Slave in the Fields: A reporter goes undercover in the San Quintin Valley

By  |  16 / July / 2015

20150417_103901El Vergel, four in the morning. Everything is dark, cold. Men and women dressed in jackets against the chill form in two lines, waiting their turn to enter the bathroom. Even from afar, the smell of excrement penetrates the morning air. Meanwhile, at the sinks others splash cold water in their faces to banish the sleepiness that still lingers in the pre-dawn hours. They all get ready to prepare the mid-morning snack, lunch and dinners that they’ll take with them as they head out to harvest cucumbers and tomatoes.

In the central square of El Vergel, a few meters from the main entrance, a line of yellow trucks forms, all of them battered, with broken and dusty seats. They run their engines in anticipation of the teens, women and men who will soon board for the work day. A half hour was enough to fill 50 buses with indigenous workers from Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz and Guerrero.

Guards inspect everyone who enters El Vergel before passing through the gatehouse at the main entrance in the morning. They’re making sure that an intruder doesn’’t sneak in, or worse, someone with political propaganda against the company, Los Pinos. Rancho Los Pinos or its registered name Northwest Industrial Production (the name varies, according to the workers’ movements) has received several of the nation’s presidents as an example of the kind of investment Mexico needed. In August 1999, Ernesto Zedillo came to inaugurate a cluster of housing for workers and a vegetable packing plant.

In March 2009, while visiting Baja California, Felipe Calderon landed on the airstrip of Rancho Los Pinos to join the Rodriguez brothers at a family party. And in November 2013 Enrique Peña Nieto delivered the National Export Award to the Rodriguez brothers for their accomplishments at San Quintin.

I woke up today at four o’clock in the morning to make bean and rice tacos for lunch. Soon Santiago Silveira, the general manager of the El Vergel housing development, came by and told me to wait for him at five to go with the foreman, Fernando Gutierrez, who approves the entry of new laborers.

“You got copies of your birth certificate, CURP (registration) and INE (voter’s card)?,” Fernando Gutierrez asked before setting down his cup of coffee.

Sitting behind his desk, Gutierrez requested the documents and then ordered his companion to open an employment file with my name, age, and the name of the head of the block where I’d be living. There was no contract to sign. Two questions were enough to become a worker at Los Pinos.

Do you speak an indigenous language and where you come from? “Yes, and I come from the Costa Chica of Guerrero”, I replied.

“Which field boss do you want to work with?”, the foreman asked. Then he makes it an order, “Look for Jose Reyes, he’s the boss for your block.”

To be part of this company, it’s necessary to speak an indigenous language, come from the poorest parts of Veracruz, Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, and have little to no formal education. Not knowing how to read or write is considered a plus.

Jose Reyes came in just before we finished establishing the oral labor contract. I left the little room that serves as the foreman’s office, waiting for someone to take me to Sector 6—at least, that’s what I heard a worker call it. In the 20-minute wait, I watched bus after bus arrive with short men– five-foot-two at most, almost all with adolescent faces– and pregnant women, to pick up their work tools.

When I got to the sector, I found Jose Reyes. A skinny man with a mustache, baggy pants and dark glasses, he looks like a cholito. Inside the net fence that serves as shade, men and women quickly eat lunch. No-one speaks, everyone hurries because they only have ten minutes until they have to start work.

On the way, a field boss handed me a bucket and said Jose Reyes would give me scissors to cut the cucumbers.

After eating, we boarded the rickety bus #24 to go out to Sector 6. At the entrance to shade area 5, Reyes waited with disinfectant for all the workers. He sprayed it on our hands as we went in with our 20-liter buckets.

Then he came into the area to assign the rows. When all were lined up to start work, he shouted, “Let’s get the new guy up here to show him,” so I took a few steps forward to get my instructions. He handed me the scissors. “The scissors are yours. If you lose ‘em, they’re 200 pesos,” he warned. He then explained how to cut cucumber—“Cut the ones that are the same size, no cutting the little ones, eh?”

Within minutes everyone disappeared to fill their buckets and line up on the edge of the median that divides the hectare into two parts. On each side there are 50 meters with a space of half a meter between the rows.

Day one in the fields

In the cucumber fields, anyone who doesn’’t scream loud and clear runs the risk of working without earning a peso for every bucket they empty into the vat before 20150416_124426announcing their identity number. The counter there registers every bucket the laborers cut — on average one bucket every three minutes on the Los Pinos ranch.

