How To Survive A Work Day In the Fields

Today I write with heartfelt appreciation for the man Cesar Chavez, who in his own struggles and experiences worked hard to help himself and other migrant workers. In another post called Migrant Workers In The Valleys I give a small glimpse of my work day picking grapes in Coachella Valley. Here are some recommendations that come from memories lodged in the recesses of my 9th grade mind.

How To Dress Appropriately For A Hot Desert Day

Summer time in the Imperial Valley brings temperatures as high as 120° Fahrenheit. From the moment the dry hot burning sun rises around 6:30 am it would penetrate our skin and our heads. Asi es, I felt like it was frying us. When we went to work in the grapevines we covered up our skin and heads, otherwise the sun would make us ill. I don’t remember ever using sunscreen. I thought that because I’m brown I wouldn’t get sunburned. Ya se Ya se. Instead, we wore layers to protect our skin from the burning sun. It felt like a double whammy, since the layers made me perspire and others (not me) would sweat. Wet, smelly sweat came through the layers of protection. Por favor, don’t forget the deodorant. The ugly odor that hit me sitting in the back of that truck was offensive! Hijole! I to wanted to keep my paño over my face, but the suffocating heat was worse during that long ride home. Finally, having long hair, my mother always told me, “haste la trenza!” I always ignored her advice to wear the plain old braid, and someone always ended up braiding my dirty hair halfway through the day. My daughter said, “braids are cool today mom.”

 Sometimes, even with our efforts to protect ourselves, the sun got to us. One day at work, late in the morning, when we were almost done for the day, a woman about my mothers age, fifty something, went down right in the middle of vines, with half a bucket of uvas. It seemed like it took the mayordomo and some of the other workers a long time to revive her. Hijole! The sun and heat knocked her out! But I never worried that my ama could be affected like that. I was a child, de veras, nothing could happen to my strong ama. Even when she’d come out from under the grapevines, face covered in dirt, and I could tell the extreme heat was burning her cheeks, I just knew she’d be ok.

Drinking The Right Amount Of Water:

Drinking water out in the hot fields was tricky. If you drank too much you could get sick, especially if it was nice and cool. Too much water would swoosh around in your belly slowing you down. Yet you shouldn’t neglect drinking it, waiting too long could also make you sick. We teenagers tended to want to be at the water jug too often. My ama seemed to know just how much we could handle and under her watchful eye we had just enough water to be useful. 

We started our days in teams of 3 or 4 people, usually families. We got paid by the boxes that were packed and approved so a picker had to work hard and fast to get grapes over to the packer. Those serious adults who had bills waiting for them and families to feed, they knew how to work. Good pickers got their flow or rhythm and tried not to waste time by stopping. Imagine an aerobic workout. Stretch up to clip the cluster of grapes, bend down to carefully, but quickly place it in the bucket. Two or three steps to the next cluster, clip, drop, one, two, three, and repeat until the bucket is full. Fill two buckets, one for each hand, then briskly walk all the way down the long grape vine row and leave your buckets of grapes to the care of the packer. Just remembering that scorching sun makes me glad my ama rotated us sisters as packers. Picking grapes was hard on the body and packing them beautifully in the box could be hard on the ego, because if the mayordomo didn’t approve it, it had to be repacked, which also meant loss of precious time since we could safely only work until 11am before the sun turned up its heat.

En conclusíon

As a little kid, I totally enjoyed life out in the desert, not much bothered me. I didn’t see life as hard, my apa and ama covered me and my siblings well. As a teen I only paid attention to the important stuff like playing sports. I was very much concerned about my ama getting my tennis shoes on time for volleyball season in the fall.

My Teenage Life: Volleyball and other sports

When I was dragged into the peaceful protest regarding the conditions of the grapevine workers, con mucha pena, I confess that I was only worried about how very tired, dirty, hot and ready to go home I felt. I didn’t care about negotiations, or break throughs, the dirt meshed with sweat and heat was not a fair opponent.

Ahora si, I can see that while I was distracted, history was being shaped and God did helped us. Thank God for men and women that are willing to stand up in the face of adversity and fight for a righteous cause as Cesar Chavez did. 

