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Remembering the immigrants who built Galesburg's railroads

Courtesy Carl Sandburg College
Gayla Perez Pacheco, a descendant of one of Galesburg's boxcar families of immigrants working on the railroads, speaks to a class at Carl Sandburg College.

A student organization plans to create landmarks to honor Galesburg's "Boxcar People" -- the immigrants who built the railroads up in the early 20th century.

Gayla Perez Pacheco's family came to Galesburg from Mexico in the early 1900s to seek a better life working on the railroads. But they weren't allowed to live in town.

"It was understood that not only Mexicans, but African Americans, Catholics and the Irish were forbidden to live within the city limits," Pacheco said. "Immigrants in different spaces that came went through different struggles."

Pacheco's grandfather and father both lived in one of the crowded boxcar camps set up for migrant railroad workers outside Galesburg.

That story resonates with Selina Godina, the president of Carl Sandburg College's Hispanic/Latino Student Association and the daughter of a Mexican immigrant. She said it's important to recognize this story.

"We need people to be educated on what the first Mexican families of Galesburg have done to make Galesburg what it is today," Godina said. "They made the railroad. And we want to make sure that they are honored."

Pacheco said her grandfather's hard work and determination helped his family become of the first to leave the camps and purchase property within the city.

"It didn't come overnight. And so I think it's very important for our children, and all children, to understand the hard work that our ancestors did," Pacheco said.

Godina said the student group hopes to erect historical markers at each of the three former boxcar camp locations by next spring.

Tim Shelley is the Assignment Editor and Digital Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.