By Estela Caballero, Chief Star Gazer and Executive Dreamer
Here’s what I know. Soy India y orgullosa de serlo. Soy India pata rajada y orgullosa de lo que soy. I had heard bad words growing up and could hurl insults right back sharp as a whip. When a toad of a girl and her fat brother called me and my sister pochas, I didn’t know the meaning but I could tell it was bad by the way they reveled in satisfaction. To go tell my parents, that would go against the code. During the daylight hours there were only a few things you better be doing in the house if you weren’t in school. I didn’t like any of the choices– cleaning, cooking, taking care of babies or more cleaning.
The worst of the options if you really wanted to be inside when the grown ups were in there cooking or talking was to sit silently. If I was desperate to hear the gossip I would pledge that I would be quiet before I could even be let past the screen door. Well, it wasn’t really a door, just the aluminum frame and we climbed though the bottom square. The top part still had glass but with each transaction it came closer to the same fate as it’s screened panel that used to occupy the bottom square of the screen door. We still used the screen for important things like panning for gold. I had learned about the gold miners in Mrs. King’s class the previous year and told my dad that people could find gold in the dirt. It was just laying there waiting to be discovered. I’m sure he was trying to play down his excitement at the possibility that could change our lives. I took his silence and nodding smile as approval to move forward with my new mission. I enlisted my brothers and sister along with cousins that were camping out around our house for the next month while their parents worked.
By night we would sit with the rest of our immediate and extended family outside around the big tv my dad and uncle would haul out. The long orange extension cord was used for other things like energizing a lamp in the bathroom since the power didn’t work on one side of the trailer. But at night in the weeks leading up to and throughout the apple harvest, we’d connect the VCR player you could rent from the video store to the tv and watch movies outside. My mom would tell us about when we used to live in California and how we went to the drive in movies before we came here. I had never known you could do that, sit in a car and watch a movie on a big screen, like a big movie theater in a parking lot. Once a month she would buy us these little aluminum pans filled with unpopped popcorn. As the aluminum pan grew hotter, the top of the covered pan would expand and look like a shiny dome– like something I imagined topped a building on some alien planet. As each little dome was finished popping it would be poured into one of many tupperware bowls. Most days my mom used those to hold the harina she would make into fresh tortillas, she did this every morning before going to work and every night she came home. On the days the tv was in the yard, the bowls were filled to the top with the rare treat of popcorn and each family camping outside our house got their bowl. Some stayed in little tents others in the garage. They would come in to shower and use the bathroom. The kitchen produced the most wonderful smells beginning long before the sun jumped out of her bed sheets.
I needed as many of the kids looking for gold as possible so the payback for calling us pochas would have to wait. I also wanted to know what is was first so I could decide how long I had to torture them. That was the way. You took it and you threw it back—harder if possible. Enemies and alliances were fragile unless you were related. Even if they were the cousin that bullied you the most, they would jump to your defense if too many were jumping on you at one time. Then it became their fight too. I once had a babysitter that used to put boxing gloves on us so we could learn to fight. By the time the great gold hunt was abandoned I had another insult I needed to figure out how to investigate–India pata rajada. I could always just ask the toad girl and her warty brother but then they would say we were dumb too.
After convincing my Tio Raul to tell us what it meant, I didn’t understand. My Tio Raul was always nice to us and he was my uncle and not related at all to the toads. I didn’t have any reason to doubt him but the two things shouldn’t even go together. Pocha meant I was not Mexican enough and India pata rajada was a reminder to me that I was tied to the land of my father even though I didn’t speak the language. I could understand Spanish but stopped trying to speak it when the toads and the bug eyed rooster kids made fun of me. India pata rajada-– that meant I was an Indian with cut feet from not wearing shoes—it implied I was a savage. This Indio was not the Native American I learned about in school. The proud people that fished and hunted in the same lands I walked on. These were the Indians that still inhabit parts of Mexico and speak dialects that sound like the songs of birds long lost. Perhaps I earned this name because I was the toastiest of my family and actually did run wild a lot outside without shoes. I didn’t care. I asked my dad what it meant and he said not to ask him that question again. I thought if it was important, he would have told me.
