Migrant workers in Southern Illinois leave their native countries in pursuit of the American dream

By Gus Bode

This is a first part of a two part series about the lives of migrant workers by the Daily Egyptian.

Next to the smooth, green apple he gently cradles, Juan Salvador’s hands are dark and callused, well worn and shaped by his labor.

Examining a bushel of the fruit, Salvador explained the merits of good and bad apples. Those with bruises and bumps will be set aside for juice, the rest will be polished, packaged and sent to retailers across the country.


They will sit shiny on storeroom shelves and few people will think twice about where they came from. Those who think about their origin will picture rows and rows of colorful orchard fields, pausing only briefly, if at all, to consider those who picked and packaged the fruit.

A mere stone’s throw from the fields, thousands of immigrant farm workers live in rows of cement block housing. In some cases, four men share one room furnished with little more than bunk beds, a sink and a small stove.

Most follow the harvest, moving from state to state. Nearly all of them are Mexican, 77 percent of all farm workers in the United States are, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. It seems they are the only ones who want the job.

“I don’t think there was one American person who came to us this summer saying ‘Let me pick, I want to pick,'” said Alan Flamm, one of the owners of the orchards Salvador works at. “The migrants come every year because they know there is work to be done. Without them, we couldn’t do the job. It’s hard work, and no one wants to do it.”

Salvador, along with the 75 other pickers at Flamm, is paid by how much he picks. It averages 90 cents a bushel, and most pick 100 to 150 bushels a day.

They live sparingly, buying only necessities, saving to go back home and buy property or, as in Salvador’s case and many others, send money to those who stayed behind.

“I have a son in high school in Mexico,” Salvador said through a translator. “He just visited a few weeks ago, but I want him to stay there so he doesn’t loose his culture. I would like him here, but he needs to stay in school.”


Most migrant workers are lured away by images of the American dream. Led to believe an SUV is waiting for them on the other side of the border, they enter the work force with false hopes.

“This is the reality,” said Jesus, a 23-year-old worker who did not want to provide his last name for immigration reasons. “We don’t have all the luxuries. We have to conform. Whatever we are given we can work with.

“A lot of young people are given a fake vision of the U.S., but you don’t get upset. There are some people that come here and make it and buy nice cars and go back to Mexico rich. It inspires you to keep working.”

And work they do. The day begins shortly after dawn for those to don’t have cars and must walk a half-hour to work. The picking begins at 8 a.m. They work in groups of seven to 10, wearing bucket hats or baseball caps, long sleeves and pants in the blazing sun to protect them from the sharp leaves and branches.

They cradle slings with plastic baskets attached and carry 12-foot-tall wooden ladders to reach the tallest boughs. With bare hands, they grasp for as many apples as they can at once, often filling their baskets within minutes only to empty them gently into large crates and repeat the process over and over, hundreds of times within a single day.

Most start at the base of a tree, grabbing as many as they can before they scramble up the narrow ladders, trying to balance their weight while reaching and pulling in every direction.

“They are fast because that’s money,” Salvador said. “And they usually don’t fall more than once. But, when it happens, it really hurts.”

There are few options for those who get hurt on the job. If they fall, there is no workers compensation, no insurance company to cover the cost of medical bills. They stay home to recover, missing the opportunity to make money, or they ignore the pain and keep going.

The workday ends at 5:30 p.m., or a little later if the pickers have the energy to squeeze a few more dollars out of the day. The ride tractors along the snaking gravel roads in the orchards to an empty lot, where they file into cramped, seen-better-days cars and vans.

Jesus leaves, heading for a Mexican grocery store in town to find tortillas. Sixty-one-year-old Amparo fries potatoes in a wrought iron pan while others go to another building to shower, shave and wash away a day of labor.

They come and go with screen doors banging, silhouettes barely discernable against the backdrop of rolling hills and the setting sun. Those who are not too sleepy after filling their bellies set out to work some more, this time in a make-shift classroom in a clearing underneath a canopy of oak trees.

Every Tuesday and Thursday a group of volunteers from SIUC drives to the worker’s camp to teach English. Aided by lantern light and a grant from the Illinois Reading Council, they bring picture dictionaries and an opportunity to interact with the world that surrounds the camp.

The classes are informal, divided into groups based on skill or instructor preference. Some students have come to the English lessons for more than four years and are nearly fluent. Others still struggle with basic words.

“They are pretty isolated,” said Joanna Sullivan, the program’s director. “And most of that is because they can’t communicate. We try to socialize them, become friends with them and teach them at the same time.

“It is an attempt to integrate the cultures. They may have a lot of pride in who they are and their native language and culture, but that doesn’t help when you have to go to the hospital and doctors can’t understand you.”

For many of the workers, it is difficult to believe they must acclimate to the culture when they plan to work in the United States temporarily. Add the frustration of lessons at the end of a hard workday and the lure of school diminishes.

“Those are the people who really want to learn,” said Jesus, who prefers not to attend class. “Everyone else is too tired. Yes, it is hard to interact with others. But, even if we wanted to and we learned English we will always be seen as outsiders. We just want to work, make money, and go home to Mexico to our friends and family.”

Daily Egyptian staff member Alex Ayala contributed to this story.