Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Rodolfo Ibarra

by Steve Sparks, August 26, 2009

 A couple of Sundays ago I drove in behind Lemons’ Market in Philo to the Ibarra home, one of several back there set among some lovely gardens and trees. We sat outside in the shade and talked about Rodolfo’s life and times in Mexico and the US.

He was born in October 1958 in the small town (3,000 people) of Janambo in the Mexican State of Michoacan. He was the youngest of four kids born to Rafael Ibarra, a farmer, and Maria Dolores Ledesma, who raised the four kids as well as running the town’s post office, which she did for 30 years. Both of Rodolfo’s grandfathers had worked on the US railroads in the 40s “when the US was like Mexico is today!” The family farm was a little bit of everything: corn, beans, chickens, goats, cows, and primarily pigs, which were the family’s main source of income. “The crops and livestock on the farm provided all the food we needed,” says Rodolfo. “We had no bills except electricity and my Mother had a very small income from the post office. It was open just two days a week and she did not have a wage but would get 4¢ for each letter and 8¢ for a money order.”

When not at school Rodolfo worked in the fields with his father, as did his older siblings. “I first went to school at 7. There were about 100 kids in the school in Janambo and then when I was 12 I had to walk to a school three miles away in another small town called Manuel de Villalongin. We had to be there at 8am and then had a three-hour lunch from noon to 3pm before going back from 3pm to 5pm before the walk home. I was an OK student I guess. There were about 200 kids at this school and in the long lunch break I enjoyed playing volleyball, basketball, baseball, and futbol (soccer). I remember the futbol World Cup being played in Mexico in 1970 and we would watch all the matches, even if it meant taking off school. Nobody minded. The country went crazy and the government spent a lot of money on building new hotels and catering for the visiting fans and tourists. Meanwhile in the universities there were not even seats to sit on and the students rioted in the streets.”

At 15 Rodolfo went to the High School in Pastor Ortiz, a town about the size of Ukiah, but the school buildings were not finished and had no windows or concrete floors, so during his one year there the students had to help build it. “We had to dig the foundation and do the work of laborers to get our school built.” For his final two years of high school he traveled to Puruandiro (a city of 70,000 people). “It was a federal school and the boys wore a green uniform, like soldiers. We had to wear a tie, have shiny shoes, and very short haircuts. The girls wore different colors depending on which grade they were in. Every Monday the whole school assembled in the school square and sang the national anthem in front of the Mexican flag.”

In 1977, after graduating high school, Rodolfo went to Mexico City to attend the Colegio de Bachilleres to study technical drawing. He received a scholarship that covered his housing, books, groceries, and tuition and lived in a house with 20 other guys, all from Pastor Ortiz. By the time he left college the government had stopped many scholarships and although he wanted to go to University he had no money to enroll. He had few prospects of earning much in Mexico despite his training so he applied for a visa to come to the US, but having no money or property meant he was turned down. He felt had only one choice. “People see the money they can earn here and want to come across the border. Most people contact a ‘coyote’ or guide who can hopefully get them into the States. In the early 80s they would charge $300. It would take a very long time to raise that money in Mexico so you had to negotiate credit and if you got across you’d have to get a job and pay him back because they would know where your family lived. I contacted a coyote and in January 1982 I crossed the border. There were about a hundred of us and we were split into groups of about 15. You hoped you were not in the first group, as they would probably be caught. It was dark and we all set off. The border patrol was soon all over the hillsides on the other side and their lights were shining either side of our group. We got through.” The coyote arranged transport to Fresno where his brother picked him up and drove him to Healdsburg.

“The immigration of Mexican people to the States is all about earning money to support your family. Most send money back to their families to support them and may be even start a business or buy property one day. My brothers had gone to the United States and had found work in the new wine industry of northern California. Michoacan looks a lot like Anderson Valley and many people from Michoacan now live in the Valley. My brothers worked in Sonoma and vineyards here in the Valley. They would get $30 for a ten hour day but back in Mexico, for the same job, it would be $2 a day. The US has many factories down there but they do not pay well, just enough for food and transport, not enough to save. These days to work for GMC here you might have a job paying $16 an hour; to work for them doing the same job in Mexico it would be $16 a day. In the 70s the houses in Michoacan were very basic but since so many people have come to the States and sent money back, there are nice houses there now.”

