March 31, 2014
Photo courtesy of Allen and Sheila Latcham. Left is Simon Torres, nephew of Tony, and to the right is Allen Lavern Latcham, GHS 1956, close friend, employer and confidant of Señor Torres in Grinnell, Iowa. (Allen points out the Water Furnace Company cap that Simon is wearing in this photo is the supplier of Geothermal Equipment, Latcham Enterprises, Inc. products. Allen, the boss, would throw his own hat down and stomp on it when he got excited in his younger days and reports that Simon thought that was funny and brought it up often later on. He also bonded with Allen’s 5 children and they looked at him as their Grandpa.
I started to write this article exclusively about Tony Torres, as I remember seeing him as a four-year-old standing in front of our family home on 3rd Avenue between Summer and Elm Streets in 1942. However, as I talked with Allen Latcham recently, I realized that Tony’s nephew, Simon, was also an important figure in their role as one of Grinnell’s very few minority families in those days and possibly the only two of Mexican descent that settled in our home town.
Simon Torres, 1911-2004, arrived in Grinnell in 1917. He came to stay with his Uncle Tony and attended Cooper School. Although according to long-time Grinnellian, Allen Lavern Latcham, Simon’s friend and employer, Simon confided that school was hard for him, being a native speaker of Spanish and trying to learn English as best he could, and he preferred slipping away to spend time with the farm animals in Uncle Tony’s pasture. Can we imagine the struggle Simon would have had as the only Hispanic student at Cooper School and one who was struggling not only reading, writing and arithmetic, but also with the English language?
His (tio) uncle, Tony Torres, got off a train at the Grinnell Depot in 1914 for a dinner stop, but being the last served, he missed his connection to Chicago. Warren Miller, who worked with the Mexican citizen at the Iowa Southern Utility Company, also recalled that Tony Torres traveled on a train to Grinnell. Tony wandered into the Grinnell downtown area from the Rock Island Depot and the next day secured a job at the power plant shoveling coal into the steam boiler, which provided heat and electrical power to downtown Grinnell buildings and also to some buildings at Grinnell College. While holding down this rigorous job, he taught himself to repair electric appliances and lights, and had the reputation of a man who could fix anything electrical. He probably had a head start on the electrical work in Mexico as my experiences show that Mexico obreros, workers, have a knack for any home repair work.
The above photo, courtesy of Mario Morales, editor-owner and founder (1998) of the Spanish speaking newspaper in the Des Moines Area called “El Enfoque”. There are now an estimated 35,000 first language Spanish speaking people living in Polk County, a far cry from the numbers when the Torres arrived in Grinnell in early 1900’s. Morales is in the blue checked shirt to the extreme right – from Guatemala, he came to Perry to work in the IBP Plant, was injured and then started his successful enterprise of the Spanish weekly newspaper 16 years ago. Ricardo, seated, from El Salvador, Trapitos in purple shirt is Mexican. This writer in the middle in the back with hand on shoulder of Arnulfo Medina to whom I refer below. The others are factory workers, self-employed painters, handymen and construction workers. Unfortunately, this AA group or any other was not around for Simon Torres in the 1920’s. Although Bill Wilson founded AA in 1935, the first group in Grinnell was started by a man named Jim G. in 1951, but Torres apparently never got involved.
I learned from Arnulfo Medina, a Mexican living in Des Moines, shown in the photo above in the back row with the gringo’s hand resting on his shoulder. Arnulfo did handyman jobs in our home, many of his countrymen with little formal education learn to work with their hands and backs doing carpentry, electricity, gardening, concrete work, painting, etc. They learn these skills from their father or uncle or brother in Mexico in order to sustain themselves in a job (many are self-employed tradesman there and here) or simply to keep food on the table from work around their home.
Then in 1914, as now in 2014, Mexico was/is a country with a very large underclass and a very small middle-upper class, thus the underclass has to be resourceful in developing job skills and finding niches to make a living. Chalco, a barrio just east of Mexico City, may be one of the largest underclass areas in the world – reports say about 400,00 inhabitants, but locals insist over one million people living in shacks on the side of a mountain divided into townships. When there’s a downpour, all hell breaks loose.
