The desire started shortly after we moved here. Behind our house is about 50 acres of farm land. This farm is run by a man I will refer to as Jose. (This is not his real name, just one I’m making up for this blog.) My kitchen window looks out over this land. I have watched intently for years now how this farm works. It has in some strange way fascinated me. Jose and his workers are out there often before the sun is up. They work hard. And I mean really hard, moving pipes around for irrigation in this rain forsaken land, setting up new greenhouses, turning the soil for the next planting, spraying (my least favorite days of this farm as my house is fumigated with the instecides they use) fertilizing, the list goes on and on.
At first I just watched. Then I wanted to meet Jose. Ask him what he was planting (since I couldn’t identify it myself). What he was spraying. How long had he worked these grounds into the lush green crops they produced. All the things I would wonder as I watched them work. Day after day.
And then there was my childrens desire that I meet Jose. They wanted me to ask if they could stomp and play in the parts of the field that were not used to plant. They wanted to know if they could ride their bikes on the dirt roads the tractors drove. They wanted to know if they could catch the tadpoles that swam in the runoffs from the fields. So every time Jose would be close enough that I could walk over to talk to, they would let me know. And one day I did. And Jose was really nice. Yes, they could play in the unused parts, yes they could ride bikes on the dirt roads, yes they could catch tadpoles. He was so genuinely happy in giving them this permission. So we chatted for awhile and then he was off to managing the farm again.
Over the next few years, we had many conversations. He asked me if we would keep in eye (and ear) out for people that had been stealing his pipes. Copper prices had gone way up, and so now he was dealing with people stealing these very long and heavy pipes during the night. He gave us his home phone number, which I only had to use once. It was about 3:30 in the morning. We had slept with our windows open. Eric and I awoke to the sound of pipes being moved around. It was quite loud. So we talked about what to do. Call the police? Nope, just call Jose. That’s what he asked me to do. So I call him. (English is his second language and I barely speak spanish.) It took a few trys to get him to figure out who was calling him at this crazy hour. But as he woke up, and his english got a little better, we were able to communicate about these pipes. He remembered that he had hired guys to move the pipes and that they were going to start early. So no worries. We all went back to sleep. After we shut our window!
I think what fascinated me most though was the migrant workers. They were always changing. A few that were regulars. I could tell mostly by the cars. As I was busy making breakfast for my starving little children, I would glance out the window and see the trail of cars driving down the dusty road to the section of field that would be picked that day. Sometimes Jose’s pickup would be loaded down with workers. I wondered who they were. Not just their name, but who were they. Did they have family here? Or had they left them behind in Mexico with promises of sending money and coming for them later. Where did they live? Was it acceptable housing or was it one of the run down shacks that I have seen around here. Could they really make enough money to survive picking out there?
I am not really sure when it happened. But one day the thought came to me ” I could work out in those fields. I could pick too.” The more I watched this farm, the more I thought about it. It seemed like a “win-win” job. I could work out in the fields picking the asian greens while the children played in the field or our backyard. I could work side by side with these people that I was so intrigued with. Work on learning their language. And the best part~I could make money while doing it.
I mentioned the idea to the children who were all thrilled. I’m pretty sure it was just the money part they liked. Easy money! They were all exictied to pick out there right along beside me. So we waited until it was a good time to talk to Jose. A time when he wasn’t busy handing out orders or driving workers from one field to the next. So this day came last Tuesday. I was feeling especially desperate for the money part. We ended up having to take our van to the shop to get the transmission rebuilt. As much as Eric had hoped to do it himself, he just didn’t have the time. So with the van at the shop, knowing what the bill was going to be, and feeling desperate, I headed out to talk to Jose.
At first I just made small talk. Talked about his new lease and how this land will be plowed over in a few years to build a new Dental School or new housing for married students. We talked about the weather. We talked the children playing out in the field. And then I did it. Just like that. I said “Can I come pick in your fields?” I am pretty sure he was in shock. He was speechless for a few moments. I didn’t ask, but I’m pretty sure I am the only white girl who has ever asked him to pick. He recovered rather quickly and said “yes”. He told me to show up around 8 on Friday morning. I needed to bring a knife to cut the greens off with. I had to fill each box with 30 lbs of greens. And I would get paid $4.50 a box.
I left Jose so exicited and yet really kinda scared. I had done it. I had a job picking in the field. And $4.50 a box. Wow! I was going to make really good money. The children were exstatic. Until they found out that they could not pick. FDA rules say that children can not be within 50 feet of a field producing food to be sold. So only Mommy could go. I thought about this and decided that I would pay them each $1.00 for the 4 hours I would be gone. This dollar was for the work that they would be doing in my place since I would be gone. This made everybody happy again.
Friday morning came. The exictiment was high. “Mommy was going to pick in the fields!” We had discussed how much money I might make.They are very smart little children and were a little stressed too over this rebuilt transmission. I pulled on my pink and black rainboots. Grabbed a small knife from the kitchen and off I went.
When I showed up, Jose was not there, but the workers were already out there picking. I had no idea how to actually harvest this stuff so I started trying to ask a woman to show me. But she could not speak a word of English. So I moved to the next, “English?”, shake of head. Finally someone pointed me to a teenage girl. I explained to her that I was there to pick and asked for help. At this point, everybody (about 25 workers) had stopped picking and was staring at me. I was feeling kinda dumb. After watching her slice a few plants off, I headed over to the pile of flat cardboard boxes, shaped it into a box and staked out a row. By now I could tell that the men that were there were laughing at me. I must have been such a site. White skin, clean clothes, and pink rain boots! I realized quickly that there would be no language learning for me. These people could work so fast that within moments of me starting, I was left in the dust.
