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Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Manuel Soto

I met with Manuel at the family property in Goodacre Road on the outskirts of Boonville. We sat down in the garden in the shade with a cup of coffee and as we began our conversation Manuel’s wife, Lucia, and son, Justin, served up some superb freshly made guacamole and chips, then a platter of delicious chicken wings, and finally a couple of cans of Guinness!

Manuel was born in Mexico in 1963, in the state of Zacatecas. His family lived in a very rural area of the state on a ranch called Los Bajius de la Gloria, about twenty miles or more from the nearest town, which is Jalpa, a town of perhaps 10,000 people that was originally founded in the 1500s by Spanish explorers searching for gold and silver. The Indian population inter-mixed with Spanish and other European peoples to form today's meztisos. Mestizo is a term traditionally used in Latin America and Spain for people of mixed European and Native American heritage or descent and Manuel refers to himself as one, rather than Mexican.

“Where we lived is dramatically more rural than Boonville. Our nearest neighbors were fifteen miles away. My father, Efren Soto was one of ten kids who for many generations had worked on cattle ranches. His mother had blue eyes but none of her sixty-five grandchildren did. My mother Maria Espinoza had some Indian blood and was also from a cattle-raising family, but they owned some land of their own. She was one of 18. My parents were married in early 1963 and I was born ten months later, the oldest of six, with Efren, Esther, Amelia, Antonio and Ernesto following.”

Manuel lived on the ranch until he was four and then he went to school in a place called La Colonia Arechiga, a larger ranch on the way to Jalpa, where he stayed with his grandfather Soto through the week and his Dad would come and get him for the weekends. “I went to school there but half the time the teacher failed to show up or he’d leave at noon. Everywhere we went was on horse trails, there were no roads. The education was very, very basic. My parents had hardly any schooling themselves and my mother had me when she was just seventeen. But they did know that education was important for us kids. We had chores on the ranch such as taking the cows out, feeding the chickens, and planting corn by following my Dad along the ditch he made by driving a mule and plow. After a year there we moved to Jalpa, a town about the same size as central Ukiah. My Dad stayed at the ranch for work and we lived at an aunt’s house in the ‘city.’ I was then sent to a better school in the town of Tepechitlan, a town about the same size as Jalpa, where I lived with my father’s brother while my parents stayed in Jalpa. Dad’s work was getting less on the ranch and so in about 1969 he decided to move the whole family — Mom, Esther, Esther, and Amelia to Tepechitlan, where there were more opportunities for work.”

Manuel enjoyed school — his favorite subjects were science and math. He was a quiet kid and had trouble with peer pressure. Bullying was tolerated and he suffered as a result. “Kids like me, kids who were not fighters, we were picked on. Then one day I had taken enough and I made a statement. After that it was fine and I enjoyed school more. My Dad had found a decent job in construction and we even had some money in the bank. Then when Antonio was born there were problems. He had eye cancer, which was diagnosed when he was just eight months old. He lost his eye. The bills for the treatment were very big and my Dad had gone to Chicago in the States to earn more money to pay for this. He had friends there, found work, and sent money back to us in Mexico. We also got some family help with the Soto family and many aunts all living in Tepechitlan.”

Manuel’s father spent a few years in the US and by the time he returned Manuel was fifteen and had left school and another brother was born — Ernesto. “My mother’s brothers were legally working in the States and one day my parents sat me down and asked me if I wanted to go. I was very excited at the thought of going there. I knew some English by this time and said I’d go. The family gave me $500 and on April 10th, 1979 I met a distant uncle from Jalpa and we caught a bus to Tijuana, heading for ‘El Norte’.”

“It took a day or so to get there and we got a motel room. There were several men there and I was the only boy. I was still excited but also now anxious as I realized what was happening. My uncle told me I was on my own at that point — not what he had told my mother. Now I didn’t have anybody. I had spent half of my money and had to give the rest to the ‘coyote’ (the people smuggler). I knew what I was doing was illegal. I am not proud to have broken the law but it was not about that — it was about survival. The coyote left me without any money and I cried. I was just a 15-year-old boy. A few nights later we were told to leave the motel and walked to the airport that was right on the border. We were told to walk across the runways to the other side. I was near the front of the group of about fifteen guys. We climbed the cyclone fence and started to cross the runway. There was no river — I was no wetback! As we ran a plane was landing and it nearly blew us away. I was hanging on to the ground until it passed and then I ran across two runways to the fence on the other side where we climbed another fence and started to walk across desert. The coyote told us a little later that we were in the United States. I thought, ‘Well, where’s the marker to tell us we have crossed the border?’ I was very scared but knew I had only one way I could go. We walked for several hours and almost got caught twice by the Border Patrol. We also had to watch out for rattlesnakes. My uncle reminded me that I was on my own and said, ‘If we get separated, I hope you survive.’ I felt very much alone after being in the safe cocoon of my parents just a few days earlier.”