My mother’s family is from Mexico too. It’s different than my father’s family. The connection to Mexico for her family is many generations past. She might have clobbered the person who called me names so I didn’t dare mention it to her. She was dynamite in a tiny package and her temper well known from Washington to the rancho in Mexico. I had never been to Mexico. Even though I didn’t speak Spanish in front of others, I was fluent. It was in my best interest if I wanted to hear
the newest gossip from our family when they arrived. The cycle of the seasons was my timer. The apples brought my family back to us. I could say some words in Spanish just fine but gave up trying because the effort was sure to set off ripples of laughter. I gave up and would beg my cousins, who spoke both English and Spanish, to tell me of their travels. They knew of places I had never been to like Wyoming and Mexico. They worked along side their parents all year long and I wished I could too. If I had a job that paid money I could stop the gold digging mission that had failed to produce any gold in the last two years.
I am fluent in Spanish now and since I am Mexican American, some are surprised that I didn’t speak it as a child. My father wanted to learn English so he must have figured he would be forced to learn if his children couldn’t speak his native tongue. It worked.
To make money in the apples you had to get there early to make sure you wouldn’t be left without a ladder. No ladder meant someone in the family would have to climb the tree and steady themselves between the branches while carrying a bag that weighed almost 60 pounds when full. The orchard owners would let an entire family pick under one persons name. It was piece work. A good picker could fill up 8 to 12 bins a day. My mom and dad were no average pickers. My mother could out pick men much taller than she was, including my dad sometimes. The bragging started early in the orchard. The ladies would talk directly to other women. If the man was married and his wife was working with him, he would limit direct conversation to other men and his family. If the wife happened to be missing that day, there might be a lot of singing. That’s how the men would send a message to someone picking that they liked them or thought they were pretty. He would sign a song that described her, like, “Ay hermosa chaparrita, me muero por tus besos. Tu carita linda y ojos muy hermosos.” The words were general enough that if someone other than the primary target thought they might be directed at her and she was interested, he could play it off like, “Of course I like you. Didn’t you hear me singing songs to you hoping you would notice me?” There were always a few unmarried women who enjoyed getting the other ladies mad by joking around with the men singing. If she had sharp wit as well as beauty, the ladies would quickly begin referring to her as a sin verguenza– without shame.
Bins of apples with names like Golden, Granny Smith, Red Delicious and Fuji were tallied up on a card that bore the name of the head of the family. It was hard enough to do with a ladder and everyone knew of someone who had taken their chances picking without a ladder. They could get in trouble with the owner because all of the apples had to be removed from the tree. It was also dangerous and if the picker fell, there would be no accident report much less information that they could be seen by a doctor because it was a work injury. Deals were struck to share ladders among the groups or small cars driven between the rows of trees served to get pickers high enough to reach the fruit at the top. If no deal could be made, a fight could erupt. They were all depending on this money for living expenses due to the uncertainty of when they might find work once the apple season ended. Even though many would sleep in cars, sometimes even on the orchard with the owner’s permission, the money would only last a few months at best.
Some of the orchards had thousands of trees. The ones our family worked for in the beginning belonged to a tree nursery where those who didn’t migrate worked the rest of the year. Children slept in vans parked under the shaded trees and parents would join the children too small to work on the soft grass outside the vehicle at break time. Roadside Help Wanted signs became increasingly common as the years went by especially as the migra became more aggressive in their tactics. My people are humble and hard workers. They take pride in their work. They are grateful and I saw them swallow the injustices hurled upon them because they knew the consequences of speaking up. Soft spoken and respectful men and women boiled from the daily reminders that they were a necessary evil. “Let’s see who from here will do the work we do? They fly the planes right over us and spray us with their poison. Will they tolerate money being stolen from them when the boss says they bruised too many apples?”