Here in the fields, the workers run back and forth; there is no room to relax. No matter if you’re tired or if your shoes bother you–here eyes are on you all the time. Everyone runs up and down the rows, to cut more than the next guy. The rush leads some to push the slower ones or elbow out other workers lined up to empty their buckets.

Those who recently arrived in San Quintin, Baja California Norte, are the first victims of the foremen and counters.

“19 Chapis!”, Alejandro shouts as he empties ten kilos of cucumber into the vat mounted on a tractor that drags three platforms between the mesh shade fence and the rows that divide the hectare.

This same day, a supermarket earned 330 pesos in one hour for selling 30 kilos of cucumber. In that same period, Carlos earned 20 pesos to harvest 200 kilos of cucumbers.

Before April 3 of this year, the laborers earned 70 pesos for a work day that consisted of harvesting 45 buckets of cucumbers and 35 of tomatoes, plus cleaning five rows. After the wage increase of 15 percent, the owners increased the workload in Los Pinos. Now the workers are required to pick 60 buckets of cucumbers, 50 of tomatoes and clean six rows.

Alejandro, a thin boy of about 5’6” of white complexion, runs like a deer between the rows of cucumber as he talks to his peers in Nahuatl. He and another boy come from the mountain municipality of Xalpatlahuac, although he’s originally from the Iliatenco municipality in the me’phaa region (Tlapanec).

Javier, Salvador and Margarita are also running back and forth to weigh in. They migrated from Zitlala, in the low mountain area. Alejandro and Alberto come from the communities of Ahuixtla and Pochahuixco communities in Chilapa. Others tell me they’re from Colotlipa, Quechultenango in the central region of Guerrero.

The Na Savi from the community of Joya Real, municipality of Cochoapa El Grande work on the other side of the dirt median. Among them are two pregnant women, and three boys between 13 and 15 years old. They are all trying to scrape together enough money to return to their villages, where they were forced out by poverty and the violence associated with the growth of regional drug trafficking.

The Na Savi of the mountains of Guerrero can be identified by their language. They talk to each other in their native tongue throughout the day, even though others look down on them. Out in the fields, they spice their conversations with the most popular songs played in Metlatonoc by the group Kimi Tuvi (Morning Light).

At 8:00 in the morning, the supervisor, Carlos Pacheco, arrives to take roll call. “Hey, new guy,” he calls to me. “You’re going to check in with me everyday. Your number is 27. You’re going to register with the counter with this number every time you empty a bucket.” That was when I realized that I had to yell out my number loud and clear every time I emptied my bucket.

I had lost more than 20 buckets of cucumbers for not knowing the rules of the rows.

Fatigue and the prickles of the cucumbers make the day even hotter. Everybody runs back and forth in the rows. Some people take advantage to pick in my row if it looks loaded. At the other end of the field, another foreman keeps an eye on laborers who stop to catch their breath.

“Hey, hurry up! Don’t stop! Don’t be slow,” he scolds.

Meanwhile, at the platform Jose Reyes checks for unripe cucumbers. When he finds one, he screams like crazy and scolds the worker for his error. “I told you all not to pick unripe cucumbers! You don’t get it, or what? Counter, dock this kid two buckets, have him tell you his number!”

At 12:00 the people from Colotlipa drop their buckets and invite others to eat. We all board truck number 24 to return to the mesh shade fence area that has been set up for eating, with little tables and rustic benches. As I pick up my backpack, I realize that something has been moved.

The supervisors and foremen here have orders to check workers’ bags or backpacks while they’re working. They’ve been doing this for years–“for at least 30 years” a former fieldworker named Icela Lopez told me later.

Weary faces, teeth that move like they’re chewing gum. Dirty hands struggling to cut dry flour tortillas. Greasy beef broth, cold beans—this is the food that day laborers eat after struggling to earn a peso so as not to starve in the mountains of Guerrero.

The teenagers from Joya Real chew their flour tortillas with a hint of nostalgia, with a faraway look as if they were remembering where they came from, or imagining returning to their village back in Cochoapa El Grande to tend their goats and sow their land, even if just to harvest a little corn. They tell me about their journey, their debt to Los Pinos Ranch, and the false promises the recruiter made inorder to take them to unknown land to exploit them.

