It was 5 a.m., as in still dark. I shivered among the other field hands, who
wondered what I was doing there. I could tell by the way they asked, "What
are you doing here?" They weren't used to working with someone so blindingly
I explained in pidgin Spanish that I wanted to know first-hand about reaping
the land. A woman said something about "loco," and everyone laughed,
exposing their gold caps.
A veterano grabbed my hands and said, "Soft as a baby's butt."
A leather-skinned grandma chuckled so hard that she had to kiss her crucifix.
They all wore emblems of Jesus. It was like St. Patty's Day, and I was the
one without a cross. I joined them in laughing at me, if only to warm up.
The day smelled rich like the underside of a rock when you're a kid looking
for pill bugs. It was good to be out of the office.
My neighbor extended her hand and said, "Me llamo Maria."
Maria has been harvesting for 18 years. She started in Mexico, where pickers
are treated like "sled dogs," if my Spanish serves me. She immigrated
when a landlord struck her on the back with a shovel. She showed me the scar.
Wall Street refers to Maria as import labor. Import labor is why Americans
spend 10% of their income on food instead of 30% as in parts of Europe. Maybe
we should call her important labor.
Maria lives in a bungalow in the field. She fears that her home will be
leveled alongside the other Oxnard farms. Fields keep turning into tract
houses, which have a habit of never turning back into fields again. And the
cost of food goes up: 13%...14%...
Maria stopped mid-sentence as el mayordomo rumbled out of a dust cloud on
his tractor. He wore a ranchero hat, yesterday's jeans, and a sternness befitting
a funeral. He wasn't big on hellos.
"Group one over here, group two follows me. ¿Who is this?"
My friends all turned my way as if they hadn't noticed me there. I produced
the papers for which I had begged and pleaded at the central office. El mayordomo
studied the papers, then my face, papers, face, and finally grunted in consent.
He snapped his fingers, and group two -- me! -- followed. Single-file we
donned our armor: bandanas to guard against dirt and sun and bugs and spray,
gloves to protect our hands. Then we grabbed the boxes by which they measured
I gazed down a furrow that extended to the end of time. When you pass a
farm at 60 miles an hour, it isn't much to look at. You wonder, in fact,
how it could feed so many. When you stand at one end holding an empty box,
its size defies physics.
Like other bratty white kids, the closest I ever got to nature was the produce
section at Ralph's, where everything was processed, packaged, and stamped
with a happy face by the time I got there. Wrenching these berries from the
ground, I realized that we are never further away from nature than we are
to our next meal.
A shot rang out beyond: BAM!
I jumped so comically that the others hurt themselves laughing. Remember
Steel Magnolias, where the father was always shooting to scare off the birds?
It was like that, only non-stop. Sea gulls, sparrows, crows -- they just
didn't get the picture.
I dropped a fresa into my box and wondered how many to fill it. Field workers
are not paid in hours but by yield, $1.50 per box. A speedy worker could
fill 5 boxes in an hour; someone inspired by hungry children might do 8.
Inspectors check the quality of your fruit, which ruined my first plan --
to stuff old socks into the bottom of each box. Deductions were made for
berries that were too small, too ripe, or too ugly. Buyer beware: those are
used for juice.
Fortunately I wasn't in it for the money, so I would just pick at my leisure.
Buzz. Wrong answer. Have you ever seen those yellow machines that look like
retired football posts? They pace the workers. Every time I stopped to scribble
a note, that monster was on my back.
I complained to Maria, who reminded me, "In Mexico, they do it by hand."
BAM! I jumped again. The others laughed as heartily.
By noon my back refused to bend. The sun descended in waves of oppression,
and I couldn't remember what it was like to be cold. Finally, mercifully,
a flare crossed the sky and the football post took a breather. We were free,
if only for an hour.
In the parking lot, Maria asked me what I brought for lunch.
"Um, money." I was such a gringo.
From her brown bag Maria retrieved a tamale and forced me to eat. The others
shared from their own lunches, laughing in turn, kissing their crucifixes.
The saying in Spanish goes Donde come uno comen dos ("where one can
eat two can eat"). When I was young, my family had a similar saying: "Touch
my food, lose your fingers." So it goes.
After lunch I laid down to unmangle my back, at which moment I saw the flare.
By 2 p.m. I couldn't move. It was either a vertebra or a hamstring or maybe
a stroke. Maria -- showoff -- continued to pick at breakneck speed, limited
only by the finite number of fingers on her hands. It seemed like I had picked
enough berries to feed North America for a year, but it was only 10 boxes,
$15. I was getting loopy. The sun, the birds, my hands -- everything appeared
to have little seeds on the outside.
Maria continued her story. It turns out that 12 members of her family worked
the fields. Half reside in the states; the others come only for the season.
When you ask Maria's siblings what field of work they're in, they just point.
In the old days, said Maria, Mexicans risked life and limb crossing the border
to pick. Savvy young men called coyotes charged them to navigate the unfriendly
terrain. Ten years ago, Maria's brother Javier disappeared crossing the Rio
Grande. This is, incidentally, where we get the racial slur, "wetback."
"Of course, now everyone has their papers," said Maria. A head
laughed in the furrow beyond, but I didn't pry.
A breeze ambled in at 4 p.m., freeing me from my preoccupation with how
much I hate the sun. I'm not sure if I was picking anymore. My fingers were
moving, but who's to say what they were doing. I was about to lay down and
die when I saw the most beautiful thing in the whole world: a flare across
Maria picked quickly to round off her box. I was just happy to be in an
upright position. El mayordomo circled round for a peek at my work.
He smiled for the first time and said, "There may be a future for the
new guy yet."
Everyone laughed as they had at 5 a.m. El mayordomo patted me on the head.
Even the bad guy wasn't bad. To think that these people would wake up tomorrow
and do it all over. For anyone inclined to look down their nose at field
workers, think again. They live close to a miracle that escapes the paper-pushing
community and complain 10% as often. They are also less likely to perish
in the event of a blackout.
As for me, I am pleased to survive this research, but I'll never again be
able to eat strawberry shortcake without a twinge of pain.