The Summer of the Death of Hilario Guzman
This was the sum of Hilario Guzman’s ledger as he walked into the grape fields on the morning of his death.
to the coyote who smuggled him and his family over.
to the bandits who robbed them along the border.
a month to rent a tin shack in the San Joaquin Valley.
a month to feed four children with another baby on the way.
He had a job that paid 20 cents for every tray of Thompson grapes he picked and laid out in the 105-degree sun to make raisins. In the two harvests since the family left Oaxaca in the spring of 2003, he had never made the minimum wage, never picked more than 250 trays, $50, in a 10-hour day.
That September morning, with a fruit tub in one hand and a sharp curved blade in the other, he cut enough bunches to make 10 trays, and then he vanished. No one saw the Triqui Indian leave, not the crew boss who thought he saw everything or the men and women picking in their delirious states. He didn’t tell them that his baby son, Geronimo, the one born on the right side of the border, had been sick for weeks. He didn’t tell them he had been drinking all night and woke up drunk. Later they would hear the story that he went straight from the vineyard to a liquor store near Fresno and drank some more. He must have nodded off halfway home because on Jensen Avenue, just past the crematory where the dairies send their used-up Holsteins to become chicken feed, his ’93 Ford Escort began to veer, first to the vineyard on his right and then to the alfalfa field on his left. He tried to slow down but the car hit a dirt embankment, bucked and flipped, and he flew out the window and through the air, landing on his head.
The police found his pregnant wife, Veronica, in a lopsided trailer deep in the vineyards. After they convinced her that they had come not because of her complaints of wild dogs but because a man named Hilario Guzman, 32, the same one in the photo, was dead, she tried to remember everything about the previous 24 hours. She could remember only that he had picked up medicine for the baby the night before and lingered strangely on the child that morning. “Geronimo was feeling better, doing better, and Hilario stood over him and began to speak,” she recalled. “He told him, ‘You are going to be responsible someday. You are going to be the man of the house. The man of the house,’ he said. Then he took his lunch and water and left for work.”
Had Hilario Guzman died of heat stroke while laboring in the fields, the United Farm Workers would have sent an honor guard to stand over him. Instead, with a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit, his body lay in a funeral parlor in Selma, the raisin capital of the world, for the next 10 days. It took that long for the Triqui, a community of migrants who had crossed the border illegally over the past five years and settled in rural California, Washington and Oregon, to raise $2,600 to ship him back to their village of corn and beans and dust and fog high on the mountain. And so his body was returned to San Martin Concepcion but his soul remained trapped on that patch of alfalfa between Fresno and Kerman. This is where the tribe’s transplanted elders and bad curse doctors would gather--without a single woman present--to erect a cross in cement and set down enough votive candles and bottles of his favorite beer to send his soul back to Oaxaca.
By this time, his grieving wife had returned to the village as well. Only she was wearing a mark of shame on her forehead, put there by Hilario’s mother. Veronica was the reason her son was dead, the old lady spit. Her greed, her selfishness, her constant belittling--all had caused him to venture north. Why was he drinking so heavily if not for her failings as a wife? Why was she not working beside him that morning like the other wives who had gone to America? Her tirade ended with Veronica’s banishment from the village, from the house that belonged to Hilario and her. To see the mud adobe hut standing there was one thing. It had no running water, no toilet and only a single bare bulb as light. But it became something else once you got to know their dreams. The plan had been to pour their savings from the California fields into a grand remodeling and to return there--in three or five years--with the children, maybe this time for good. But not one penny had been saved in those 18 months in the United States, and now his body was buried next to his father in the cemetery on the knoll, and Veronica was left to wander back across the steep ridge road to her parents’ village on the other side.
San Martin Itunyoso, the town of her birth, was bigger but just as sad. The cinderblock houses were all half finished, rebar sticking out the roofs, waiting for the next gracing of dollars from El Norte. Only the men too old or too addicted to their moonshine were left. All day they did nothing but drink and stumble about and defecate on the open road and in the river where the women went with buckets to draw the drinking water. The women, shouldering big axes, fetched the wood, too, climbing the hillside with donkeys to where the corn and beans gave way to the pine trees. When they came back down, they bathed the children in wheelbarrows and kept them hidden from a pack of feral dogs that roamed through town, feasting on the men’s droppings. As the women began to cook, the wall of fog washed in, swirling up from the valley and through the gorgeous canyon, sweeping the whole town of its filth and misery for the night.
For Veronica, the cloud became the way she understood her situation. “Everything is foggy. Everything is not clear. He was alive when we got to the other side. And now I have brought him back dead. Whatever hopes we had, that’s where they ended.” In her arms she carried Geronimo and by her side stood 9-year-old Rigoberto. The death of her husband had reunited her with her oldest son. Because of a strange growth on his chest, Rigoberto hadn’t made the trek north in 2003, staying behind with Veronica’s mother and father. But now both of them were dead, too, her mother killed by a drunk driver in Oaxaca a few months earlier and her father collapsing just a week after Hilario’s funeral. “How could it be possible that all these things are happening?” she said. “I must act strong in front of the children, but I can’t keep up with it much longer.”
Like all the other crossings, this one had come with a steep price. Her two daughters, Yolanda, 11, and Monica, 6, had to be left behind with her sister and brother-in-law. They were living in a tarpaper and stucco shack planted on a stretch of alkali and tumbleweeds outside Fresno. All her thoughts were now focused on making the family one again. She knew it would not be in Oaxaca. The banishment from Hilario’s village, if nothing else, had made her choice clear. Their future, she was sure, lay in the United States, even if she had no idea how she would come up with the money to cross the border with her boys. And if a coyote did succeed in getting them over, how could they manage to live without a breadwinner? She had never worked a single day in the grape fields. To begin now would mean that she would have to find someone to watch over her children. And the chance of finding another man to rescue them was as good as nil. In the Triqui culture, the men looked for girls 15 and 16 years old to marry. No woman in her late 20s like her, saddled with four small children and already showing a fifth, could possibly expect to find a man to assume such a burden.