The teens’ mother never could tell me her name, although I asked her many times in her own language. She just told me that she comes from Joya Real, and she recounted her journey in detail. She narrated how she met Manuel Solano who promised that when they got to Los Pinos Ranch they would provide them with everything they needed to live well–housing, a stove, beds and a good wage.

But the woman doesn’’t even know how to light her stove, because in her village there is no such device–they only use firewood for cooking. And instead of making money, she told me there as we ate that she owes money to the company so she and her sons are working as hard as they can to pay it off to return soon to Cochoapa El Grande.

Icela López has been in the San Quintin Valley for 25 years. She too talked about the promises recruiters make to day laborers.

“When they go out to find workers, they offer them all kinds of things,” she said. “And since they have nothing–no house, no food–the people buy the story that here they do well. But it’s not like that, because when we get to the ranches they charge us for the sandwiches and water on the road, as well as the transportation.”

Icela, a tiny woman, migrated from the southern state of Oaxaca to San Quintin with her uncles when she was just 11. After living in the Las Pulgas (The Fleas) camp she now lives in the housing development Santa Maria Los Pinos. She talks about her fellow Oaxacans who continue to arrive and the debt they incur just to get there.

“When we arrived we were told we owed the company the price of the ticket from Oaxaca to San Quintin, plus we had to pay for the tank of gas and the stove and the groceries. They deducted all this directly from our wages, and since we didn’’t know how the payment system works they kept discounting our wages for six months. Many of us noticed it but nobody wanted to say anything because if you did you’d have to leave fast.”

After lunch, the mother from Joya Real packed up her plate and left it on the table. Her children did the same, and then from there went for a thermos and drank water. Since the morning in the fields, I also drank the liquid from this thermos, which for some reason rather than quenching my thirst it left my mouth dry and filled me with air.

It took half an hour for everyone to eat, so at 12:30 we got back on the bus. The truck turned north from the mesh shaded area, passed alongside the airport runway, to thread its way up to Sector 7, where we started back to work. When we reach the end of one row of the mesh shade canopy, we started in on another to pick the next row, in a zigzag pattern.

The race for the peso continued until five in the afternoon, when the foreman announced that the workday had ended. Everyone left the mesh shaded net area, some limping and some barely holding themselves up as they pile on to truck #24 to return to El Vergel. On reaching the dining room, the laborers go for their backpacks and plates.

We leave field one, made up of some 8 sectors with about 120 mesh shade canopies each covering from one to two hectares, like Sector 9, which has which has 200 rows a hundred meters long on each side of the median.

At the front door, there’s a guard house. There, private security personnel belonging to Los Pinos Ranch, get all the laborers off the bus to inspect backpack by backpack without the owners present. They check to make sure nobody takes a cucumber or a tomato to their rooms. Anyone who does will be punished by being expelled from the camp and from the job with no severance pay.

After inspection, we board the bus to return to El Vergel. In the rooms, it is a kind of housing unit—long houses, divided into 20 3×3 square meter rooms. Each house has the name of a fruit or a vegetable; you live in onion, cucumber, tomato, watermelon, cantaloupe, carrot, strawberry…

The population is also divided. On the north side almost bordering the Santa Maria Los Pinos neighborhood, are the homes of the packers. They have some privileges since they do not cut off their electricity at night. On the south side are the houses of the day laborers and watchmen. Here they administer the electricity, cutting it off at ten at night until four in the morning.

For these boarding houses to function, the Rodriguezes enforce a vertical structure. Santiago Silveira is the general manager, the chief of guards is Jesus Silveira; below them there are the camperos (people without name). The camperos inform the general manager of what is happening in the tenements. They make sure nobody is left in the houses during the workday. Anyone who stays behind has to have a doctor’s prescription. If he or she doesn’t, the punishment is expulsion from the house.

The camperos have the keys to the rooms, so they can come to inspect the belongings of the workers when they go to the fields. If they find books, notebooks, political propaganda or suspect any sign of rebellion, they must inform the head guard and he tells the general manager.

The sanctions range from eviction to the disappearance of individuals who generate “instability”. This I learned from Jesus, a Oaxacan with whom I shared a room in the “watermelon” house.

