One man hoped to buy a small ranchito with a few cows and a horse in his hometown in Nayarit, Mexico.
Another planned to construct a house in his village in Chiapas, near the border with Guatemala.
Two brothers worked to send money to their wives and children in the Indigenous village of San Cristóbal in the Mexican state of Michoacán.
To reach those dreams, they worked in Oregon’s agricultural fields – some for a few months, others for years. On May 18, they had just finished weeding a field of beets near Albany and were riding in a Ford Econoline on Interstate 5 to another field when a semitruck rammed into their passenger van, which had momentarily stopped at the side of the freeway. It slammed the van into another parked semitruck, crushing it between the two 18-wheelers.
The crash marked one of the deadliest in recent Oregon history.
Six workers died at the scene, another at the hospital and four others were injured. They ranged in age from 30 to 60 years old. Most of those who died were men. One woman also died, leaving behind a 1-year-old son.
The collision upended the lives of families in Oregon and thousands of miles away across the border in Mexico, where all seven victims had ties.
It shined a light on the $42 billion Oregon agricultural system that sometimes pushes workers into the shadows as the price to pay for reaching modest dreams.
And in the aftermath of the crash, this system also created challenges in death, for identifying those killed and injured, claiming the bodies of loved ones and affording families the basic human dignity of grieving their dead.
She remembers well the day her two youngest sons left for the United States – Jan. 6, 2022 – because it coincided with a fiesta in San Cristóbal, a village of a few hundred inhabitants in Michoacán. Before that, they had worked many odd jobs in their village, but it wasn’t enough to support their wives and children, said their mother, Cata García, speaking from San Cristóbal.
So they borrowed money from relatives to make the border crossing with the help of coyotes, smugglers who charge thousands of dollars to take migrants to El Norte. Their destination: Oregon, where a third brother, the oldest, had been living and working for more than two decades.
In Oregon, the three brothers worked for J Ruiz Farm Labor Contracting, planting, weeding and harvesting on farms around the Willamette Valley, their mother said. In time they paid back the money they borrowed and sent more to their wives and children.
On May 18, two of them, Adan Garcia Garcia, 40, and Josué Garcia Garcia, 30, were traveling on Interstate 5 with their crew when a portable bathroom in the back of their van began to rattle, Cata García said she learned.
As the van stopped on the freeway’s shoulder, Adan Garcia Garcia stepped out to adjust the the portable toilet. That’s when he saw a semi-truck barreling towards the van and ran to avoid being hit, he later told his mom. He saw the truck slam into the van – with his brother and the other nine workers inside – pushing it against another semi-truck that had also stopped on the shoulder. Josué Garcia Garcia, the youngest of the brothers, died at the scene. The oldest, Adan Garcia Garcia, walked away physically unscathed.
But Josué Garcia Garcias’s death has left his two surviving brothers in Oregon emotionally traumatized and his parents, four sisters, wife and children in San Cristóbal destitute, his mother said. He was the main breadwinner for his wife and three children, aged 3, 6 and 8 years old.
“His 3-year-old son keeps saying ‘My father went to the mountains, but he will return at night,’” Cata Garcia said.
The mother said he was a religious man who participated in pilgrimages to the basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City. He never gave anyone any trouble, Cata García said. “He was very quiet,” she said. “Whatever happened to him, he never complained.”
He had gone to Oregon hoping to make enough money to build a small house for his family members, to replace their current home that has a makeshift tin roof. He also wanted to be able to pay for his wife to take classes at a beauty school.
Now, the family is waiting to find out when his body will return home.
“He went over there to give a better life to his wife and children and look at what happened to him,” said Cata Garcia. “If I had known this would happen, I would not have let him to go.”
Like the two brothers, the other workers who were killed or injured were also employees of J Ruiz Farm Labor Contracting, operated by Jerry Ruiz of Salem. Ruiz has not responded to numerous requests for comments on the crash.
About 100,000 farmworkers grow, pick and pack food in Oregon, according to a recent report sponsored by Oregon Housing and Community Services. Most earn very low wages. A third of farmworker households in Oregon and Washington live in poverty, compared with the 14% for the general U.S. population.
Over the past few decades, growers have increasingly relied on farm labor contractors like Ruiz to hire temporary agricultural workers. Often, the contractors also transport, house and provide meals and check-cashing services for the laborers – expenses the workers usually must cover from their own wages.
J Ruiz Farm Labor Contracting hires between 100 and 300 workers at a time, depending on the season and the crop, said administrative manager Anmarie Ruiz. It recruits people in Mexico and hires locally.
The labor contractor carries workers’ compensation insurance, state records show. All of the injured victims as well as the family members of the deceased workers are eligible to apply for workers’ compensation and survivor benefits, no matter their legal status or their place of residence, said Mark Peterson, a spokesman with the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services.
Several of the killed or injured workers were migrants, traveling back and forth between Mexico, Oregon and other states. They shared cramped quarters in farm labor housing in Gervais owned and run by a local farmer who contracts with Ruiz. Others, who had settled in Oregon, lived with family members in Salem, Gervais and Woodburn.
An initial press release from Oregon State Police as well as court documents misidentified at least four of the victims.
Capt. Kyle Kennedy, a spokesperson for Oregon State Police, said several workers either carried documents that did not reflect their real identities or did not have any identification on them. That – coupled with the severity of the collision – led to difficulties in identifying the victims, Kennedy, said.
The Mexican consulate took well over a week to complete a final list of names of the deceased and injured and to locate their families.
The confusion caused at least one traumatic mix-up.