He worked in the area for a few months, saved $2000, and returned to Mexico to go to University but was too late to enroll. “There were no opportunities in Mexico; no well-paying jobs compared to the States. Jobs in construction, farming, local government, and the police were all badly paid. The police in Mexico are still poorly paid. That leads to many of the problems of course. I wanted a family and kids and I wanted to be able to support them. I contacted a coyote again and after a few months in Mexico I headed back to the States. There were about 200 of us this time and we went through a tunnel about half-a-mile long under the border and the freeway near to San Ysidro, opposite Tijuana. Helicopters were flying around and I was under bushes, not daring to look up into the lights. They did not catch me and I got through.” It was December 1982 and Rodolfo was back in the States.

He worked for a year or so in the vineyards in Mendocino and then began working in the timber industry in the woods around Cloverdale, Fort Bragg, and Anderson Valley. He was in the woods for six years until 1988 during which time, in 1986, he got his green card so he could live and work in the States legally. A year earlier he married Yolanda Sanchez of Guanajuato State at the Catholic Church in Philo with a reception at the Fairgrounds in Boonville afterwards. “I had met her on my first visit and ‘chased’ after her when I returned. We went out for three years before we got married. Our first child, daughter Jessica, was born in 1986 and Rodolfo Jr. followed in 1988. Our third child, Daisy was born in 2000. In the early 80s Anderson Valley did not have many Mexican families and if you spotted one of them in town you’d be very happy to see them. Over the past 25 years many, many more people have arrived here from Mexico as well as all those born in the Valley in that time. They say they want to make money and then go back to Mexico but time passes and they have a family that grows here. Most do not return to live there. I go back every year to see my family in Michoacan but will probably never live there.”

In 1988 Rodolfo started work in construction for Steve Andersen and then Dennis Toohey. “I learned a lot from those guys and was with Dennis for many years. I made lots of contacts and so when I started to work for myself in 2003 there was plenty of work for a small crew and me. I am not a contractor but can use most of the tools for small construction jobs, gardening and landscaping, painting, fencing, brush-clearing and burning.

“Jessica graduated from AV Hugh School and then went to St. Mary’s College to study Law and graduated from there too. She wants to be a paralegal and is now at San Francisco State. Rodolfo is at Santa Rosa JC and works with me at the weekends; Daisy begins 5th Grade next month at the Elementary School in the Valley.

“On one of our visits to Mexico we had a car crash and Yolanda broke her back. She has suffered a lot and is still in pain at times. We hope she will make a full recovery. It has been a tough time for money and I had to put off plans to buy a house but we love our place here behind Lemons’ Market. It is in a family community and is quiet and peaceful.”

“I’d like to go back and live in Mexico in some ways but my kids are all here and one day they will have kids too. It would be very hard to leave then. My Mom is 94 now and my Dad is 92. He has visited us here for a few months a couple of times and he has a clear mind, but my mother gets confused sometimes. She broke her hip and uses a walker but she still manages to clean the house and maintain the garden. She has beautiful roses and many other flowers. I phone her every couple of weeks and feel guilty about living so far away. She gave me everything. She always encouraged my education and influenced my thinking. I was her ‘baby.’ She always told me to be nice to my wife and family. She loves her grandkids. We were very, very close and I had always helped her around the house. My brothers were much older than me and had left home. She energized me and supported me. She would have sold her last chicken to give me money. When I visit it is hard to leave again, to hug her and say goodbye. Sometimes I say to her a few days before I leave that I will be going sometime in the next couple of days and leave quietly. She says she is OK, but since turning 90 she is not the same and puts pressure on me to stay. It is very hard emotionally but I cannot live there.”

“Boonville is my home now. I like it very much. I love the drive between Boonville and Philo. When I arrive in Boonville and then drive through the Valley, I think I am back home. People always help each other here. The volunteer fire and ambulance. You would not get that in Mexico. People there would help you if you were in need but they would not be volunteers at other times. The Mexican community here is very close but in the old days I knew them all. There are so many new faces in the last ten years. Boonville has changed so much. I guess it’s good. It happens everywhere. People move to places if they see better options there. The people came from Oklahoma and Arkansas in the 50s and stayed, then came the hippies, then us. I don’t think we would have stayed if the US companies in Mexico paid the same money. People would have stayed down there and the others would return. Being a farm worker here means you can earn as much as an engineer in Mexico. You can have a new car here but in rural Mexico you would have to be the boss of a company to do that. Ask any Mexican and they will say, ‘I love Mexico, I want to go back,’ but I don’t see them leaving. Michoacan’s population has gone down. California is now Michoacan!”

