By Kyle Warren, SAF Into the Fields intern
Luis in Arkansas, Sweet Potato
We don’t have anywhere else to go. You just have to make the best of a rough situation. It truly is the closest thing we can call home.”
Luis was living in the storage facility where his company would store the old sweet potatoes from last year’s harvest that were due to be cleaned out. His bed was about halfway down the one large “bedroom” where he slept with about 30 other workers. The grower’s crew leaders often got to use the old offices of the warehouse as their bedrooms located at the front of the storage facility. The rank smell of molding sweet potatoes lingered in the air as they rotted in their crates feet away from where Luis slept at night. He told us you just get used to the smell. What he never got used to were the occasional threats he might find lurking around his so called home. Many predators like snakes, scorpions, and spiders lived in the crates that were stored in the middle of the warehouse and they would often come out at night and make their way to where Luis and his coworkers slept. As of yet, Luis hadn’t been bitten or stung nor did he know anyone who was, but he was waiting for the day when someone would eventually get hurt.
We couldn’t help but wonder how they got by living in the warehouse where basic amenities seemed scarce. He showed us the break room turned kitchen. They were happy to have two stoves, only one of which worked, and two refrigerators. What he was concerned about though was the bathroom. As he led us to the back of the warehouse, the musky smell of rotting produce clashed with the pungent odor of raw sewage. We came upon the showering facilities where he and his other 30 workers would line up just to bathe. There was nothing more than a spigot poking out of the wall with a tarp fashioned around it to act as a shower curtain. On the other side, we saw raw sewage seeping up from the ground inches away from where they bathed. Luis told us it was difficult, but they didn’t think they had anywhere else to go and patrón [boss] Jack has tried to “do good by them.” They would make do so long as they were provided with steady work and an honest paycheck.
Sylvia in Alabama, Tomatoes
We were never told and we never saw any signs. You just hoped that someone, anyone would tell you if and when they sprayed. Otherwise, you’d go into the fields to work without ever knowing…”
Sylvia loved the bright color of tomatoes. There was something beautiful about plucking them from their vines each and every day. They were always so juicy, sweet, and the most impressive red you’ve ever seen. Of course, that fruit often came at such a high cost. Sylvia would often spend the whole day picking tomatoes by the bushel and she often filled her crates faster than most other workers. But she’d frequently return home with blisters, sores, and boils underneath her arms. The first couple months of work, she thought it was from constantly lifting the basket full of tomatoes as she walked it over to the truck. She was half-right. “Era un síntoma de los pesticidas.”
Her farm had been using very strong pesticides and herbicides that would keep the red, ripe tomatoes so beautiful. They were never informed of when the grower or crew leader would actually spray the crops. There were never any signs and they were never told. One had to hope that by some stroke of luck they would learn through word of mouth that they were spraying pesticides on any given day and that it wasn’t safe to go into the fields. This by no means was a guarantee for on at least two occasions, Sylvia was directly sprayed with chemicals while she was picking tomatoes under the hot sun. If they could get to the local Wal-Mart in time, they might be able to apply some ointment that would reduce the swelling, but they paid for it out of their own pockets and knew better than to complain. “Those who complain often don’t come back.” Because no grower wants a worker who would cause trouble. And so they continued to work in the pesticide infested fields. She worked with people who had been so exposed, much of their skin began to peel. Their skin was so burned and raw, shining it’s ruby red like that of a plump, ripe tomato.
Manuel in Tennessee, Apples
I picked apples for years to save enough money to open up my tienda and to start a new life in the States for my kids. I never want them to suffer through what I suffered.”
Manuel had spent close to two decades of his life picking apples in the Southeast to provide a decent wage for his wife back in Mexico. He came up on an H-2A visa every year working for the same grower who thought of his workers as expendable tools. Manuel would be loaded onto an overcrowded bus with loose tools and no seat belts every morning at 6am. He would be in the fields by 7am, climbing the tall trees and picking its fruits. Manuel was paid a piece-rate and he had to make sure that he filled his bucket with the Granny Smiths with the utmost care. They threw out any bruised pieces he picked, so he had to make sure they looked perfect. It was all too common that workers would fall out of the trees that they toiled in day in and day out. Manuel was no different. Despite all his injuries, he never thought to complain, at least not after the first time. “What do you expect me to do about it?” He never received medical treatment, worker’s compensation, or even an extended hand, but he was told to get back to work.
