A Single Beam of Light

A Single Beam of Light: Reflections on SAF Documentary Work
By Charles D. Thompson, Jr.

Imagine you are Enrique. You’ve left your home and family to follow your father to work in Louisburg, North Carolina. You will live for half a year in a trailer on a farm on a back road. You have no transportation of your own. Your life centers on work in tobacco and vegetables. You live with your father and fourteen others from various Mexican states who share this cluster of trailers with you. Once a week you’re bused to town with the other men to buy groceries, do laundry, and send money home.  Then you’re back for the rest of the week on the same rancho. This is your first experience away from home; the first time you’ve been away from your mother and sister and little brother. At least you have your father. But everything else is different.

None of the others has a relative with him.  They have no father, no brother, no cousin to ccompany them and help them learn what is expected of workers, and this on a farm where the boss speaks no Spanish.  Learning from others is the only way to survive and so you have a head start. You realize your father with thirteen years experience here can help others, too. You are willing to share him.

When there’s time on Sunday, some of the young men take a soccer ball to kick around in the field nearby. Sometimes there are dominoes.  One of the guys carves wood. One reads his Bible at night. One likes to sing along with corridos he blasts through his headphones. But mostly you and they work, prepare food, eat food, sleep.

You want to work as much as possible and that’s why you signed up for the H2A program to begin with. You knew it was no sightseeing trip and, sure enough, you have seen almost nothing but a bus, a road, fields, and the inside of a Wal-Mart.  Your goal upon leaving home was simple: to send home as much money as possible. There are younger siblings back home in school. Your goal for them is to do something else besides this work. You know your father is proud that you are a hard worker, but you know your sister and little brother could be more. You work for them and they know it. They tell you they miss you, but they know without you there would be no education.Your goal now is to last and get back.

When you get to cucumbers, the pay is by the bucket. Thirty-five cents topped out. And you want to work by the bucket because if you run from row to row, you just might get more money. You run and when you get really tired, you sleep better. 

The down times are the worst because that’s when you think of home. You think of what it was like being there when you were a boy. Back then men had already started to leave your town. This became your dream, too. But now that you are in North Carolina you can’t stop dreaming of home.

Then one evening after work is over there is a car. The headlights reflect off the metal of the trailer behind the steps where you’re sitting. Three young women – they are Latina, but they don’t look like farmworkers – emerge. They speak Spanish to you and you are surprised they know your language here in this place. They tell you they represent Student Action with Farmworkers. They smile and extend their hands to shake yours and those of the others around you who’ve also emerged from their trailers.

It’s clear they’re not selling something. Your papa, who’s already lying down in the back, told you to avoid trouble. This seems different. The three stand and talk politely like they’re just visiting. You offer them plastic chairs from inside. They know about your campo because the health clinic told them, they say.  Then they tell you they are trying to learn the stories of farmworkers. After you talk for a while, they tell you they want to share what they learn on video. You notice one has a small camera in her purse.

Whatever wariness you had begins to dissolve as they talk. After all, what other plans did you have before bed? And maybe your story could go beyond this campo, like shining a flashlight toward the stars and thinking it just goes and goes and that someone on some distant planet might see a glimmer one day. Even though you don’t like to stand out, especially here, just maybe it could help. You say yes.

One of the three women goes to the car and brings a tripod and places the video camera on it. They begin asking questions. They are more nervous than you are and you try to help them. You tell them your name, your town, about your family.   The words tumble out like sweet potatoes when you dump your bucket in the big bin behind the tractor. They fall and bump and pile up. You realize you have not talked with anyone in person but your coworkers for over five weeks. You’re telling them about your father, and then there’s your sister and her school supplies and her school uniform and why you’re called on to help your brother and that’s why you’re here. Then you’re telling them about the stores in Louisburg where no one asks you anything. It’s like they don’t see you.

Then the students ask you a question that makes you stop. “Tell me about your community here,” she says. You realize she means here in this trailer with these other muchachos. There is no central square nearby, there are no people walking at night, no baptisms, no births, no quinceañeras, no marriages, no funerals, no schools, no stores; just insects singing and an occasional car passing by. The people at the health clinic are the only ones who ever asked your name. There is no comunidad like Mexico here at all.

You pause for a moment and begin to realize that in this work every day there is companionship. These fourteen guys and your papa are your town for now. Your community is centered on work. And you know that if anything happened to you, they would be the ones to send your body back. They would pay to do that. You’d do the same for them. It’s just what people do for one another in places like this.  People make communities even in jails, you’ve heard. People need each other. Working together becomes home.

Then you nod to the students and they nod back and they realize you’ve just told them something worth remembering and sharing. And then you realize the most important thing from the whole evening has just taken place. These students are the only ones who ever asked you why you came. They are the only ones who stopped and showed they cared about you. You realize in this exchange a new community formed. You smile and thank them when they stand to leave and they say thank you and hope to see you soon.

Maybe the words you said weren’t very good, you think, nothing like something you might read out of a book. But when you talked, those young women listened. And there was a glimmer in all that. Like someone from some distant planet had shone a flashlight out into their darkness and the beam had just made it here and it lit up your night for a second or two, right here in the middle of this dark ground.

These projects, each of them representing single beams of light projected into and from work camps across the Carolinas, give me hope.