A Journey, A Life

Stubbornness, hard work keep Gutierrez alive


My name is Agustín Beltran Gutierrez. In the February issue of “Desert Exposure” I saw an article that talked about a man named Francisco Beltran, who is my older brother. Like him, I have been coming to the United States to work for about 50 years.

In 1959 Francisco brought me to the United States for the first time, when I was only 16. It took about three weeks for us get from Anahuac, Chihuahua to Blue, Arizona, to work for a man named Bill Marks. Blue is about 30 miles west of Reserve as the crow flies, or about 50 by highway. First, we took a bus to Casas Grandes and from there another bus to Acensión. Then we walked across the border to Hachita, New Mexico and from there we walked another 16 days to Blue. To cross the border illegally in those days was not as dangerous as it is today, although there was plenty of Border Patrol.

I got deported once and then recruited by the same man who caught me, but that is another story. Walking through the desert and mountains for 250-plus miles in November is a hard journey. Francisco and I had only our backpacks with the food and water we could carry, and the clothes we wore. We walked from dawn to sunset and built little fires at night, using our shoes as a pillow to sleep. When we ran out of water, we had to look for streams and puddles.

Mr. Marks was not happy to see me at first because I was so young and skinny, but Francisco convinced him I was a good worker. He agreed to pay me $2 a day, and Francisco got $3. We built corrals, fences and irrigation ditches, and rode horses to gather cattle in the mountains. We had no chainsaws and had to cut down trees with an axe. I learned a lot from my brother. Before then I hardly knew my brother because he was 10 years older and always away from home, looking for work or food for the family. I was the youngest of eight boys. Only four of us are still alive.

After a few weeks of working together at the Marks's ranch, Francisco disappeared. I became very afraid, crying and not knowing what happened to him, or what I should do. I spoke no English and no one told me he had been sent to work somewhere else. A ranch hand named Don drove me to where Francisco was so he could explain to me in Spanish that I would be working at the Marks's ranch alone.

I realized then that I needed to learn to speak English. For 14 months I continued working for Bill and Elaine Marks, getting to know their sons Billy and Justin. I began to learn little phrases like “good morning, hello how are you, I'm fine, thank you,” etc.

Billy even showed me how to shoot his BB gun. I was getting rides to town with Don and for the first time in my life I bought new clothes. I went back to Mexico feeling like a rich man, and educated, because like my poor mother who raised me and my five brothers, I had never gone to school or learned to read and write. I returned to the Marks ranch 3 months later, anxious to get back to work and learn more of my new language. And because I proved myself to be a good worker, I also got an extra dollar a day!

For the next eight years I walked alone to Arizona and back to Mexico every year. I have always been tough in bad weather. But the worst was the blizzard in the winter of 1967. I was up in the mountains about seven miles from the Marks's ranch, fixing fences around Cow Flat. It was raining and snowing, and the whole cabin leaked because the wood shingles cracked and were falling off. The only dry space was a three-foot square on the floor near the wood stove where I slept. One morning I woke up saw the windows and door were blocked by seven feet of snow. I had to dig out a path to get to the barn where the horses – Charlie, Chigger and Solito – were shivering, and I was sure they would never make it back to the ranch.

We ran out of food, and I couldn't leave them to starve, so I got out my rifle. When I aimed it at Charlie's head, a tear streamed down his face, and I started crying and couldn't pull the trigger. I tied his lead rope to my belt and let the other two follow as I dug a path using my hands and arms. For nine hours I dug and we went step by step while it kept snowing. Somewhere along the way the dog Sarge disappeared. By the time we got to the ranch it was dark, and my arms and legs were sore and swollen and I collapsed from exhaustion.

It snowed through the night and by morning the house was cracking from the load on the roof. The phone lines were down and Bill was away, and Elaine was frantic because the house was about to collapse. The boys were too little to do anything, and neither could Elaine, so I climbed on the roof to shovel the snow off. It took a day and a half to do it. Then we realized we were out of food.

I saddled up Charlie and put a pack saddle on Chigger and headed downstream the Blue River to a cabin owned by the Forest Service, where I knew there was food. The door was padlocked so I chopped it open with an axe. I loaded all the cans in Chigger's pack and went back to the ranch, where Elaine and her boys greeted us with hugs and kisses. They were sure we would die out there.

After the snow melted and Bill came back, I constructed a special pack saddle for Charlie to carry roofing tin up to the cabin. It took four trips for us to carry 40 sheets of tin up there. Bill was very surprised because he thought the only way to take it was by helicopter. But I never thought twice about it, I knew it would work because I had plenty of experience with that matter. As a child I used to gather big piles of wood from the mountains and pack them on a burro to take to town to sell.

Like my brother Francisco, I have had experiences with bad patrones, like the ones who took me far up in the mountains to do big jobs and left me there with no food or water or proper tools, and then complained about paying me. I always gave them a piece of my mind before I quit. But the people who took the time to know me and appreciated my work treated me well. I almost lost a leg when I was cutting trees for Jim Spurgeon, who rushed me to the hospital and then insisted the doctors put my splintered bones together instead of amputate. It took a year to walk again and I was upset not being able to work. But when I left, Jim handed me my wages and kept his word to return me to Mexico in the same condition as when I came. If I had lost that leg, I would never have been able to build my own house in Mexico, or continue to do ranch work in the U.S.

Since my first trip to the US with Francisco, I rarely see him or my other brothers anymore. Searching for work has taken us in different directions. I have worked as far away as Illinois, Kansas, Texas, and California, at many different kinds of jobs. Now at age 75, I am an American citizen, still building fences and chicken houses. Though I move a little slower than when I was young, I still stay busy and at the end of the day I drink my shot-ito, watch Cantinflas movies, and work on writing down my stories.

Thank you for reading,

Agustín Beltran Gutierrez

 (Transcribed by F. Calles)