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Rafael Perez Vargas
Scanned by Dick Chenault
Edited by Carol Lombard
Interviewed by Lucia Martinez
Date of interview - May 1979
Language spoken - Spanish
Rafael Perez Vargas
Date of birth - June 1901
Ethnic group - Mexican
Family origin - Mexico
Date of family arrival in County - 1915 via Wyoming
My name is Rafael Perez Vargas. I was born in 1901 in Mexico.
The reason I came to the United States was a sad one. My father was a wealthy man; he owned much property and many ranches.
During the Mexican revolution times were very difficult in Mexico and through a misunderstanding my Father had fired his chief administrator and had put me in charge. One time when my father was away on business a long time servant came to ask for food since there was much hardship and poverty at this time: I gave him food because we had plenty and besides I was his compadre, I had confirmed one of his children. I also gave food to a widow who had also worked for us for many years. When my father returned he was angry at what I had done and he told me – “When a person gives something away he gives what is his, not what belongs to someone else.” I was very hurt since my father had left me in charge and the people I had given food to were past workers who were in need, but I did not say anything. At this time a fellow came by and asked me to come to the United States with him. He said that in the United States you could sweep up the gold in, pick it up and make a good life for myself. I told him I had no money. He said to borrow some from my father and we would pay him back. I went and took some money from my father and I filled the bib of my pants with gold coins, my father was very wealthy. I remember a time when we were working in fields and we dug up a gigantic kettle like the one renders lard in and as we were plowing with the ox we dug up this kettle and it was filled with gold coins.
I left with this fellow and we came to the border. It took us about a year to get to the border. In Laredo at that time you needed no papers to cross. They asked if we were related, he said, yes, that I would be going to school. I was very young, about fourteen years old. When we crossed the border this fellow said for me to give him all the money I had and he would give to me as I needed it. I gave him my money and never saw him again.
I crossed into Texas in 1915 where I worked. I made friends with Mr. Garza; he helped me very much. He gave me a little room to sleep and two quarters a day until he found work for me at a brick yard where I worked for a few months and then he sent me deeper into Texas with other families who worked in the fields. The fields were so large that it took an entire day to clean one section with a hoe. We came to that place like slaves, they even had guards posted to watch us. The guards even had rifles. We couldn't even leave the area, we were like prisoners. I couldn't leave until one night a family came to me and said let's escape. I asked an old man that was there from Texas if we would leave and he said yes. At that time we were sleeping in barns where they stored the hay and we were sleeping in the hay just like animals. Around midnight we snuck out past the guards. They did not notice we were gone until the next day. We walked until we found freer work, and I worked like that for a while until I got to San Antonio for a little while and there they sent me to pick cotton in Waco but I didn't like that work because it was too crooked. There as we worked they were keeping tabs of what it cost to feed us. While in that job one day I went to town and met a man, Juan Garcia, and I told him my story, he said, “Oh come with me I am a foreman and can give work in this factory where they were bringing in electricity and they were putting in poles for the electricity.” I left with him more or less escaping from the cotton fields. I was working at this electric plant when the boss of the cotton field came asking and looking for me. The people in charge let him search the area for me. He looked right at me but he did not recognize me and so he left.
This Juan Garcia was married to a cuarterona de Negro and she spoke very good Chicano. She had two children but Juan had no children. She was the one who showed me a few words in English. She told me when you want to ask for water you say, “Gimme drink a water.” But what I didn't like about Juan was that he had this dog that he had very well trained. In the evenings they would go and open the doors of the cars that were in the yards and take things. I didn't like this at all because you know to walk in bad ways is not good and the laws are strict. I was educated differently to respect the law, so I saved some money and left. I got on a train to Fort Worth. I stayed in Fort Worth for a while. I don't remember how long. Here I worked on a building that was to be twenty stories high, on Houston Street. I'd like to say something else that is the very truth, girls used to follow me wherever I went and many times I would leave a place running because they would embarrass me and I didn't know English. I stayed in Fort Worth working on construction for about four years then there was a renganche and I went to Wyoming with the CF&I, this was in about 1920. The CF&I had asked for workers and so I went with the men and they brought me to work in Cheyenne. In those days they transported people from all over to work. They brought me along with another family to a section which was about thirty miles from Cheyenne on barren hills. The foreman that was our boss spoke Spanish. He was from Nebraska.