I imagine Simon and Tony Torres fit into that category – handy at any type of work – although they came to Grinnell 75 years before Arnulfo arrived in Des Moines (legally). Tony Torres and his electric repair skills astonished fellow employees at the Grinnell power plant, skills common to his social and economic peers in Mexico at the time, and Simon could do and do well anything required of him by Allen Latcham in the construction business.
Tony drove an old pick-up around Grinnell and was seen with his dogs in the back of the truck on his route to and from work. Latcham says that he also had a deal with local grocers, whom he had befriended, to pick up their scraps for his farm animals and in return he would make electrical repairs for them. The (família) Torres formed the first Hispanic family to live in Grinnell during their adult lives, to be interred at Hazelwood and to pass eternity in Poweshiek County. Tony Torres was born in Quiroga, Mexico in the state of Michoacan, one of 32 states in that country counting Distrito Federal (D.F.), Mexico City. Simon, the nephew, was born in Moerlia, Mexico, also in Michoacan.
Allen Latcham said that Simon spoke little of his family back home, although at one stage in early adulthood, he returned to Michoacan, married and had two children – varón y hembra – boy and girl. He later returned to Grinnell alone by way of California and Texas where he did construction work, reporting that he didn’t get along well with his wife. Simon said that he had worked hard and played hard while on the West Coast and down South and developed, or continued, his propensity for overdoing his beer drinking. He had a 35-40 year work relationship first with Latcham-Brown, then with Lathcham Enterprises, Inc. of Grinnell. Allen Latcham praised Simon’s work ethic and loyalty as an employee and family friend. Latcham said, “I still miss Simon today.”
Allen Latcham further stated that Torres excelled in skill and production with a shovel and rake and that he had the ability to grade the earth for a concrete pour better than anyone he had ever seen. He praised the concrete gang of Grinnellians Tom Ellis- GHS ’54, Larry Tharp ’56, and Simon Torres as a triumvirate that could out work any 5 man crew in their employ. Upon returning to Grinnell, Simon lived with his Uncle Tony and Aunt May at 703 Summer Street and formed a strong bond with the couple.
Tony was married to Mary May Seely Torres (1891-1970) who was born in Excelsior Springs, Missouri and lived in Grinnell for 50 years. Her husband, Tony Torres, was born 1891 in Mexico and died June 27, 1981 in Grinnell. His pall bearers were Cal Barnes, Carl Binegar, Warren Miller, Robert Mitchell, Floyd Sharp and Charlie Vogel- the first five listed were employees at the ISU and the last, a well-known local lawyer, who, according to Charlie’s son, Judge Richard Vogel, secured social security benefits for Sr. T. Torres and helped him in other personal legal matters.
Tony and Mary May Torres resided at 703 Summer Street, a stone’s throw from the Rock Island Railroad tracks and just around the corner from where this writer lived with his family – Ave and Irene Adkins and Grandfather Charlie Hedges – in the middle of the block on 3rd Avenue, north side of the street, between Elm and Summer. Irene Hedges Adkins was born in the house located on the SE corner of Summer and 3rd Avenue, just a short block north of the Torres residence.
Blue Rafael and family, including Louise, my mother’s best friend in high school, lived on the SW corner and Maytager Sam and Lucy McConkey, along with son Tom, McNally’s butcher, lived in the middle of the block just west of the Rafael home, which was later the residence of Policeman Jerry Phipps and family. This was the most racially diverse area in Grinnell at the time with the Hispanic Torres along with a large family of African-Americans, the Tibbs family, which lived south of 3rd Avenue at 710 Elm Street on the east side of the street. As a four year old, I made it a point to wave at Tony Torres coming from home on his way to work in his old pick-up, usually with one of his dogs barking to acknowledge my greeting.
