Guzman, Irene & José
Irene Zamora Guzman (born 1943) José Guzman (born 1940)
Written by Alysse Burnside and Catherine Babikian
Irene Zamora Guzman was born in Oklahoma in 1943 and grew up in southern Minnesota. Although her parents lived in Albert Lea, Irene spent her summers working on her grandfather’s farm in Hollandale.
He raised, oh, I remember working onions, potatoes, some sugar beets, but that was in the later years, but I remember walking the beans. But, I always remember going back home because at the end of the day my dad would come and pick us up…. I mean, we would complain all day long how tired we were and just how hard it was and how hot and all that kind of stuff, but as soon we seen Dad’s car pull up, if we were at the other end [of the row], I mean it was a race to see who could make it to the car first. (Irene Guzman)
Irene met José Guzman at a dance when she was fifteen. Three years her senior, José was the son of migrant workers from Texas. Every year, his family traveled from Karnes City, Texas, a small town outside San Antonio, to Hampton, Iowa, where they worked at a nursery planting onions and evergreen trees. Of his parents’ thirteen children, José was the only one who finished high school.
So I had to walk [to school in Hampton] and I see all these guys, you know, working in the fields, and they always teased me saying, “Where you going?” “I’m going to school.” “What’re you learning?” “Everything.” … School ended at 3:30, so then I had to walk again. ‘Cause my dad would start at 7:00 until 6:00 working the fields. So, then I had to - I got home and all that, and then I had to help my mom. I had to cook, had to wash the clothes, had to iron the clothes… So after that, in November, I went back with them to Texas, went to school up there. ‘Cause my other brothers, you know, they never finished school. (José Guzman)
Irene and José eloped in 1960. Shortly after, they met Shirley Sandage. An activist from Mason City, Iowa, Sandage directed the Migrant Action Program (MAP), a federally funded, local outreach program that provided services for migrant families such as childcare, medical checkups, and vocational training. She asked José to serve on MAP's board of directors.
Somebody gave her [Sandage] my name, I don’t know what it was, so she said if I could help her, you know, she wants a board member. And, I didn’t know what a board member was. And I said, “What’s a board member?” And she explained it to me, oh, that you'd be talking to the collective people, talk to them you know what they think. And I said, “Well, gimme a week and then I’ll call you.” (José Guzman)
Eventually, both José and Irene became social workers for the program. They criss-crossed the state to visit migrant communities, where they offered support to agricultural laborers who faced poverty and discrimination. In negotiations with local farmers, communities, and state government, José and Irene gave voice to the concerns of migrant workers. “I said [to the farmers], they’re not slaves. They’re human beings like you and me…You should give them more,” José remembers. “I said, nobody else is going to come in and pick up your crops like they do here.”
In many migrant camps, young children worked long days in the fields, even when school was in session. In response, the Migrant Action Program lobbied for Iowa's first migrant child labor law, passed by the Iowa General Assembly in 1967.
They had families that they would have the kids working out in the fields instead of being in school. And so it was then developed, what we now know as the child labor law and I came to Des Moines and testified before the House and Senate for the rules and hours. …Some of the families were kind of against it because that was money out of their pocket… They said, “Hey, you know, we come up here to work. We need the money.” Yes, but your children also need the education to be able to further themselves and not repeat the cycle of always doing the migrant work, the laborious work. (Irene Guzman)
(Oral history interview with Irene and José Guzman conducted by Teresa García for the Mujeres Latinas project, July 12, 2007)