Voices from the Strawberries
by David Bacon
WATSONVILLE (9/15/96) -- At the end of the day, the road beside the Jose Rocha strawberry field is lined with young men. Their hands are sticky from the juice of bright red berries. The dirt of the field and the sweet liquid have made a kind of shiny patina on the knees of their pants, and their shirtcuffs and elbows.
They are all short and dark-skinned. When they call out to each other, or talk softly in little groups, some speak Spanish. But others use the indigenous languages of Oaxaca and southern Mexico.
No one seems to be going anywhere. There isn't anywhere to go.
"The pollero just left me here this morning," answers Roberto, when asked what he's waiting for. Polleros, or coyotes, smuggle immigrants across the border from Mexico. Felix, standing next to Roberto, says he got to the field a few days ago. He points down the road, which bisects the strawberry rows, and then disappears into a clump of trees a half-mile inside the field.
"We'll sleep in there again tonight," he says.
The little camp under the trees is a pretty lonely place. Half-hidden trails lead to it among the tall reeds, across marshy spots where dark mud oozes up through broken plastic crates used for packing strawberries. Each path ends in a few little spaces where the bulrushes have been bent over and flattened down by the pressure of sleeping bodies. It almost seems a place for animals, but its human history is given away by a tattered shirt and pair of pants, and castoff plastic food wrappers.
Hills covered with a seemingly endless sea of strawberry plants rise from the hollow which shelters the little camp. Beyond the hills are the lights of town, the outskirts of Salinas, vegetable capital of the world.
Both Roberto and Felix are Mixtecs, one of the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca. For more than a decade, the origin of the migrant stream into California's fields has reached further and further into southern Mexico. Farmworkers, who used to come from Michoacan and Jalisco in the center of the country, now come from Oaxaca and Chiapas in the south, and even central America beyond.
Neither are trustful enough of strangers to want to say their family names.
Like Roberto and Felix, many workers have been following a migrant labor cycle inside Mexico already for years. "It took me a year just to save the money to cross the border," Roberto says. He earned it in the tomato and strawberry fields of the northern state of Sinaloa, and the valley of San Quintin on the Baja California peninsula.
"I first began coming to the fields with my father," Roberto explains. As he tells his story, the other workers beside the road listen and nod -- he's telling their story as well. "We came up every year to San Quintin and Ensenada. We worked like dogs. Sometimes we only had enough at the end of the season to pay the foreman for the ride back to Aguaxutla [his home town in Oaxaca]."
Roberto is 14 years old. He began to travel with his father when he was ten. Last year, he says he made 140 pesos a week, or about $20. After a year he saved enough to pay the pollero.
This spring, after working with his father in Sinaloa, instead of going on to San Quintin, he got a ride with friends to Tijuana. There they found a coyote who agreed to take them across the border to Watsonville. They didn't know where that was, but the pollero said they could work there picking strawberries. His price was $500.
He took them out into the hills east of Tijuana, toward Tecate. When it got dark, they began to walk. Early that morning, they were robbed. "Three men jumped out at us, with pistols in their hands," Roberto remembers. "I had been warned about robbers, so I put some pesos and a ladatel card (Mexican telephone credit card) in my jacket pocket. They took my jacket and the money too."
A young woman was also travelling with their small group, and Roberto says the robbers took her away. "That's why I will never take any of my sisters here," he says.
Some of the older men on the side of the road say they're married, but none of them want to bring their wives or family north. Jose, who's in his 20s and married, says he prefers to come north every year for the strawberry season, and go back afterwards.
"It's hard, and I feel alone a lot, but I have enough money to send home, and my family's there when I return," he says.
Today, on Roberto's first day in the strawberry field, he thinks he made about $20. The grower pays a piecerate in this field, which is the most common way workers are paid. Sometimes they get an hourly rate, or an hourly rate plus a bonus, but usually only if the foreman knows they're fast workers.
Roberto won't know for sure what he's making until the foreman pays him at the end of the week. Twenty dollars for a day's work is pretty low compared to what the other young men around him, who've been here longer, have been earning. Roberto's just learning the new system they use, which is a little different from the way he worked in Mexico. Still, $20 is a week's wage in San Quintin.
Since he's been in the field for eight hours, it's not even close to the legal minimum wage, but Roberto doesn't know what the minimum is. Anyway, he's not in a very good position to make demands on the foreman. Tomorrow, he says, he'll be able to work a lot faster.
A few of the young men head down to the highway to find a ride into town. They've been here for a few weeks. While they started out sleeping under the trees like Felix and Roberto, they don't anymore.
"I live in a motel on Main Street," one of them says, who doesn't want to volunteer his name or the name of the motel. He says he pays $140 a month to sleep in a room with six other people. They are all young men, here to pick strawberries. Being here longer seems to have given him a heightened sense that the questions of strangers can be dangerous. He turns away after a few monosyllabic replies.