“Our kids love it here. They are Mexican and American. They may all marry American spouses. Family is everything in the Mexican culture. Most of our social life is around the family and staying close to your kids is very important. Divorce is not accepted easily. We believe in certain ‘rules’ for the family and staying together for the kids is one of them. If you marry the person you really love — I mean really love — then that love will not stop and you stick together through rough times. If you really must break up then you wait until the kids are 18 or so, when they are old enough to understand. This is very important in our culture. You have made a commitment and you should be responsible for keeping that contract to your spouse and kids. The kids should not pay for your mistake if as parents you cannot get along. Maybe I am old-fashioned, but what is wrong with this thinking? My kids will hopefully follow my thinking.”

“Racism against Mexicans in the Valley was worse in the old days but even then it was not too bad except perhaps in the bars. Many of the local guys were fine with us; it was just a few who had a problem. I boxed during my years in Mexico City and could look after myself. I understand that if Mexicans went into American bars then maybe they thought we were invading their space. Also there were issues because they felt we had their jobs. The younger generations do not seem to have any problems with each other and I personally have many American friends in the Valley. With the older generations I think if we all spoke the same language then it would really help. It seems simple but the language barrier is the biggest issue.”

I asked Rodolfo for his brief responses to some of the issues that Valley people talk often about.

The wineries? ” They are OK and have brought many jobs and money to the Valley. Water is a problem but there are many smaller growers and gardeners who use a lot of water too. We all take too much water without thinking enough about it.”

The AVA? “Yolanda buys it but my English is not very good when it comes to reading. You may be surprised that quite a few in the Mexican community read it.”

The school system? “It has been great for us. We have two graduates of the high school who went on to college. Some kids do badly but it is not all the school’s fault. The family must take the blame too. Kids need to have respect for their elders, it is not what it used to be like.”

I posed a few questions from a list originally devised by Interviewer and Culture “Expert,” Bernard Pivot, featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”

Your favorite word or phrase? “I love people to say ‘Thank you’ when I have done work for them.”

Least favorite word or phrase? “When people say, ‘I don’t care; whatever.’ It drives me crazy.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “When I hear that my kids have done something well. Or in the winter after a hard day’s work in the rain and cold, to come home and sit in front of a fire with a cup of coffee is very good for me.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Abuse of women or children. Sometimes if a customer complains about one little thing after we have done so much good work for them then I get upset.”

Sound or noise you love? “The quiet natural sounds of the countryside.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Loud music on a car radio.”

Favorite curse word? “Mexicans have very bad curse words, very expressive. They are not meant in the same way as they seem when translated. I do say these words sometimes but try not to. It is a macho thing and Mexican women rarely do it. If they do it is felt that their beauty and intelligence has gone. That’s the way it is. And you never, ever, swear in front of your mother.”

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? “I like music but mainly the older romantic songs from Mexico. I like the music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Credence Clearwater Revival, but I do not understand many of the words. Films? I liked ‘Tombstone’ about the gunfight at the OK Corral and most westerns. I also like the old Mexican movies of the 50s and 60s that were set in the countryside.”

Favorite hobby? “I like to teach myself things from books. I like doing jobs around my house on days off. I used to play baseball but no more. I watch television soap operas and the Discovery Channel. I like to eat and Yolanda is a great cook!”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? “A civil engineer, designing and building bridges and roads in rural areas. Not in the cities. Or maybe a self-employed, successful farmer with crops and livestock, gardens and a pond, and horses which I would love to break in.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “Anything near Poison Oak! Putting in insulation would be a bad job too.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “The day that we went to Jessica’s graduation from college. I was very proud and happy. The day we arrived back in the States after Yolanda’s accident and knowing we were home and had insurance and she would get good care was not the happiest day, but I felt so relieved.”

Saddest? – “The day of the accident in Mexico. It was terrible and shocking to see Yolanda with serious injuries and in so much pain.”

Favorite thing about yourself, physically/mentally/spiritually? “I have the ability to enjoy people and friendships. That I have been a good son and father and hopefully husband too. But you should ask Yolanda. I try very hard to do what I think is right.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I do not feel strongly about a religion but I do think there is a God somewhere. I would like him to say, ‘You did a great job, Rodolfo, especially with your family and your Mother.’ That would be good enough for me.”

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