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it's the only job I can do - a young mother's farm work story

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  • David Bacon
    IT S THE ONLY JOB I KNOW HOW TO DO By David Bacon Madera, CA New America Media, 12/31/12
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 31, 2012
      By David Bacon
      Madera, CA
      New America Media, 12/31/12

      Lorena Hernandez is a young farm worker and single mother from
      Oaxaca. Today she lives in Madera, California, with her daughter and
      aunt. She told her story to David Bacon.

      To go pick blueberries I have to get up at four in the morning.
      First I make my lunch to take with me, and then I get dressed for
      work. For lunch I eat whatever there is in the house, mostly bean
      tacos. Then the ritero, the person who gives me a ride to work,
      picks me up at twenty minutes to five. I work as long as my body can
      take it, usually until 2: 30 in the afternoon. Then the ritero gives
      me a ride home and I get there by 3: 30 or 4 in the afternoon. By
      then I'm really tired.

      Lorena Hernandez

      I pay eight dollars each way, to get to work and back home. Right
      now they're paying six dollars for each bucket of blueberries you
      pick, so I have to fill almost three buckets just to cover my daily
      ride. The contractor I work for, Elias Hernandez, hooks us up with
      the riteros. He's the contractor for fifty of us farm workers
      picking blueberries, and I met him when a friend of my aunt gave me
      his number.

      I've known Elias two years now, since the first time we worked
      putting plastic on the grape vines. On that job, which lasts a
      month, we put pieces of plastic over the vines so that it looks like
      an igloo. They do this so the grapes won't burn from the frost. The
      grapes are almost ready to pick when we do this, but we don't pick
      them. Other people come after us to do that.

      I pick grapes for raisins or wine with another contractor. I've
      worked with many contractors doing many different jobs. Sometimes I
      work a lot with the same contractor, but sometimes it changes -- it
      depends on how they treat me. I also try to find work that's easier.
      To me the contractors are all the same, but some treat us better than
      others, so I go with them.

      Lorena Hernandez picking blueberries

      I try to find work that will allow me to make enough to pay for my
      lunch, ride and rent. I have a daughter, Liliana, who's four, so I
      also have to make enough to pay for the babysitter. That's why I'm
      picking blueberries - to support her. I pay the babysitter eight
      dollars a day, but when my aunt isn't working, she takes care of

      My daughter's still asleep when I go to work, because we leave so
      early. We start working at six, so I sleep on the way myself, and
      wake up when we get to the field. There the contractor gives us our
      buckets and we wash our hands before picking the fruit. The job
      isn't that difficult, and I love seeing the buckets fill up. Right
      now there are a lot of blueberries on the plants, so we can make more
      buckets. Sometimes we return to a field as many as four times.
      First we pick the ripe blueberries and then go back, because the
      green ones continue to ripen with the heat.

      Lorena's hands, after a day picking blueberries

      Each bucket has to weigh twelve pounds. This is the second year I've
      picked blueberries, so since I don't have much experience I can only
      fill fifteen or sixteen buckets. When the ripe fruit is scarce, I
      can only pick thirteen. Those with more experience can do up to
      twenty buckets a day. To pick a lot, you have to skip your lunch
      break. After a day of picking blueberries, my hands feel tired and
      dirty and mistreated. We immediately wash them with cold water, but
      later they hurt a lot. They don't give us gloves because they say
      they will damage the fruit.

      Yadira weighs the buckets. She is fair and doesn't give special
      treatment to anyone. The grower didn't want to put anyone in this
      position who was related to the contractor, so that there wouldn't be
      favoritism for certain workers. Elias works directly with the owner.
      He's been good to work for -- he always has water in the field, and
      he follows the law.

      Yadira, the checker, weighs the buckets of berries picked by a worker

      Elias one of the better contractors. He respects the rules, and
      everything is always on the up and up. He jokes around with us, but
      he does his job. I joke with him too. I tell him that if one day he
      doesn't provide us with water, I'll go to the Farm Workers Union or
      Cal OSHA.

      Some contractors know how to treat their workers and others don't.
      That's when you change jobs, when you see how a contractor treats
      you. Some only need men in their crews, so we women have to look
      elsewhere for work. We know how contractors are because other
      workers tell us, so we avoid the bad ones. In general, the
      contractors I've worked for have been fair. The ones with many years
      of experience know how to talk to workers. And as workers, we
      understand that when we're doing something wrong, the foreman has a
      valid reason to bring it to our attention. But they are not
      permitted to scream at us or mistreat us.

      Picking blueberries

      I went to school in Mexico. I'm from a small town in Oaxaca, and I
      left when I was fifteen years old. That's when I crossed the border
      to come here. I don't have many good memories of those times. I got
      pregnant while I was in school and when I graduated. When I got
      pregnant my parents were very mad and my mother kicked me out of the
      house. My aunt came to visit during that time and told my mother
      that if she didn't want me, she would take me with her to the U.S. I
      made a quick decision to go with her. My aunt helped me out then and
      she still does.

      This is definitely a different country. After my daughter was born I
      wasn't allowed to work because I was a minor. They told me if I
      tried they would take my daughter away. So I cared for Liliana at
      home, and my aunt supported both of us for three years. When I
      turned eighteen she took me to the fields and showed me how to do the
      work. It was really the only job I could do because I didn't have
      much education.

