Special Reports

Migrant farm girl returned for good life

When Lodi Cantu needed a lift during a low point in her life more than 20 years ago in Texas, she thought of the springs and summers when she grew to love Whatcom County as a girl.

The county seems to have loved her in return during the past two decades while she's built a new life here as part of a growing local Latino population.

Now known as Lodi Slosson - pronounced Lo-dee, short for Elodia - she was the second youngest of 10 children. During the 1960s, her parents, Petronillo and Antonia Cantu, and the younger children would travel to Whatcom County every April for a six-month stay as migrant workers. Her memories of migrant life are positive, in large part because of the warm reception her family received. She attended schools in the Meridian, Nooksack and Lynden districts in the spring, then worked in the fields each summer.

"I've seen migrant workers who have endured horrible conditions in Eastern Washington and elsewhere, but our life in Whatcom County was good, thanks to the Ehlers family," she said. "We lived in a nice house on their farm on the Halverstick Road, and we were treated very well."

Her family worked for Frances and the late Bill Ehlers and later for son Darryl Ehlers and his wife, Louise.

"We came all the way to Whatcom County to work because one of my older sisters was here and she told us how nice the area was," Slosson said. "I never really felt any prejudice. Prejudice has always been just a word to me."

She recalls how her school in Texas was stricter, but says Washington schools were better academically.

"I do remember how the kids would try to get me to go to the front of the school bus," she said, laughing at the irony. "But I would always keep my seat in the back, because those were the best seats for the kids who grabbed them first."

She didn't know any English when she started school as a 7-year-old in Texas. Within two years, however, she leaped ahead three grades and became fluent in English as well as Spanish, in part because she was immersed in English part of each year.

"I don't have any accent now, but I still say 'you-all,'" she said with the hearty laugh that often peppers her conversation.

Darryl Ehlers, 65, who still grows raspberries and blueberries, has warm memories of the Cantu family, both for their personalities and for their work ethic.

"The Cantus were wonderful people when they worked for us," said Ehlers, who has known Slosson since she was 8. "They were old school, just great folks."

Slosson's seasonal trips to the Northwest ended after her father died in 1970. She wondered if she would ever return for more than brief visits. She graduated from high school in 1973 in La Feria, a small town about 25 miles west of the Gulf Coast and a few miles from the Rio Grande and the Mexican border.

"We actually grew up in a little village, Santa Maria. The village was so small that the streets didn't even have names," she said. "But we didn't feel poor. We always had a home and everything we needed."

She married and bore a son, Arturo Rodriguez, and went to work for a bank. She thought southern Texas would always be her home. But that changed with her divorce in 1980.

Recalling the good feelings she had about people in Whatcom County, she returned, determined to rebuild her life with help from two sisters who had settled here, Oralia Saenz and Maria Cardona.

Slosson, who lives on the shore of Lake Wiser, near Lynden, met Terry Slosson at a dance in Bellingham in 1983 and married him four months later. Now the grandparents of three toddlers, they will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in November, two months before Lodi's 50th birthday.

"It was love at first sight," she said, a sentiment echoed by her husband, a 34-year veteran of Alcoa Intalco Works, where Arturo also found work.

"I knew I had to strike while the iron was hot," Terry said with a grin.

"My family members always used to joke with me, 'When are you going to show us this gringo you got?'"' Lodi recalled, since it was obvious to them that she had found love.

When Lodi Slosson arrived back in Whatcom County for good in 1981, she only needed a few weeks to find a banking job. She rose from teller to loan officer during 17 years with People's Bank, and has worked the past two years in customer service for Bank NorthWest in Everson.

Slosson's entire family got together for "quite a shindig" for her mother's 75th birthday in 1989. Both parents have died, but eight of the 10 children survive.

She lost one brother, Pedro, to malaria, contracted at age 23 during military service in Vietnam; and lost another brother, Petronillo, in a local tractor accident in August - 25 years after his mentor, Bill Ehlers, died in a tractor mishap.

Slosson has combined her hobbies of cross-stitch and family genealogy to create an intricate, artistic family tree that proudly hangs at her home. As she created the tree over a 15-year period, she often realized the key to her happiness: the branches of the tree extend from the Mexican border to Whatcom County.