A Hard Day's Night
Six days a week they go to work in the fields at 3am for low wages and no job security. Rebecca Crocker reports on the immigrant workers who put food on our tables.
Thursday, August 31, 2000
We rose early for the fields. Monterey was asleep and thick with the smell of the sea at 1am, and I covered myself in layers and wrapped a light shawl around my head. The roads to East Salinas were dark and quiet, save an occasional lumbering semi and the bright vapid lights of gas stations and fast food joints that blurred the stars. On a small side street off Garner Road and past the Full Gospel Church, a blue Ford Aerostar van sat idling in a driveway. Empty cereal boxes and work boots littered the stoop of the nondescript cement home, and lights from inside illuminated two small silhouettes.
I knocked lightly. Don Emiliano, a dark-skinned man standing no taller than 5''5", stepped gingerly onto the stoop. Nodding, he said, >"A sus ordenes"--"At your service," a traditional Mexican phrase reserved for addressing people deemed to be of a higher social class. Emiliano closed the door tightly behind his wife Maricela and without a word of introduction asked, >"Lista?" "Are you ready?"
Emiliano''s name came to me by way of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a Salinas-based legal advocacy group that represented him and scores of other strawberry workers who were weaseled out of their weekly paychecks for several weeks at a time by growers in the early 1990s. After years of legal battles, Emiliano will soon receive backpay for his uncompensated toil in the strawberry fields, where the work is notoriously hard and low-paying. He has since advanced to picking lettuce, one of Monterey County''s top earning crops. Maricela and Emiliano, 40 and 50 years old respectively, work the lettuce fields from April though November, then rest up for the winter.
The Ford maneuvered through the empty streets, signaling at every turn, then stopping for the three hooded figures standing in a dark empty lot. Emiliano and Maricela''s young nieces and nephews climbed in the van and we began our journey, the five Mexican farmworkers leading the way, and I following closely behind. "Take your own car," Maricela had suggested. "It gets hot, you may want to go home." I wanted to stay, wanted to survive the heat and discomfort and boredom, but I complied and took my own car, just in case.
We drove through Salinas'' east side and out to the highway, making our way north toward Hollister''s lettuce fields. In the first hours of morning, the incessant workings of agribusiness rule the valley, and we shared the road with just a few 18-wheelers and a handful of faded pick-up trucks. The speeding commuters in shiny new cars were conspicuously absent. More stars lit the sky and the air cooled.
We had just turned off on Highway 156 and were heading inland when Emiliano told me to wait for him by the roadside while he went to pick up another worker. Within minutes, the flashing lights of a police car appeared behind me along with a pair of Hollister police officers, who asked in polite country fashion if I was quite all right. I explained that I was waiting for a farmworker to take me out to the fields. The cop smiled, gave a short guffaw and drawled, "Okay, have fun," before resuming his nocturnal patrol.
In a couple of hours, the farm laborers would be telling me their own stories of being stopped regularly for broken lights, expired license plates and speeding. "I''ve gotten two tickets and at least seven guys out here have had their cars taken by the la policia," Alfredo the truck driver explained, adding that down south where he lived, the police were not nearly as nitpicky about driving regulations.
We pulled up next to an abandoned Lamborghini tractor at exactly 3am, the last workers to join the crew that morning. Emiliano told me to leave my bag in the car and I panicked, not wanting to part from my water supply, flashlight or the warm comfort of the car. I stuffed a pack of Nutter Butters and a pen and paper in my pocket.
The vanload of workers readied their supplies as well--gloves, boots and odd-looking flat scoopers with a sharp edge and a handle they called charolas, a Mexican word for tray. We walked through the mud, following the lights of a Coleman generator that illuminated two dozen bundled figures hunched over rows of tightly packed green oak lettuce. The workers were mostly men, young and old alike in uniforms of baggy jeans, boots, hooded sweatshirts and baseball caps. The handful of women donned the same loose-fitting jeans and caps, but wore plaid button-up shirts and covered their heads and necks entirely with bandannas and long strips of cloth. I had always assumed the full body coverage was to protect against the sun, but standing in the early morning chill, I could see the breath of the workers as they talked. The layers were also for the cold, and I was totally unprepared.
Miguel the foreman, a stocky character in cowboy boots and a sombrero, arrived from Soledad within a half hour. Having worked 10 years in the fields and as a tractor driver to become foreman and gain the privilege of standing around and watching other people work, he was shocked when I asked for a scooper. While he mulled it over, he went over the workers'' routine. "We pick at night because the lettuce needs to be crisp when it''s cut, and the sun makes it droop," he began. "The first crew works from 3am-1pm, and then another group comes to work from 1pm-11pm. Today, we''ll go home at 11 though, because it''s too hot and it''s not good for anyone to be out here."
