Where Are Your Amigos?
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 butt wiper.
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