Teacher works to save his forgotten past

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OCONTO COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) -- A Spanish teacher is on a mission to save his childhood home that many would consider a rundown shack.

field worker shack
WBAY photo

But he feels saving the home is about preserving a piece of this area's history.

It took Antonio Saldana 35 years to return to where cucumber fields used to cover the landscape in Oconto County, Wisconsin.

"Time does heal all wounds," said Saldana, who lives in Green Bay.

Born 59 years ago this week in Oconto, Saldana shared this 24 by 14-foot home with his mom and dad, along with 13 brothers and sisters.

"Here's where I slept, right here on the floor," said Saldana, pointing near the doorway.

The Saldanas were Hispanic-American migrant workers dating back to the 1930s.

Each summer, they came to pick cucumbers for the Bond Pickle Company, living in what was known as Bond Village, made up of dozens of migrant shacks.

"It was very, very difficult. It was not easy," recalls Saldana.

By the time he was four, he was expected to be in the fields, every day.

His earliest childhood memories are all about work.

"Your parents waking you up at about four or five in the morning, and then you get you shoes on. You put your jeans on and your shirt, and then you had those sombreros that are so stereotypical of people. You didn't wear those because you were Mexican or Mexican-American, you wore that hat to protect you from the heat. And then you go home and shower in the pathetic showers there were, and then a lot of times there was no TV. Nobody really had a TV back then. And then you go to bed, then the cycle started again," Saldana remembered.

Life outside the village, like when Saldana was able to go to school, proved even tougher.

"We were like those Mexicans who live in those poor houses. Sometimes we got call the N word. I got kicked and punched," Saldana said.

As a young boy, he remembers knowing there had to be more out there.

What is that secret? How do I get out of this life? Those were constant thoughts in Saldana's mind.

His break came when at age 14 when his parents allowed him to live with his older sister, who had just gotten married, and attend school full-time in Green Bay.

"Because of that, I was the first Saldana, and just think I'm a fourth generation, hundreds of us, the first one to graduate from high school and then the first one to get a college education. So I'm proud to say that I laid the groundwork and I say that in a humble manner," Saldana said.

He took that drive back to Oconto County a few years ago.

"And then I come to this place and I thought, that's my home," he recalled.

And when he found the handwritten names of his brothers and sisters scattered about the inside walls, Saldana made a promise to one of his dying brothers.

"This house will end up somewhere, not because it's our home, but it represents we were people. We were in the past. We are here. We will continue. Just because were not out there picking cucumbers doesn't mean that history is long gone and forgotten," Saldana said.

With Saldana's help, many of his family's meager belongings are on display as part of the Neville Public Museum's "Estamos Aqui" exhibit.

As for his home, he's contacted Heritage Hill hoping it will find a home.

"I want people to remember that there's a lot of people that are wealthy because of the hard work we did. And I started doing this type of work when I was four years old, it's so ingrained in your head," he said.

Read the original version of this article at wbay.com.