it's the only job I can do - a young mother's farm work story
- IT'S THE ONLY JOB I KNOW HOW TO DO
By David Bacon
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.
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
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
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.
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
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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