HIstory in the Making
As I’ve written this account of my work experience, just a teenager needing to contribute to the family economy, I realize now that I was living through a time that made history. Wow! I wish now that I would have paid more attention. Migrant workers all over the State were standing up for their rights, linking arms with Caesar Chavez! Meanwhile this teenie bopper was worried about how ugly our work clothes were!
One fourth of the economy in the Imperial Valley depends on its agriculture. It is a hub for trabajadores del fil, my dad worked in the out in the fields most of his life, yet I don’t consider him a migrant worker because he planted himself in the Imperial Valley and gave his youth and strength in that land. Honestly, not until I started looking back into my life did I wonder about the category the Zepedas fit into. Were we immigrants? Permanent residents? Americans? Just last night my son Emery said “When you talk about your experiences, I’ve imagined you like that.” A migrant family. According to the definition, a migrant worker migrates. My parents uprooted from Jalisco to Baja California, then one more and final time to the Imperial Valley in California.
Sometimes migrant workers wait for harvest season or work from one crop to another. My apa prepared the soil where the crops would live, using the big carapillas. My grandsons will be excited to know this fact about their Tata. My apa was also a regador, irrigating the crops and in due season when the harvest was ready the piscadores were there. Thankfully some of the picks of Imperial Valleys bounty always made it on our table. Someone always gave us lechuga, melon, cebolla y sandia.
Money from the Sugar Beet
Then, there were the train cars filled with sugar beets, which contribute significantly to the Valleys economy. They passed slowly along the tracks near our neighborhood, the Eastside. Many times they crawled by at such a pace that when we walked home from school we would jump onto the cable that connected the cars (I just discovered that those are called a coupling) to cross the tracks and get home. The sugar beet train was making its way to the sugar plant in Brawley, CA. Man! Those beets sure did smell when they were getting processed into sugar, but they provided work for plenty of families.
Another money making smell in the Valley is cattle. Driving along the freeway, we’ll get whiffs of the alfalfa, the earthy smells of growing produce. But, get down into the towns, pass through Brawley and the outskirts of Calipat and you’ll be hit with the pungent smell of the feedlots. The hot desert sun burning into the herd of cows and the dry air stirring the air, filling it with cow dung aromas. Ugh! We hated that smell, it burned into our nostrils, then my dad got hired in one of these feedlots. It became a smell that I learned to tolerate. Dad even got us an office cleaning job there. Every Saturday we had to go to that feedlot where the air was thick with cow manure smell. My sisters and I had to clean off layers of dust that gathered everywhere in that office. Once we would start cleaning the air mingled with the foamy window cleaner, then it was a mixture of dust, dung and cleanser, and that mixture seared our noses. I was just a helper, I didn’t get a paycheck for this work, it was my family contribution.
Teenagers and Work
Calipatria is a small town, there wasn’t too much work for a teenager to find. The 2 grocery stores were set, jobs for teenage stockers were filled already. Circle K couldn’t hire minors and the gas station was owned by the Rivas family. A large family that needed no extra help, so the choices left were the fields at harvest time.
I started working the summer of my 14th year. Like, get a paycheck job. I had nagged my ama into letting me work with her and my older sisters. My first summer as a migrant worker in Coachella Valley picking grapes. A memorable experience that I was confident I could handle despite my mothers concerns and warnings.
Our day began just before 4am. For my ama it began at 2am. She would prepare our lunch. Listen, I’m not talking about the individual little lunchbox with a sandwich, chips and a pastelito. I’m talking about serious food that went into a huge Mexican shopping bag. She would prepare and cook the meat and while that simmered she made tortillas for burritos, more than one for each of us, there were 3 of us kids and herself. She filled two thermos, one with coffee and the other one with avena. (Wow! As I’m writing this account I’m realizing that my mother, a grandmother by this point, was out there working piscando uvas! She was tougher than my silly teenage mind realized)
The Outfit Matters
Getting dressed for the day was tricky because it was nice and cool in the wee hours of the morning, but it was summer time, 100 degrees on cool days! We had to be sure not to over dress, but also make sure our skin was covered, especially our face. We didn’t know anything about sunscreen, our protection was long sleeves, a handkerchief for our head and one for our face.
By the time the work truck pulled up she had us somewhat awake, we were dressed and had our first dose of avena. I think every Mexican momma religiously believes that oatmeal in a porridge style gives extraordinary power to the body. Doña Elena, the owner and driver of the camper truck didn’t let us waste time. She was a tough militant looking lady whose mannerisms commanded our quick response. Andale! Andale! We quickly hopped into the back camper. It was lined with wooden benches all around, a nice tight fit. She went up Delta street and picked up other workers. There were probably 12 of us in the back and 3 in the cab. We had to be on route 111 at least by 4:30am since it was an hour and ½ drive. The road dipped up and down, moving the avena around our pansas. Eventually we were lulled to sleep. No exagero, some of us teens would fall asleep and our bodies were like pendulums swinging back and forth, stopping only when we banged against another body. Just imagine the adults catching a teen on the left and another on the right, and sometimes pushing one up and back against the wall to keep him/her from falling forward. We rode on like this right into the grape field.
Unloading was another spectacle. Teen after teen jumping off that truck, followed by the slower moving adults. It seemed endless. Families grouped together while the loner joined a family. Each group had its piscadores and one empacador. We were paid per box, besides our minimum wage, most likely a result of the huelgas of Caesar Chavez. You know, I have a vague recollection of having to stop work and join a peaceful protest that was taking place on the grape farmers property. What mattered to me was that we got off early in a typical teenage attitude!
Ok, back to work. Our time was limited because of the heat and our speed was critical. More cajas de uvas meant more money. My mom did not mess around, she was a little in size but fast and focused. She would walk right under those grapevines without ducking and bust out pails full of grape clusters 3 or 4 at a time, which one of us kids would have to carry out of the row and bring the packer. I’m not sure how I got to be the designated packer, but I then had to arrange the clusters of grapes nicely in the crate. The counter came by to approve my box and add it to our count. A sweet memory is seeing my ama come out from under those vines looking like a racoon, covered in dust from the vines, looking furious if she saw us working slower than her. I’ll say it again, my ama was tough! I don’t remember how many boxes we completed in the 3 hours before the 15 minute break. I can visualize the rows of maybe 6 stacked 4 boxes high. My sister Marina thinks it could have been more!
At break time, the sun had reached us, the 9 oclock break didn’t come quick enough. We didn’t actually have time to rest, just enough time to devour the tacos, drink lots of water, and run to the porta potty. By the end of our day the heat would just about consume us. Hot dirty work that is not for the faint hearted. At noon we were packing up and climbing into the truck for home.
Now the ride home took an evil twist. The stench of our sweaty dusty bodies with no air conditioning back there to relieve us. With so much cold water in us, the up and down movement turned our stomachs. Argh! The sweaty armpit smell that most likely came from us teens choked us and we audibly gagged. The adults remained the same as in the morning, straight as a board, eyes wide open, watching out for us.
Working out there in the vineyards was hard, but somehow our youthful hearts manage to laugh and tease one another and flirt with boys. While I wasn’t paying too much attention my heart and mind recorded the necessary scenes so that I could eventually appreciate my hardworking momma and be amazed that she could get our hormone crazy teenage selves to obey her and work hard too.