Beside a Pajaro Valley field not far away, Griselda Ruiz, another young strawberry worker, recounts the history of her own journey to Watsonville. It took her, not only into the fields as a worker, but out of the fields as a union militant.
"I come from Gomez Farias in Michoacan," she explains. "My family is very poor -- we lived in the countryside outside of town on a rancho."
Ruiz is waiting for the workers in this field to leave the rows so that she can talk to them. Except for the fact that her clothes don't show a day's worth of dirt and berry juice, she's dressed as they are. A scarf hangs limply around Ruiz' neck, like those the women in the fields pull in front of their nose and mouth to keep out the dust.
"My father worked part of the year in Watsonville for as long as I can remember," she recalls. "Every year, after the harvest was over in California, he would come home to Gomez Farias, with many others. They all would come back, and act very happy about their life in California. I grew up thinking the U.S. must be a wonderful place."
Ruiz, who turned 18 earlier this year, was 14 when her father brought her north to Watsonville with her brothers.
"When I got to Watsonville, I thought it was very ugly," she says. "I said to myself, 'so this is the north!'" Her father tried to send her to school, but she didn't like it. "It was full of cholos and cholas [boys and girls in gangs]. There were lots of fights, and the kids all smoked. I refused to go. My father and I fought a lot about this, and he told me that if I wasn't going to go to school, I would have to stay at home all day. So I stayed at home for a year."
In the end, Ruiz pleaded with her mother to take her to work, and she became a strawberry picker at 15. She worked for Roberto Salazar, where farmworkers earn some of the lowest wages in Pajaro Valley. Ruiz earned about $30 for an eight or ten hour day, often with no lunch break. If it started raining, the foreman would demand that they continue working. Ruiz says friends told her they had to sleep with him to get their jobs.
"In spite of all that, I liked working," she remembers. "It was hard, but I liked earning my own money. I wanted to be independent. After a while, I met David [the man who became the father of her daughter Verenise], and I went to live with him. We didn't get along very well, though, and after the baby was born, I looked for another place to live. I moved in with a couple who had been friends of my family's for many years."
On thirty dollars a day, Ruiz had to support both herself and her two-year-old. She pays $150 a month for rent, $250 for food, and $10 a day for childcare with a neighbor. Her ride to and from the field costs her another $2. The bare necessities cost her $700 -- her monthly wages were $750.
In 1996, Ruiz went to work for a different grower, the Gargiulo company. It was there she found the union. "Right after I started working," she recalls, "some organizers from the union came out to talk to us at lunchtime. I got close to them, and I liked what they were saying. They gave me union buttons and stickers, which I gave out to workers in the crew. Lots of people put them on. When the foreman saw all the people with union buttons, he got very angry, and I was fired a few days later. They accused me of not working fast enough, but it was only after we put on union buttons that they began checking my boxes all the time."
Having a family and support network made it possible for Ruiz to live in Watsonville year around, unlike the young men from Oaxaca, who start their lives in the U.S. sleeping under trees. They still think of their wages in terms of what it means to their families, what their earnings can buy back home in Oaxaca. They compare them to the wages in the fields of Sinaloa and Baja California.
Ruiz measured her wages in terms of what they buy here. That yardstick raised her expectations, and sharpened her feelings of discrimination and poverty. It gave her a greater interest in the union. "I've been working in the strawberries for three years," she explains. "I can see that the union is a good thing."
After being fired, she decided to go to work for the union full time. "My idea is that we're here to help people," she says, "to stop bad treatment and raise the wages. To keep the companies from firing people whenever they want to. I go out every day to talk to people in different fields. I think they like what I'm saying. They usually treat me very well, and at lunchtime, they often offer to share their food with me."
With other Watsonville strawberry workers, Ruiz was swept up in the largest union organizing drive in the country in years -- the resurgence of the United Farm Workers.
Maria Elena Sandoval who began picking strawberries when she was 13, over 20 years ago, was one of its leaders. Today, she's married to a UFW member who works at the Ariel Mushroom Co., where the union won a contract after a 2-year battle. Sandoval works for Richard Uyematsu. Faced with the union campaign in 1996, he hired two anti-union consultants to hold mandatory meetings for workers. Nevertheless, she won over her crew after her husband came out to the field where she was working, and showed paycheck stubs and receipts for medical bills paid by the union's medical plan.
"At first I was a little scared about doing this," she confides, "but my husband said, 'don't worry, I'll support you if you get fired.'" Since the other workers knew her husband was a union man, and concluded that she must be pro-union as well, "I decided I might as well be the union rep for my picking crew."