Charlie Brown I worked hard for him but one day we got in a fight and I went to the head boss and made myself understood that I did not want to stay there. I told him that I did not like the place. It was barren so he sent me to work at another section of track, which was close to a little town. There I met an old man, Mr. Harley, a German. We got along well and I stayed in the town for about two years. Around this time the master came with an interpreter. By this time there were a lot of us working including boys fifteen to eighteen years of age. They got us together and asked us if we wished to become citizens. They promised that the company would arrange for our citizenship, that they would pay us good wages and insure us steady employment. Some people did not want to, others did. You know, every one has his own opinion. They finally came to accord that on a certain day those who did want to become citizens could come to the town square, which was the county seat and all the preparation would be waiting. They took the names of all those who wished to become citizens. I don't remember the exact date since it was many years ago. I was one of those who decided to become a citizen since I had not returned to Mexico and I was still hurt by my father's treatment. I had also felt, and still do, that it was my duty to help the poor and the hungry.
The day came and there were about twenty-seven or twenty-eight of us who had decided to become citizens. The American flags were flying and several judges were present for the ceremony. By way of the interpreter and the rural master we knew what was taking place. But you know when you are young you do not care about many things and many things are not important to you. I always remembered my grandmother and my mother whom I loved very much and many times I wanted to go back to Mexico and at the same time I didn't want to go back. My feelings were still hurt by the way my father had treated me, because I hadn't committed a crime nor hurt anyone. I worked there until around 1922 when they layed me off, they had already laid everyone else off and the only other one left was an American with a very large family.
During this time I had made friends with a man named Juan Sanchez who had moved on to Trinidad. We had kept in touch and wrote each other letters. In his letters that he wrote he always invited me to come to Trinidad with him. In one of his letters that he wrote at this time he invited me to come to work at a cement plant near Canon City and Portland. I went there and worked for two years. The plant closed around 1927. Juan sent for me to work there along with a cousin of his who was from Michoachan Mexico.
When the plant was closed it was difficult to find work, but I finally found work in Salas, an area close to Pueblo. I worked in Salas for the Denver Rio Grande repairing track that had been destroyed during the 1921 flood. It was here that I met and worked with many Italians, so much so that I began speaking Italian, for as you know, it is similar to Spanish. I was speaking so well that everyone didn't realize I was Mexican. They thought I was an Italian. I worked there for a while and the foreman gave me a good job. I was earning $3.50 an hour. My compadre Juan was unable to get work there. They did not want him because he was dark and in that camp there were mostly Italians. Italian was the only language spoken there, they did not speak English.
You know that wherever I have gone I have always found work.
I went to work at Portland Cement Factory since I had gotten good recommendations. I worked there for about a month or a month and a half shaking sacks but there was something in the dust from the sacks that did not agree with me. There was a man there named Sotero Rodriguez who had worked there many years. He was from Jalisco and spoke both English and Spanish so I went to talk to him and I told him that I did not like my job. So he said okay that he would go and talk with his boss and perhaps I could get on at the factory. He did and soon I was working in the factory and since in Mexico I had been trained to work in factories that produced steam this skill of working the steam helped me get good jobs here in the United States. I might not of known how to speak well in English but I knew the work.
At this job there were day and night shifts. There were twelve of us on the day shift and twelve on the night shift. Here I worked with a man from New Mexico. The foreman who had his left hand cut off had gotten into an argument with the man from New Mexico so I was put in charge and they were pleased with my work. It was the best around, better than that of the Italians of which there were many since this was right after World War I.
I stayed there working the coal plant until one day that the superintendent came and said, “Well Ralph what are you going to do now we are closing this part of our plant operation and converting to natural gas?” I said, “Mr. Griffin, don't worry about me, worry about yourself. I can work track. I can work anywhere. You are making me laugh.” It didn't set too well with him. They thought just because I was like I was, they could do whatever they wanted, but I was not like that.