This was Veronica Diaz’s life when the harvest in the faraway San Joaquin Valley ended. The fields, like a great heaving oven, exhaled their 265,000 tons of sun-baked raisins, and tens of thousands of peasant workers suddenly lost their jobs. The ranks of the unemployed included the sister and brother-in-law to whom she had entrusted her two daughters. She had been told that Yolanda and Monica were back in school and doing fine. They did enough chores around the house and ate so little that they presented almost no hardship for her sister, who had three children of her own. The truth, like so much else that I and photographer Matt Black would see over the next year as we followed the family from harvest to harvest, rested on what side of the border you grew up on or, more precisely, what deprivations your eyes had grown accustomed to.
The girls were attending school, all right, but they were showing up unwashed and without underpants. Yolanda was crying much of the day, her teachers and counselors unable to console her, in part because she could not speak English or Spanish and they had no way to understand Triqui. The weight the two girls were pulling to lighten the load on their auntie and uncle must have seemed perfectly normal back in the village. Yet to come upon their labor fresh from my suburban Saturday was to be stopped cold by the understanding that rural Mexico--at its most remote and backward--was only a 30-minute drive away. Hidden behind the blue-gray shack, next to a heap of burning trash puffing an acrid smoke, the two girls stood with bare feet in the mud. The ground all around was hard and dry, but in that one spot where they had been working all morning, soapy water trickled out from a wash basin and down the sides of a broken slab of concrete. The slab had been set atop four old tires, high enough so that they could stand with the proper leverage and scrub their clothes clean. Hanging from a barbed-wire fence was every item they had finished--jeans and pink blouses and towels drip drying. Stacked in a pile were the shoes and socks still to go.
Monica, a pretty child with brown hair cut in a pixie and highlighted in red, had a runny nose and was coughing. She dipped a plastic cup from an old Barbie set into the water and wetted a sock. Then, with a bar of Zote laundry soap, she began to knead the sock with both hands. “How long have you been working?” she was asked in Spanish. “Do you and your sister wash only your own clothes or the rest of the family’s, too?” She looked up, but her face registered nothing. The question was repeated, but she returned to her sock without attempting a word. It took her five minutes to pound the sock clean. All the while, her sister was scrubbing a pair of tennis shoes with a toothbrush. The door of the shack was half open, and the TV was showing a Mexican soap opera. Of all the indigenous peoples crossing the border, the Triqui were quite possibly the most tradition-bound, the most discriminated against, the most wary. As we moved from the back of the house to the front, we expected to be spotted and the door shut tight. Instead, a small handsome man stepped out and greeted us with a handshake. Moises Merino, Veronica’s brother-in-law, had a sweet, easy smile and, as luck would have it, spoke decent Spanish.
He was 27 years old and first crossed the border to work the fields eight years before. After going it alone for two years, he brought his wife and son in 1998. His two younger daughters were born in California and his wife was expecting again--the third U.S. citizen in the Merino clan. He recalled that he was a child back in San Martin Concepcion when the first road linked his village to the outside world; Mexico’s great rural push brought electricity and a cash economy to a place that had been penetrated only by the Catholic Church. His father grew corn and beans and pumpkins on a tiny plot that had no way of supporting nine children. Two of his brothers also had come north, one working beside him in the fields and the other taking a job at a tortilla factory in Phoenix. “We came here to work and to send money back to the village,” he said. He earned in an hour what he had earned in a day in Mexico. And because each dollar was the equivalent of 10 pesos, the dollars he sent home turned into gold as soon as they crossed the line.
Yet in the nine years since he’d come north, he had sent “almost nothing” back home. Rent, gas, food and diapers, the idle times between harvests, the trips back to Oaxaca to bury fathers and mothers, the expense of hiring coyotes to ferry them back--it never seemed to add up in his favor. All he had to show for those nine years was an old maroon Chevy van and a faded blue Chevy Cavalier parked in the dirt path that led from the vineyard to the three-room shack that cost him $400 a month to rent. The only thing keeping them afloat was the $110 a month in food stamps and the $160 a month in welfare they received for each citizen-child. And now there were two more mouths--Veronica’s children--to feed and the uncertainty of when and if she would make it back.
“We’re responsible now for the girls. I told her, ‘We’ll take care of them. Don’t worry.’ But it’s hard. If she comes back, it will be even harder. How is she going to manage without a husband?”
“Do you ever think that it’s not worth it, that when you add up all the pluses and minuses, it’s best to have never come? To have stayed home?”
He grinned and shook his head, “No.” The children’s education alone was worth the upheaval and risk. Back in the village, he had been a bright child who had shown much promise, but like his brothers and sisters, he never got beyond the sixth grade. Whatever became of their lives here--whether they decided to stay or one day return--their crossing had changed the family’s fate. Learning the language and history and ways of the U.S. was like a magic card that would always give his children passage to another world, if they so chose it.
To give them that choice, he was hopping from one grueling job to the other. If he was lucky, if he never stopped hustling and every break went his way, he could make the minimum wage and cobble together six to seven months of farm work in a year. The movement and the math hadn’t changed in nearly a decade: raisins in late summer, chili peppers and olives in fall, pruning vines in winter, picking tomatoes in late spring and berries in Oregon in early summer. If he was lucky, in a year’s time, he could make $10,000 to $12,000.
Red fire ants swarmed over his bare feet, but he seemed not to notice as his 8-year-old son, Ramiro, joined him. He was a chubby kid with crooked teeth and a funny haircut whose role in the extended family was exaggerated because he was the only one who could speak English.
“The schools in Oaxaca are bad,” he said. “You can’t learn anything. And the teachers are all mean. Here, I love my teachers. We’re learning about presidents and vice presidents and the secretary of . . .”
“The Secretary of State?”
“Has life become harder since your uncle died?” I asked.
“My cousins fight with my little sister. They cry and hit her. I have to do my homework and take care of my little baby brother. I don’t got big hands to go over there and make them stop. I’m not like the Fantastic Four.”
