Jose “Chuy” Magana was 18 when he started working at the Creative Contract Packaging manufacturing plant in Aurora, Illinois. The CCP plant, owned and operated by Hormel Foods, blends, bottles, and packages from product lines that include HERB-OX® bouillon, House of Tsang® sauces, private-label and Hormel Health Labs products, among others. As a mechanic, Chuy starts his mornings at 4:45 a.m., surrounded by the salty, smokey and earthy smells of peanut sauce or enticing hints of raspberry and orange.
Chuy hails from Guadalajara, Mexico. The only boy in his family — he has seven sisters — he became skilled at ranch work, learning to tend to his dad’s cows. When he was 15, Chuy moved to Idaho; he stayed there for a year before moving to Illinois to live with his uncle Salvatore. Now 35, Chuy says he first became interested in working at CCP at the recommendation of two of his uncles, Salvatore and Juvi: CCP has been their work “home” now for 25 and 30 years, respectively.
These bonds became even stronger when Chuy was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which soon spread to his stomach. He was only 20 when the doctor found the initial tumor: testicular cancer is reportedly the most common form of cancer for men ages 15 to 34.
“His diagnosis wasn’t good,” shares CCP plant manager Thomas Koehn.
Because cancer is overwhelming, Uncle Sal insisted on moving Chuy to his own home, where Chuy could rest and recuperate for as long as he needed. Seven months of often painful chemotherapy treatment led to dramatic hair and weight loss. Chuy did not feel like his usual self. While it was admittedly a tough time, the ways that Sal provided TLC helped Chuy keep going. Uncle Sal tried to get Chuy to eat his favorite foods — more on those shortly — and made sure he had enough water to drink. Uncle Sal even kept a schedule of Chuy’s doctor’s appointments, so that he could make sure Chuy had a ride.
All of this help meant that Chuy could focus on resting and getting better — which helped ease Chuy’s worries. He had to take an entire year off of work for treatment, and still seems amazed when he recalls the support Uncle Sal gave him. Another miracle: that his job was waiting for him when he returned.
Looking at his kind eyes and easy smile, it’s nearly impossible to guess that Chuy ever went through such an ordeal. Yet to hear Chuy tell it, getting such shocking medical news at such a young age changed everything. For starters, he says, he learned to “Be nice to everybody.” This included mending a fraught relationship with his mother and one of his sisters, because he felt he was getting a second chance at life.
I sleep easier at night because Chuy is so good at what he does.Thomas Koehn, plant manager
This newly positive outlook did not go unnoticed by Koehn, who says that Chuy comes in every day and gives 110 percent — earning Chuy the title of “go-to mechanic” as far as Koehn is concerned. “I sleep easier at night because Chuy is so good at what he does,” he adds.
Chuy’s “baby” at work, according to Koehn, is a climate-controlled “digital cloud” system made up of five machines with a set of connected conveyor belts. This collection of precision machinery stores, processes, cuts, packages and wraps the powdered spice and sauce product lines for shipping. For example, to make HERB-OX® bouillon, a fragrant combination of powdered spice is poured into a spinning color wheel and then dropped into a machine that puts film on three sides of the bouillon cube before sealing the top. A knife assembly machine systematically cuts the HERB-OX® into individual packets; if it’s for an eight-container order, those packets go down one conveyor belt. For 12-pack orders, they move down a conveyor belt headed in a different direction.
Koehn says that Chuy is able to advise him of when preventative maintenance is needed one month before it’s needed, which is a huge help. “He can spot if something’s not going to be right for a chain part in the near future, and will make sure I know it needs to be corrected well before we even need it.” Even to an outside observer, it’s clear that Chuy has high standards in the workplace: Koehn says Chuy may even get a little upset if all of these machines aren’t running properly.
For his co-workers, Chuy routinely shows the team of operators and packers helpful tips to keep the cloud network performing at optimal levels. The end goal in all this? To process well over 600 packages or a couple thousand cubes of bouillon per minute, all depending on the day’s orders and inventory — the exact numbers are a closely guarded secret.
Chuy gathers daily during break time, with his three dozen or so co-workers, most of whom are also from Mexico and Central America. United even further by a shared love of delicious food, they sometimes get together on weekends as well, sharing tamales or brothy bowls of a vibrantly meaty and garlicky soup called posole. The same work friends visited Chuy constantly all those years ago, while he was in the hospital and at his uncle Sal’s house recuperating.
After his treatment for cancer, Chuy returned to Mexico to visit his own father. While there, he was drawn to a woman named Sandy, and the two fell in love, married, and had a son named Juan Pablo. That’s even after Chuy was told that he might not be able to have any children, since the cancer began in his reproductive organs.
Over five long years, Sandy and Juan Pablo remained in Mexico, and Chuy visited as often as he could; when they were finally able to move north to join Chuy in Aurora — known as the “city of lights” — the area must have seemed like a shining beacon. This October, Sandy started working as a teacher’s aide in a fifth-grade classroom at Juan Pablo’s school: another exciting milestone, since Sandy had studied to learn English just as Chuy did when he first arrived.
Now cancer-free, Chuy still has to get tested every six months, but the prospect of recurrence doesn’t seem to faze his sunny outlook. On weekends, he uses his mechanical talents to fix up classic vintage cars and then sell them; even Koehn has been tempted to buy one, since they’re amazingly beautiful. Chuy is happy to save the additional income for Juan Pablo’s future.
Another way the family and their friends have fun is cheering on Club América, a soccer team wildly popular back in Mexico. Church is another important part of Chuy’s life, especially now that Juan Pablo, who turned eight this year, is getting ready his first communion. The joy with which he relates this information only shows how proud and happy Chuy is — truly, for everything in his life.