Since we get back exhausted from the harvest, most don’t bother to cook something to eat and we have to buy our meals in the dining room of El Vergel. There, the cook, Francisca Arce, Santiago Silveira’s wife, puts everything on one plate: a boiled egg, beans, tortillas, salsa and five tortillas for 60 pesos, a bottle of water for ten pesos.

That day in the bedroom, the talk about soccer lasted until eleven o’clock at night and then we went to sleep because we had to get up early the next day to make lunch so as not to die of hunger.

Day two in the rows

20150417_124750At 4:00 am, the new tenants of El Vergel awoke to line up again for the bathrooms. There are five toilets for 40 people, and five buckets of water for the toilets that are separated by a one-meter high walls. The doors were manufactured with recyclable cardboard.

People bathing is a rare sight. The spaces adapted for showering are small rooms divided by plastic sheets and provided with buckets of salt water. Whoever is bold enough to bathe in the morning has to withstand the cold ranging from 5 ° c to 10 ° c.

Returning to our seedy little room, I find Chuy cooking–eggs with ham and tomato sauce. While he waits for his pan to get hot, he restarts the conversation that was left unfinished before we went to sleep. What he repeatedly recommended is to keep an eye on safety in El Vergel.

“Be really careful because dead bodies have been found here. Back when I first arrived I found out about the death of several people, but no one knew where they were taken. It was really common to find people hung in the rooms,” he tells me without being asked.

That day I knew what was happening before the president, Ernesto Zedillo, inaugurated El Vergel, which had been operating as “The Fleas” camp.

Chuy was not the only one who narrated the story of the hanged. There were several who told me the same thing. The second that told the story said, “here we must be careful because otherwise they can disappear you”; “They do not tolerate troublemakers here, those are disappeared or hung in the camp,” said the third who lived in “The Flea” and then in El Vergel; the fourth told the same story and the fifth explained that he witnessed a hanging when he organized his fellows to demand higher wages in 1987.

At 5:30 am we left the room to go to the trucks, so we all decided to continue talking at night.

I arrived ten minutes early to the place where we boarded the bus, during that period I saw the laborers go out to their field of work, some to cut cucumber, others to weed, irrigate or pack – the packers are always very clean and wear nice clothes and the cutters are their counterpart when it comes to personal hygiene.

We arrived at the dining area under the mesh shade canopy of sectors 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. There we quickly ate lunch because the supervisor was late and so we had less time to eat, several of my colleagues still came in eating.

Upon entering the fields to cut, we noticed it was very quick picking because two days before they had already cut here. Many laborers were mad because they would not achieve their goal of 250 buckets, their usual fill.

That day, besides there being no cucumbers, something changed in terms of regulation because suddenly all the staff of supervisors and checkers showed up. During the day they were reviewing bucket by bucket ensuring no tender cucumbers were picked and the buckets arrived filled to the brim.

Everyone arrived from the recruiter in Chilapa, Guerrero, the Nahua Manuel Solano; Balbino Martinez and Tobias Ramirez the tractor drivers; Herminio Pacheco and Carlos Pacheco, checkers, to the general in command, Fernando Gutierrez.

After dinner, we returned to the mesh shade canopy to continue with the cucumber picking, however we only worked two hours after picking them all.

But that did not mean that the laborers were to rest because the foreman ordered everyone to climb aboard the rickety truck and after several turns in the shade cloths and airstrip we arrived at sector 4. There, Jose Reyes ordered we all take to looking for trash between the rows of tomatoes.

Under the rule of the fields everyone could rest after completing a work day equivalent of 60 buckets. But each worker had cut almost 150 and 180 buckets, but nobody said anything. While we collected the garbage, those from Chilapa began protesting including one that said that this task no longer falls under his work day.

“This is too much, we already finished our work day picking cucumbers, I do not understand why they brought us here,” said one, then another followed “yes but, we did not say anything, we all came and are here.”

Day three grooves

Chuy woke up early to cook his lunch but not before doing his business in the bathroom. Then he returned to his room to cook and assemble the flour tortillas, eggs and beans into tacos. As he carefully organized the tacos into his lunchbox, he talked about the fields. “The cucumbers are grown under mesh shade canopy to achieve the highest possible quality, the advantage here is that it does not feel hot because the meshes have pores, but the tomato is different, you can choke if you do not know how to do this job, because the greenhouses are covered with rubber and air does not enter, “he explains.

