Beyond the Fields

Alex Rocha poses for a portrait in February 2021, while living back home in Watsonville and attending Yale classes remotely.

MY FATHER IS AWAKE BEFORE THE SUN RISES. MY MOTHER, UP BEFORE BOTH OF THEM, LABORS AT THE STOVE. Breakfast is a plate of chilaquiles, a cup of Nestlé, and half a concha – a breakfast proven to be great for the soul, albeit not so much for the stomach. On the TV, the Univision weatherman announces the possibility of rain in the afternoon. It doesn’t come around often, but when it does, all the strawberry fields flood, making it impossible for agricultural laborers to work without getting – literally – stuck in the mud. My parents react quickly; they can get more hours in if they leave now.

As they drop their still-full plates in the sink, I drag myself out of bed for my first class, a 9:25am lecture that has, unfortunately, become a 6:25am lecture since I decided to enroll in my Yale courses remotely and ride out the pandemic at home.

“Leaving already?” I ask them. One of the plus sides of living where we do – in an apartment complex that used to be a labor camp deep in the agricultural fields of Watsonville – is that my parents don’t need to drive very far to get to work, which allows our mornings to go by a little slower.

Today, though, it’s not the distance that they’re worried about, but the time. Because my parents get paid by the hour – $5.75 plus $1.50 per box of strawberries they fill – the rain is an unwelcome guest. True downpours can mean days before the ground beneath their feet is stable enough to sustain their work again. Perhaps selfishly, I ask it to come. To pour hot and hard from the sky and drench the earth and stop it all in exchange for a few days of rest. But because I know that my parents’ hands have never been comfortable with idleness, this prayer is kept between myself and the skies, and to them I only say, “Okay. Cuídense. Remember to wear your masks.”

Take care. Over the years my parents’ bodies have accumulated trauma from spending their days upside down, bent over with their hands almost buried under the hot earth, laboring from sunrise to sunset in the unforgiving fields that we call home. Maybe due to pride, maybe denial, my parents aren’t the type to talk about where their bodies carry the strain. But I can’t look away. I see it in their calloused hands and feet. Bruised knees. Sunburnt necks and the tops of their hands. My father’s swollen ankles. The small of my mother’s tense back. Everywhere I look I see evidence of bodies valued only for the labor that is slowly becoming their ruin.

So, I worry. I tell them to be careful because I know the world considers them disposable and because they are not. Sometimes I become frustrated at my parents’ optimism about their position because I know too much to be optimistic. I know that although Latino people make up only about a third of Santa Cruz County’s population, they account for over half of our Covid-19 cases; in Monterey County, they account for 61 percent of the population yet account for 86 percent of Covid-19 cases. I know that in July of 2020, the California Institute for Rural Studies found that farmworkers in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties are three times as likely as other essential workers to test positive for Covid-19. I know that if my parents were to get sick they would be vulnerable because of the parts of their bodies already worn down by their labor, and I know that because undocumented workers are not eligible for stimulus checks, disability benefits, or health insurance, my parents will be forced to keep disregarding their bodies for as long as possible. I feel like my parents are being held hostage. This makes me want to cry and scream and break some shit in anger, but my parents don’t see it the way I do. To them, it’s just the way it’s always been.

Beyond the Fields

Alex Rocha-Álvarez, with her parents, David and Irene, circa 2005. This photo was taken roughly a year after they moved into Jardines del Valle, housing for low-income agricultural workers in Watsonville.

IN MY EARLIEST MEMORY, I AM 4 YEARS OLD AND RUNNING OVER WHITE AND GREEN KITCHEN TILES, opening empty cupboards, and standing in the door frame of my childhood bedroom yelling, “I call this one!” It was the day that we moved into our current apartment, the first home of our own, and the world was brimming with possibility.

In the few months after we received confirmation that we had been approved to move into Jardines del Valle, the official name for the MidPen-owned housing complex, my parents had crafted a perfect fantasy of our new home. A playground. A basketball court. A room of my own – not just one for the four of us. A soccer field. Lots of space to run and play. “Un sueño,” they called it. A dream.

