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?LOVELL, Wyo. — In the evenings, the shadow of the sugar factory slips across the street, inching its way into their front yard before washing their home in shade.

For Milton and Inez Ontiveroz, it might be a comforting feeling, living in the shadow of the factory, its silos and old brick facade surrounded by beet fields and Wyoming’s windswept hills.

The beets brought them here as migrant workers more than 60 years ago. They’ve felt the aches and pains of swinging a hoe and topping beets until the sun went down.

The seasons ran through sweltering summers and butted up against the November snow. The pay was good, considering they had no money to begin with.

As first-generation Americans born to illegal immigrants, the Ontiveroz family built the foundation on which their six surviving children and 16 grandchildren now thrive.

“Where would we be, especially my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, if my parents and my husband’s parents were not allowed to stay in the United States because they all were considered illegal immigrants?” asked Inez.

“I truly believe that we were given this opportunity, and that my family has proven that they’ve made the most of it to better themselves.”

  •••

The Ontiveroz home is modest but comfortable, decorated with crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary and family photos.

Today the couple sits in the kitchen where the clock ticks quietly on the wall. Here Inez makes her famous tacos and speaks of her mother, Sevriana Ortiz. She speaks to her husband in Spanish. They share their stories in English.

“The truck drivers always wanted a man and a woman who had a lot of kids to work the fields,” said Milton, who is nearly 80. “That’s how they made the money, you see, these truck drivers.”

Milton was born in La Sara, Texas. After his mother died in the 1940s, he moved with his father and brothers from town to town, riding those trucks as they followed the work and chased the seasons.

“We’d work in one state until it ran out of jobs, picking cotton or whatever,” Milton said. “By the time the work was done, the drivers were ready to go to another state.”

Inez picks up her side of the story. Her grandparents left Mexico and crossed the border in the 1940s, wading through the muddy waters of the Rio Grande near Del Rio, Texas.

Her mother was 3 years old at the time, her uncle just 1. The family of illegal immigrants found work in Texas clearing fields to make room for crops.

“The only reason we ended up in Wyoming is because my grandparents came,” Inez explained. “They came straight to Lovell. The truck drivers had contracted with the sugar factories.”

While the women could sit, the men were left standing for lack of room. They crossed the country this way, “wetbacks,” they said, riding in the back of trucks, pursuing work wherever they could find it.

   •••

Over the past 10 years, the nation’s Hispanic population has grown 43 percent, rising from 35 million people in 2000 to 50 million today.

Latinos now account for roughly one in four people under the age of 18. While whites still make up 72 percent of America’s population, Hispanics, the U.S. Census says, now comprise about 16 percent.

Rural Wyoming hasn’t escaped the debates that resonate in conservative circles, FOX News and border states like Arizona, where a controversial bill signed last year identifies, prosecutes and deports illegal aliens.

In the Wyoming Legislature, a Cheyenne Republican introduced a clone of Arizona’s law. While the bill died in committee, supporters point out that illegal immigration cases have tripled in Wyoming since 2008, marking a nearly tenfold increase from a decade ago.

Supporters of such legislation say it’s not anti-immigration or even anti-Hispanic. They say it’s strictly a matter of enforcing the law.

Inez, who was born in the United States, has heard the arguments before — debates on immigration, the need for migrant workers, and lawmakers calling for the deportation of children born to illegal aliens on American soil.

As an American-born child of illegal immigrants, she wonders where the lawmakers were then, pushing to send her and her brothers home.

“What’s making them not accept us now?” she asked. “Is it because the farmers have machinery now? They don’t need our field labor anymore? Life’s not always fair, but all of a sudden they don’t want us here when we helped build this up. We helped them achieve some of this.”

   •••

When they arrived in Lovell in the 1940s, they went to work without delay. The days were long, beginning as early as 5 a.m. They stayed in the fields working the beet rows until sundown.

“We did the thinning, the first hoeing, the second hoeing, and then, when I was growing up, it was the topping of the beets,” Inez said. “They didn’t have the toppers like they do now. We did it all by hand.”