Culture, Diversity and Coming of Age

Imperial Valley

Today I’m all about the melting pot, total give away with a name like Rosalba Greene right? But when I was growing up, in the California desert valley I didn’t know anything about it. In my small community, we had very little diversity. 

I come from the Imperial Valley, way down at the bottom of California, right at the edge of Mexico. If you cross the line you’re in Baja. Lots of Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans to pick from in El Valle Imperial. Small towns scattered throughout the region made social interactions comfortable. 

It’s what I was used to, surrounded by mi gente mostly, speaking our rapid sounding Spanish dialect.  Of course with the small elite group of whites; los Patrones who controlled the economy mostly through agriculture; we mostly spoke Spanglish, the official unofficial language.

California State Route 111 or as we called it, “El Ciento Once“, was the main route that led to the important cities. and it went right through The City of Calipatria, where the tallest flagpole in America stands. It has a reputation of being  bien chiquita, the warning was don’t blink or you’ll miss it! A “city” with a small population of almost 8,000.

The sembradores, piscadores, regadores and patrones drove the economy with agriculture and farming. How such a dry desert place produces such wealth in vegetable crops is incredible, although it didn’t really matter much to me then, I now realize it was our bread and butter. My Apa supported our family working as a regador, one English translation is irrigation technician. I guess it can be quite technical, once my dad was explaining how it was that he irrigated a field, or maybe it was how not to irrigate a field? Too little water will dry a crop, too much will drown the crop. Just the right measurement is needed, but when he used technical measurements he lost me.

Social and Economic divides

We sectioned off the city, not literally but within and gravitated to our comfort culture. It was like this, the East side across the tracks, where we lived. The West Side, where the town square rested, a good mile away from the tracks. Then there was the rich side where the whites lived. People of the same ethnic group with similar experiences, grouping together so naturally. This description is from almost 40 years ago, quizas ya cambio, maybe Valley folks are all mingled and mixed now.

Social life consisted of after school sports and the Friday night high school football game. Our special occasions included the perpetual quinceañeras on Saturday nights. I can only imagine what the rich white kids experienced. Horses, 4H club and other expensive hobbies. I really don’t know the kind of socializing that took place over there, my husband the Cold Blooded Englishman tells me he played tennis and went sailing (bien muy muy).

We all, Mexicans, Americans and Mexican-Americans crossed cultures and economic status on the 4th of July. We agreed that our fireworks displays were the best. Homecoming games were times of rallying together and getting that CIF championship! You know what’s crazy? All of a sudden, We were all cozy around each other, we all were one team, the Calipatria Hornets! I can hear the cheerleaders chanting “We are the Hornets, mighty mighty Hornets!” Then we all drifted back to our comfort cultures. 

Trophy Memories

It’s been nice remembering my days in Calipatria. Days when I shined as a volleyball player and walked the high school grounds with such confidence. I considered myself (though perhaps nobody else did) a good point guard in basketball, of course that was on the J.V. team as a junior! (the oldest player on the team). The sports banquets were always a bit awkward, but I loved that spotlight, especially when I won a trophy. Then, as my Senior year came to an end, and I was having to consider my future, I definitely never imagined that I would be anywhere else in the world.

Culture shock

I came to San Diego because I was accepted into UCSD, Third College. Pero como fue possible?! (My Puerto Rican friends would say, “Que fue?”) I was just as shocked! Submitting an application had been a last minute idea suggested by my volley coach; Miss George. I didn’t expect my immediate future to change so quickly, so completely through one application. I figured I would go to IVC– our community college and ease into adult life. When the letter arrived in the mail announcing this opportunity, it was time to tell my parents about it. 

Before I could settle down and enjoy my last summer as a kid, I found myself in San Diego, on campus with masses of students from all over the world! Summer Bridge was the program that helps students transition from kid school to hardball school, by the end of 4 weeks I should have crossed the bridge with experience and confidence. 

There I was, with my non-English speaking ama and my apa, refusing to speak his heavily accented English. We were completely disoriented on orientation day. That whole afternoon was a blur. I can now imagine what my poor mother must have felt as she said goodbye, leaving me all alone to face adulthood, with all those different people.