That early morning conversation with Chuy was like a warning, because that day the truck 24 directed us to sector 11, a place known as the flowers. There we had lunch and went straight to cut tomatoes.

Those from the Joya Real, municipality of Cochoapa el Grande, Guerrero, lunched on beans, tortillas and coffee before starting work that day.

The rules for picking tomatoes have changed, here a worker must pick an obligatory 50 buckets. After meeting that quota, workers are paid one peso for each additional 20 kilo bucket.

In the five minutes it takes to fill a bucket at El Vergel, 30 kilos of tomatoes are sold at 20 pesos per kilo. Workers earn one peso for every 20 kilos they pick.

After lunch we boarded the truck 24 to go to the tomato greenhouses. Here the grooves are 50 meters on each side of the rubber divide and are separated by 60 centimeters. What differentiates a greenhouse from a shade cloth is that in the former there is little air, and the heat is more intense, while the shade cloths have pores that make them much cooler.

Those from Cochoapa ran from one side to another to fill their boats the whole day, many of them came to other grooves to fill more up. When those from Colotlipa realized that those from Cochoapa would pick from their rows there began a jealous and verbal confrontation.

Throughout the morning some would fight for the rows while others would be docked for not filling the buckets sufficiently enough, according to the foreman.

On the other hand, Jose Reyes scolded the workers who emptied half-filled buckets and would take note of them, “Counter, dock that boy for five buckets to see if he learns to do his job well,” he ordered.

The first day in the groove, Jose Reyes was courting a girl who rushed to fill her bucket with cucumbers. He would seek out the girl and would ask the counter to note the bucket as full even it it was only half way filled. On the second day, Reyes complained to another girl “you didn’’t come, I was expecting you,” he said, to which she shot back, “I don’t know what you want, I told you that I know nothing of what you ask me.”

On the third day the girl Jose Reyes has complained to showed up and began work as counter. Meanwhile the girl who worked as prompter the first and second day did not show up to work.

Here in the fields, sexual harassment against women is common. If it is not their fellow workers in the fields, it is the supervisors of each section, the drivers, checkers and head supervisors. The woman who refuses to accept the help of Jose Reyes or any other man are treated worse than slaves. First they are accused of not working and are assigned more work or they are reassigned to another section where the word load is heavier. If you dare refuse the advances of the head supervisor, he may order your immediate dismissal and expel you from the rooming houses, where women are also assaulted by campers, camp guards and the manager.

Margarita, told me that day at the rooming house when I asked about the attitude of Jose Reyes towards the girl: “In the fields women are the ones who suffer more humiliation, not so much at the hands of our fellow laborers, who in many cases have defended us, but when this happens they fire both of us. In Los Pinos, the general supervisor, Fernando Gutierrez is a woman’s worst enemy. ”

She adds: “To conserve space in the rooming houses, women are often forced to accept the foreman’s abuse in order to ensure she is not put out on the street along with her family. But she doesn’’t denounce the abuse because it’s her word against theirs.”

Lucila Hernandez says that the most common form of harassment against women in the fields is being subjected to the courtship of the supervisors of their section: “The foreman offers to help a worker in her work. If she refuses this help, she is signing her death sentence, because the steward will treat her worse than an animal, until she gets fed up and decides to leave. If she has a husband and boyfriend, both will be mistreated.”

As the girl does her job as counter, Jose Reyes, now helps another girl, a lot like he helped the two previous girls.

At 12: 00, the laborers left their buckets to go eat, at first it was found that most repeated their lunch, those of Colotlipa have had three days of eating eggs with beans – lunch is their only warm meal, during dinner they eat it cold.

Alejandro agrees to talk while eating his egg tacos and says Mrs.. Francisca Arce sells him his lunch and dinner, which amounts to 370 pesos a week. He did not say whether this includes dinner and the truth is that in El Vergel single men are not allowed to use the stoves.

When they reach their rooms Santiago Silveira offers them food they can pay later during the week and other services under this system of repayment, such as sodas, cookies, cigarettes, fruits and vegetables. When it comes time to pay they go directly to Silveira Arce. In many cases they still end up owing money and in this way surmount the biggest debt of their life, one which they will never pay off.

This debt exists not only in El Vergel, but in the Santa Maria Los Pinos neighborhood debts are also acquired.