He ran into the house to fetch his journal, a notebook filled with poems and short stories written with such grace that they surely came from the pages of a children’s book. He kept insisting, though, that he had written them himself, and in a sense he had. The words belonged to some author, but only he had scrawled them in his pencil and pen. He drew the animals he saw in the country--jackrabbits, herons, snakes and spiders--and chronicled how he went with his parents to the fields on weekends, setting out the trays so that they might go faster. He wrote down how many trays they completed each day and what it meant in dollars. How long it took--what they made by the hour--didn’t concern him. The only thing that mattered to the Triqui was how much they brought home at the end of the day.
“We don’t have to get much money,” he said in his most earnest voice. “Because if we get lots of money, the robbers will come.”
The farm that has taken root on the vast plain between Los Angeles and San Francisco surely qualifies as a miracle, more than 250 crops in all, agriculture buzzing at a size and speed never before seen by man. That it rose up where the rain hardly fell became a matter of intricate plumbing, a system of dams and canals that siphoned the Sierra rivers. That it needed a constant supply of fresh hands to keep the wages low became a matter of crossing oceans and border lines. As far back as the 1860s, when the bonanza wheat empires began to yield to orchards, vineyards and vegetable fields, the call went out to the lowly farmers of the world. It was answered first by the Chinese and then by the Japanese, Filipinos, Volga River Germans, Armenians, Punjabis and Okies white and black.
No land, though, has bequeathed more of its people to these fields or shared a more complicated relationship with California agriculture than Mexico. Up through Sonora and Baja California, bands of farmworkers began arriving in the late 1800s, and except for brief spasms of restricted immigration here and there, they have kept coming ever since. In its most rural reaches, the valley always has been a Third World country, but more and more it belongs to Mexico’s dispossessed. The last of the 1930s Dust Bowl migrants who built towns such as Arvin and McFarland are dying, their numbers being replaced by Mixtec tribes fleeing their own fields turned to dust. “I look at them and I see us,” says Earl Shelton, one of the few Oklahoma natives still left in Lamont, the town where John Steinbeck gathered his stories. “They’re the new Okies, the brown Okies.”
Communities of Mexican migrants, like the immigration debate itself, have popped up everywhere across America. But before they ever step foot in the hotels of Los Angeles or venture east to the slaughterhouses of Iowa or the construction projects of Florida, many of them begin their new lives here. Every peach, every plum, every grape, every orange, every fig, every pepper, every tomato and head of lettuce is picked by a brown hand. Even with the rise of mechanization in some crops, the valley finds itself reaching deeper and deeper into the rural heart of Mexico. Today it is the indigenous of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla who are answering the harvest call. The bands of Mixtec pickers and packers now number an estimated 75,000 strong in these fields. While their presence is still overshadowed by the traditional migrants from Michoacan and Jalisco, the Triqui and other tribes represent one out of every five farmworkers in the Valley. Ask any farmer, even one who insulates himself with a labor contractor, and he will tell you that his workers, indigenous or not, come bearing papers, but that those papers, in eight out of 10 cases, are frauds. And so the ebb and flow of these illegal crossings, the grudging symbiosis between industrial agriculture and peasant labor, remains the epic story of this land.
Perhaps understandably, as each immigrant group has worked its way up and out of the fields, its children and grandchildren have come to regard those fields with more distance, if not disdain. My own grandfather, an Armenian with eyes set on Cal Berkeley, traveled 7,000 miles by ship and train in the summer of 1920 to become a harvest gypsy. He picked potatoes in Weed Patch, peaches in Kingsburg and grapes in Selma before saving enough cash to buy a farm. My father grew up on that vineyard outside Fresno, but by the time I was born, we had turned our last raisins and gone into the grocery business. I was raised like any other kid in town, lost in suburbia, dumb to the fields all around us. How many times we drove Highway 99 on our way to Disneyland or Candlestick Park and never once looked to our left or right and saw the fields. If our eyes did happen to gaze upon them, the men and women with faces swaddled in bandanas were invisible to us. The few times we were forced to see them, by the protests of Cesar Chavez or the scandal of children found working in the fields or the death of a farmworker, our awakening was an uneasy one.
Over the years, it would remain just this way. A few weeks before the accident that killed Guzman, I learned that a 53-year-old farmworker had died a far different death in the vineyards of Kern County. Asuncion Valdivia was a small, thin man who worked like an ox, his family said, but he had a hard time keeping up with the quotas imposed by Giumarra Vineyards. He had been picking table grapes for 10 hours under the 100-degree sun when he staggered and collapsed. The crew boss’ daughter called 911 for help. Deep in the hidden zone of the fields, she was unable to provide paramedics with the cross streets. So the crew boss stuck him in a car that had been baking all day and told the man’s son to drive him home. Halfway there, his mouth turned to foam and he went limp. In the days that followed, I gathered the facts of his death and placed a call to John Giumarra, a lawyer who served as the company vice president. He said this was the first death from heat stroke he could recall in the family’s immense fields, and he denied having a quota for pickers or knowingly hiring illegal migrants--all duly noted in the story. And yet the day it appeared in The Times, he was angry enough to call me from his vacation spot in Italy. He was peeved that I had referred to grape picking as “one of the most brutal jobs in America.”
“What are you trying to write?” he shouted. “ ‘The Grapes of Wrath’?”
A few days later, Matt Black and I boarded an old church bus at 4 in the morning and barreled into the heart of the barrio. Behind the wheel was Humberto Mota, a labor contractor in a white cowboy hat who played middleman between coyote and raisin grower. It was Mota who had given Hilario Guzman his job and helped raise a few hundred dollars to send his body back home. Now, a week after the funeral, Mota had 90 minutes to pick up a busload of workers in southeast Fresno and deliver them to a vineyard in Fowler. Past the El Sombrero bar and Tequila Night Club, he drove under a crescent moon, the stereo blasting Mexican cowboy crooner Vicente Fernandez. Each time El Rey hit a high note, a panel of jerry-built lights at the front of the bus came on like a Christmas display. It was a strange piece of accessory given the odds that anyone would be in the mood for a ranchera-music light show at 5 in the morning. For Mota, it might as well have been high noon the way he floored the big diesel through the dark and quiet streets, stopping with a screech at the entrance of each apartment complex. If the rumble didn’t wake them, his horn did.
