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Professor offers a look into the life of migrant laborers

By Kate Reyes
On October 16, 2010

Professor of Mexican History at North Dakota State University, Dr. Jim Norris, visited UCF on Thursday to offer a peek into a year in the life of migrant laborers in the United States.

Before Norris began his lecture, creative writing major Colby Pryor admitted he was there for extra credit, but he expected an interesting lecture.

"I hope it is a little entertaining, Pryor said.

Norris began his presentation on Mexican migrant workers in the United States by describing the sugar beet industry and the many steps it takes to produce that final product everyone knows so well – sugar.

"The way you cultivated sugar was to crawl on your hands and knees, but farmers didn't want to do that," Norris said. According to Norris, this is where the story began.

Norris' lecture was presented as the journey of a Mexican family of six made up of two parents and their children. Norris said that part of his research included reconstructing this hypothetical family's life to find out what it may have been like to be a migrant worker for a year in the mid 1950s.

As Norris went on to explain the start of this family's year, he described the town of Crystal City, TX, a town with an overwhelming Mexican population during this time.

"Our story, then, is going to involve this little town and the family," he said.

He took his audience through the journey of this migrant family, starting in a small shack in southern Texas, moving to North Dakota, Oklahoma and ending back where the family started. He used photographs of migrant workers in the 1950s to illustrate this story, and he described the low wages the workers earned while comparing them to average middle-class families in during the time period.

After the expedition ended back in Crystal City, Pryor ended up with more than extra credit.

"I liked learning about a more recent cycular exodus of the 20th century migrant workers," Pryor said.

This was the result Norris had hoped for.

"I hope they'll have a better understanding of the complexities of the migrant workers' existence and conditions," Norris said of his audience.

As a Texas native, Norris grew up around a lot of Mexican-Americans and always found he was comfortable with the culture. Last year, while he researched 20th century migrant workers, he expected to find the workers fighting against injustice and their working conditions. Instead, Norris was surprised to learn that most workers spoke well of the people they worked for and even described their experiences positively.

What started off as only research, turned into a book Norris published last year called "North for the Harvest: Mexican Workers, Growers, and the Sugar Beet Industry."

Norris was not trained as a 20th century historian. His expertise is in history of the 18th century, but after compiling this research, Norris wanted more people to know about different groups of people. He said it was especially important because the food people eat today in the U.S. is significantly shaped by migrant farm workers.

Senior environmental studies major, Retta Rohm, said she visited Dr. Norris' lecture between classes.

"My family owns a ranch where migrant workers help out. I heard about this and it interested me because of that. It really opened my eyes to a lot of things," Rohm said.

When Dr. Norris finished his lecture, hands from the audience shot up with questions and he was more than ready with answers.

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