“It rained most of the night and the next morning and we took shelter under bushes for a time. We had little food and water and kept walking before reaching what I think was Chula Vista by the afternoon. A white Cadillac car drove up to meet us with a black guy behind the wheel. He said he would take eight of us and I was chosen. Three guys were hidden in a small space behind the back seat. Then four guys were told to get in the trunk — there was no room for me. The black guy said, ‘Get in there!’ and I had to get in the trunk on top of the four guys lying there. There was nobody sitting inside the car except the driver. We got through the checkpoints where I assume bribes were paid. It was a terrible journey. I was close to the muffler and my shoulder was burned but I could not move away. We had no water and did not stop until we reached Los Angeles where another uncle came and collected me, paying the coyote a further $350. I felt great relief. The next day another uncle came and picked me up and drove me all the way to Anderson Valley. This time I got to enjoy the ride.”

Manuel stayed with his mother’s family here in the Valley, having maybe met them once before, and soon started work in construction with a local contractor. A few months later, by June, he was working for Gowan’s in the apple orchards. “All through the 80s, people would be arriving from Mexico in big numbers. We were at the start of that. My parents came in June 1980 and my Dad started work the next day at the mill. We had two incomes and so we rented a house in Philo, across from Lemons’ Market, next to the mill. I was a regular worker by that time and had some status, I guess. The rest of my brothers and sisters came in January 1981 and all of them enrolled at the Anderson Valley schools. We moved again — just down the road to a bigger family home behind what was the old Philo Post Office.”

At the age of 18, Manuel started work for Tim Bates at the Apple Farm earning $3.50 an hour. “I was filled with joy — that was big bucks! They were very good to me there and I thank them to this day. I had money to go out and play pool with friends and we’d go to the bar in Boonville — Mary Jane’s or the Smiling Deer it later became. It was mainly Anglos who drank there although it was also the choice of the Mexicans in the Valley. There were not many Mexicans here back then, we were an endangered species — now it’s changed! There were, shall we say, some culture clashes. People are always afraid of the unknown and there was a reaction to us arriving and for us a consequence — often a bad one. It is human nature. Working at Gowan’s, I came into little contact with non-Mexicans and was not familiar with the American culture at first, so it came as a surprise when incidents happened at the bar. I was young, stupid, and naïve. I still am a couple of those things sometimes. I didn’t come here to change things. I came here to make a better living for me and my family. I have paid taxes from day one. I have paid my dues and have always gone with the program.”

Manuel worked at the Apple Farm for a couple of years by which time he was earning $5 an hour, and continued to live with his parents. “It is in the Mestizo culture that you live with your parents and then take care of them when they get older.” In 1982 the family moved to the Floodgate area, south of Navarro, on to Skip Bloyd’s Ranch, which had been bought by Randy Faulk. “I left the Apple Farm in 1983 when I was offered $11 an hour to work in the woods for a local logging company. The wineries had still not really taken off yet and logging was the main industry. I set chokers in the woods for the next seven years, for a couple of different companies. The money was good but setting chokers was the only job available to me in the woods at that time. It became different later, but the logging has almost all gone now.”

In 1987, Manuel, now with his ‘green card’ (he got his citizenship a few years later), returned to Mexico for the first time since coming to the States. He was 23 and drove there with his mother and brother Efren. “I didn’t see any two-legged coyotes this time — only four-legged dead ones. We visited family and friends and had a great time. One day I was asked by my friend Jose to give a ride to some people. One of these was a girl called Lucia Davila. I really liked her. We visited every year in the December/January and each time I went we would see each other as friends and I visited with her family. I had a girlfriend here in the States and she had a boyfriend there. On one of the visits, I decided it was time to ask her out as a girlfriend. She said ‘No — we live too far apart, too many things can happen and change.’ I was upset and my ego was crushed. Then a year later she came to the States — to Los Angeles. We had been writing to each other and I went down there to see her as a surprise but couldn’t find her and she returned to Mexico. On my next visit, she said she would go out with me. She was very brave to see me — she did not know me very well. We had only seen each other a few times each year. Plus, her father was not sure about me — she was her Dad’s ‘little girl.’ He said to me, ‘I hope you are doing this in good faith — we don’t know you.’ He had me in his sights but I was genuine and so Lucia came here in December 1992 and we were married in January 1993.