Out they came, bleary-eyed, in groups of two, three and four, lugging gallon jugs of fruit punch and orange juice and buckets filled with burritos. Except for one boyfriend-and-girlfriend couple, the women took seats in the front and the men in back. Under the sweat-stained hats of the New York Yankees, the Texas Longhorns, the Michigan Wolverines, they tried to find sleep again. The drive, like everything else, didn’t come free. Mota charged $3 one way, $6 round trip. His route, full of zigzags and backtracks, made no sense except that it conferred great privilege on those he picked up last. What these workers must have paid him for that extra hour of slumber. It was 5:35 a.m. by the time he merged onto Highway 99 and headed south past the golden domes of a Sikh temple. Only in the shooting headlights of the big rigs did their faces become visible. All were young except for one man with gray hair. By Mota’s count, they ranged in age from 18 to 60. Fifteen had come from Puebla, seven from Oaxaca, four from Michoacan, three from Guerrero, the rest from Sinaloa and Vera Cruz. Inside this one bus were six of the Indian languages of Mexico. One man spoke in the tongue of the Aztecs.
They had left villages of slash-and-burn farming for the most technologically advanced agriculture in the world, a leap of 150 years. Yet in the raisin fields of Fowler, a town built wholly on the wrinkled grape, the work could not have been more primitive. They attacked the quarter-mile rows at first light as if struck by some frenzy. Into the vine’s thick curtain they dove on hands and knees, gnats flying in their faces and sulfur dust choking their lungs. Had a stranger come upon the field just then, he would have seen the vines shaking violently, but by what sustained force he wouldn’t have been able to tell. Not until he walked right in, bent low, and stuck his nostrils in the ferment would he know that it was a farmworker, no more than 5-1/2 feet tall, slashing inside the green canopy. Baked earth, dried leaves, black widow webs and mildewed berries stuck to the sugar juice splattered on his skin. He said his name was Eladio Mendoza, and he was 18 years old and six months removed from his village in Oaxaca, where “the land had gone dead” from over-farming. He already knew the difference between picking table grapes, a job that placed a premium on aesthetics, and this mad snapping of amber bunches that he let plop into a bucket below, a job that cared only about speed. When the tub was filled with 40 pounds of Thompsons, he carried it from the vine to the middle row and spread out the bunches on a piece of butcher paper--the tray. The row had been sloped so that the high end caught the sun at its strongest, and if the sun turned to rain, the drops would trickle off the bunches and slide down into the silky powder of dust. It took 18 days of valley sun to blister a grape into a raisin.
“Me and my friend said, ‘Let’s go north and sweep the dollars off the fields,’ ” Mendoza said. “I don’t know yet how much they pay. I owe the coyote $3,000.”
Two rows away, working at the same pace, was Alberto Cruz, a 34-year-old Nahuatl who had left a wife and three children in Puebla. He had crossed the border only 20 days earlier but already had a backup plan. If the wages proved not enough to send any real money home, he would leave the fields and join his nephew working construction in Atlanta. “I worked 10 hours yesterday and made $40. That sounds like a lot in pesos. But I have to work one whole day to pay for the bus rides.”
Marino Leon, 44, who was blazing down his row, had spent half his life traveling between Oaxaca and the grape fields. The back and forth, in fact, was written into tribal law. Every few years, he had to return to his village and give several months of community service or else the town elders would confiscate his acre of land. He said three of his sons and a nephew had joined him here, and they were among the fastest pickers in the crew, each averaging 500 trays a day. They pooled the $2,500 a week they earned in the monthlong raisin harvest and did the same with other crops. They stayed away from alcohol and spent wisely at the swap meets and slept side-by-side on the same living room floor. By year’s end, they had saved a few thousand dollars. “I go home every November and take $3,000 or $5,000 with me,” he said. “But it isn’t enough to maintain my family and our land.”
Mota, the labor contractor, stood in the vineyard clearing, warning the more knavish among them to stop “shorting the trays” with too few grapes. The field, he said, was its own world. It had its own law, madness and philosophy. There was a man picking in his bare feet, and an old guy who grabbed a soda during a break, but before taking one sip, he tipped over the can and gave two sips to the earth. “The soil,” he explained, “it’s thirsty too.” There was the modern woman from Oaxaca who had left farm work to join the California Rural Legal Assistance, the one watchdog that despite a shoestring budget made routine checks on the fields. As she talked to the pickers, she fretted about a curse that had been put on her sick uncle, a spell that required the family to give three live roosters and $900 over nine consecutive nights to a curandero, or witch doctor. And there was the grower himself, not some ogre sitting in an air-conditioned truck but the grandson of an immigrant, a genocide survivor, standing in the 105-degree sun with a cotton ball stuffed into his ear and another one in his nose. His was the wince of a farmer battling a bad sinus infection and a flood of cheap raisins from overseas. “The air is rotten,” he muttered, “and the prices are only a little better.”
He had given us access to his fields on the condition that his name not be used. His workers, after all, were illegal. He explained that the raisin industry in California, even after yanking out 40,000 acres of Thompsons, was mired in a glut made worse by imports from Turkey, where workers were paid next to nothing. I asked if he knew that some of his fastest pickers were earning $10 and $12 an hour while many others were not even making $30 a day--somewhere between $2 and $3 an hour. It was unfortunate, he said, but most of the workers at the front end of the harvest were green. He expected, as in years past, that they would become more facile each day and end up earning a decent wage. Still, he conceded, a good many would never get the hang of it, never make the minimum wage. This was his bind. If he paid the minimum wage instead of piece rate, he’d go broke paying $6.75 an hour to workers who barely filled 100 trays. If he stayed with the piece rate but fired all those who didn’t tally $6.75 an hour, he’d have to let go dozens of them. How would they survive? Wasn’t a job that paid $30 or $40 a day better than nothing?