The process began with the short hoe, the workers bent over the beets, stooping and kneeling. It was followed by the second hoeing using a longer tool, mainly to keep the fields weed-free.

The harvest ran into fall. They pulled the beets and piled them. One by one they topped the beets with a long blade.

“It got to where we were topping beets until November,” she said. “Sometimes when you pulled them there was snow on the ground. I remember that.”

Inez was 9 when she began working the Wyoming fields. Along with the other migrant workers, her family was kept separate from Lovell’s white residents. They attended a different school, had their own barber, and were buried in their own section of the cemetery.

They were lodged in a colony west of town. At night there was music, or “corridos,” a Mexican ballad. Dances were held on Saturdays.

“We used to stop in towns hungry to go buy something to eat, but we couldn’t eat at (the) restaurants,” Milton recalled. “They had signs — no Mexicans or Negros allowed. Just like a dog, you see.”

The families made trips to Billings and heard stories of migrants working the fields across the Montana state line. Some farmers gave up the arid, scrabbled ground of Wyoming for greener pastures there.

Milton had a chance to join one of those Montana farmers, but he chose to stay behind. He had married Inez one month after meeting her. They had children, seven of them, and they wanted them to know a more stable life.

If Inez has any regrets, it was not teaching her children Spanish. She wanted them to fit in better than she and her husband had when they were young.

“I felt the only way they could progress was to learn the (English) language,” Inez said. “If they didn’t, they were going to have a hard time, just like we did.

“We didn’t want that for them. We wanted them to have a better life, and we wanted them to go to school and finish school, because we didn’t, and we knew the struggles.”

  •••

Life for Mexican-Americans has improved. Inez says it’s the family’s stability and a new generation of educated Hispanics.

“It has changed, but I’ll have to tell you the truth ... discrimination will always be with us,” Inez said. “It’s more subtle now, but it’s still there. People are still leery about you, and we still have to prove ourselves.”

They’ve spent much of their lives looking to prove themselves. With a second-grade education, Milton worked as a longtime farmhand before retiring from the city of Lovell.

Although Inez dropped out of high school her sophomore year, she got involved with Head Start as a volunteer. Like everything she did, it was for the benefit of her children, who also worked Wyoming’s beet fields growing up.

“I started at the very bottom,” she said. “I volunteered first and I went to being a cook. After being a cook, I became and aide and finally a teacher. Even though I didn’t have college or finish high school, they gave me classes and training.”

Inez, who was recognized as Wyoming’s Teacher of the Year in 1991, now serves on the board of directors for Absaroka Head Start, monitoring, among other things, the migrant Head Start program, which provides care and education for children of migrant workers.

The classroom, she said, is safer than the beet fields.

“If my folks weren’t given the opportunity to become productive citizens of this country, then where would I be today?” said Milton Ontiveroz, one of the couple’s six surviving children.

“I’m proud of the sacrifices my folks gave my siblings and myself, and I think it shows that if given the chance, migrant families can succeed, whether they’re American-born citizens or come to the U.S. seeking citizenship.”

Their children have found success in their own pursuits. Their pictures cover the walls of this quiet Lovell home.

Cec works as an executive assistant at the Wyoming Press Association. Milton is a communications specialist with the University of Wyoming.

Anna works in the Lovell hospital cafeteria, Mike for Nestle Foods. Tom, who lives in San Antonio, owns two Ultimate Cheese Cake bakeries, and Victoria processes mortgages for USAA, a financial services company.

Their seventh child, Alicia, died three years ago.

“We tried to set an example for our kids,” Inez said. “My husband always pushes hard work, do the best you can with your job and be honest. Family values are very strong with us.”

Milton added, “I tried to be a good husband, as good as I can, and a good father. I think what helps a lot is the faith we have, a lot of faith in the Church and Jesus.”

Contact Martin Kidston at mkidston@billingsgazette.com or at 307-527-7250.

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