Lessons Learned at the Labor Camp in Lamont

November 18, 2014 /


By Leonel Martinez, Special to South Kern Sol

I lived on farm housing east of Lamont until I was about 11 years old, but more than four decades later, I still remember the hard lessons I learned there.

Next to a labor camp where farm workers lived off and on throughout the year, our ramshackle 3-bedroom home was in constant need of repair. We nailed a tin-can lid around the pipe jutting from the kitchen wall so rats couldn’t gnaw their way inside by widening the gap between the wood and metal.

Pots and buckets captured the water that streamed through the roof during rainstorms, cardboard patched the holes in the walls, and winter nights were warmed with a rusty iron wood-burning stove that could have easily burned down the house.

But life in the middle of the camp could also be a good teacher if you were open to absorbing its lessons. Here are some of the things I learned in the years I lived there.

Hard times always pass and often nudge your life in a better direction. If I had to describe my early childhood in one word, it would be this: Lonely. I was an only child living out in the country with no regular playmates. But from that loneliness came something good.

Books became my friends.

I was the son of migrant field laborers who were only a generation or two from Mexico, so I struggled to learn English. But once I did, I immersed myself in the worlds created by authors like L. Frank Baum, Jules Verne and Bram Stoker.

And that led to a love for writing.

I’ve worked as a reporter for 15 years and a technical writer for 16, cobbling together sentences in a language that I once did not understand. I’ll never be wealthy or a celebrity, but words have paid the bills. I appreciate that more every year.

Yet I don’t think my writing career would have happened if a lonely kid hadn’t once sought companionship in books.

Life is hard, but it will probably be harder without education. On many seething summer afternoons, I watched my uncles and aunts trudge into the house after picking wine grapes all day, spattered with mud, smeared with purple fruit pulp, sweat-stained bandannas covering their hair and faces.

They barely looked human.

And I vowed that if getting a college degree would ensure that I never worked in the fields for a living, I would do whatever it took to get one. So in 1983, I became the first in my family to graduate from college, motivated by the memory of my relatives pouring out their lives in the grape fields.

The world is filled with people who are different than you; embrace it. Groups of farm workers from various parts of the world rotated through the labor camp at various times of year.

I watched the Filipinos farmworkers stage cockfighting matches (which I didn’t know were illegal), listened to the Puerto Ricans’ salsa music, and stuffed myself with the pan dulce (pastry) the Mexican laborers gave me when I was toddler. I couldn’t afford to travel the world learning about different cultures and traditions, but slices of the world traveled to me.

Decades later as a reporter, I received awards for articles that exposed readers to different races, classes and ethnicities, something I’m sure I learned to appreciate from my years at the labor camp.

After Sunday Mass a few weeks ago, I drove by myself to the spot on the country road outside Lamont where the house I grew up in once stood. Cotton plants rippled in the breeze, but there was nothing left of the labor camp that shaped me.

Some of the experiences I had there were difficult, but I hope they imparted a tiny bit of wisdom.

And for that I am grateful.

Leonel Martínez is a regular contributor to the South Kern Sol and can be reached at columnista1@gmail.com.