A"Š "Šbone-chilling "Š November freeze greeted George Ortiz when he arrived in the Rogue Valley in 1943.

A"Š "Šbone-chilling "Š November freeze greeted George Ortiz when he arrived in the Rogue Valley in 1943.

Ice coated the orchards on the valley floor while snow capped the mountains ringing the valley. Lonely American soldiers in their winter greens from Camp White filled the sidewalks of Medford as they waited to be shipped overseas to fight in World War II.

"The pear trees were covered with ice," Ortiz recalled. "It was so cold. You couldn't even work in the orchards."

And his living quarters at the former Civilian Conservation Corpsbarracks at Prescott Park on RoxyAnn Peak only had thin wooden frames to keep out the cold.

"A bunch of us had decided to come to Medford and see what it looked like," recalled Ortiz, who was then a 19-year-old Mexican national from Yucatan. "We were going to stay only three months."

Sixty-five years later Ortiz, now 84 and a U.S. citizen, remains in Medford, one of the last of the Mexican immigrants who came to the area as part of the fledgling Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program.

It became commonly known as the bracero program. The term was derived from the Spanish word "brazo" for arm.

"I am the only survivor in our group from '43 still here in Medford," he said. "When I'm gone, we will all be forgotten."

With many of the nation's agriculture workers having marched off to war, Uncle Sam needed more farm labor. The U.S. and the government of Mexico signed off on the program on July 23, 1942, to provide temporary Mexican workers for American agriculture.

Nationally, the program would continue into 1964 with more than 200,000 men from Mexico providing farm labor. In Oregon, the program ran from 1943 to 1947. Roughly 15,000 Mexicans helped harvest Oregon crops during that period, including hundreds in the Rogue Valley.

While some felt the program took advantage of the braceros, others saw it as an opportunity to improve their lives.

"Papa thought the bracero program was the best thing since canned beer," quipped state Rep. Sal Esquivel Jr., 60, a Medford Republican whose father, Salvador Esquivel Sr., arrived in Medford as a bracero in 1945.

"He came here to make enough money so he could buy my grandmother a house in Mexico City," he said. "He bought her a house with what he earned here."

The senior Esquivel, now 89 and retired in Texas, also wanted to become an American citizen, a goal he achieved in 1959, his son said.

"After he was here about two weeks, he decided America was a great place and he wanted to be an American citizen," he said. "He started working on that."

His father married a local young woman in 1946 and got a job at a local veneer plant after the bracero program ended in Oregon. They also started a family.

"Papa learned how to speak and write English — he worked very hard on becoming a citizen," the lawmaker said.

After the junior Esquivel graduated from Medford Senior High School in 1966, his parents eventually divorced. His mother moved to Roseburg, his father to Eagle Pass, Texas, where he owned three restaurants before retiring.

Although noting his father is a Democrat while he is a Republican, Sal Esquivel said both share a belief that those who work hard can get ahead in the land they love.

"If you are given an equal chance, you can succeed if you work hard here," he said, noting that George Ortiz, a longtime friend of the Esquivel family, is a prime example.

"George was a hard worker all his life," he said.

The fact the son of a bracero now is a lawmaker in Oregon demonstrates how the early bracero families have become an intricate part of Southern Oregon, Ortiz observed.

When Ortiz joined the program, he had moved from Yucatan to Mexico City. The group left Mexico City on Nov. 18, 1942, for El Paso, Texas.

"We was the first ones to come," he said. "They had an awful time getting people to come. Nobody wanted to come. They was afraid they would be sent to the war, be drafted into the war."

From Texas, they were sent to the Imperial Valley in Southern California near the Mexico border. The group worked in the Imperial Valley until May 1943, then was sent north to Washington to work in the potato and pea fields near Wenatchee.

In November of that year, the braceros were heading back to Mexico when they stopped in Portland. Officials there asked if any of the braceros wanted to go to the Rogue Valley to work.

Many were married and longed to return to their families. But a dozen, including Ortiz, had no spouses back in Mexico and wanted to check out the Rogue Valley.

"In the beginning, we stayed at the three C's camp at Prescott Park," he said, describing it as resembling an Army barracks. "The food was OK — they had a Mexican cook who cooked Mexican food.

"We didn't have to pay for it. When we came, we got free medical and free food ... I have no complaints."

Ortiz worked at several orchards, including Meridian, Modoc and Pinnacle. They were paid 60 cents an hour, working nine hours a day, six days a week, he said.

"The mills were paying 75 (cents an hour) but we couldn't work in the mills — we weren't allowed," he said. "If you did, you broke the contract."

But others were paid less than the braceros.

"I drove a bus to pick up German prisoners of war at Camp White to take back to Meridian to work in the orchards," he said. "I took 30 POWs — a lot of them could talk Spanish — and two GIs every day to work in the orchards. They paid them ten cents a day."

Pruning proved to be the hardest work, he said.

"It was so cold," he said. "And the smudge pots, that was miserable. You would get oil and blisters all over your arms."

Looking back, Ortiz said they were treated well by local residents and their employers.

"Some of the boys, when they went to town and got drinking, they got into fights with the soldiers," he said.

On their day off, the braceros went to movie theaters or dances in Medford.

"They had two dances every Saturday night in Medford," he said. "Ballroom dances. Medford was a little community back then. There wasn't much more than about 10,000 people when we got here.

"So when you went to town on Saturdays, all you saw was Mexicans and soldiers. They got along pretty good."

At one of the ballroom dances Ortiz began dancing with a young lady named Hazel E. Silva, a native of Medford. They now have been married more than 62 years, and have four grown children — a son and three daughters — and seven grandchildren.

"We got all good kids — no problems with them," he said, noting their son, George Ortiz Jr., was drafted and served in combat in the Vietnam War.

George and Hazel were married the year the bracero program ended, 1946. Three years later, Ortiz became a U.S. citizen. The couple bought their home in Medford in 1962.

When the avid fisherman and hunter retired from the Boise Cascade mill in White City in 1985, where he had worked for 35 years, his co-workers bought him a new .30-06 hunting rifle as a token of their friendship.

"Most everybody die right here in Medford, all my friends I worked with as a bracero," he said. "When I'm gone, I will be the last one.

"Nobody else knows when we come here or how we got here. Nobody will remember it."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.