The Families of El Campo

These unique, colorful immigrant communities started springing up in Chicago and the Midwest between the turn of the 20th century and the 1950’s as immigrant railroad workers moved to the area to capitalize on employment opportunities. Families working in Aurora, Illinois sent word to other extended relatives with word of the employment opportunities. Immigrant Tomas Perez wrote to his cousin, Porfiria, who was then living in Missouri, “There is ample work here. Why do you not consider coming here to live?” The promise of opportunity and an invitation from extended family encouraged her to relocate her family to Aurora with her husband and two children. As many other families did the same, the boxcar communities grew..

The rich cultural, athletic, religious, and social presence of these vibrant communities, as well as their impact have been largely overlooked by history. These “boxcar children” and their descendents have played a quintessential role in the development of the Midwest and greater United States, economically, infrastructurally, and culturally. While the men worked industry jobs, many of the women and children learned to cook, clean, and care-take siblings in order to care for one another. “While my Grandfather worked down the dirt road that led to the reclamation plant, they would cook him his lunch and walk it down to him,” recalls Leo Zarko. Homemade tortillas were always on the menu, “you don’t buy them at the store.” Another relative of the El Campo community, Delia recalls, “It was when my aunt was seven years old, two years into Saint Nicholas School, when her father said ‘Lupe, no more school…we need you at home.’” Out of necessity, some children stayed home to help cook, clean, clothe, and care for the family. At first, the nuns at Saint Nicholas were very upset about Lupe being pulled from school so early, but when they came to visit the boxcar communities and saw how life was there, they came to understand the ways in which Hispanic families like these were making sacrifices and working as teams in order to care for their families and community as a whole.



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