He knew growers who used Mexico’s poverty to excuse their treatment of the workers. “Sure they got it bad, but it’s a helluva lot better than that village,” he’d hear them say. He wasn’t one of them. He watched them move like machines up and down his fields and told himself that no people worked harder. But he was dealing with a harvest, a race that came and went in a few short weeks. Didn’t city folks understand that a perishable grape gave him no chance to erase mistakes, no chance to do it over again? Yes, the whole mess was brutal, combustible, arcane, intolerable. But what more could he do? He put out plenty of toilets in the fields. He put out cold water and umbrellas and made sure they got every break the law required. He stood in the vineyard beside them, but he couldn’t afford to understand too much about their lives. The cellphone was ringing in his ear. There were bins to stack, poly-paper trays to restock and a truck that had broken down from the field to the packing house. In between, he kept the radio tuned to the weather to see if the rain threatening two days before was still on its way. He didn’t have the luxury to memorize their names, what village they came from, how many children they had. Maybe they weren’t so different from his grandfather, but he had no time to ponder the conditions that had brought them to his field. The harvest, as much as he hated to hear himself say it, just didn’t allow for a human-to-human exchange.
The shift ended nine hours after it began. There was no town whistle like in the old days, just the rumble of the Baptist bus as Mota turned the key. They came off the field with every reason in the world to hang their heads. The distance from family, the debt of their journey, the shame of their wages, the smell of their labor. They had every reason to be defeated except one. They were coming back the next day to do it over again. So they walked, like conquerors, off the field.
Summer had picked clean the vineyards and orchards on both sides of Highway 99, and the 300-mile-long valley, bled of its green, fell quiet. The harvest left Moises Merino dog-tired, but unlike the fields, he had no chance to rest. He had been promised six weeks of labor picking peppers on the Central Coast, so he said goodbye to his wife, three children and two nieces and headed west to a new harvest.
If there was a low man on the totem pole, it was the indigenous of Oaxaca. They were the peasant’s peasant back in Mexico, and nothing had changed here. They gave even the poorest Mexican a target for his ridicule They spoke the “language of dogs,” it was said. They did the work that no one else would do. And they did it, without complaint, for the lowest wages.
For two weeks, Merino made the long drive back and forth to Hollister, earning $35 a day minus the cost of gas. Counting travel time, this worked out to $2.50 an hour. Even so, he was grateful to have any work in the fall months. But then the pepper harvest ended four weeks early, and he was left scrambling again. He had heard about apples in Stockton and drove two hours only to find a long line of workers in front of him. The labor contractor felt so bad that he told him to take home a tub of fruit. When we pulled up to their house on that October evening, Fuji apples spilled everywhere. His wife, Jacinta, a younger sister to Veronica, said we had just missed him. He had gone north to a place called Orland, where he was living in a field and climbing ladders and stuffing olives into a big canvas pouch.
The Triqui women were as shy as they were superstitious. When they laughed, they covered their teeth so as to not conjure up the image of a skeleton. We were about to turn around and leave when little Ramiro invited us inside. He wanted to show us the homework he was doing. He wanted to tell us about his field trip to the Big Fresno Fair that day, the glittering crystals he admired in the rock exhibit, the gigantic pumpkins and watermelons he gazed at in the farm exhibit. He asked his mother if it would be OK if we came in, and she nodded yes.
It was dark inside, and he was doing math by the TV light. His eyes moved back and forth between the equations and the soap opera, and it seemed a tough juggle. Yet he finished in a snap, and not a single answer was wrong. “See, I can do two things at once,” he said, smiling through those crooked teeth. “Addition and subtraction is way easy. I want to be a teacher someday.” His homework assignment, an hour’s worth of math, reading and writing, required a parent’s signature when he finished. It was part of what the school called its “Parents as Teachers” program. But his mother was illiterate. She didn’t know how old she was, much less the letters it took to scribble her name. So when his father was gone and he needed someone to sign his homework, his mother signed it with an X.
The inside of the house was warped and painted a strange turquoise. Adorning the walls was a set of nails from which the children hung their backpacks--Ninja Turtles, Spider-Man, Scooby-Doo. The kitchen ceiling was slanted, barely 5 feet tall at the low end. No halls connected the three rooms, so it felt like the inside of a cave. So many little pieces of plywood, cardboard and stucco had been added here and there--to catch the rain, to keep out the smoke that blew in from the garbage fire--that the whole thing brought to mind a swallow’s mud nest.
Yolanda, Veronica’s oldest daughter, sat on a bed that took up half the main room. She appeared to be reading, highlighting words in the book “Holes” with great enthusiasm. “She’s just underlining,” Ramiro said. “She can’t read. All she knows is Triqui.” Her sister, Monica, who sat beside her, spoke a little Spanish but still had not grasped the basics of kindergarten. She couldn’t count to 30 and her recitation of the ABC’s stopped at F. Their principal and teachers would later explain that they didn’t know which way to turn with the Triqui. Should they immerse them in English? Should they be assigned to a teacher who spoke Spanish? They went back and forth trying to find the best fit for the girls. Then their father was dead and their mother thousands of miles away, and it was enough just to keep them from breaking down in class.
With her sister and husband gone, Jacinta found her hands full. She cooked for her nieces, but bathing them was a more difficult task, mostly because the hot water had to be carried over in buckets from a neighboring shack. All her energy was swallowed up by her 18-month-old daughter, who had been crying since we walked in the door. Of all the children, she said, this one was the most attached to her father. Each evening she’d stand by the garbage fire and wait for his return from the fields. He’d drive up the dirt path, take her in his arms and wipe her nose first thing. She was crying, Jacinta said, because she thought our car might be him. She went from room to room calling out “daddy.” Jacinta tried sticking a bottle of apple juice in her mouth, but she gagged. She fed her a pink marshmallow cookie, but she spat it up.
“She misses my father too much,” Ramiro said. “She won’t eat because he’s gone.”
I asked him if it was all right if I peeked in the refrigerator. It was the middle of the month, two weeks shy of the next government check, two weeks before Moises would return with his wages. Inside were a few dozen eggs, a package of frozen beef and a couple of watermelons that Ramiro had taken from the patch at the end of the road. They were nothing like the watermelons at the fair. Off to the side were a 10-pound bag of rice, a 20-pound bag of beans and a bucket of apples.