At the time I didn’t know, of course, what was so miraculous about it. Later I learned that since MidPen Housing renovated the complex in 1996 specifically for low-income agricultural workers and their families, we were only able to afford it because the rent was partly subsidized. Known first as Murphy’s Camp, and later as El Campo del Hoyo, the place has endured for a hundred years as a permanent site of contradiction, a place for laborers where no labor occurs, an enclave for rest. Over the past few months, since the coronavirus pandemic forced me to come home from college, I’ve been trying to figure out my place here. I walk around my neighborhood looking for answers, or maybe ghosts, imagining the stories that have passed through here in the hopes that they’ll help me discover my own.

I don’t know how I’m supposed to allow myself to rest. I haven’t earned it.

Fermin Tobera is the ghost I think about the most. In the late 1920s, when the camp was just a few rows of bunkhouses, Fermin Tobera slept and bathed here. He was 20 years old when he left his home country of the Philippines and made his way to Watsonville in the hopes of finding work in the fields and being able to send money home. His mother characterized him as “gentle” and “courteous to the old.” On Jan. 23, 1930 – a few months before his 22nd birthday – Fermin Tobera was hiding in a closet when a shot was fired into his bunkhouse, striking him through his heart.

The days preceding his murder had seen some of the worst instances of anti-Filipino violence ever documented in the U.S. On the night of Jan. 18, 1930, about 500 white men and boys brought clubs and weapons to a Filipino-owned dance club in the Palm Beach section of Watsonville and threatened to burn the place down. They had heard that there were nine white women living in the dance club, and they intended to “liberate” them. Due to bias in immigration and hiring policies, only 1 in 14 Filipino laborers doing seasonal farm work were women, and the men often sought the companionship of white women. This incensed Watsonville’s white population. Immigrants were not supposed to “take” things – including women, who were seen as things. They were only supposed to give – to give their labor and their time and their bodies – and they were supposed to do so without laying down roots in this country or asking for anything in return.

In the mind of the mob, Filipinos had broken a silent contract, and it was time to pay. The owners threatened to shoot if the mob didn’t recede. It didn’t. The owners opened fire. What followed was a week of horrifying racial violence against Filipino laborers. At Riberal’s labor camp, carloads of white men pulled workers out of their homes and beat them in the streets. Rioters demolished a Chinese apple dryer that employed Filipinos. They threw people off the Pajaro Bridge. Fermin Tobera’s murder was the tragic culmination of it all.

I wonder how long his body sat in that closet before it was picked up and flown to Manila, where his home country sponsored a large funeral for him, his image now a permanent symbol of tragedy and the harm hatred can cause. I wonder this because those particularities make me feel like I carry him somehow, like his body hasn’t been completely erased from this place. I wonder this because it feels important that his body was able to rest before it had to cross another border.

Beyond the Fields

Farmworkers were deemed essential workers at the outset of shelter-in-place in March, which coincided with the rise of the Salinas Valley farming season. Workers in the agricultural sector have been disproportionately infected by Covid-19 – in May, 40 percent of confirmed patients in Monterey County worked in ag. (Ag workers now account for 19 percent of total cases in Monterey County as the virus has become more widespread.)

THE SUMMER AFTER MY SOPHOMORE YEAR OF HIGH SCHOOL, my mother caught me and my cousin smoking the world’s smallest joint in one of the empty tractors that sit in the fields behind our house. After dragging us back inside by our ears, she delivered an hour-long sermon about how drug use leads you on a rapid downward spiral towards degeneracy and homelessness, and also makes you stupid. My mother became convinced that I was going to drop out of school, run off with a drug dealer, and come back home with a baby. (My mother watches a lot of telenovelas). As punishment, she gave me two options: spend the summer at my grandmother’s house in Mexico without cell service and internet or go to work with her to see what my future would look like if I stayed on this “wrong path.”

The next morning, I wrapped a bandana around my face to protect me from the sun and headed out in Converse and Hollister jeans for my first day at work. I was annoyed, but not too worried; working in the fields didn’t seem that hard, and at least I wouldn’t be bored. When we got there, the sun was starting to rise, and a beautiful shade of orange reflected off the tarps covering unending miles of produce. The mayordomo, or supervisor, divided us into sections, handed us our boxes, and told us to start working.