College Life

 One of the ice breakers we Mexican Americans use is Spanglish. Somehow it eases things up when talking to a new acquaintance to bust out your Spanglish, that is, if they speak Spanish. You can imagine what a relief it was for me to see other fellow Mexicans walking about the campus during orientation. As soon as I got close enough to one girl, I said “Estoy bien lost! Man! Ni se lo que estoy haciendo?!” She turned to look at me and said, “What?” She had no idea what I had said. I was on my own. Later, I found out that this girl was Mexican-American! Where did she leave her Spanglish? 

I was shell shocked that first year of college. I shared an apartment with 3 other girls, and wow! Talk about diversity. My bedroom would become my sanctuary when I wasn’t in classes. Allison, my roommate was this super confident black American girl, who was enjoying her independence. I don’t think I ever learned much about her except that she was always spending the night with her boyfriend, was that even legal? The other two girls were my housemates. Hilary, was from Northern California. A rich white girl, always chillin’ on a high with her boyfriend. It got to the point that literally they would do days just hitting that bong, barely going to classes, yet somehow passing exams with A’s! I was awkward with them, now it wasn’t only the white and brown difference, it was their relaxation methods that weirded me out. Don’t get me wrong, Hilary was nice, but what she offered, I did not want.

Julia, my other housemate was also from Northern California. She was a hippie type, very natural, didn’t like perfumes, or make up or deodorant. She was the most approachable even spoke Spanish, but because I wasn’t in that comfort cultural zone I avoided her too. Little did I know that one day I would be related to someone a lot like her; my brother in-law Jeremy.

Life was hard and school was just too much to cope with to even realize that I had no social life. In lil’ ole Calipat high, I was accepted. Nobody was unaccepting me, if anything, all the other Freshmen were just like me, adjusting. In high school I was cool, I was fun and crazy, but college life and the big city was way out of my league. I did manage to acquire a friend,  a legit Mexican-American. Her Spanish was better than mine and she was studious. Two awkward Mexicans in a multicultural sea of students. Margarita was smart and focused on why she was there, while I was wondering why I was there in the first place! Fatigue, depression and loneliness washed over me.

I survived that first year, but just barely. My grades were mediocre, It wasn’t until the end of the school year that I realized that all the free time I had between classes and labs was meant for studying, not The Guiding Light soap opera!. 

Staying in San Diego

I was glad when it was over, I was done with the whole experience, midterms and finals for sure! My brain was was exhausted. I was ready for my break. I needed to catch up with my sis Patty, and my valley friends before facing the reality of adulting. But, once again, an application determined my future. I had applied and was hired for a job at the Science and Engineering Library on campus, starting immediately. In this setting I would really face the diversity of cultures and generations. (I didn’t even know that students could be old!) I had to face it, accept and maybe embrace it. We would see, but first I would catch a quick weekend at home

More Change

One short summer weekend, that turned my life upside down and inside out again! My mother fretted and she looked at my sister Patty. Otra vez! She was getting blamed. My other siblings wondered what the heck I was doing. I was a different girl, hold on, same lil Mexican-American chick, but I re-entered San Diego a whole new person from the inside. Some would say “I got religion” Maybe I did. This is what I know, I discovered true friendship. 

Jesus Culture

Wow! A friend who transcended culture, age, gender, mindsets, habits. No pretending, no holding back, he loved me, just the way I was! Immediately I trusted him. No fear of backstabbing, or rejection. No worries that he’d be embarrassed of me, or that I was bothering him. He actually sought to be my friend, he wasn’t too busy. He was that friend that totally influenced every part of me and my life. Now with this new influencer in my life I was challenged to look outside my comfortable culture and accept and offer friendship outside of it. While I was open to it, it was a bit awkward. I was glad that in fact He encouraged me to mix and mingle my Mexican-American culture with his Jesus culture, and beyond! He spoke Spanglish.

I can’t wait to tell about the incredible diversity I’ve enjoyed in my relationships, starting with my marriage. Friends that I would have never chosen or been afraid to approach were arranged into my life beautifully.