Boxcars and Section Houses

Rebecca Phillips Guevara
Beehive History 6

On the eve of her parents’ arrival in Irapuato, Mexico, on November 29, 1921, Guadalupe Otanez was born. Little Lupe had not been expected so soon. Her parents, Ramon and Josepha Otanez, had traveled from the Utah Salt Flats to their native Mexico for the event. They stayed there until Lupe was six months old. Then the family of three returned to Utah where Ramon worked for the Western Pacific Railroad. For the next five years the family was part of an extra gang. Extra gangs were sent wherever the railroad needed more workers. Lupe’s father helped to keep up the track on Western Pacific’s route from Salt Lake City to Wendover. The railroad gave the family a boxcar to live in. With a home on wheels it was easy to move to wherever the track needed repair.

Living in isolation on the Salt Flats with her immigrant parents, Lupe did not learn to speak or understand English. Nor did she know the ways of other children. When the family moved to Salt Lake City in 1926, kindergarten confused her. Like other immigrant children, Lupe felt uncomfortable in clothes that looked different from what most youngsters wore. She could not understand the jokes of other children. They spoke what was to her a foreign language. Still, she loved school and was a quick learner.

At school Lupe struggled with the unfamiliar. At home Mexican traditions were comfortable and expected. In April 1926 the third baby of the family was put into her arms. Five more brothers and sisters would later be given to her to care for in the traditional Mexican way. As the oldest girl, Lupe had this responsibility. From age five until she married she would care for the younger children of the family.

Before school Lupe would dress and feed the children. She saw that the beds were made and the house straightened. She also helped her mother make the daily tortillas. If these things were not done there was no school that day. Lupe found other times to iron, embroider, study, and play. Her mother did the daily laundry, cooked, cleaned, and made all their clothing. The division of labor was rigid, but it was accepted and necessary in a large family.

By 1929 the Otanez family had returned to the Salt Flats. This time the father was assigned to a railroad section. One man maintained a ten-mile section of track. During the next five years the family moved from Winnemucca, Nevada, to Burmester, Utah, and to spots in between—wherever the Western Pacific Railroad needed a section worker. Instead of living in a boxcar the family now lived in a two-room section house. These were happy times for Lupe. But during those same years the United States suffered from the effects of the Great Depression. Many men lost their jobs. People stood in breadlines to receive food. The Otanez family had no luxuries, but they never went hungry. As lonely as the desert between Salt Lake City and Winnemucca looks, it gave a secure rhythm to their lives that the rest of the country did not feel.

The Otanez children learned the railroad ways and greeted the trains with waves and signals. When they saw smoke rising on the distant horizon they knew a train was on its way. Unless their mother caught them they would lay their heads on the track and listen to the click-click of the approaching train. Bets would be made on how long it would take the train to arrive.

Each week a train would stop by their section house to bring them a barrel of fresh water and food or household items ordered from the United Market in Salt Lake City. The children became friends with the engineers who brought them candy and magazines. In return, the men would be sent on their way with a pot of beans and a stack of tortillas. In the summer—if they were lucky—a train would slow down long enough to throw out some extra ice from a refrigerator car. The chipped ice was mixed with milk and carmelized sugar to make a kind of ice cream. In winter the trains brought coal. The family spent the cold evenings huddled around the stove, listening to the father tell of life in Mexico and of how he fought in the army of Pancho Villa.

Living so far from other girls and boys and from city fun, the Otanez children amused themselves by playing tag or hide-and-seek. Sometimes they tried to tame the local desert animals. Lizards became pets. Horseflies provided an afternoon’s amusement. Trapped in a cigar box, the angry insects were put on a leash of sewing thread and let go to fly as far as the spool of thread would allow. While living in Timpie, Utah, the children trapped gophers in a birdcage and studied their habits. They tied bows on their tails, making it easier to keep track of the animal’s activities once they were set free.

When Lupe turned eight she began to help with the family expenses. She ironed clothes for the single men living along the railroad line and sold them tortillas she made. Lupe learned how to work hard and to play happily. She also learned the importance of beauty in the Mexican home. Dishtowels, for example, should be not only clean but beautiful. When her family was in Saldura, Utah, they lived near a deserted salt plant. Lupe and her mother gathered salt sacks that had been left when the plant closed. The sacks were washed and hemmed for use as dishtowels after they had been beautifully embroidered with colored thread. The string for sewing the sacks closed was also gathered. On that string Lupe learned to crochet.

During the school year Lupe’s mother rented a cabin in Grantsville, Utah, so the children could attend school. Their father would visit the family in town on the weekends and then return to his railroad section during the week. Again, the embarrassment of going to school in old-fashioned clothes made Lupe feel awkward. High-topped shoes had long been out of style, but each day Lupe wore her brown, high-topped shoes and her black dress. Her father believed in the modesty of young girls and strictly enforced his dress code. He thought gym clothes were too revealing, and Lupe was excused from taking gym classes.

Finally, the economic conditions of the 1930s began to affect the Otanez family. The Western Pacific Railroad had money problems. By 1936 Lupe’s father had to look elsewhere for work. The family decided to try thinning beets in the Idaho sugar beet fields. Painfully, they found they were not used to farm work. The pay was low, and they were forced to live in what was little more than a hut.

Lupe’s mother became ill that winter. With her mother in the hospital, Lupe took over the complete care of five younger children. She also found work watering a horse and caring for a neighbor’s pigs. The food they could buy or were given was not always fresh. One horrifying day she found baby mice in the flour. She knew she must rid the flour of the mice and make tortillas so her family would have something to eat.

The winter cold was almost unbearable. The children made all-day games out of feeding the little stove with willows. By spring the whole family was wearing gunnysack shoes. But their health was good and their spirits cheerful. Others were not so fortunate. Lupe’s father found six neighbor children, ages six months to six years, abandoned in a nearby cabin. Lupe agreed to look after them until their father returned in the late spring.

When the Western Pacific Railroad began rehiring workers, the Otanezes returned to Grantsville. Lupe’s formal education ended after two months of the ninth grade when the family moved back to the section house at Saldura near Wendover, Utah. Her childhood faded further the next fall when her father began to look for a suitable husband for her.

Lupe’s growing up years were difficult. Yet, she remained cheerful and learned to work hard. She also learned the values of her Mexican heritage—especially family responsibility and honor.