The workers all appeared to know just what to do, and the whole process flowed like clockwork. They picked in teams of two, each employing his own style of filling the scoops and dumping the lettuce into wax-coated cardboard boxes until they were near overflowing. Loose pieces of lettuce fell to the ground and no one retrieved them. One person closed the box while the other went for a new one to fill. When a team began overlapping with another pair, they dragged the box to an open area and resumed picking. Miguel had received an order from the processors in Hollister for 84 boxes of "spring mix" lettuce, and no one was counting which team picked what. Even the tractor acted without direction, moving without a driver slowly through the fields, its wheels guided only by deep ruts in the soil.
When the crew finished harvesting the oak leaf, they stepped over what was left of the lettuce and followed the generator through the muddy fields to a stretch of romaine. The generator''s hum tuned out the stuttering of the trucks'' air brakes out on the road, and the only sounds were an occasional laugh and a few soft words of camaraderie. The cold black of night was all around us and it felt like we were the only people in the world who were awake. The truck driver Alfredo stood watching the relentless movement of the lettuce harvest. "Everything starts in the fields. If not for these people, we''d have nothing to eat," he said. "But we have them up against a wall. Other wages are going up, but not for farmworkers. Why? It doesn''t make any sense."
The Quiet Hours
By 4am, Miguel''s assistant Jesus found me a scooper and a pair of white cotton gloves. He leaned down beside Emiliano and Maricela to demonstrate how it worked, pushing the blade through the romaine leaves with his right hand while using his left to hold the leaves in place. He passed me the scoop. I had watched the way the young guys swept the leaves broadly with youthful energy, landing the full scoop directly in the box in one continuous motion. But the tool was heavier than I expected and I didn''t have good leverage. I pushed it gently along the ground, but Emiliano shook his head, saying, "Too low, they don''t want the dirt." I tried again. Giggles broke out from the other workers, who had all gathered around to watch the spectacle. "You learn quick," one 18-year-old said with a broad smile. "Is this your first time out here?"
A half hour later my forearm hurt from the repeated motion and the weight of the tool, but I was getting the hang of it. Emiliano and Maricela moved quickly, filling boxes and trudging over lettuce and through flooded ruts, and soon our shoes and gloves were soaked through. Working alongside the others had broken the ice, and now people spoke with me more readily. Maricela agreed that the scoop was heavy but said they were faster and safer than using knives as they had done before. The foreman said his workers were all insured, in the sense that "If they get a cut, I myself take them to la cliníca and the company pays. If it''s serious, I take them right to the hospital."
A young man stood on his own in the moonlight, waiting as everyone was for the foreman to choose the next picking spot. He had a dignified air about him and spoke willingly but in a hushed voice. "I crossed the border three weeks ago. It took one whole day to walk across," Porfirio said. "I paid several hundred for a coyote to help me and then $300 more to get up here."
Like most of the other workers out there that night, Porfirio was from Oaxaca, a poor agricultural state in southern Mexico that borders the Zapatista''s home state of Chiapas to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the south. While a myriad of crops, including corn, beans, coffee and peppers are grown in Oaxaca, thousands of workers frustrated by low wages and scarce work trek north to work the fields in the Baja Peninsula, central New Mexico, and California''s San Joaquin Valley. Many of the emigrants are descendants of the Zapotec and Mixtec Indians and speak native dialects like "Triqui" as their first language.
This was Porfirio''s first time in the U.S., and like many others out there on the graveyard shift, he risked crossing the border illegally to work. While the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act imposed sanctions against employers that hire undocumented workers, false identification cards and companies willing to turn a blind eye keep work opportunities alive for undocumented migrants like Porfirio.
One year away from completing his degree in law, Porfirio does not intend to spend the rest of his life in the fields. But lamenting that competition in all lines of work was very tight in Mexico these days, he explained that "coming to the U.S. is worth it. I will put away money for school or for whatever I do." Porfirio and the other workers are taking home $6.25 an hour, a good 10 times more than the average farmworker wage in Mexico. He had found a cheap place to crash nearby in Hollister, and planned to work three months before crossing back to the other side: El otro lado.
The morning hours passed slowly, with workers walking from patch to patch, weeding long rows of plants before going to work on the cutting. The morning dew was hanging on every leaf of lettuce, and all was damp and quiet. As the cutting of the tango lettuce began, the foreman sent half the crew--mostly younger guys hailing from the northern state of Durango--off in their cars to a nearby field. Over the backs of those remaining, the first rays of sun came up from behind the hills. At 5:45am, smoke began to rise from a nearby factory and a light yellow-orange haze hugged the line of the mountains on the horizon. I ate my Nutter Butters and stole off to the car for some Gatorade.
The sun''s cautious heat lightened the mood in the fields, giving rise to more chatter and smiles. Two young women waiting for the port-a-potty stopped me to talk as I walked back from the car. "What do you think of this place, and how do you like the boys?" they wanted to know. I returned the questions. "You get used to the schedule," 18-year-old Nora told me, revealing a pretty smile beneath her red Nike cap. She came from Mexico with her parents and brothers, who were working in other fields. While Nora had stopped going to school in junior high, her younger siblings were in school while she worked. "The pay is not great," she shrugged, "but it''s okay, because we work at our leisure and it''s calm. Estamos muy a gusto. We''re doing just fine."
