Hidden History: From Cucumber Fields to Classrooms

Hispanic Heritage Month

Imagine working an adult job by age four. That was the harsh reality for Antonio Saldaña who worked his way up from cucumber fields to classrooms.

Saldaña is a Spanish teacher at Denmark Middle School. Born in Oconto, his relationship with education runs deep. He feels fortunate to have an education after he moved around a lot from a young age but stayed in one place: the field.

“You were always moving, so you’re here, and then in a few weeks or a few months, depending what time of the year it was, and what it is that you were harvesting, that decided how long you would stay there.”

Since Saldaña was four, he and his family traveled to Oconto to pick cucumbers.

“And this is when kids are supposed to be having fun…the farmers’ kids, and other kids, that lived around by where the migrant camp was, they’d be riding their bikes, and I’m only speaking for myself, I’d be thinking, I wonder what that feels like, to just be a kid, be on a bicycle, you know what I’m saying, but what a treat that was, but you knew well this is what it looks like I’m destined to do.”

Sixteen Saldañas lived in this small migrant home in Oconto.

“…now I know how sardines feel when they get shoved in a can.”

The home also has some of the names of families who lived there. Saldaña’s brother, who passed away from cancer three years ago, wrote the family name on one of the walls in marker in the 1970’s.

“It says Los Saldañas, The Saldañas, de Texas, from Texas, and then his birthday was on there.”

When Saldaña was 14, his parents sent him away to live with his older sister, who was alone in Green Bay. It changed Saldaña’s trajectory in life. He could go to school without moving every few months.

“And then when the Oconto season for the cucumbers was done, my dad said you can stay here with your sister again if you want, and I did because…I thought this is the way to get out of what I do.”

Saldaña went to West high school and graduated with a one year scholarship to UW-Green Bay.

“For me to be graduating from high school was awesome. All of a sudden I’m trotting off to college.”

Saldaña did not get his college degree until 10 years later, but once he did, he became a teacher.

“Sometimes I would be writing on the board, and the kids would say, in my very first job, ‘Are you okay, senor?’ and I would be zoning, thinking, oh my God, I’m in front of a classroom, I’m actually teaching…look at where I’ve come with hard work.”

Now he wants to educate others on the grueling work and humble lives of migrant field workers by going through the process of getting his home from the cucumber fields onto Heritage Hill State Park. It’s a promise he made to his brother before he passed away.

“He goes, they need to remember how hard we worked, and when he was talking about we, he’s talking about our family, but all the migrant workers, we need to be remembered what we contributed to society.”

Antonio has two children, a son and a daughter, who both graduated from UW-Green Bay, just like their dad.

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