From Mexico to Southern Illinois, this family works the only way it can – together

By Gus Bode

As she rolls clumps of corn flour dough into small balls, tiny specks of yellow burrow beneath Josefina Moralez’s fingernails, peeking out behind the faded metallic polish delicately applied a few days before.

Standing in a hot, cramped kitchen, sparsely decorated with cereal boxes, hanging pans and a calendar, Moralez is on autopilot.

Its 7p.m. and Moralez has just finished a nine-hour shift sorting apples at a local orchard. She tends to five children as well as her husband, as she prepares food for the next day.


She has no time breaks, as this family is struggling to define itself within the American landscape it has chosen to rear its children. The Moralez story is one of the many similar stories of migrant workers escaping economically desolate homelands in search of a brighter future.

She mechanically forms balls of dough, flattens them with an iron press, gently peels the disc from the plastic-lined press and then tosses them onto a hot girdle.

She briefly pauses, letting the dough rise and bubble slightly before poking the air pocket, flipping the newly formed tortilla and then adding it to the growing stack on the wooden table behind her.

The first few tortillas were quickly snatched up, split between her husband, four daughters and son.

She lost two balls of dough to her 4-year-old daughter Maria Isela, who likes to roll them on the cool cement floor and make fake hamburgers with the makeshift putty.

But Josefina is not fazed by the action around her, gently cooing to her daughter.

“Ah, little one, that is for food,” she murmurs.


This is just the last step in a long workday. First she will prepare a few days worth of tortillas, a staple in most Mexican family’s meals, then she will rest.

The Moralez family is new to the area. They moved to the Union-Jackson County Farmworkers Housing Camp in Cobden in June from Mexico, after spending a few months in Florida.

Right now, Josefina is the primary breadwinner for her family, working at the apple sorting facility at Rendleman Orchards in Alto Pass.

Her husband, Jose, has gingerly started picking up hours at surrounding orchards. But he recently had his large toenail removed, and it is difficult to do the footwork necessary in the fields.

Most of her children, who range in ages from four to 17, are too young to work. Her eldest, Jessica, babysits when she can, and her son Fernando, 15 occasionally picks up some menial farm work when not in school, but the only thing keeping the family floating right now is cheap rent, the idea of a better life, and their love.

“The unity we have is what keeps us going economically,” Jose said through a translator. “Everyone does what they can. But the work just doesn’t pay here like it does in Florida and it is difficult to even find jobs sometimes.

“Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of services and help here from the government, but opportunities are scarce,” he said. ” It seems as if every orchard has their usual set of people who work year after year. Josefina was lucky to even get a job.”

Wayne Sirles, one of the family owners of Rendleman Orchards said most of his staff returns year after year. Some of them have worked with his family for more than a decade. He prefers to hire people he is familiar with and estimated that he only hired about two or three unfamiliar faces this season, Josiphina included.

He said the job market is selective at Rendleman because so many of his workers aren’t typical “migrants.” A large majority of them have settled in the area, choosing not to follow the rotation of crops from state to state.

“Most of these people aren’t migrant,” Sirles said. “Most of them live in the community. I know these people, they aren’t just workers. Their children go to school and play with my children. I know them, and I know their kids and they come back because we have developed a mutual relationship.”


Sirles is not the only one who has picked up on the trend of local migrant farm workers who take up permanent residency in the area. Elsie Speck, the director of the federally subsidized camp the Moralez lives at, said it is becoming fairly common.

The camp is only open from mid-April until November, offering cheap rent on a sliding scale based on one-third of a workers income and the number of children living in the two-bedroom units.

The Moralez family, for example, pays $84 a month, including utilities. During the months when the camp is closed, most residents rent houses or trailers nearby.

“Most migrant laborers make about $5,768 a year,” Speck said. “They stay here because they want to save money. They can’t be here year round, but when they can be for the most part they are, particularly families.”

In addition to settling for monetary reasons, Jeri Kinser, who works for the Illinois Migrant Council, said more and more parents are realizing the importance of stabilizing for the family.

“That’s one of the neat things about the migrant stream in this area, so many families settle out and buy a house,” Kinser said. “There really is a lot of progress in people having a more stable life, more and more parents know how important it is not to pull their children out of school before the end of the year”

Kinser said this focus on educating children benefits the parents as well. Children are naturally more adept at learning new languages, which often helps their parents navigate life in the United States.

“There is such a large Hispanic population in Cobden, and in Union County,” Kinser said. “Something like 15 to 20 percent of the Cobden School District student population is Hispanic and the school program is very transitional. It doesn’t just throw Spanish-speaking students in, it works on helping them better assimilate.”

But for all the seemingly good programs for migrant families locally, the Moralez family is skeptical if they will stay. Jose is used to working in Florida, and the children feel they will be more comfortable amongst Florida’s massive Hispanic population.

“The little ones are hanging in there, but mainly our older one is our concern,” Jose said. “She doesn’t seem to adapt well here. Fernando would prefer to go to Florida; he thinks he would do better there. For them the language barrier is the biggest concern right now.”

Jose, 40, has traveled between the United States and Mexico since he was 16, when he first went to Florida to pick oranges. While home during the off-season in 1986, he met Josephina.

They were married 11 months later, spending only a few months together for the past 18 years. The last eight of those years were spent trying to secure immigration paperwork so the whole family could enter the United States.

For Josephina that was the only option.

She knows of people who have come into the country illegally, but she did not want to put her children at risk.

“I couldn’t do that,” Josephina said. “The reports on the T.V. made me fear not just getting caught, but of even drowning while crossing the river, we had to be safe.”

Before coming to Illinois the family spent three months in Arcadia, Fla., where Jose operated a tractor-like machine in the orange groves called a “chiva,” or goat.

Jose’s job was to collect baskets of picked fruit, give the picker a pay token, and dump the fruit into a hull of the machine.

Because Florida is so temperate, jobs for farmworkers are seemingly endless and since Jose has been working in Arcadia for so long, he has worked his way up the pay scale.

“We came here because my cousin invited us, but I think we will be leaving at the end of October,” Jose said. “We want to do it quickly though, because the plan is to get the children back in school as soon as possible.

“It will be easier for them there. There’s plenty of Latino, Spanish-speaking people and most of the schools are bilingual. They will do better. I want them to put all their efforts into learning, so they will not end up on my path. I work in the rain, in the sun. It is a rough environment. I want something better for them.”

Although the past few months have been difficult for the family, they are content. As Josefina sits on a picnic table outside of the small cinder-block apartment, she jokes with Jose because he can’t fit on the same side of the table as her because it is pushed up against the wall.

“It’s your big belly,” she teases.

When Jose is brought a chair by his 13-year old daughter, Ana Rosa, he releases a sigh of relief to be off of his aching foot.

“Our family has good time and bad time,” Josefina said. “But we feel we live a calm life, and are happy to be here regardless.”

Daily Egyptian staff member Alex Ayala contributed to this story.