From there I went to work in the beet fields. I had not worked in the beet fields before but I went with my friends. I worked in Lamar with a man from Jalisco who we call El Piasa. I worked in the fields but I did not consider for steady but there was no work in the towns at this time. At this time I didn't appreciate much my citizenship, you know when you are young you don't care and anyway I was here.
Well, it was 1924, and I hadn't been back to Mexico to see the old ones, my mother and my father for it had been nine years since I had seen them. When I returned my father told an uncle that had loved me very much like my grandmother who raised me and who taught me everything because for me, my worst enemy was the school. My uncle who loved me very much and who called me el “vecento” when I was small, this uncle came to me and told me my father wanted to give me a ranch, a big ranch with everything including all of the animals. He wants to give you a ranch so that you can make your living, but I just smiled at him and said, “I am already used to the life I am living without anyone giving me anything and I what I have I have earned it myself because I have worked hard. If I take the ranch then I will be indebted to him and I won't be able to do what I want if I go out and get drunk and go out gambling and partying and if in a stupid moment I sell the ranch then he will come and ask why did I sell something that I did not work for?” You see I still remembered what had happened between my father and I many years ago. I said, “I think I shall return to the United States and make my life there, I like it there.” By this time I was used to the U.S. and I no longer wanted to stay in Mexico.
My father did not beg me to stay nor did my family and so I returned. This time I did have a passport but what happened was that I tried to cross at Aguas Calientes. I told them I was a citizen but they were not selling tickets. They told me if I was a citizen to go to the border and there they would have the proof. I made out a passport and here is where I lost my citizenship because until this time I only ran by Rafael Perez, the name I was used to and the name I had used in school. After this I corrected the name to Rafael Perez Vargas, the name of my grandfather who died in 1908. This was in 1924-1925 and so my citizenship was erased. I remained living here and I was never singled out nor returned to Mexico. Because of the doubts of my citizenship I had to return to work in the beet fields. I shouldn't have had to but I did and in those days the only way I traveled was on cargo trains. I worked the fields until I got work with the Holly Sugar Corporation.
I had good luck here and they like me very much. They treated me like parents. They helped because times were hard in 1930.
In 1931 I came to Pueblo with a few friends one of which really liked the women so much so that they got him sick and they stole all his money. But anyway you know how life is. Well I came to Pueblo with these friends who had come from California because there was no work over there for them and they were from Mexico, too. In Pueblo, since I already knew people there. I rented a little room about two blocks from the post office. I think my room costed about two dollars per month. The man that rented to us gave us everything, a stove and even the dishes.
Well here we were when this girl Lina that just died, came into my life. We were renting this rooms from Victor Navarro and so was another brother. Anyway we were there when this girl came with her husband from which I had even bought some things. I had bought some razor blades and other things from him which I didn't know at the time were stolen, I thought they were legal.
Well in this time the girl Lina who had come from West Cliff with her husband. I saw her there as she was a dark girl but very beautiful. She must have been about twenty-three years old. She came with her husband who was a little younger than her but good looking with pinks eyes. Well it looked like they weren't getting along too good or I don't know maybe they were or they weren't, anyway I would see her everyday and greet her in passing yet knowing the difficult years I had passed I always slipped away from women. I knew times were bad and it was difficult enough taking care of oneself let alone a wife and a family so I generally stayed away from women.
Well as I was there a sister-in-law (concuna) of hers and I were talking and jokingly I asked her if she would like to go to the show with me. She said she wouldn't but that she knew someone who did, Lina. I said, “Which Lina?” She said you know the one married to Modesto. I said she already has her husband. Nevertheless she kept on talking and it finally got in my head. I didn't pay much attention to her and I thought perhaps they wanted my money since I was single and had about four hundred dollars and you know when you are young and by yourself you spend without a care. I also considered her situation and did not want to break up a marriage. I was also confused about my legal status, I was and wasn't a citizen since I had lost my original papers and they were citizens. I didn't know what to do and many young men were following her since she was very attractive and in those days I was handsome too.