The workers, all of us, were just one of the line items on a financial report that determined how much the owner would make that year for each of the 1,000 pound bins filled 60 pounds at a time. The nature of migrant work usually prevents the personal connection between employee and employer year round worker’s experience. This might be why it’s become easier to demonize the undocumented workers. It’s kind of like the differences we see in face to face communication versus email. People can type up things they would never say to a person in front of them and with the click of the mouse, it’s off. The fiber optic cable takes the unfiltered and depersonalized message to the recipient. The sender is free of having to see how the words impacted the person reading it. If challenged, they can fall back on the overused defense that it’s hard to convey emotion through email and chalk up another hit on their passive aggressive tally.
Last year, in 2014, the impact of the lack of migrant workers in Washington state was reflected in those Help Wanted signs. Orchard owners up and down Royal Slope, Wenatchee and Okanagon competed with each other upping the pay per bin. Even when the signs read $28 and even $30 per bin, help did not come. In 2011, Washington state governor held an
emergency meeting with apple growers to find a solution to the shortage of workers. Growers gave first hand accounts of groups of 150 people showing up at his orchard that were referred by the unemployment office– the next day only 3 showed back up. Someone at the meeting that worked for the Department of Corrections suggested they try prison labor. It’s a story that seems unbelievable with reports in the news about how undocumented workers are taking away jobs they have no rights to. Growers saw hundreds of thousands of dollars rotting on the trees and there wasn’t anything that could be done about it. The people referred to them by the unemployment office never showed up or lasted a few hours. The unemployment claim forms the orchard owners received from the state when the non immigrant workers filed for unemployment left them angry. The quitters cited working conditions to be unbearable. They questioned if the piece work pay was even legal– how could they be expected to carry 60 pound bags strapped around their necks and back all day– not to mention the safety hazards of doing this several times an hour while climbing up and down a ladder. They claimed their employer did not give them the proper equipment to be safe– one example referred to the shortage of ladders. He reasoned that he was eligible for unemployment benefits even though he only worked 4 hours because it was unsafe and had not received any training at all.
Things continued to change. Every year my mom would get calls to go and pick up one of our aunts, cousins or uncles from a store or even clinic they were trapped in. The immigration vans didn’t attempt to conceal their presence. Towards the end of the season the migra would park outside the grocery stores and community health clinics stopping those who they suspected might be undocumented. On the night they took my uncle I heard the grown ups trying to console his wife and children. They spoke of rumors they heard that two orchard owners in particular had called the migra on their own workers as the season was winding down so they didn’t have to pay them. I had never been afraid of going to the store. I couldn’t understand why my aunt no longer went to church or why only her oldest daughter could go buy groceries. I saw the vans parked outside the church, grocery store and the park by the river we used to go and swim at on the weekends. They were just vans to me.
My dad tried to ease the heavy hearts of our family by telling us a story about an American man of Chinese descent who worked with him the first year he started at the orchard. The migra came and the boss shouted to the people to run. They knew it would only be a matter of time before the vans would make a move at the orchard. The priest had warned everyone that the surrounding little towns had already been hit. My father ran into the shop where the mechanics worked on the forklift. Others knew they would be caught but they could not leave their children so they ran to their cars hoping to get away. If any that had come with them weren’t in the car, they prayed and waited for the raid to pass. There were already others in the shop and once it was safe, they began to move away from their hiding spot. My dad noticed Sam, the Chinese American. He asked Sam what he was doing there. Sam told him he saw everyone running and where he is from, that means you should run too.
At the end of the apples, the pisca, my Tios and cousins would tell me to go with them to Mexico so I could meet my grandmother and the large part of my family I still have not met in person. My dad would always jokingly say yes but we were not even allowed to spend the night at friends houses so I knew there wasn’t a chance I could really go. Last year was the first time I saw the double doors that lead to the center of my grandmother’s house in Mexico. It was with my father. We used the street view on Google Maps. He showed me the streets he walked as a child and told me how his mother took him breakfast each morning from the house he built just down the street. He was in awe that there it was, on the screen. The streets he walked as a child. The place where they held the velorio for my grandfather when he died. The small rancho he hailed from, important enough for the internet.
Soy India. Si, tambien pata rajada. Nopalera. Todo eso y mas.