Jacinta giggled nervously as I surveyed the slim pickings. The accident that killed her brother-in-law had been a double whammy. Not only were there two more children to feed but there was no one to baby-sit with Veronica gone. Without those extra adult eyes, Jacinta could no longer join Moises in the fields. “I work next to him. I pick peppers. I’ve done raisins,” she said in the singsong of Triqui, which Ramiro translated to English. “But after the accident, I stay home with the children.”
The official mourning period--29 days from the day of Hilario’s death--was now over. Yet if there was a plan to smuggle her sister and two nephews back across the border, she didn’t know about it.
“If the plan was to work,” Veronica said, “I had to think another way. It couldn’t be only me and my two children. I had to bring my youngest sister, Catarina. She would be my Hilario. That was the plan. If we crossed, she would watch the children while I worked in the fields. Or she would work in the fields while I watched the children. It was the only way. I had no man. So I chose my youngest sister. We had to pay the coyote $2,700. Our brother who works in the city helped us with the money. We took a bus from Oaxaca to a town in Sonora. It took us two days and two nights to get there. It was a dangerous town. Lots of thieves and bandits yelling at people to get into cars. We spent three nights there in a hotel. On the second night, the bandits came. We were sleeping on the floor. Me and my two children and my sister and some others from our village. They burst in and pointed a pistol right at us. There was screaming, but I didn’t scream. I didn’t want to frighten the baby. But I was scared inside. The same thing happened the time before. But my husband was with me then. This time, it was scarier. They pointed guns and knives at the men’s heads to rob them. If they refused to give their money, they were beaten. The coyote was not there right then. The bandits took about $1,000 from each person. But they never found my money. I kept it on the baby. I had put it in Geronimo’s diaper. The coyote came the next morning. Twelve of us got into his truck. We drove for four hours to a hill looking over the border. Around 7 at night we began to walk. We crossed the border on Christmas Eve. For three days and nights we walked across the desert in Arizona. During this time, we ate nothing. No food. The children were crying from hunger and the cold. The nights were very cold. I kept the baby warm with a jacket. And then I had to use the jacket as a diaper. We never stopped to rest. No sleep. Nothing. All we had was three little bottles of water. We walked through cactus and needles. No towns, no lights, no Border Patrol. Nothing. The full moon was the only light for walking. The baby soiled the jacket and I had to throw it away. It was cold and he began to shiver. The coyote was a young man. It seemed to be his first time as a coyote. He was scared, too. He was a nice man. He saw the baby shivering and put him inside his jacket. For the children, he offered to walk slower. I was afraid the baby was going to die. There was nothing for him to eat. He was crying all the time. The group was angry and yelling about the crying children, especially Geronimo. And then the water ran out. I was so tired and so weak that I began seeing things. I began hearing things. I don’t know how we didn’t die. I don’t know how we kept walking. Was it the voice of Hilario I heard? I met him when I was 15. I liked his smile. His eyes. He was a really good man. He cared about his children. He wanted the best for them. He loved the baby a lot. The coyote carried the baby in his jacket the rest of the way. We walked on Dec. 24, 25, 26, and then we came to a house near Phoenix. My feet were bleeding in my tennis shoes. I had to throw them away and buy new ones. We had dinner at the house. The baby was sick and wouldn’t eat. Then we got in the car and drove to California. It was still daylight when we came to Kerman. My two girls were waiting for me in the house. I walked in and hugged them. There was a Christmas tree in the corner. Their teachers had bought them clothes and other presents. We are living now with Jacinta and Moises. We are sleeping in this one room. Me and my children, Rigoberto, Yolanda, Monica and Geronimo and my sister Catarina in this one bed. It is hard to sleep. The breathing and coughing, the bodies twisting. I am seven months pregnant so I am not working. It’s winter so Catarina is working only a little, pruning the vines. What happens when the baby is born? I haven’t thought of that yet.”
The new sons of the Triqui tribe were born two days apart in mid-March. Jacinta’s 8-pound baby arrived first, and then came Veronica’s 7-1/2 pound boy. By one calculation, he had traveled a lifetime before ever taking a breath. Conceived in the U.S., returned to Oaxaca for the funeral of a father he would never know, he had crossed the border as one of a multitude of illegal aliens suspended in the womb. By another calculation, as soon as the umbilical cord was severed, he had become something else. Without equivocation, without a past, he was simply United States citizen Luis Diaz Guzman. Moises, who was picking lemons on the east side, rushed his wife and then his sister-in-law to the same hospital in Fresno. They each stayed for two days, and then he took them back to a household that could not have been stretched any further. One man’s toil in the fields was now supporting three women and nine children.
I waited a week and then drove out to Kerman. The tule fog had lifted for good, and in the vineyards beyond the new housing tracts, the canes strapped to wire already were budding. Mile after mile, they shot a perfect green across the horizon. Here and there, a field of Thompsons had been leveled to ease the raisin glut. Stacked into huge piles awaiting a match, the gnarled trunks somehow knew this was spring. Without earth, they were still sprouting new tendrils. The highway became road and the road became dirt path and the dirt path a quarter mile in became a junkyard of old tractors and pesticide spray rigs. A knot of trailers and shacks sat hidden in the smolder of a fire lit once a week to burn the garbage of six families. What hadn’t turned to ash was a roost for the chickens. I pulled up in the late afternoon and found Moises sitting in a plastic chair outside a neighbor’s trailer, too drunk to get up.
If there was a curse upon the Oaxacans, it was the abuse of alcohol by many of the men. Friday through Sunday they drank themselves into a stupor, and these were merely the weekend drunks. And yet for all that intoxication, I had never seen Moises with so much as a beer in his hand. I understood right then that my visit was ill-timed. I called for Ramiro, but he pretended not to hear. Jacinta was sitting on the porch but wouldn’t make eye contact. She took out her breast and began to feed the baby. The side door was ajar, and in a last-ditch effort I stuck in my hand and waved. Veronica was lying on the bed next to baby Luis, her eyes swollen and red.