Manuel would not allow his kids to live the same injustices he was suffering through. He saved enough money to make sure he could ensure his wife could safely cross the border into the States. Together they worked in the fields for several more years, holding on to each dollar they earned like it was their last. Finally, they left the apples behind and started their own tienda [store]. They raised a family on the earnings they received from providing other migrant farmworkers basic goods. Their kids grew up as U.S. citizens and, after Manuel and his wife put all three of them through college, two of them started their own restaurant chains in Nashville and Knoxville, TN. To this day, Manuel works in his little tienda, proud that his kids didn’t ever have to step foot in the fields. He says his tienda still isn’t doing well and despite the fact that he could always turn to his kids to for financial support, he would rather just leave his kids be, knowing full well that they are happy. He measures his success not by the number of apples he picks, but by the distance his children are to him. Manuel believes that the further they are from him and the fields, the happier they will be. Manuel never does stock apples in his store.
Octavio in Louisiana, Sugar Cane
You can never predict the weather in any given season. Sometimes, you don’t have enough workers for the entire harvest. Other times, there isn’t enough to harvest to justify having all your workers. So you have to make do…”
Octavio was a crew-leader who knew his way around the watermelon and sugar cane industries in Northern Louisiana. He had helped recruit several H-2A workers in the past years, but this year had to rely on many undocumented and Texas-based workers to help with the sugar cane crops. Louisiana had seen more rainfall this year than it had in the past two and workers couldn’t actually get out into the fields to harvest the crop. Octavio’s grower specifically couldn’t bring in many of his H-2A workers on the initial date he promised because the rain had ruined some of his harvest and delayed his sweet potato planting. Instead though, we would bring undocumented and Texas-based workers to do what they could during the wet season in order to harvest as much of the crop as possible. “It’s a shame that we don’t have our regular H-2A workers. The workers we have now do nothing but cause fights, get drunk, and destroy the housing. But at least we don’t have to pay them on the rainy days when they don’t work.” Normally, under the H-2A program, a grower has to pay at least ¾ of what he was expecting to pay his recruited farmworkers but no such law applies to Texas or undocumented workers. As a matter of fact, Octavio was proud of the number of people he recruited. He recruited so many that many of them would travel from Texas or other Southern States, fully believing they would be working in the fields, but often told they’d be working in beans or watermelon. Regardless, they came ready to work but because of their status, the grower would tell them to go on home because he didn’t have any work for them. Dozens and dozens of workers would arrive on buses caravanning in the hopes of getting to earn something in the fields only to be turned away at the grower’s doorstep. But Octavio was proud of all those he recruited. It was just unfortunate for those who weren’t so lucky to find work and would need to find their own way back home. After talking to Octavio, we went southward and saw the vast sugar cane fields ready for harvest with no workers tending the fields at all.
Tenola, Mississippi, Catfish
I thought I was going to be a father. Instead, I couldn’t provide for myself or my wife, let alone a child.”
Tenola and his wife were so excited because they had for the past 8 months been expecting a child. Tenola and his wife met working on the lines in the Mississippi catfish industry. Tenola kept working with his company primarily cleaning or cutting the fish, but on the good days he would just have to assemble boxes that the fish would be loaded into. He had grown up in Mississippi and found it strange to work next to migrant workers. He did the best he could to talk to them about work and his life. He loved to motion a hump over his stomach as he talked about his wife, lengthening and straining the word “pregnant” as if coworkers would understand it if he said it with an accent. Eventually they did. He had a difficult relationship with his coworkers who he found out were making significantly more than him even though he had been working for the same company for over 7 years. He was later told it was because the H-2A program required they be paid a higher wage, but that they didn’t get the same kind of benefits that the typical employee received. Tenola seemed satisfied with this answer as he thought about his meager dental and health insurance plans.
One day while working, Tenola heard from his wife who told him she was having complications. Tenola just thought that the baby was on his way and he rushed to get his work done. He asked his employers if he might be able to go home early from the plant if he finished cutting his quota of catfish early that day. He told his employer all about the child and his phone call and they indicated to him that, so long as he got his work done for that day, he could leave. And so Tenola worked at double capacity and managed to leave work an hour early, 3 hours after receiving the phone call from his wife. When he got home, he realized his wife was, in fact, having complications. He rushed her to the hospital only to find out it was too late. They had lost their first child. The very next day, Tenola returned to work to continue providing for his wife. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?” Tenola was confronted by his manager who screamed at him telling him to get off the property immediately or he would have Tenola arrested. It was only until he talked to one of his coworkers that he found out his supervisor was upset about his leaving early the day before and, despite approving his absence, fired Tenola. Tenola no longer works for the Mississippi catfish company. Instead, his wife has taken his place on the line cutting and cleaning fish, assembling boxes on the good days. Tenola sits at home in his empty, silent house.