The Sun Also Rises
Daylight unveiled the fields as a patchwork of deep reds and greens encircled by a row of low bushes. There were at least 10 varieties of lettuce out there--tango, arugula, mizuna, oaks, romaines, red leaf, red chard, red mustard, tatsoy--and each kind held itself differently in the soil, some rising high and bushy and others keeping tightly to the ground. Some leaves were easily picked with the scoop, others demanded knives, but either way you cut it, within two weeks the leaves would be ready for another shear.
At 6:30, the foreman called break time and the workers gathered around their cars eating homemade burritos with chili and avocado, sweet Mexican cookies topped with sprinkles and drinking water and coffee. I had misunderstood Emiliano the day before, thinking he had said food was provided by the company. My nut and raisin mix was of little comfort as I watched Maricela, Emiliano and their carpool of family and co-workers take bags of food from the van. Sitting on the beat-up old tractor, Maricela told a short family history.
"We came from the town of San Andres, Oaxaca because there was no work," she began. Now they''re living a life dominated by work, spending 10 hours a day in the fields, six days a week, which leaves only three or four hours for sleep before rising after midnight. "We have lived in Salinas since 1993. We have four kids and one that''s grown and married. Our youngest was born here in this country, but we have no immigration papers. We are in God''s hands. Mexico, yes, we miss Mexico every day, always." She explained that before starting with this company four months ago, they had worked with "badly behaved" companies that didn''t pay, had no water for the workers and made people work very fast. "Here we have bathrooms, water, breaks, and rest. What can we complain about?"
Almost before it began, the break was over, and we were walking out through sopping rows of arugula. It was almost 7 and the sun was suddenly blazing hot. As the first truck piled high with boxes of lettuce drove off to the processor, we settled down on our knees into the wet soil to rid the plants of nettlesome weeds. The sun felt wonderful and the weeding was gratifying, but I saw the morning ahead and knew that four hours later, we would still be sitting there. The mountains that had been so clear at dawn were now barely visible against a thick and hazy sky.
Settling into rows of weeding that seemed endless, Emiliano continued our conversation from the break. Carrying on the tradition set by the "Braceros" (see sidebar) or field hands of days past, Emiliano crossed the border every year from 1982-93 to assume the job of putting food on American tables. Emiliano had worked in Mexican corn and bean fields since age 18, but said "there was little money there, so you go out to look for life, to find a livelihood." He got caught crossing the border in the mountains above Tijuana enough times to convince him finally that crossing each year was too dangerous and costly. He moved his whole family to Salinas in 1993, where they rented a modest two-bedroom home for $600 month, where they continue to live today. "I want a better job, but they always ask first for papers," Emiliano explained matter-of-factly. "When times are tight, we diet and save. We would like an amnesty, but so far, nothing."
After an hour of weeding, everyone began shedding layers and the discussion livened up. The young guys who''d been sent to the other fields returned and joined the group weeding and cutting arugula. Good-natured, youthful banter littered with shrill calls and high-pitched laughter followed in their wake. The sun and fatigue combined to weaken my Spanish comprehension, and I couldn''t make out a good deal of what was said.
I did, however, notice that the area immediately surrounding me was a very popular picking spot. I looked up at the 20-year-old man immediately across from me whose mischievous smile was contagious. He was wearing baggy corduroy pants and a green sweatshirt that read "Live Oak Girls" on the front and "Bust A Nut" on the back. He had no idea what it meant, and I was sure I couldn''t translate.
Well into the morning, the foreman approached me with his cell phone. "There''s a call for you," he said. It was Jessica, his boss, who in a stern middle-management voice asked me what, exactly, I was doing there and if she could help me in some way. I explained my purpose and assured her that I had gotten the okay from those in charge on the ground. "Well, you should have sought permission before you went out," she huffed. "We have a pretty closed-door policy here."
It was a little late for closed doors now. The workers had already opened the fields to me.
Day is Done
For one day, I was one of those people hunched over some neatly planted row of table filler by the side of the road. I lasted almost as long as they did, leaving finally at 10:30 when the heat and hunger got the better of me and my hands were chafed from pulling weeds and the dirt was thick under my nails.
But I didn''t know what it was like to grow up in a place where work was scarce and people looked north for opportunity and fortune, no matter how much it hurt to leave or how long it took to get there. I had no idea what it felt like to hide, to know at any moment all could be lost, to live an "illegal" existence in a foreign place. Nor did I know what it was to miss Mexico, be cut off from family and roots, to remember the scent of spices and familiar landscapes. I didn''t know how it felt to see farm labor as an opportunity, not a burden, to go back out the next day without questioning.
Driving back to the Peninsula that morning and nearly falling asleep at the wheel, the night of work already felt a bit like a dream. And as I plunged into a deep slumber at midnight, I thought of Maricela and Emiliano, of Porfirio''s law career and Nora''s accepting smile. In an hour they would be waking up to go back out to the fields, most people''s days over and theirs just begun.