Yolanda and the Cows

An Immigrant's Journey to Georgia  
By Joe Kovac Jr.  / Originally published May 16, 2004 
A little Mexican girl rode into the United States in style, in a green Chevy Monte Carlo. The driver stopped at a restaurant near Los Angeles for what would be the girl's first taste of America: fried chicken and mashed potatoes. For a child who had survived most of her eight years on beans, hand-ground tortillas and the occasional nibble of heaven she called huevos eggs the idea of eating in an honest-to-goodness restaurant was more mythical than the borrowed birth certificate that had delivered her across the border.

The fried chicken and mashed potatoes would become one of the most memorable meals of her life. Not because the meal was delicious. It was anything but. The mashed potatoes tasted exactly like creek water. See, the little girl had traveled to California from a place where little girls know what creek water tastes like. How could a little girl forget that?

That same girl would grow up to open a restaurant of her own.Then another. And another. All in America. All in Middle Georgia.

But first she would help raise three younger sisters and two baby brothers. She would also have children of her own. Together they would ride a quarter-century-wide wave of immigration that would more than alter the complexion of big American cities.

They would saturate a nation at its roots, on its farms. They would ride down dark country roads to be knee deep in dew when dawn broke. They would be strangers in down-home places where folks claimed to know no strangers.

They would shove back against a frontier forged east-to-west and settle in backwoods burgs where the locals might not speak their language but still just might be cultured enough to know how smooth creek water tastes going down.

And the country folk would love their nachos.

* * *

The night the mashed potatoes reminded Yolanda Medina of root-flavored puddles in the creek beds back home, she had no idea how short-lived her stay in the United States would be.

Not that she cared. For all its shine and its places to eat, California in 1974 was no wonderland for a skinny 8-year-old whose father had come looking for work. It was not as though she and her brothers and sisters were somehow suddenly cleansed when they crossed the border.

After a few months, Yolanda's family went back to Mexico, traveling down the continent to the village of Santa Cruz, not far from Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco. Santa Cruz was home.

Seven hundred miles southwest of San Antonio, it offered the no-electricity childhood Yolanda was used to. For the next four years, the Medinas lived there, near Yolanda's father's parents.

But when the crops were ready for harvest in the neighboring state of Michoacan, the family moved there and stayed with Yolanda's maternal grandparents. Yolanda ate better there. There was bread for breakfast. And hot chocolate. With such delicacies, she recalls, "You could consider yourself rich."

One time in Michoacan, back when she was 4, Yolanda's uncle handed her two pesos to go to the store and buy him cigarettes. Then an idea struck. She was sick of rice mixed with soupy beans and cheese for supper every night. So the girl who was "a little toothpick" slipped the pesos into her plastic shoes with little roses on them and made up a story. 

She whined to her uncle that some boy had taken her pesos.

"Oh, sweetie," he told her, "don't cry. Here, have another two pesos."

And off she walked, by herself, to a restaurant.

"Imagine, a 4-year-old walking on the streets," Yolanda says. "I went and bought enchiladas and tacos and a Coke, and oh my God, I haven't forgotten that."

* * *

By the time Yolanda turned 8, she was cooking tortillas, ironing clothes and tending to her baby sister, Lorena.

"At all times I was holding that little girl. I would squeeze her eyes so she will fall asleep, and if she didn't, I would put her in the sun and that would make her close her eyes, and that would put her to sleep. There was no such thing as a crib for the baby," says Yolanda, who would grow up to be 4-foot-10.

"People ask me, 'Why are you so short?' And I'm like, 'Well ... I didn't have hardly nothing to eat. And then on top of all things, they had me carrying a child at all times since I'm 6. ... I'm trying to grow and, for one thing, I don't have enough nutrients to grow. You think I'm gonna grow with beans and tortillas, hardly no milk?' ''

What milk there was came from the dairy cow, la torcaza they affectionately called her, the dove. The Medinas bought her after they returned from the United States.

But in 1978, when Yolanda turned 12, her father decided it was time to venture north of the border again. "He wanted a better life for us."

Decades later, with 20 years of dust and field labor behind her, Yolanda would think back to her days in Mexico and recall how she would never be happier than she was then.

"People," she says, "don't understand that the richness of being rich is being happy with whatever you have."

The good old U.S. of A. and all its bounty would never erase the heritage of a Mexican girl with no TV and a cow. The cow seemed to get tears in her eyes when her babies were sold.

Yolanda gets teary-eyed, too, when she thinks about that cow. "She was so pretty, such a pretty cow."

When the cow had babies, Yolanda's father would sell them. The mama cow sometimes ran after her calves when buyers carted them off.

"She would jump any fence to go after her baby," Yolanda recalls. "Then she would come back to our patio and she would stare at my mom and cry."