Thelma Solis of Hermosillo, Sonora found out about the accident through social media, which listed her brother – Jose Eduardo Solis Flores – as one of the deceased. The family spent a day mourning, then called the Mexican consulate to find out how to bring his body home.
Instead, she learned her brother was alive and at the hospital in stable condition.
Two days later, family members spoke with him by phone.
“We were devastated by the news that he had died. And then we were overjoyed that he was alive,” Solis said. “But we also put ourselves in the shoes of the other family, which had also received erroneous information.”
Solis said it’s unclear whether her brother, who had spent just under a year in Oregon, will immediately return to Sonora, where his father, another sibling and a 19-year-old son live. He had been working in the U.S. to pay off a house in Sonora and to open a small business there.
The family has asked for a humanitarian visa to come visit him in Oregon, but the consulate has told them they’d have to wait at least a week.
On the other side of that mixup was Eduardo Lopez, a 31-year-old from Sinaloa who also lived in the farm labor housing in Gervais. His housemates and fellow workers were told that he was injured and had walked out of the hospital. In fact, Lopez – who went by Raul Duarte in Oregon – had been killed. In Mexico, he had a wife and two small children, 2 and 10 years old – she, too, is still waiting for a visa to come to Oregon.
Alejandro Jimenez Hernandez hailed from Bochil, a town of about 14,000 people in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. He finished high school and worked odd jobs for very low pay, but there were no work prospects and he needed to provide for a recently born daughter, said his brother Lazaro Jimenez Fernandez.
Together, the two brothers set out north for Tijuana. For 10 years, they shared a room and worked long hours for low wages with no benefits in maquiladoras, the foreign-owned factories that dot the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. Alejandro was a constant companion, a calm, quiet man, Lazaro Jimenez Fernandez said, speaking from Tijuana.
But while the pay was better than back home, time passed with little to show. So a few years ago, Alejandro crossed into the United States, his brother said. He worked in several states, coming and going between the United States and Mexico.
“He wanted to construct a little house in Chiapas,” his brother said. “He wanted to live a little better.”
In Oregon, where he had worked since January, Alejandro was known as German Perez-Perez. He shared a home in Gervais with a dozen others.
The weekend after the accident, someone representing Alejandro’s farm labor contractor knocked on Lazaro’s door and told him his brother, 36, had died in the accident.
“I didn’t expect it. I’ve watched accidents on television, but I never dreamed that this would happen to my family member,” his brother said, his voice breaking.
Lazaro Jimenez Fernandez, his sisters and brothers, Alejandro’s parents and daughter in Chiapas have been waiting for days to learn when they can bring his body home for burial, to the place where he was born.
Though the family has heard from the consulate, they still have not heard when the body would reach them. “We have been waiting and waiting for them to call us back,” said Lazaro Jimenez Fernandez.
Also planning to return to his country of birth was Juan Carlos Leyva Carrillo. Just two weeks ago, the 38-years-old was watching television with his partner when a horse appeared galloping on the screen.
“Look, this is my dream, he told me,” said Maria Alida, who shared a home with Leyva Carrillo for four years. “He said, ‘I’m on the horse and you’re driving the horse trailer.’
Leyva Carrillo, who arrived in Woodburn in 2019 from the Mexican state of Nayarit, dreamed to one day buy a small ranchito with a few cows and a horse. It’s one reason why he worked so hard to save money. He also wired money weekly to his four children in Mexico.
“He was an amazing worker, very responsible. Whatever task they gave him, he would accomplish it,” Alida said.
He also was a great human being, she said. “He was a very caring, affectionate man, dedicated to his family. He always emotionally supported me,” she said.
He chose Woodburn because it’s where his aunts lived.
Just last week, when Alida was admitted to the hospital for a tooth problem, he visited her and cooked all her meals before leaving for work in the morning.
“It has been so difficult,” Alina said, crying. “We always went everywhere together… to run errands together, to shop together, to the laundromat together.” The morning of the accident, she said, he asked her to get the laundry ready so they could go after work.
“I have not been able to go. The clothes are just sitting there; I don’t have the heart to go to the laundromat alone,” Alida said.
Alida said she will take Leyva Carrillo’s ashes to his hometown in Mexico so he can be buried there, next to the grandmother that had raised him – as he had requested of her, in case of his death.
On Sunday, Leyva Carrillo’s family and the family members and friends of other victims mourned at a private memorial at Morning Star Church in Salem. About 200 people attended, according to city of Salem chaplain George Escalante, who has been providing spiritual support to the families of the victims as well as the four injured workers. A mariachi band played in remembrance of the victims.
The service included the reading of a statement from Jerry Ruiz, the farm labor contractor.
“By no means will these farmworkers, my employees, ever be forgotten,” Ruiz said. “Migrant workers are so much more than the work they do,” he added. “They are beloved by so many in the community. They are friends, parents, siblings and partners.”
He added: “I sincerely hope that gratitude, kindness and respect come out of this terrible tragedy… Gratitude to the people who work in the fields that feed so many. Kindness to these people who are navigating life learning a new language. And respect for the dreams they are working towards.”
On Tuesday morning, Lincoln Clayton Smith, the 52-year-old driver of the semitruck that allegedly caused the crash, briefly appeared in court so the judge could set a meeting for June 6.
About a dozen family members of victims watched from the benches, some with tears in their eyes. After exiting the courtroom, they hugged.
A foundation affiliated with farmworkers union Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste continues to collect money for the victims through its emergency fund and the Oregon Farm Bureau has created an additional fundraiser through GoFundMe.