Among the forty UFW organizers in Watsonville are veterans of the labor wars which have swept California fields since the 1960s. One of them is Josefina Flores, a woman in her sixties. Looking strong and a little weather-beaten, Flores has spent her life in the sun.
"I was born in Calexico, in the Imperial Valley," she remembers. "I worked in the fields from the time I was 7 years old, in the lettuce, in the beets, the carrots, and finally, the grapes. My family worked the corrido Ñ we travelled with the crops, making the same circuit every year.
"In those years, no one ever demanded that the children of farm workers go to school. I just went a few days in one place, and a few days in another. I wanted to go to school. I could see the other children playing, and learning things. But I couldn't, because of the economic situation of my family. I was the oldest child -- I had to help, so I went to work. This was in 1937 and 1938, and the wages were 30¢/hour. At first I just worked helping my parents. Adding what I did to their work, we all just made a little more."
Flores is a citizen, born in the United States. "But even so, we were just seen as poor people, as Mexicans," she recalls. "Being poor and being Mexican was just about the same thing."
She got married at 21, and had 9 children. "Only three are still living," she says. "My husband died when my oldest was 10 years old. Afterwards, I just went on working. I brought my kids to the fields, the way my parents brought me. We had a little corrido Ñ just from Arvin to Selma and back."
Driving through the Pajaro Valley around Watsonville, Flores stops from time to time to speak with workers. In the fields, they're bent over double for ten hours and more every day. Most are very young -- eighteen or twenty years old.
Flores calls them to come to the edge of the field. She talks to them about their wages, and how they feel about their jobs, making careful notes about what each person says in a thick, spiral-bound notebook.
Every name is written down -- what each one says about their wages, the problems of their job, the name of their foreman. She makes her record partly to help the union organize. But who else is going to write down and preserve a record of what happens to these young men and women of the strawberry fields, to those who have no public voice? The spiral-bound notebook is the record Ñ that each person was here, that each thought a certain way about their situation.
Josefina Flores, once an unschooled and illiterate farm worker, has become an archivist of the voiceless.
"I never learned to read and write when I was a child -- not until much later. I learned in the union. Other organizers would teach me a little here, and a little there. Finally I learned, but long after I was already grown.
Flores history in the union is almost as old as the UFW itself. "In 1965 we began to hear about Cesar Chavez, that he was organizing a union for farm workers. I didn't know what a union was at the time," she explains, "much less a strike or a boycott. I was working on a ranch near Selma -- Rancho Diamante -- and there was a strike. I went to find out what was going on, and I saw that the union was trying to do something good. In those times, in the 60s, it was just trying to get the wages up a little, get bathrooms in the fields. So I joined.
"Then in 1968 we struck the grapes in Arvin. I went to a restaurant with my daughter to pick up some burritos the owner was donating to workers on the picketline. While I was inside, a foreman came in and shot me. He shot seven bullets into my body."
It took Flores two years to recover, during which she couldn't work. Afterwards, she became a UFW organizer, first in Santa Maria, and then in the San Joaquin Valley, where she was a leader of the huge 1973 grape strike. That epic battle was called off when two workers were killed on the picketline, and Flores was sent by the union to Chicago to develop urban support for the grape boycott.
For a woman who had lived her life in small rural towns in California's agricultural valleys, big Midwestern cities opened a vision of a much larger world. She went to China as a US delegate to the international women's conference in Beijing. By the nineties, she was back in California, staffing the UFW's Delano office.
When Flores looks at the young people of the strawberry fields, she sees the difficulties the union faces in talking to workers with so little experience.
"People come here from far away in Mexico, to this valley to pick strawberries," she explains. "They know very little about their rights as workers -- we're explaining the whole history of our movement to people who don't know anything about it. They weren't here when it happened -- many of them hadn't even been born. To them, Cesar Chavez is a boxer. [She refers to Julio Cesar Chavez -- the Mexican boxing champion.] They had no way of learning in Mexico the history of our movement here."
What can the union offer these young workers?
"At least we know a little bit about how to fight," she answers. "Our history can help them understand how they can get something better. For most of them, if they don't come here, they don't eat. They tell me -- 'we're not here because we want to be, but because we have to.' In the little towns they come from, there's no clinic, and even sometimes no school. They can't read and write. Not only that, the growers threaten them. A lot of workers have no papers, and the foremen tell them a lot of lies about the union to scare them. That's the biggest problem -- for us and for them. They know so little."
Nevertheless, Flores has a lot of hope for the future of the union in this new generation of strawberry workers. "They're tired of being poor and ground down," she concludes. "While I can see that some are afraid, things are still not the same as they used to be.. These young people are not as accepting of things as farm workers were when I was their age. Their expectations are higher than ours were. That's why I think our movement can help them.
"They want something better, and I think they're willing to fight to get it."
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