are Latinos, whether native born or immigrants, legal or not.

When he got to Friona, Perez picked cotton for 30 days. When the work was done, he and a friend went to the theater, and when they returned, the camp was empty. He went to the local cotton gin office. A rancher hired him for a week and taught him to drive a tractor.

One day, the boss invited him to dinner. It was November, and the spread included a big turkey.

"No wonder these gringos are so big if they eat like this every day," Perez thought. He didn't know about Thanksgiving yet.

After a week, Perez returned to the cotton gin office. Martin walked in, looking for a bracero who could drive a tractor. The 24-year-old Martin was tall, with blue eyes, blue jeans, leather boots and a 10-gallon hat. A cowboy, thought Perez.

Martin ran his grandfather's ranch. With his wife, Wynona, Martin took Perez to the theater; he lent him a Chevy truck to go into town, especially on Sundays for church. Martin depended on Perez, who not only helped with the harvest but also irrigated the crops and helped lead other braceros. Almost every time Benito, a Mexican American worker with a peg-leg, got stuck in the mud, Martin said, Perez pulled him out.

Perez stayed in a trailer with a kitchenette and a heater -- essential in a town named for frio, the Spanish word for cold. Familiar songs wafted from a Mexican radio station.

Que lejos estoy del suelo donde he nacido. How far I am from the ground where I was born. Perez felt lonely.

Years before, the Mexican government had prohibited Texas from getting bracero workers because of the state's reputation for mistreating Mexicans. Perez said he occasionally would hear ethnic slurs when he went to town. But he barely understood English, he said.

He called Martin's wife Honey because that's what the farmer always called her. "No. 'Honey's' for me," Martin explained. They got by on hand signals and the few English words and Spanish words they both knew. " 'Sta bueno," Martin would say after a job well done.

The fieldworker got to know his young boss' three small children. Decades later, Perez told Martin about the lessons he had learned from him.

"He said that he learned his family values watching me with my young family then, and that he learned his work ethic from me, 'cause I demanded that things get done right, and he did things right," Martin said.

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