Friday, August 10, 2018

Mario y Humberto

Mario Espinosa, who works for YSB, was recently honored for his work with migrants and immigrants to our area by the Illinois Coalition for Immigration and Refugee Rights and the Illinois Association of Agencies and Community Organization for Migrant Advocacy.  I was at YSB when Mario was hired, at the urging of Sara Escatel who developed YSB’s Hispanic Services Program.

We sought funding and created a program that advocated for immigrant families because of YSB’s  mission to help children and families succeed.  That mission said nothing about anyone’s citizenship status.  We wanted to make sure all kids got into school and received health care, that their parents felt safe to go to teacher conferences, received good advice on legal matters, and were not taken advantage of.  Mario Espinosa, Sara Escatel, Alice Berogan and others made sure all those things happened.

I wish I knew how long Mario has worked with immigrants to our area, but it’s early and I don’t want to wake anyone up with a phone call.  Suffice to say he’s made it his life work.

Eight years ago I wrote the following article about a migrant worker, Humberto Casarrubias Sanchez, who died in the fields in our area.  I wanted to give him a name and shed light on the plight of migrant workers.  But it occurred to me when reading the Face Book post about Mario yesterday that this piece also sheds light on the compassion and determination of Mario Espinosa.  I hope you remember them both.

Mario Espinoza called me on one of those terribly hot days in July when it looked like everyone fled the streets and was holed up in air conditioning wherever they could find it.  He was out of breath and excited.  Mario is pretty easy to read, even over the phone.  Something was going on.  Mario works in Mendota and is one of YSB’s two community workers fluent in Spanish who specialize in helping immigrant families.  In our area that population is mostly Mexican. 

“There’s a migrant worker missing off one of the detasseling crews up by Tampico.”

Tampico is a farm town in Whiteside County.

“They think he collapsed in the field due to the heat.  They’ve organized a search and I want to help.”

“Do you know this guy Mario?”

“I just talked to him and his brother two days ago at the Riviera.”

The Riviera Motel is actually not the Riviera anymore, it’s just what we still call it.  It’s a run-down hotel at the failed commercial interchange of Route 89 and Interstate 80 north of Spring Valley.  It’s used in the summer to house migrant workers, lots to a room. 

“What’s his name Mario?”

“Humberto.  Humberto Casarrubias Sanchez.” 

“Go ahead and help in the search Mario but be careful out there.  It’s too damn hot.  You could get sick yourself.”

“I’ll be careful.  I’m taking some of my kids with me.”

“And Mario, let me know how this turns out.”

It was July 19th.  Humberto was working for Manter Labor McNeil, the equivalent of a temp agency for migrant workers.  Seed corn companies who need migrant labor to create strains of hybrid corn stopped hiring such persons themselves a while ago.  They rely on small employment agencies.  Somewhere in the mix would be a foreman or recruiter who speaks fluent Spanish and knows how to create word of mouth in Mexico so he gets the workers the seed corn companies need to arrive in Illinois when they are needed.

Humberto and his brother arrived in our area July 3rd from the small village of Mazatepec, Morelos.  Humberto was 36 years old.  His wife, Maria Isabel Basilia and three daughters age 16, 12, and 9 last heard from him July 11 on a cell phone call.  He told them he would be working in Tampico, which he thought was funny.  Tampico is a town in Tamaulipas, Mexico.  He had to come to Illinois to get a job in Tampico. 

Humberto and his brother were working under HD-1 agricultural work visas that migrants are given to do work in our area.  Mendota, Dixon, and Sterling are used to migrant workers. 

They have been coming to Mendota for the sweet corn pack for years.  They come earlier too to rogue (removing weeds and volunteer corn plants among the seed corn plots) and detassel (taking the tassels which produce pollen off selected rows of corn, leaving the silks to receive pollen from bull rows next to them so that cross pollination occurs).  Try as they might the seed corn industry has not found an effective way to automate this process.  It is work no one else wants to do, especially in a heat index of 110 degrees, which were the conditions July 19th when Humberto disappeared.

American teen agers used to do it all but that supply of workers is drying up.  My sisters dietasseled in the fifties and sixties.  My son did it in the early 2000’s.  Seed corn companies used to hire teachers and coaches to recruit local teen agers, form crews, and get the job done in a critically short time period.  When the tassels have to come off, there is little time to spare.  It’s changed now.  More and more the seed corn industry, at arm’s length through contracted temp agencies, relies on migrant labor.

That’s how Humberto found himself traveling from south of Mexico City to a Whiteside County cornfield working for nine bucks an hour, staying in a rundown hotel for cheap rent, earning money to support his family.  On July 19th his co-workers saw him leave his row to go for water, a shovel in his hand and an orange cap on his head.  That was the last time they ever saw him.  Mario called me the next day. 

 “We didn’t find him.  We walked the whole field and he wasn’t there.  They’re going back today.”

“Mario what are the chances he got fed up, got a ride in to town, and is on a monumental bender?”

“He’s not that kind of guy Dave.  He knows no English.  It’s his first trip to the U.S..  He’s kind of scared here.  His brother can’t imagine he would leave the group.  Something’s happened.  The company won’t pull the work crew off the detasseling to help in the search.  We’re appealing for more people to search.”

The community responded.  150 to 200 emergency workers from throughout the area spent four 4 days searching roughly six square miles of land along Illinois’ Route 40, from Gaulrapp Road to State Route 172, looking for Sanchez.  Farm equipment, ATVs, a helicopter, bloodhounds and cadaver dogs were used, all to no avail.  Volunteers also walked the field in which he last was seen. Whiteside County Sheriff Kelly Wilhelmi explained 

“Everybody lined up on the end of the field. There are male and female rows. What we did was have one person go down the middle of female rows. They were searching four rows at a time.”

Eventually they called the search off and declared Humberto a missing person.  Mario was distressed.

“Now people are saying maybe he’s slipped away to violate his visa and stay.  He’s not that kind of man.  He wanted to go home.  He was just here to make money and help his family.  I know he’s out there.  His money, his papers, pictures of his family are still at the hotel.  He wouldn’t do this to his brother.  It’s not right.”

On Tuesday farmers harvesting seed corn in a field in the search area found the body of a man who was determined to be Humberto Casarrubias Sanchez.  Next to the body was a shovel and an orange cap.  It now appears he had been there all the time.  He may have been disoriented by heat stroke, wandered into the next field, laid down to rest and died.  We may never know.

Migrant labor, and individual laborers like Humberto from rural Mexico, makes the American seed corn industry possible.  That same labor source grows and harvests the vegetables we eat, busses and washes the dishes in our restaurants, maintains our shrubs and gardens, and does all types of jobs that Americans like you and I shun.  Like digging the Illinois Michigan canal.  Like building the railroads.  I want you to remember not just that a migrant worker died, whom Mario Espinosa came to know and tried to find in an Illinois cornfield, but that he has a name.  

Humberto Casarubbias Sanchez


May he rest in peace.


  1. Beautiful story, Dave! I still remember that day. Thank you for always supporting our work with immigrants. Sara

    1. Thanks to you Sara. It was your hard work and networking that got us to that point where we could offer such help.

  2. Moving post,Dave. How easily we can become numbed to the impact that thousands of human beings have in our lives

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Dave. We are all part of one human family, regardless of lines on a map.

  4. Thank you so much, Dave for sharing this story of a human being, a person, who had a family and a life and deserved so much more. I hope you don’t mind me sharing this especially at a time when so many others need to remember and realize everyone has every right to want and work for a better life that they too deserve. Thanks to all who helped these immigrants and showed human compassion and concern for a fellow man. Those are the real Christians in this world.