The chief guard of Los Pinos Ranch is Jesus Silveira, the brother-in-law of the owner of Heidi 1 and 2. In order to increase his brother-in-law’s sales, he authorizes laborers from El Vergel to go out and buy in the store. On the counter there is a list on a piece of cardboard where the names of the debtors appear. There they solicit when they need to make a purchase.

In these shops, it is just as expensive, a kilo of bananas for 20 pesos, a kilo of tomatoes for 18 pesos, an egg for 5 pesos, 3 pesos for every cell phone credit purchase, which runs from 20 to 100 pesos.

Alejandro finished eating, put away his things and left the makeshift dining room. He declined to give further details of its debts in the dining room, he also declined to discuss his trip from Guerrero to Baja California.

The time to eat at Los Pinos is one hour, however this never happens. Whoever finishes eating first boards truck 24 and expects the others to do the same. Once we finished eating and boarded the bus, the driver started directly for the greenhouse.

We entered the greenhouse at 01:00 pm. About 20 minutes into our work we started to feel the sweltering heat. Our work rate declined rapidly, the majority walked instead of running as they did in the morning.

At that time a cold wind blew in from the southside of Ensenada, like the wind from the first rain of summer. Inside the greenhouse a kind of fog and water from the sprinklers began to fall.

Instead of cooling down the greenhouse, a maddening heat broke out during the first few minutes. The women broke out screaming to shut it down because we will suffocate but no one paid attention. It lasted 5 minutes then everything calmed down.

Upon reinitiating the tomato picking, rather than going faster, the speed decreased because the tomatoes were slippery and were difficult to firmly grasp.

Fifteen minutes later, the sprinklers begin again with greater intensity and the tomato branches begin to drip with water. Hands begin to burn and faces too. Those wearing bandannas tighten them further around their face and cover themselves with their hoodies. Then I ask a fellow besides me whether it was a fumigation or what was it. This did not know what to say.

The truth is that the liquid drenched us and my fellow workers stopped to seek shelter from the emissions in the corner of the greenhouse. Many of them vigorously scratching their arms, others wiping away at their tear-filled eyes.

If this were not enough for the Rodriguez brothers who own Los Pinos Ranch, an hour later, two masked men entered the greenhouse, each wearing sprinkler pumps with a rod measuring 80 centimeters and immediately began to spray.

No one told us what to do meanwhile our supervisors yelled at us to pick up the pace. At this point nobody wanted to work, everyone drenched in herbicide falling from above: most start coughing and screaming to shut it off or we will get sick. No one responds to the plead, the fumigation continues and the supervisors do not detain the picking.

“I have only six months here,” says Adela Mendoza Martinez from Oaxaca, while she tries to cut more tomatoes, her cough steadily increasing. “We were working in another but they paid us very poorly. Here they pay us even worse but we are here because of we need to eat and put our children through school. Then we will finish our work here.”

“Hey, why is everyone masked?” – I ask.

“We are always masked because the liquid or herbicide they use is very harmful. The first thing it does is burn our faces. When we are working in the fields we feel the urge to scratch our hands. Don’t think it’s because we’re pretty or that we think we’re pretty. No, we are very ugly, we have an overbite, big teeth, and a mustache” – she breaks out into a laugh.

She adds: “You see, even you have itching. I notice it, your tearful eyes and if it wasn’’t for your handkerchief you wouldn’t’t be here. Anyway if you leave this area you will be fired. As you can see, here no one provides you with the adequate equipment to protect yourself against the fumigation. Those who remember to bring their handkerchief protect their faces from the burning.”

That day, I did not know how many buckets of tomato I cut, I lost track of time because of the spraying. At 05:00, we left the greenhouse and went to the tenement. Upon reaching my room, I tried to sleep but it was impossible because the itching on my body was unbearable.

***

20150417_124723I arrived at the rooming house smelling of herbicide. Without uttering a word to Javier, he stepped forward to say, “they fumigated us right,” – “Yes”, I replied.

I had met Javier a day earlier when I went out to purchase fruit in the “Dani” store, another company store affiliated with Los Pinos. He said that he came 12 years ago from the na Savi (Mixtec) region of Oaxaca and that he had met his wife in “The Fleas” camp. Among the other things he told me about himself, he highlights his experience as a foreman and his wife’s as a counter. They have four children.