Well, if there was nobody around to talk to I thought, it would be some nice LONG quiet time with just me and God. That’s a very rare thing in my life these days. Jose showed up and showed me how I was doing it all wrong and explained the correct way. He collected the already 30 or so boxes that had already been picked. All of a sudden my hand felt as if something had stung me. I looked down and …nettles. They were everywhere. There was no way to pick without touching them. I looked around and saw that each row had them. And nobody was wearing gloves. Within minutes, my hands were swollen. Eventually the burning went away, but the evidence on my hands was still there. One hour later, Jose showed back up. I had just finished my first box and was starting on my second. I noticed a women walking towards me with a huge bunch of greens. She came and desposited it into my box and pointed over to Jose. She pointed down to my box and then again to Jose. I pointed at myself and then over to the stacks of full boxes, now well over 100, and she nodded. I picked up my box and started over. As I walked, women came from all around me and deposited a bunch of greens into my box. Each gave me a truly sincere smile. I was speechless. Here I was in their field. Picking greens that they could be picking to have that extra box on their tally. And instead of being rude or mean to me they were so kind. Helping me fill my almost empty box. By the time I got to Jose and the boxes and weighed my box, it was too much!! I had to take some out so that it would be the correct weight. So there I was, 2 boxes. That was only $9.00
I wanted to cry. My hands were hurting again so bad. My back (which I have had a bad back since an auto accident I was in 4 years ago) hurt so bad I thought I might never stand up straight again. My head was throbbing from the heat and needing to drink water. It looked like we were going to be done. Then Jose told everybody to hop in the back of his truck. We were headed to the next field.
This field was nettle free. Or at least enough that I could easily avoid them. Or maybe my eyes were sharper now to spot them before touching them. The greens were about twice as big so I could fill my box twice as fast. For the next 2 hours I picked. By the time we were almost to the end of this field, I physically could not even bend over. I crawled on my knees, picking and dragging my box along side of me. I wasn’t so clean anymore. My pink boots were caked in mud. I was dripping in sweat. Near the end of my fifth box (third in this field) a semi truck pulled up alongside the road full of fertilizer (a.k.a. chicken poop) and parked. He walked over to where I was at (by this time there were only women left in the field picking. All the men had disappeared) and in Spanish asked where Jose was at. I pointed to the fields that were way over on the other side of the road. I didn’t even want to try and speak spanish. My head was pounding. I was almost done…
But this trucker was curious. Who was this white girl picking in a migrant workers field. I mean, this is America. White girls don’t work in fields. So he asked me where I was from. “Here” I answered. He didn’t believe me.
“What country were you born in I mean” “
“No, what country?”
trucker is speechless
“I thought you must be from Germany or Sweden or somewhere”
“Are you in school?”
trucker stares in more amazement
“you have another job?
“why are you here picking”
“to make money. My children are close by so they don’t have to go to daycare”
I nod in the general direction of all the houses.
“you have children?”
His eyes bug out of his head. I really want to just laugh now at how funny this conversation really is and that I am the one that has him so confused. He wanted to know the childrens ages. Told me he was born in Texas. Grew up in CA. Never picked in a field. Did I need him to help me. What was this stuff anyway. Had a pocket knife. Would that work to cut these greens?
I can only imagine the tales that will be spun from that conversation as he tells his family and friends and who knows who else. The white American girl picking in the fields.
Eventually Jose showed up. I pointed to my short little stack of three boxes and he added the tally marks next to my number. Then he asked if I was going to head with them over to the fields across the field. I said no. I needed to go nurse the baby. Even if there was no baby or children for that matter or money didn’t need to be made, I couldn’t have lasted another 5 minutes. My hands were swollen, my back and legs were burning and in pain like they have never been before. I couldn’t stand up straight. My head was ready to explode. (This would be my fault for not bringing water with me). So I started walking home.
The rest of this story is pretty much me whining and complaining of the pain I am still in. I have never worked so hard or hurt so bad for so long in my entire life. After tithing and paying the children their share, I had $15.25.
So am I going back? I don’t know. Jose offered me work for Monday morning. I still can’t even bend over so that would make for some slow picking. I think I will need to find a better way to go about learning Spanish. And for money too. Back to the sewing machine.
But now, when I look out my kitchen window at those fields, I know what it’s like to pick. I know the hard work that is done to get fresh vegetables on my table that I so easily picked up at the store. (which I would like to encourage everyone to make sure you rinse those veggies before consuming. Trust me on this one.) If I never spend another day in a field, I am glad I chose to do it this time. Even if it did almost kill me. Eric says,”That which does not kill you will only make you stronger”. So I’m hoping I’m stronger now.
I’m curious. Would you have picked? What are your thoughts on what I did? Was it insane or a great life lesson???
**Note** I was originally not going to share this with anyone. It was going to be one of those deep dark family secrets. “My Mom picked with the migrant workers”. But nobody really was allowed to talk about it. But Eric asked me to blog this. I am still not completley sure I understand his reasoning. But this is my story.