Moises had been drinking for two days straight, she said. One job after the other had come up short, and there was no money to pay the rent. Her sister Catarina was trying her best to stand in for Hilario, but she was earning a novice’s wage. They had begun rationing the meat, and Moises, Jacinta and their children naturally had first dibs. Except for some leftover chunks of stew that Jacinta had given them a week earlier, they were subsisting on rice and beans. And now even those two staples were running low. The last time she went to the market, it came down to a choice between diapers and chicken meat. She chose the diapers. To stretch the supply, she washed and dried them and stuck them back on as best she could.
“This is the hardest it’s been,” she said, sobbing. “No work. No money. My part of the rent is $200. I don’t know how I’m going to pay it. I keep borrowing from family.”
Tending to the baby left little time for Geronimo, who was not much more than a baby himself. When he cried for his mother, more and more it was his 12-year-old sister Yolanda who stepped in. She carried him in her arms as if she knew what she was doing, stroking his hair and pinching his cheeks until he stopped crying. As much as Veronica wanted her daughter to continue with school, learning did not come easy for Yolanda. And now she was fast approaching 13 years old, the cusp of Triqui womanhood. Though Veronica’s answer to the question of her daughter’s fate was always vague, I got the idea that life here for the girl would turn out no different than a life in rural Mexico. She would marry young, give birth young, watch her dreams die young making the choices her mother had made.
Before I left that day, I drove Veronica and Yolanda to the grocery store and bought them chicken meat and diapers. Halfway down Jensen Avenue, past the crematory where a Holstein had been dumped at the gate, stiff legs skyward, we came to the spot in the road where Hilario had died. The metal cross erected in winter by tribal elders was no longer standing. It had been plowed under by a Mexican man who tended to the field and believed the Triqui had put a curse on the land. The cross lay in the dirt, twisted and broken, his name and dates (July 28, 1972--September 1, 2004) split in two. We stood there less than a minute, the cars and trucks whooshing by, and I thought of an old line from a Saroyan short story. We didn’t say anything because there was such an awful lot to say, and no language to say it in.
Heading home that night, I wondered how long I could keep what I was seeing in the fields from what I was hearing on the TV and reading in the papers. I had told myself to keep my head down, to document the family’s existence and leave the opinions to the pundits and politicians. I was quite sure the experts on Fox and CNN couldn’t tell a peach tree from a plum tree, though I wasn’t sure it mattered. I imagined what a fool I’d appear trying to put everything I had seen into a 30-second sound bite. But more and more, the nation’s debate on immigration seemed to exist in a universe separate from the one I was traveling through. And so that night I began to puzzle out an answer, to shape a point of view that at least seemed to fit this family and the rest of the migrants we had followed in a year of harvests. They had come from thousands of miles away, risked life and limb to get here, paid thousands of dollars to coyotes and bandits who worked in concert, and our hospitals had filled with their pregnant women, and our schools had filled with their illiterate children, and all this social upheaval was taking place so they could walk into a field that in 10 or 20 or 30 years would be leveled for tract houses and pick a bunch of grapes and lay them in the sun to make raisins. Raisins. We had imported a whole peasant class, paid them $5 an hour if they were lucky, absorbed their poverty and pathology, and out the other end of the grinder came another ton of shriveled Thompson seedless grapes.
I knew it was more complicated than that. I knew that their labor had helped build the most productive and diverse farm region in the world. We were a lot more than raisins. And yet this valley was luring people to its fields with a promise it could no longer fulfill. My grandfather, working alongside his mother, brother and sister, had gone from a fruit tramp to a farmer in four seasons. There was no way that even the most efficient farm-worker family pinching pennies in the most severe way could ever hope to do that today. Instead, what brought a pregnant mother from the depths of Mexico to the doorstep of a coyote was a very simple calculation. If she got to the other side and gave birth, she suddenly had privilege. She had a free stay in a hospital, a monthly allotment of food stamps and a monthly government check. And the schools provided free breakfast, free lunch and a free education to every one of her children, legal or not.
I had read and digested all the think-tank reports that, depending on the think tank, either found that the migrants were a great boon to the United States or a great drain. The reports came to represent for me the contradiction at the core of our country when it came to the question of the illegals. We trembled at what they were costing us, but when it was time to trim the backyard tree or mend the backyard fence we went searching for the nearest Mexican. We were able to afford that iPod and new computer for the kids because we were paying $7 an hour to a Guatemalan nanny who knew more about their needs than we did. We were more than happy to buy a bag of plums for the same $5 that we paid in the 1990s but gave no thought to how that trickled down to the farmer and his field hand. And this contradiction was no more acute than with the farmer himself, who voted for the politician who wanted to bar the Mexicans and then complained that his fruit was rotting on the vine because of a shortage of Mexicans.
We weren’t taking in these people out of some shared humanitarian principle. By underwriting the relocation of Mexico’s most desperate, we were giving a giant handout to farmers, meat packers, home builders, hotel chains and big-box retail outlets. Taxpayers were picking up the front-end costs of cheap labor the same way we were subsidizing cotton and oil and home mortgages. If we wanted to be honest, we needed to stop framing the migrants as old-line immigrants who had left their country for good to start new lives here. Not only were they returning for funerals, weddings and reunions, but the Oaxacans, for one, were going back for yearlong stints to perform the community service needed to keep their land. Only because this back-and-forth traffic had been declared illegal were they paying thousands of dollars to cross, creating the very indebtedness that allowed them to be exploited.
If nothing else, their ordeal showed that most of their wages were being spent on this side of the border to sustain the families they had brought with them. Yes, money was making its way back to the village but nothing compared to what that flow might be if the workers came and went without the women and children. And so I tried to fit into my puzzle the solution of a guest worker program. Not the bracero program that Latino activists railed against, as if we couldn’t improve on a model 60 years old, but a version more efficient and less brutal.
It would be premised on the notion that families remain behind as anchors to build rural Mexico. This would gut the underground of coyotes and illicit document purveyors. It would lead to a more predictable flow of workers so that employers knew what skills they were hiring and workers knew up front what they were earning. No more starting their journey here as indentured servants $7,000 in the hole. No more desperation of the kind that made $2.50 an hour acceptable. We could take some of the saved costs from welfare and apply it to housing and transporting the men. At harvest’s end, they would return home for five months and give their labor to their own land. If their villages hadn’t been sufficiently built at the end of 10 years and their families still wanted out, we’d put them on a fast track to U.S. citizenship.