Well there I was and I would greet her everyday like a neighbor. I did not want to break up a marriage. At that time I began to take them my laundry, times were hard and I wanted to help them out so I took them my laundry. It was at this time that she was abandoned by her husband who left to West Cliff. That day I heard a knock on my door at 11:00 in the evening, I asked, “Who is it?” And she said, “It's me, Lina, Modesto's wife.” I said, “What is it, what do you want?” She said, “I want to talk to you, my husband has left me and has gone with some other people.” From that time on she stayed with me and we were together for forty-three years.
When her husband returned she was with me and hid from him. There was seven or eight years difference in our ages. I had to keep her hid for about two months, my friends helped me out and one day even her concuna who had started the idea came looking for her, I said, “Look for her she's not here, you have laws.”
We left Pueblo and I bought tickets to Colorado Springs where through friends I heard of work in Greeley. We went to stay with a family in Greeley where Lina was well received. They liked her very much. We stayed there about two months when I wrote to the Holly Sugar Corporation and they sent money for me to return to work with them. We went with three other families. It was during the winter and the snow was very high and we had to walk many miles. The girl stayed with me and we were together everywhere. We lived in many places; I can't remember all of them. We finally got to a small town on the other side of Wyoming and found that she was with child.
She had lived with her husband five years and had no children, yet together we had nine children and she had three miscarriages – twelve children in all.
We kept moving around sometimes walking, sometimes on the train. I didn't have a car, I knew how to drive but I had never gotten a car – you know when one is young and alone you don't think about those things. Now it was different, I started to save knowing that a family was on the way and she was a good saver too. I used to wonder at her previous life for her eyes were rather sad. She must have suffered much.
We worked here and there moving around until finally I got a good job in Laramie, Wyoming. There in Laramie I had good jobs working with heavy machinery and there was much overtime. I made a little fortune there in Laramie and we stayed there two years. She saved money. By this time we had five children, one of the children was born there in Laramie. We were seven altogether. This was during World War II and so I used to buy bonds. I was able to save a few thousand dollars because I was working day and night, ten hours a day. I would come home and barely get to sleep when the boss would come and call me to work again. Many times I would work ten days straight. Sometimes I would get check of up to $400.00 a week. That is why I say that blessings come from above; I won't want to say it was my own doing but rather God's.
During the time we were there one of my brother-in-laws came to live with us. My brother-in-law's name was Fred and he told me he had a ranch in Malachite. In 1944 at this time I bought a ranch cash, since I was making a lot of money. I bought a ranch in Malachite that I still own today. It was pretty cheap in those days as compared to today when the prices are all raised to the clouds.
When the work ended in Laramie I started working at anything I could find since I had a large family by then. I would work sometimes in Pueblo at the junk yards and drive back and forth home, by then I had a car.
Around this time one of my sons was killed in the service and my other older son worked for a while in the CF&I.
We moved to the farm in Malachite and we lived there for while when I decided to move to Swink. I rented the ranch and I sold all my animals and all the pasture. I had good luck with this.
I finally decided to move the family to Swink where I bought three acres of land cash. Lina did not want to move there. She didn't like it but it had to be, I was the man and she was with me. She went where I want. We moved to a place called Las Colonias.
In Swink I started selling Social Savings. I would go from farm to farm selling and I was making a lot of money. There was a lot of money there. I because buying animals little cows, rabbits and chickens.
While in Swink the flood came and destroyed everything we had. The only thing that we salvaged were the bonds which I used to buy this place I have here. Everything else was covered with mud. Mud reached the ceilings of our house.
Then this man named Ramon Martinez who worked for the Holly plant in a good position that helped me out. I am ever grateful to the Holly plant. They were, you might say, my Mother and my Father. Anyway, Ramon Martinez got a house for me on highway 10, after that flood of our house we couldn't make it very well in Swink.
At that time I received a letter from my brother-in-law Faustin saying that this place was up for sale and that there was no one to buy it since there was no money. I came and bought the place from a Cecil Harvey who could not pay back money he owed to the bank.
I came to look at the property. Through Bill and Jeanette Thach we bought the property.
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