After the brief conversation he invited me to their love nest, where the last two children were born. Upon entering the small room, I began to browse from left to right, the first thing I saw was a minibar, followed by a small table to chop the ingredients for the stew, then a two-burner stove. A sheet divides the stove with the bunk where the three children sleep. They hung some sacks for a makeshift closet. Following the closet is a chest of drawers and the bed where they sleep. To enter this room you have to suck in your stomach and watch your head. Once you successfully enter it is necessary to sit to allow others breathing room.

There we talked for nearly two hours, between laughter and anecdotes about the fields I forgot about the exhaustion and dinner.

We agreed to talk another day, Javier promised to relay his experience at Los Pinos. But the meeting never occurred and we never ran into each other again. I had only one day left at El Vergel.

Chuy, as always making conversation during the dawn hours as he cooked, warned:
“Today is Saturday, if you get paid don’t you dare go drink at La Cárdenas. It is very dangerous there on weekends and if you do go make sure to let us know where you are that that you’re ok, ” he advises.

I said goodbye to Chuy, as if for the last time. I let him know about my admiration for him and his friend, who have shared that room for 14 years. Both of them have families, him in Oaxaca where he was returned to twice and his friend in Costa Chica, Guerrero.

I arrived at the square of El Vergel which is situated behind a professional baseball field (built with federal resources when Antonio Rodriguez was local deputy for the National Action Party, then Secretary of Agrarian Development in the state government). There I waited for my fellow workers go to Las Flores.

After lunch we began the day and three hours was enough to finish with the picking. Then Jose Reyes ordered us to board the bus and we headed to camp 1. They put us to unload the tomato. It took half an hour to reach pay time.

The truck honked to alert us: “pay time, pay time, let’s go,” sang the boy from Chilapa in celebration.

A thin woman descended from the truck with the payroll in hand and called us one by one by name. Meanwhile Reyes helped with the thumbprint pad since here it wasn’t necessary to sign, our thumbprints were enough. Erika presents the check to the laborers, few see their pay with gleaming eyes, others lose their smiles.

If you do not hear the accountant announce your name the first time, you have only one more opportunity when its repeated a second and last time. If no one claims it the check is returned to the office and you can only collect it Monday, which means losing a day’s work. If the worker does not know Spanish, a reason they were perhaps unable to initially claim their pay, they simply don’t get paid.

That day I asked permission under the pretext to send the money to Guerrero — but how? It is only 249 pesos. And in sum, Rancho Los Pinos explains that for a work day of 10 hours, I earned 70.10 pesos plus an eleventh day at 11.68 pesos and a bonus of 3.36 pesos, I earned 85.14 pesos. Then factoring in the tax deductions from Product of Labor (SIPS) of 5.43 pesos plus a 2.79 peso contribution to the Mexican Institute of Social Security. This is discounted in practice, because no worker here is known to have social security, because there is no signed employment contract.

I got to the store, “Dani”, and while standing in line to pay. A women asks the cashier in a Spanish tinged with an indigenous accent if she can pay with a check. The man nods his head saying yes and pulls out a piece of cardboard, then asks for her name – “Mary,” the woman answered.

The store employer adds up the amount and after five minutes says, “a thousand pesos.” Maria takes the check out of her pocket and tries to figure out the amount written on it. “How much is it?” she asks.

Irritated, the boy responds, “nine hundred pesos, but you still need to complete a thousand pesos.”

Mary again, searches her purse and pulls out a 100 peso bill, with which she pays off that weeks debt.

In the “Heidi” 1 and 2 stores the scene is repeated and the same happens in Santiago Silveira’s wife’s dinning room. And in the corridors of El Vergel shops are installed, there you can find second hand clothes, dishes, and stoves.

***

As a reflection: This report developed in the fields of San Quintín is a product of my commitment to my community and the Na Savi who are migrating to agricultural fields to be used as laborers. There is no public policy to protect the human rights of these migrant farm workers who are subjected to labor abuses and low wages because they can not speak Spanish.

Translated by Laura Carlsen and Nidia Bautista 

One comment

  1. I had to Google San Quintin valley. I suspected it was in Mexico.
    That report took a lot of courage. Thanks.
    I just don’t even know what to say. The World just seems to get crueler and crueler.

    Comment by Caterina B on July 20, 2015 at 4:33 pm

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