Kathryn Espinosa (born 1926)
Written by Catherine Babikian
The sixteenth of seventeen children, Kathryn Espinosa was born in Mason City, Iowa in 1926. Her parents, Pablo Espinosa and Petra Alvera Espinosa, came from Mexico. They met in the 1910s while working for the railroad in a boxcar colonia in Atchison, Kansas. In Atchison, her mother helped support her family by cleaning the boxcars that served as homes for railroad workers. One of the traqueros was Kathryn’s father, who had come to Kansas from Jalisco, Mexico.
They married and moved to Mason City, taking up residence on a street called Lehigh Row. The homes on LeHigh Row were owned by the Lehigh Portland Cement Company. Many residents of Lehigh Row worked at the cement plant, including Kathryn’s father. “It was just like a little village, [a] little town by itself,” Kathryn remembered.
The Lehigh Row. That was where we all lived. There was Serbian, there was Greeks and stuff, they all come. Everybody was nice. If you had something and they needed something, it was there. Gardens, everybody had a garden, and everybody, if they had a little bit too much, they didn’t throw it away or nothin’. It stayed right there in Lehigh Row and whoever wanted it, like pumpkins and stuff, and squashes, you know…
Kathryn and her siblings attended McKinley School, but Kathryn left after the eleventh grade. “I didn’t care for school,” she remembers. Her first full-time job was at a laundromat across town, where she earned 28 cents an hour folding bedding and clothing. “I never shook up so much clothes in all my life,” she recalled. She was expected to start work at six o’clock in the morning, and, without a car or bus service that early, she walked each way.
Two years later, Kathryn began working at the Decker & Sons meatpacking plant. Her uniform was a yellow rubber apron and a hard hat. “My head was always too little,” she said. “Whoever got the size of those hats—I’d put my head down to work and there’d go my hat.” Her first job in the plant was on the sausage line, sliding casings onto Braunschweiger sausages. Kathryn was paid an hourly wage—unlike many of her co-workers, who were paid according to the number of sausages they finished, a system referred to as piecework.
You had to put a lot of them [the sausages] out to make a dime. The rate, I can’t tell you what the rate was, but you had to put out so many….I don’t know just how much, but those girls worked, oh, they’d ‘bout hit you with a damn stick. “Don’t touch that, that’s mine!” you know? I’d say, “I’m not on piecework, take all you want.” You know? I’m single. They had kids.
Frustrated by low wages, members of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) voted in favor of a nationwide strike in 1948. Members of UPWA Local 38 at Decker & Sons voted in favor of the strike. Throughout the strike, Katheryn, her brother Leo, and many other members of the Mason City local stood outside on picket duty to prevent workers from entering the plant. “I’d go to the meetings,” remembered Kathryn. “My brother Leo…he was on the picket line. With the girls, he liked that. Women and men went out there on the picket lines, to keep people from going in, you know. And I think he dated all of them.”
After eleven weeks, the strike ended, and Kathryn returned to work at the plant. When the Decker plant closed in 1975, she moved to Fort Madison, Iowa, to work at the Armour & Company packinghouse. She retired three years later and returned to Mason City.
(Oral history interview conducted for the Mujeres Latinas Project by Teresa García, December 8, 2006)