As I poured my crazy logic into a tape recorder, I looked over at the young Oaxacan translator who was sitting in the passenger seat next to me. She was an 18-year-old migrant named Norma Ventura who had come to the San Joaquin Valley as a child and saw much of herself in 10-year-old Ramiro. She had grown up following the same harvests, lived through the same deprivations, and now was the valedictorian of her senior class at Kerman High.
“What do you make of my ramblings?” I asked. “They sound good in the abstract.”
“I have one question,” she said. “If such a program existed back then, would it have kept a child like me from coming here?”
“Stuck in Oaxaca,” she said, considering the notion. “I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have now. I wouldn’t be the same person.”
“It’s about making the village better, not emptying it out,” I said. “Someone like you, with your drive and smarts, would make it to a university in Mexico.”
She shook her head, explaining the logic of the village. “When you’re 12 or 13, you’re old enough to marry, wash dishes, cook food. You don’t need to go to school.”
“Let me ask you this, Norma. How many of the Mixteco migrants you grew up with here graduated from high school.”
“How many of the girls got pregnant?”
“How many of the boys dropped out to work in the fields or join gangs.”
“Maybe 40% or more.”
“I know it sounds cruel, but do we make immigration policy based on the exceptions, based on the Normas and Ramiros of the world? Or should those exceptions become the exceptions of the village, the children who stay behind and build Oaxaca? At least that’s the hope.”
She smiled and nodded, but she didn’t buy it. Yes, a part of her would always look back to Oaxaca, she said. And maybe when she got older she would live a two-world life. But for now, she was following the footsteps of her sister and heading to college at UC San Diego.
I waited two months before returning to Kerman, only to discover that Moises had packed the whole family into the van and left for a six-week berry harvest in Oregon. The landlord wanted me to know that their lives had grown even more bleak of late. All three sisters had begun working in the fields, entrusting the babies to the care of Yolanda and Ramiro. Even with the added wages, the family had left the San Joaquin Valley owing a month’s rent.
Matt Black and I made the 755-mile drive to Portland and spent a day searching the fields along the Tualatin River for any sight of them. It was a gorgeous valley where the farms were small and nestled amid rolling bluffs, and the tourists were invited to pick baskets of the sweetest raspberries and blackberries, a task made pleasant by the cool breeze that shot through the Douglas firs. What farmworkers hadn’t been replaced by mechanical pickers were kept hidden behind the hedgerows and wildflowers. We were told about an old wino labor camp at the end of Rainbow Road near the town of Hillsboro and came upon three dozen cabins still standing in a berry field. Deep in, we found their van and a pile of tennis shoes with the bottoms stained purple and red. All 13 family members were living in a one-room clapboard shack with a tin roof that hadn’t kept out the late spring rains. It measured 12 by 16, just big enough for four bunk beds and a two-burner hotplate.
Ramiro couldn’t stop gabbing. He talked about the night of July 4th and the fireworks that ended with a man in the nearby cabin getting stabbed by a drunk farmworker from a rival camp. “He sliced him in the gut and made a big red thing.” He talked about the migrant services bus that picked him up each morning and took him to a school where they were reading a book called the “Bridge to Terabithia.” It was about a boy with too many siblings who loves art and wants to escape and meets a girl just as lonely and bright, and together they create a magical kingdom on the other side of a creek. “They grab a rope and swing over,” he said. “The shooting star leads them to Rainbow Canyon, and they become invincible.”
Moises was sober and smiling, but the women weren’t pleased to see us. Veronica, in particular, seemed to have grown weary of the whole exercise. Don’t you have enough information already? Haven’t I answered every one of your questions? What are you going to do for me and my children? She was standing over a skillet of eggs when Geronimo began to wail, and then the baby started wailing, too. Her eyes were glazed, as if she had taken a blow to the head, and the cabin seemed on the verge of some explosion. I stepped outside and walked toward the river and heard a cry directed at Matt. “I’m not mad at you,” she said. “I’m mad at my situation.”
Maybe we had pushed things too far by following them there, but it was only by visiting Oregon that I understood this: Even in this benign and beautiful place, a valley so much different from the San Joaquin, the math in Ramiro’s journal hadn’t changed. Dad and Mom, working side by side, were bringing home $400 a week. Before we hurried off that evening, they handed us a big bowl of blackberries sprinkled with salt and said goodbye.
We would see them one more time, on the west side of Fresno, almost a year to the day that Hilario Guzman picked enough grapes to make 10 trays of raisins, put down his curved blade and walked away. They were harvesting a vineyard near Kearney Park, but it wasn’t clear what family members--Moises or some combination of the women--were part of the crew. So we decided to see for ourselves. Without telling them or the farmer, we drove to the vineyard early one September morning and joined the line of battered old farmworker vans that were once part of the army of suburban soccer moms. The sun came up and we went searching row to row. Moises was nowhere to be found. Neither was his wife.
Then we spotted Catarina, the youngest sister, and followed a set of tangled footsteps to a spot halfway down row No. 68. There, inside the vine’s curtain, we could see a woman hacking and slashing with a curved blade in her hand. A red bandana covered her features, but it was easy to see that it was Veronica. Whether her face registered surprise or anger or shame or resignation, the bandana hid everything. It hid everything except the 7-year-old daughter with pink tennis shoes and an old lady’s cough standing to her left, and the 9-year-old son with baggy jeans and a strange lump on his chest standing to her right. It took me a moment to understand what was happening. I had seen kids in the field before, but always playing on the sidelines or baby-sitting a sibling or handing their parents a bucket--the way a child might help mom or dad during a visit to the office. This was different. Every few feet, Monica set down another paper tray to make raisins. Rigoberto, clutching his own curved blade, cut the bunches straight from the vine into the tub. It took the three of them to keep up with the rest of the crew. Yolanda was at home taking care of the two babies. With the labor of her children, Veronica had found a way. This is how the summer of the death of Hilario Guzman ended, with a new summer, a new ledger.