In 1990, when Manuel finally stopped working in the woods, he and the family still at home — Mom, Dad, and brothers Antonio and Ernesto, moved to the opposite end of the Valley, to the Martz Vineyards in the Yorkville Highlands (now Maple Creek Winery). They had a home and he worked to pay the rent there while his father was the vineyard manager. When Lucia arrived and they were married they lived in a cabin on the Martz property and son Justin was born in March 1995. “I left the vineyard in 1994 and started to work as the custodian for the school. Then in 1997 Lucia got a job as teaching assistant at the elementary school with Donna Pierson-Pugh, Val Smith, and Trish Beverley as her co-workers. She is still there today and she also works at Lauren’s Restaurant. I was custodian for a few years then became the school bus driver in 1999, working with Shorty Adams and Troy Kreienhop. I love it there but it is a challenge. I still do a couple of hours custodian work each day, an hour of groundwork, and five hours of driving. The family pooled our resources and bought eleven acres here on Goodacre Road in 1999. We have lived here ever since and sometimes it is a bit of a struggle but that’s how life often is. There are no free meals.”

When not working or doing jobs around the property, Manuel likes to work with the singing canaries that he breeds, trains, and enters into an annual competition — a hobby that has been very enjoyable for him in the past several years. The family also likes to camp and they continue to visit Mexico every other year and see the family in Tepechitlan. “We are here to stay — as my Dad says, ‘If they don’t kick us out, we’re not going back.’ I came in 1979 and we have been here as a whole family since 1981 — 30 years. We have never been a strain on the government, in fact we actually work for this country.”

I asked Manuel for an image that comes to mind when he thinks about his father. “He is my hero. He is both strict and wise — there has never been any violence in this family. He is very precious.” And his mother? “The Queen of my world. My other Queen is my wife but I had to have a Mom before I could have Lucia,” Religion? “I was raised Catholic but I am not a Catholic. My wife goes to church and that is fine. My son will make his own mind up. If you want to have friends don’t talk about religion or politics. Talk about fishing or panning for gold!”

“I like the small town atmosphere of the Valley — something I have always felt comfortable with. There are many good people here, but some bad. People gossip too much and there is too much traffic on Hwy 128.”

The wineries and their impact? — “They provide jobs and bring in money.”..

KZYX radio? “It’s good for local news and information, and they did a great job when the lightning fires were happening. It’s a great tool at times like that, but KGO is my station.”

The School System? “A great place! My kid goes there and they are doing a good job with him. There are no bad teachers; there are some bad students. My Dad told me a long time ago, ‘If there is something you don’t get from the teachers, you can always get it from the library if you really want to know it. It is up to you.’ It is easy to blame others for your difficulties. It is up to you to go and get want you want, or at least try your very best to do that.”

Drugs in the Valley? “They are not a part of my life so I really don’t have anything to say. I do know we will not put up with it with Justin if he uses them. He’ll be straight to juvenile hall. He plays by our rules while he is in our home.”

I posed a few questions to my guest. Some from TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “My canary birds singing in the morning. I breed, train, and show the birds.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “People yelling.”

Sound or noise you love? “Water running in the creeks; wind blowing through the trees.”

sound or noise you hate? “Bad rock and roll; the sound of the jake-brakes on trucks.”

Favorite food or meal? “My mother’s handmade tortillas, in a mole sauce and with chicken. Oh, and don’t forget the frijoles (beans)! You can call me a ‘beaner’ if you like. I’ve been called worse.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “My father’s mother, Grandma Teresa, aka Chita.”

If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “A fishing pole, a knife, and a metal detector — so I could still do one of my hobbies — and might find something useful.”

What scares you? “Death. I don’t know it, so it scares me.”

Favorite hobby? “Breeding and raising my canaries. They are singing canaries — the breed is Belgian Waterslager. I am a member of the Western Waterslager Club and we meet and compete with our birds in singing competitions. I also like to work with a metal detector, mainly when I visit Mexico.”

Profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “A pilot of some sort — planes or even helicopters. It has always fascinated me.”

Profession would you not like to do? “Cleaning out septic tanks. But if I had no choice then I would do it.”

Age when you went on your first date? And where did you go? “I was 16 and I took a girl to Ukiah to see a movie and have a meal.”

Something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “I would have got more of an education.”

A memorable moment; a time you will never forget? “Being with Lucia — she is my best friend and companion.”

Something you’re really proud of and why? “My family here — Lucia and Justin. They are who I am. I am also very proud of my parents and all they have done.”

Favorite thing about yourself? “My sense of humor. But it’s not always welcome or funny for everyone!”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “He’ll probably say ‘What the hell are you doing here!?’ If He said, ‘You were stubborn but you have a good heart’ then that would be fine with me.”

To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Beverly Dutra, Anderson Valley Political and Social Activist.

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