It took about an hour for me to realize that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. While the women around me were about a third of the way through their sections, working like machines as they crawled on their knees from row to row, I was embarrassingly slow and increasingly tired. I had no idea how to decide which berries were ready and was constantly drawn to the reddest, sweetest-looking strawberries on the vine. Rookie mistake. By the time they were packaged, shipped, and ready to eat, they would be speckled with mushy looking grooves and impossible to sell. Sometimes, when I pulled one of these out, the older señoras working next to me would pause their gossiping to say, “Not that one, mija.”

By the time the clock hit 10am and the mayordomo released us for our first break, I was ready to collapse out of exhaustion. My hips were tight from squatting, my eyes were itchy from the dust, bruises formed on my knees, and I was developing a headache from the constant movement. The sun, which had seemed so beautiful in the morning, was suddenly unforgiving. I felt the sun burning the back of my neck and wanted nothing more than to accept defeat and go home. But the day was only beginning, and rest came only in a 15-minute “sit under the shade, drink some water, pee if you need to, stuff half a granola bar into your mouth before the mayordomo is yelling ‘back to work’” interval.

The militaristic nature of el fil was a harsh reminder of my mother’s words, of all the sacrifices my parents had made for me, sacrifices which apparently I’d squandered by allowing myself to be a normal teenager.

“This is where you’ll end up,” she told me, “If you don’t start taking your future more seriously.” I did start taking it more seriously, not because I particularly cared about where I ended up, but because I understood that my future was inextricably tied to my family’s, and I wanted their story to end somewhere other than those fields.

The sun, which had seemed so beautiful in the morning, was suddenly unforgiving.

Almost a full five years later, I’m well on my way to receiving a degree from Yale, which should make me feel like I’ve made some progress toward improving my family’s position. But mostly it just makes me angry, because I also feel like I’m being held hostage. When I was in high school, teachers would tell me that because I was so “gifted,” I would surely be the one to make it out of the barrio and have the opportunity to go to college on a scholarship. When I received my acceptance letter, it felt like all the pieces were falling into place: an Ivy League degree, a six-figure income, a future where I could give my parents a comfortable life and an opportunity to finally rest.

Instead, I got to Yale and came face to face with the reality of how institutional power permeates every facet of elite universities and makes it impossible for marginalized students to survive their four years unscathed. In my classes, I sat through hearing my exorbitantly wealthy peers think about poverty and racism for the first time while my lived experiences were pushed aside or tokenized. During my first year, I learned how disposable students are to Yale when one of my best friends was forced to withdraw from school because she failed a class when her mother had cancer. The administration’s attitude of “business as usual” during this pandemic and during the 2020 election has proven that humanity is not one of their priorities. This immense pressure to perform under any circumstances makes it clear to me that Yale does not care about us – we are here to support the university’s brand of diversity and equity.

Yet I continue to study for the same reason that my parents continue to work, because I am fulfilling a promise, and also because there is no other option.

On the day I went to work with my mother, we got home at about 4:30 in the afternoon and my exhausted body demanded rest from me for several hours. I slept through dinner and didn’t wake up until about 9pm; when I did wake up, there was a heating pad thrown over my back and two tablets of Advil on my bedside table. My parents didn’t wake me up for work the next day even though the terms of my punishment were that I would continue for the rest of the summer. Every time I think about how my parents didn’t want me to put my body through for even one more day what they have theirs for decades, I start to cry. I don’t know how I’m supposed to allow myself to rest. I haven’t earned it.

When I wander around my neighborhood, I picture how many generations of farmworkers have lived and died here, how many bodies have decayed and resisted here, and I allow myself to feel a little hope.

I remind myself that the problem didn’t start with me and that it probably won’t end with me, but that that’s OK. Although to others we may be disposable, we are not to each other. That is enough to guarantee that the struggle for a better world will not end with me, and that someday it won’t be this way anymore.

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(1) comment

Otis Needleman

I see you deleted my earlier comment. So much for "independent thinking". Since my thinking doesn't reflect yours, and I call illegal aliens who they legally are, you delete my comment. Rather hypocritical, don't you think? This young woman's parents are still illegal aliens, living in subsidized housing when I see American citizens homeless, living under trees and in tents. Also don't believe anyone's body was flown back to the Philippines in 1930. Try sent by ship.

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