* * *

When it came time for the Medinas to move to America in 1978, they sold the cow to pay for visas and the bus fare to Guadalajara.

Soon after, Yolanda's family got its green cards and came to the States for good. That year, roughly a third of the country's foreign-born population was made up of Latin Americans.

A decade later, Latinos would account for 44 percent of America's foreign-born population.

Then in 2000, the U.S. census showed that more than half of the nation's foreign-born population 51 percent was of Latin origin.

The majority, more than 20 million by the year 2000, had come from Mexico. They worked construction. They were roofers, dry-wallers, masons.

Others, like the Medinas, were field hands, migrants. They planted Georgia pines. They hauled in harvests from Fresno to Florida: cucumbers, tomatoes, pumpkins, strawberries, bell peppers, oranges, peaches, melons.

If it got ripe, they picked it.

From their backs sprang a Hispanic middle class that between 1979 and the end of the century grew by more than 70 percent to include some 2.5 million U.S. households.

But for several years, the Medinas, with half a dozen children to feed, lived miles from middle class.

The first place they lived was a farm in California. They harvested cherry tomatoes and English peas for a Korean man.

"We didn't pay him rent," Yolanda recalls. "We had to pick all his vegetables, and me and my mom cleaned his house big old mansion and my dad did the yard. And all of that was for the rent."

The next year the Medinas moved to Florida to work in the orange groves. Yolanda was 13.

"You could just see families and families and more families with all their kids babies, children crawling," Yolanda says. "That's why so many got killed, run over by trucks that were working in the fields. I knew lots of families that lost their kids."

As a teen, Yolanda climbed 23-foot ladders and shook oranges off the trees. "I stood on the last step and reached as far as I could, and even with a little wire hook that was at least a yard long, I still couldn't reach them suckers. I said, 'Ah, leave 'em.' And I left them. And we were sent back to pick them. I was cussing in my mind ... thinking, 'How in the hell do they think we are going to pick these damn oranges?'''

The Medinas found little work when the orange season ended. Yolanda took a job in a Winter Garden, Fla., ice cream shop to help feed herself and six siblings. The job paid $3.10 an hour.

She attended American schools a total of 12 months, but it was enough to pick up English, which she calls "the greatest treasure that I could achieve."

Most every time the family uprooted she would enroll in a school for a month or two. In seventh grade, she quit going for good after a bully in Florida elbowed her, cussed her and tried to heave her over the railing of the school's second floor balcony.

"Just because I was Mexican he wanted to kill me," she says.

Yolanda clung to a railing until he left her alone. After that, she says, "I told my dad I wasn't gonna go to school. I said, 'I don't care what you say, I'm not going.' And I didn't."

Yolanda immersed herself in the rhythms of the fields. "I never felt down because I was working in the field." She liked it outdoors. Workers told jokes. She laughed.

She settled into life in a family that was anything but settled as the Medinas cruised the American countryside.

* * *

Yolanda remembers rising at 4 o'clock some mornings to be in the fields by daybreak. Some days she woke that early only to find herself at a new farm, in a different place, her family having moved in the night.

"We were so broke, so poor," she says. "My dad was always trying to find something better for us. When nothing was happening where we were ... he said, 'Pack your things and we're leaving.' Without giving us no warning, just, 'We're leaving in a little bit. Pack up everything.' We didn't have much."

Hopscotching crop to crop, they combed fields across the Southeast.

They moved on to Michigan to pick apples. In Ohio, they picked tomatoes. At one of the work camps there, laborers were lodged in trailers. But not just any trailers. Yolanda says, "I looked at one and thought to myself ... 'This is the trailer that they pull on the highway, that the 18-wheelers pull.'''

The trailers were motel-fancy compared to the pit her family was sent to one night in Florida: "In the middle of the night, I hear, 'Pack up the stuff, we're leaving. I found some work over in Plant City.' ... We get there and we see this tiny trailer. The thing is in the woods. All you could see was the door. And you open the door and it's full of spider webs and it's full of vines vines growing inside the trailer."

Yolanda's mother refused to stay in it. "My dad had no choice but to take us back."

* * *

All the while she dreamed of Mexico, of the view from the hill where she once lived, and of the mountain road that snaked out of the clouds to the valley that her cousins and grandparents still called home.

Yolanda had left something behind: a vine, planted by her family's front porch.

The vine sprouted fat leaves and bundles of purple flowers.

On a trip back when she was about 15, she saw it.

She was amazed at how much it had grown.

The vine stretched the length of the house.

Yolanda smiles at the memory.

"They had taken care of it."

* * *

In 1984, when she was 18, Yolanda had a baby girl.

Yolanda wasn't married, but within a year she was.

More children followed. She and her new family navigated the migrant circuit in a Ford Fairmont.

