The sight of all the freshly-cut lettuces laid out in
rows, still bleeding with milky white sap, reminds me
of an earlier time when I was still pretty fresh myself,
just getting started in farming as a laborer on a big
harvest crew. It is the white sap that gives lettuce
its Latin name lactuca, which means "milky." The sap
doesn't stay white long. Soon after harvest the sap
begins to dry and oxidize turning an unsightly dark
brown color. On a harvest crew someone always follows
the cutters with a pail of water and a moist rag to
wipe the sap off before the lettuces are packed. After
the harvested lettuces have been cleaned they are allowed
to wilt a bit so they won't crack and break when being
handled. Packers then come along and stuff them all
into boxes. It takes skill to select and cut the best
lettuces quickly and it takes skill to pack the crates
rapidly and consistently. It only takes a strong back
to bend over and clean off the fresh sap. When I went
to work fifteen years ago on a large lettuce farm in
Santa Barbara I had few relevant skills and my Spanish
was poor, so I started out as the crew's designated
Santa Barbara is a glorious place to live, especially
if you're rich. The farm I worked on employed over a
hundred people, and most of them couldn't afford to
rent a place in Santa Barbara with their five dollar
an hour wage. We had people on the ranch living in trailers,
in barns and in cars; we had people living in the bushes
- it was a mess. The owner of the farm was always trying
to get the permits necessary to build adequate worker
housing, but to no avail. One day at a public hearing
he exercised his First Amendment right to free speech
and loudly clarified his opinions on the dishonesty,
the hypocrisy, and the downright blatant racist and
classist values of the commissioners. While his comments
were clearly informed by experience, articulately delivered,
colorful, and even amusing, they were also tactless.
When he remarked that he would no longer be contributing
to some folks' political campaigns, his five minutes
of public comment ran out. The questions he had raised
were answered with silence and his request for building
permits remained denied.
The following morning we were harvesting lettuce in
a remote field about two miles up a narrow canyon from
Highway One. The foreman's radio crackled with instructions
as the sales office called out to the field for more
lettuces to be harvested. Long lines of lettuce already
lay cut and the packing had just begun. Suddenly the
radio squawked out a frantic warning: "¡Aguas! ¡Aguas!
¡Ya mero la migra!" The whole crew dropped their knives,
lettuces, and boxes and went flying out of the field.
The foreman switched off his radio, jammed it under
a lettuce carton, and raced off to join the others as
they scrambled up the creek bottom to hide in a neighboring
hillside lemon grove. I was alone with 200 boxes of
lettuce when the lime green I.N.S. 4x4s came boiling
into the field in a cloud of dust. "Nobody move," bellowed
the bullhorn. "This is a raid." I stood still. The officer
in charge stepped down from his vehicle and approached
me looking around. "Where are your amigos?" he asked
in a sour tone. I could see myself reflected in the
dark lenses of his aviator sunglasses. I looked puzzled.
"What amigos?" I asked. The agents gathered at the edge
of a steep embankment and looked down at the muddy footprints
heading up the creek. The southern California sun was
beginning to burn down on their backs. Nobody was getting
paid enough to go thrashing up the creek through the
nettles and poison oak just to chase a bunch of guys
around on foot through a steep and thorny lemon orchard.
The commander waved the agents back to their Broncos
with an air of disgusted resignation and turned his
attention back to me.
Before arriving in the field the migra had to stop and
cut the lock on the gate a mile down the canyon before
continuing on to the field. Some kids had been waiting
near the gate for the school bus and one of them had
slipped away to a nearby house and phoned the ranch
with a warning. I was the total haul for their bust.
"I didn't bring my papers today," I helpfully volunteered
to the agent. "Do I get a free T.J. getaway?" "Don't
get cute, white boy," the agent replied, handing me
his business card. "Give this to your patrón."
On the back he had written out "I'll be back." The doors
slammed and the I.N.S. drove off, slowly this time.
When all was quiet I retrieved the radio and called
the office. "You're the new foreman," the sales desk
informed me. When the crew began dropping from the lemon
trees and filtering back into the field I was the one
holding the radio, calling out the orders, and directing
the harvest. My status as a legal resident was more
important to the management than my status as a clueless
newcomer because they knew they could count on me to
keep holding onto the radio when the situation got confused.
That whole season was one long learning experience.
Besides learning how to pick and pack lettuce and manage
a lot of people I learned that for myself, as for so
many others, the relatively privileged position I held
came not so much from any virtue or experience of my
own but as the happy consequence of some political reality.
And, if the consequences of politics aren't happy for
everyone, well that's politics! Exposure to the policies
and practicalities of immigration enforcement taught
me that government is bigger theater than Hollywood.
The politics of immigration weave and warp together
economic realities and political ideologies into a tapestry
lush with contradictions, profits, comedy, and violence.
It's a free country, so if you want you can always get
up and sound off about the hypocrisy of it all. But
I learned that when you speak out you may soon end up
like my old boss, wondering where all your amigos went.
Written by: Andrew Griffin Andy cultivates 25
acres of vegetables near Hollister, CA. years of studying
philosophy at UC Davis was excellent in preparation
for twenty years of hoeing weeds, digging ditches, driving
trucks, managing field crews and feeding cows. Andy
has been to many of the best restaurants in Northern
California, usually entering through the back door while
pushing a hand truck. He hopes to one day be as sophisticated
and widely traveled as the vegetables he grows and sells.
You can read more of Andy's articles, check out the
farm or sign up for their newsletter at www.Mariquita.com