By David Bacon, New America Media
MADERA, Calif.–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 20 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.
Costs of Rides, Childcare on Little Pay
I pay $8 each way to get to work and back home. Right now they’re paying $6 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 50 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 $8 a day, but when my aunt isn’t working, she takes care of Liliana.
Blueberries—12 Pounds Per Bucket
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.
Each bucket has to weigh 12 pounds. This is the second year I’ve picked blueberries, so since I don’t have much experience. I can only fill 15 or 16 buckets. When the ripe fruit is scarce, I can only pick 13. Those with more experience can do up to 20 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.
Good and Bad Contractors
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.
Pregnant at 15
I went to school in Mexico. I’m from a small town in Oaxaca, and I left when I was 15 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 18 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.
Lorena Hernandez and her daughter Liliana
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.
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’m 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.
Turning 18 Meant New Responsibilities
I’ve been working since I turned 18, and now I’m 20. I really didn’t want to turn 18, 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.
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.
Tomatoes—Good Pay and Back Injuries
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.
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 18 cents a vine, so after paying everything I would only make $20 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 older.
No Vision of My Future
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 weekends.
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.
This article was first published in New America Media.
David Bacon is a former union organizer and a fellow at the Oakland Institute. He is the author of Illegal People and the forthcoming The Right to Not Migrate.
[Photos by David Bacon]