In the late '80s, though, her family was drawn more and more to Georgia's peach crop. The work could be steady and last from January through the summer. Trees needed pruning. Orchards needed maintaining. And in fall, there were pecans.

Yolanda and her kin kept coming back to Middle Georgia.

By 1987, at age 21, Yolanda was supervising a peach-picking crew in fields outside Centerville.

"I swore that I wouldn't come back to that job no more," she says. "I said, 'I would take anything but this itch, I don't wish it upon nobody.' The itch made me ill. The peach fuzz gives you such itch. There was nothing that could stop it. I don't know, maybe rabies could be compared to peach fuzz all over your skin. When you never been exposed to it, it kills you. ... It's in your arms, especially your neck."

Yolanda had been in America for a decade, but she was still poor.

At Christmas in 1989, she had $10 and three children. She was living in Peach County. She went to a store to buy laundry detergent. It cost five-something. She handed the cashier her only money, a $10 bill and some change so that she'd get a $5 bill as change.

The cashier didn't notice Yolanda had handed her a ten spot and gave her no change at all. Yolanda demanded her five dollars. She recalls that when a manager was told of the transaction, the manager was furious with the cashier, saying, "I'm telling you, you've gotta be watching these kind of people, especially around this time of the year!"

Humiliated, Yolanda thought, "Heck, I'm not gonna let no one treat me as a thief."

She left with her $5.

* * *

Benadryl ointment, Yolanda learned, relieved peach-fuzz itch.

She gave it to her workers to rub on their eyelids to fend off the fuzz.

In 1990, she decided to stay in Fort Valley, endure the itch and stop making a crop-to-crop living.

Her oldest child was in kindergarten and Yolanda didn't want her switching schools with the seasons.

Yolanda began leading peach-picking crews with more and more laborers in her charge.

On into the '90s she was supervising as many as 45 workers in the orchards of Peach and Houston counties. She spoke their language as well as the English of her employers, a commodity that made her invaluable in fields increasingly populated by Hispanic tongues.

Sometimes she gave laborers her own picking bag and picked right along with them. She toted what she picked in the front of her blouse. "I didn't care how dirty I was gonna get."

The South and its farmland, Georgia's especially, had become a haven for incoming Hispanics. One report ranked Georgia in the 1990s as the fourth most popular state for newly arrived Hispanics.

In 2000, the U.S. census showed Georgia's Hispanic population of 435,000 as being the eleventh-highest in the nation, a three-fold increase from the previous 10 years. Well over half of that population hailed from Mexico.

But then, in Georgia, there was work. Sweaty work. Itchy work.

"Imagine," Yolanda says, "if the white people and the black people, they were all wanting all these jobs, there wouldn't be nothing for us to do, so we would be back at home."

She says, "If the fields had been mine I couldn't have done a better job. I took care of those fields. I didn't want the peaches to go to waste."

By the time she was in her 30s, Yolanda couldn't help noticing signs of the region's sprawl. Small orange flags began cropping up in the orchards, the precursors of development roads, subdivisions, mega-marts. Yolanda wondered if they might cut into the peach harvest that was paying her close to $70,000 a year.

"The orchards didn't have but so many trees and so much money that I was gonna make, so I knew my income was gonna get cut shorter and shorter. ... I started saving, saving, saving my money," Yolanda says. "After the season was over I would even clean houses, even if I made $2 an hour. I tried to hold onto my money so that I could start a business."

But first she got divorced. She says her husband would never have stood for such an enterprise, not one dreamed up by some senora, even if she was his esposa, his wife.

"I cannot stand it when I see how women are so much under the fist of a man," Yolanda says. "In fact, a lot of the men that know me don't even want their wives to speak to me. ... They don't want them to work. ... They're ignorant, that's what they are."

Yolanda figures she could probably have worked the peach crops for years to come. But what then? She'd have spent a life as a hard worker for someone else. She wanted to create something, to plant a vine that she could take care of, to craft a made-in-Mexico existence right here that her American children and grandchildren could one day look back on as a touchstone of family achievement.

Putting a Mexican restaurant in a town without one made sense. She just had no clue how to do it.

Tapatio Mexican Restaurant opened in 1999 in a building that used to be a Salvation Army thrift shop.

"I had never worked at a restaurant before," Yolanda says. "All I knew, it was like that inside voice or that, I don't know, like a strong force that tells you to do something."

She started a Mexican grocery with a tortilla-making machine to supply the restaurant. When people came in and told her, "You're gonna make it," Yolanda thought, "Y'all are crazy."

"I just wanted to pay my bills," she says. "I didn't care about anything left for me."

For the first year or so, after rising at 2 a.m. each Friday to drive a van to an Atlanta farmer's market for supplies, Yolanda would deliver the groceries before sunrise and be in the peach fields by 8. In the evening, she ran the restaurant.