There was another African-American family that lived in Grinnell in that era named Renfro. “More Memories of Grinnell, Iowa” cites Alice Renfro graduating in the GHS class of 1924 (Irene Hedges Adkins and Mildred Paxton, the last two surviving members of that class died in 2001 and 2003). Helen Renfro Lemme, the oldest of six children, graduated in 1923 and from the University of Iowa in 1928. Edith Renrow Smith was a 1937 graduate of Grinnell College. This family lived at 411 First Avenue in Grinnell.
After Mary May Seeley Torres died in 1978 and her husband, Tony,passed away in 1981, the Summer Street home and property were put up for sale, Allen Latcham purchased it and thus Simon was able to live there – alone – for several more years. His drinking reportedly escalated and when he could no longer keep up the property, he was moved into one of the Latcham Apartments on 4th Avenue convenient to Grinnell’s main square. His last residence before death in 2004 was Friendship Manor on old 6th Avenue.
Life in Michoacan, home state of the Grinnell Torres brothers at the turn of the 20th century, has grown and continues to thrive – and its citizens, like Tony and Simon Torres from 100 years ago, are still attracted to work opportunities across the border to the north. According to Ruben Martínez, a professional writer who specializes on stories from Mexico, legal and illegal workers (Mexican citizens) send or bring back to Michoacan 3 to 5 billion dollars annually from the U.S. Economic success for the transient worker (who works in the U.S. and returns to Mexico after the job is finished, as in agricultural seasonal labor) depends on the character of the worker, his savings plan, his discipline and his luck.
All of this huge economic boon to the state of Michoacan is based on migrant workers drawing minimum wage in the U.S. While the Torres family of Grinnell moved lock-stock-and-barrel to Iowa from 1914-1917, although Simon did return home for a period of time before coming back to accept work with Latcham Enterprises, Inc., in 2008 (Martínez reports) that the Enrique family, also from the Torres home state of Michoacan, worked in Norwalk, Wisconsin legally for 10.00 an hour, 6 days a week, 10 hours a day in a packing plant for a 45 week season. The father took advantage of the Reagan Amnesty in 1986: he was in the U.S. legally, a requirement of the amnesty, and obtained his Green Card, also legally able to bring his six sons, who form a part of their family’s money making team and machine.
They have purchased a home in Norwalk and now have their wives, sisters, etc. there during the 45 week working season. They return home after the packing plant work has been completed for the year in a caravan of seven Chevrolet Silverado Trucks, back to Michoacan where they have completed building a large family home. They travel in the caravan as they could be a prime target for ladrónes (Mexican robbers that ambush workers returning from the north with large quantities of cash on them.) Another form of “robbery” occurs at the frontier crossing from the U.S. to Mexico, los Federales, Mexican Federal Police, issue car permits and are known for their interest in obtaining mordídas- meaning “bites”, as in a dog bite, but referring to bribes from the innocent families, like the Enriques, returning from the Norwalk, Wisconsin packing plant season flush with green backs.
In one 45 week working season in the packing plant ($10.00 an hour, 10 hours a day, 6 days a week) the 7 working Enriques, who have not wasted a cent in their communal living-work structure, collectively earn U.S. $189,000.00 per year. They are, of course, subject to U.S. withholding taxes by their employer. Their plan is to eventually retire to their new super home which they themselves have built in Michoacan, but for now, they continue their 45 week work season in the U.S. and the remaining 7 weeks off in Mexico.
The modern version of the norteño, the Mexican worker who goes north to work on a seasonal basis, is the Enriques – their predecessors were the likes of the Torres of Grinnell, Iowa, who came 100 years before them, but both of these resourceful families originated in the state of Michoacan. Like everything in the 2000’s, life is more sophisticated for the Enriques in 2014 than for the Torres in 1914. There were no big paychecks and caravans of Chevy Silverados for Tony and Simon; nevertheless, it is the same idea – come to the U.S. from Mexico to earn more money to support your family in Michoacan and/or to settle here en la tierra del gringo.
Written by Dave Adkins at his blog: https://daveadkinsgrinnell.wordpress.com