I’ve never had to work the fields in my life. I grew up watching family work the rugged campo, here, in the Central Valley (CA), where temperatures in the summer climb up to 112 degrees Fahrenheit, but I never spent a minute in the field. I often saw family members come home, bundled up in filthy clothes with dirt all over their faces, loudly expressing their exhaustion with groans when they came through the door. I grew up with usually more than one family in the house, and many of them—our parents, tíos, and tías—worked the fields so that, as they often reminded us, we who were young would not have to.
This past Labor Day I spent my day with my neighbors working in the fields. I didn’t choose to do this because I see myself as some noble leader or godly saint. Actually, I decided to join my neighbors because a few months ago, they—a group of women—challenged me to join them some time. We were in a neighbors’ gathering (we gather twice a month for coffee and community organizing work) and we ended up talking about the Latin@ immigrant experience, hard work, and the next generation. “You don’t know hard work!” Raquel said with a mischievous smile. “You come home exhausted from meetings in air-conditioned rooms.”
I know what Raquel was doing: She was intentionally, though playfully, agitating my machismo. She was trying to get me to prove myself and do something that I didn’t want to do. I know this technique–I have lots of sisters. But of course, it worked! I responded with, “Next time I have a holiday off from work, I will join you to show you I know how to work with my hands! I may have never worked the fields, but the spirit of hard work runs through my blood.”
That’s not how I felt on September 4, however.
So I rallied two friends of mine: Luis, who came to the U.S. from Mexico at a young age but also never worked the fields; and my friend Scott, an older White man who had his share in hard work to achieve his goals in life, but never in the context of the field. I thought it would be a good experience for each of us to have. Luis wanted to know what it was like to work the fields because for one reason or another, he had the privilege of not ending up diving into that trade like many others who immigrate do. Scott wanted to experience the struggle; he has been on an incredible journey trying to understand the reality his neighbors, who are often demonized in this country, live in. Me, I just wanted to show my neighbors I wasn’t a chump.
We met up with my neighbors near the Kerman area, and after they gave us a short orientation, we began to pick grapes. This is how it works: You basically cut a cluster of grapes with a hand size sickle; place them in a specifically sized, large plastic bowl; and then after the bowl is full, you drop the grapes on a large paper sheet, where they will be set to dry and become raisins.
At first, it was fun. I thought, “I could do this all day!” Then after two hours, the sun came out and in 30 minutes, I started feeling dehydrated. At one point, I noticed my friend Scott was not feeling good. So Luis and I encouraged him to grab a seat, drink water, and relax.
Three and a half hours went by and we found ourselves barely at the middle of the circuit. We still had a long way to go and our energy was running out. So we tried different techniques to try to finish the circuit more effectively. By the fifth hour, it was obvious that we were done. We only had about 20 feet remaining to finish the circuit but we were completely wiped out. It’s not a good sign when your body is not moving fast and your hands are starting to shake hard and cramp up. With a serious strike to my ego, we decided to call it a day. One of our neighbors, with a kind smile on his face, told us in Spanish that he would finish the job. We took his offer and headed back home.
We didn’t earn much. Each tray is worth 34 cents. We worked hard for five hours and gathered 168 trays of grapes between the three of us. Together we made $57.12, but split in three ways, we each made $19.04 for the five hours of hard work! While our neighbors dusted us in speed, I’m certain they don’t make a lot more. They’re such hard workers! I think the best way to express how I feel is to echo Luis’ words in his Instagram post:
“I’m humbled by the work of our campesinos. I was no match for their methodic hands. I will never understand how we pay $0.34 per tray. You would have to make 30 trays in one hour to make minimum wage. Today I made $4/hour. No air conditioned space to take your break, dust in your lunch, and long walks to the bathroom. But when you have no other choice, it’s what you do.”
I’ve been around long enough in the activist world to understand some of the structural mechanisms set in place in the American system that allow for this kind of work to unfairly capitalize on a cheap labor force and, more specifically, on a population of vulnerable people who tend to get unfairly scapegoated for many things. I have a lot more respect for my neighbors and my family. They have endured, especially in the past couple of years, unfair accusations and high levels of discrimination when they have only sought the best for their families and their people.
As I think about my family and my neighbors, I can’t help but remember the thought that came to me when I saw Raquel’s daughter in the circuit, curiously examining the grapes and dirt: “We are planted to bear good fruit, and we will not be moved until our dreams feed the world.”
The general public may not see now who we are, but one day they we will heal them.