"I couldn't afford not to," she says. "There was so much remodeling that had to be done; there was no money left for it."

And she was about to give up the only work she had known for a fledgling Mexican eatery next to a Harvey's supermarket on the Reynolds highway in Fort Valley. "My hair was falling out by the handfuls."

Naming the restaurant Tapatio felt right. The word is associated with things from the Guadalajaran region of Mexico. "If you are from where I'm from, they call you tapatio," Yolanda explains.

She had some experience as a cook, having fed laborers in a North Carolina work camp. Her time in the fields lent her a feel for detecting the difference between what is fresh and what colorful packaging says is fresh. Plus she was opening an authentic-style restaurant in an area with plenty of Mexican migrant workers.

"I know that you get really, really hungry," she says.

"For people who don't work in the fields, the four corn tortillas we serve with the dinners would be more than plenty. But for someone who works in the fields that's not even the beginning of it. They probably eat eight to 10 tortillas. When they come in, I warn my waiters to be on the lookout, to be offering more tortillas to them, because I know that they want more."

After the restaurant in Fort Valley took off, Yolanda's family opened another in Cordele. They named it El Girasol, the sunflower.

* * *

Yolanda had no idea she was being caught up in another trend, of Hispanic settlers starting businesses, women especially.

Figures from the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce show that in the past five years the number of Hispanic female-owned businesses has increased by 39 percent, and that in 2002 there were more than 8,000 such businesses here.

Every day, between all the restaurants Yolanda runs, it amazes her having so much food, considering that as a child she sometimes had to wait for a hen to lay an egg so she could have one.

Today she is responsible for tens of thousands of dollars worth of things to eat. "Imagine what a difference from then to now, of not even having an egg."

"I've been asked," Yolanda says, "'Why did you move from Mexico?' And I'm like, 'What made me move from Mexico?' I said, 'Poverty, that's what made me move.'

"And I was so happy (there). I don't detest the fact that we were dirt poor. I don't hide it. That doesn't embarrass me. It's where I come from and I can't deny it. In fact, I am proud to say it ... to scream it aloud."

On the morning in March when Yolanda, now 38, was sworn in as an American citizen, a patriotic video played the tune "Proud to be an American."

"I cried," she says. "I'm telling you, my cheeks were soaking wet with tears. That's a hell of a song."

To celebrate she worked all night at Don Ponchos, her family's third restaurant, in Unadilla.

"I work," she says, "because I love my family."

The day before her citizenship became official, Yolanda's first grandchild was born. It was, she says, as though "suddenly things are working my way."

* * *

A week later, over lunch at Don Ponchos, Yolanda says what has surprised her most about America is "all the opportunities there are that people don't take advantage of."

She sometimes hears waiters and waitresses griping about how busy they are.

She shakes her head. "I say, 'You're crying to the wrong person. If you think you're going to get some pity out of me, you're looking at a brick wall.' I had a girl that came and helped and she was not doing her job right at all. I told her mother, 'Send her to the field.' She went and she was there for three days of work in the field. She quit. ... I said, 'You think you're doing something hard?' ... I said, 'You're in heaven, and you don't know it.' I said, 'When I was your age there were times when I didn't have a decent meal in weeks. My dad would bring me some darn Doritos and a Coke and that was my lunch.' I said, 'What are you talking about? You're here where you have a menu to choose from. You don't know how blessed you are.'''

Don Ponchos, a year in the making in what used to be an auto-repair shop, is next door to a Dollar General on U.S. 41. 

Locals who come in can't help making quesadilla rhyme with Unadilla.

"A lot of people come in and they have never had any Mexican food," Yolanda says. "And they tell you, 'I've never been to a Mexican restaurant.'''

Out front at Don Ponchos, in the grocery mart, a watermelon pinata hangs from the ceiling over canned guavas and orange- and lime-flavored Jarritos in bottles. They look more like potions than soft drinks.

In a Pepsi cooler so old it chugs, Coca-Colas share shelf space with cans of peach nectar and clam-tomato juice cocktail.

The selection, though, is convenience-store scarce compared to the family's grocery up in Fort Valley.

In Fort Valley, the layout is part produce department, part delicatessen, part variety store. One can find everything from Fabuloso detergent to Ricky Martin CDs. And next door at Tapatio, the diners chow on fajitas, taco salads, beef-and-bean nachos.

During a recent lunch hour, more than 50 people were eating. A man from Reynolds looked up from his basket of warm tortilla chips and said the food has "got the blessing of the South."

That is more than Yolanda could ask for.

More, even, than she could have hoped for on a day 25 years earlier when her folks sold their milk cow and ventured north.

Now Yolanda is the one selling cows.

They go for $12.69 at her grocery store.

They're ceramic.

They each have a small slot in their backs.

The cows are banks.

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