      My first job was picking grapes. She then showed me how to pick
      cherries and blueberries and that's how I've learned to do everything
      I do now. We've picked many different crops and generally we've
      worked for good contractors. So here I am, working in the fields
      because it's the only job there is for someone like me.

      An older woman in the blueberry crew

      In my family we've always spoken Spanish. My grandparents didn't
      teach my parents to speak Mixteco, so they never learned the
      language, even though it was the language of our town. I've very
      proud of being from Oaxaca and I'm not ashamed to be a farm worker,
      but I still don't speak it.

      Like everyone else in town, my parents worked their cornfield so that
      we could eat. I never liked working in the fields in Mexico, so they
      never took me with them. . Today when I call them, they laugh at me
      and remind me of how I never liked to work in the fields back home.
      And here I am, picking blueberries and tomatoes. They ask me why I
      refused to work with them and now I'm here working for someone else.
      Oh well, it's the only job I know how to do.

      I've been working since I turned eighteen, and now I'm twenty. I
      really didn't want to turn eighteen, but the years kept passing by.
      I knew I would have additional responsibilities and would have to
      learn to work. I was afraid because I didn't have any idea how to do
      the work and I knew I would be working in the heat. It was scary for
      me, because I knew things wouldn't be like they'd been before. But
      my aunt was always with me, and thanks to her I learned new skills.

      A fast worker weighs two buckets of berries

      When I received my first check, I knew I had to continue working to
      earn that type of money. I began to work really hard and I was
      invited to join other crews and pick other crops. When I'm invited
      to join another crew now, I know how to do the job. I'm very happy
      because I work in the fields with other people. Even though I'm
      tired at the end of the day, I de-stress and love the work I do.
      I'll continue to do this work for as long as I'm in this country.

      We've picked cherries, blueberries, grapes, tomatoes and figs.
      Picking tomatoes has been the hardest for me because of the buckets
      you have to carry and dump in the trailers. They're very heavy and
      it's very hot outside. You run all day long, competing with other
      workers. You can't allow them to work faster than you, because then
      they'll fill the trailer quickly, and you'll have to go even faster
      to catch up to it. Some workers have been doing this for years, so
      their hands move faster. You always are trying to catch up to them.
      It's very hard on your back and many people end up with permanent
      back injuries. But you earn good money. Even first timers like
      myself can earn $60 to $70 a day.

      I like to pick tomatoes also because our day ends early. We're done
      at about 10 or 10:30 because after that it's too hot to work. Every
      year you hear about workers who faint because of the heat and some
      even die. You're in danger of fainting if you're working too fast in
      the heat. It's important to have water, but you can't drink too
      much. When I first started I drank too much, and I felt like I
      couldn't stand back up. The contractor sat me down in the shade and
      gave me a salt tablet.

      A woman carries four buckets down to the scales

      In November work gets scarce, so we rest. The pruning season begins
      in December, but I don't like to do it because it's so cold outside.
      They just pay eighteen cents a vine, so after paying everything I
      would only make twenty dollars a day - not enough to pay for the ride
      and my babysitter. I stay home with my daughter, and start picking
      fruit in March. So we don't work for three months. I can't get
      unemployment benefits, so those months are very hard, but it's better
      that I don't work. When I'm working I manage my finances and save
      some money. That's what gets me through those months.

      I feel I don't know my daughter anymore, though. She calls my aunt
      "mama" instead of me. My daughter thinks my aunt is her mother. I
      understand why -- my cousins call my aunt "mama" and that's what she
      hears. She worries about my aunt and brings her water and asks her
      how her day was. My daughter doesn't really understand that I get
      home tired, but my aunt says she'll understand me better when she's

      Lorena Hernandez and her daughter Liliana

      I don't have friends, just acquaintances from work. They don't have
      responsibilities like I do, so they go out on the weekend. They
      share their stories with me because since I have a daughter, I don't
      go out. I just stay at home. I wash my daughter's clothes on the
      weekends because during the week I'm so tired. There isn't time to
      clean the house during the week either. That's what we do on the

      I don't have a vision of my own future. I don't really think about
      it. I know I want to work every day. I don't think I'll ever return
      to school because of my age. My job will be working in the fields.
      I'm at peace with my current situation. I would love to go back to
      school, but it's too late for me. Perhaps one day.

      Coming in 2013 from Beacon Press:
      The Right to Stay Home: Ending Forced Migration and the
      Criminalization of Immigrants

      David Bacon talks with Solange Echevarria of KWMR about growers push
      for guest worker programs. Advance to 88 minutes for the interview.
      David Bacon talks with Kris Welch about Right-to-Work-for Less.
      Advance to 01:11:30 for the interview.

      See also Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates Migration and
      Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon Press, 2008)
      Recipient: C.L.R. James Award, best book of 2007-2008

      See also the photodocumentary on indigenous migration to the US
      Communities Without Borders (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006)

      See also The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border
      (University of California, 2004)

      Entrevista de David Bacon con activistas de #yosoy132 en UNAM
      Interview of David Bacon by activists of #yosoy132 at UNAM (in Spanish)

      Two lectures on the political economy of migration by David Bacon

      For more articles and images, see http://dbacon.igc.org

      David Bacon, Photographs and Stories


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