learned a lesson about the price of fruit and vegetables
in this county when I was a 27-year-old guy on the road.
I traveled the US working odd jobs, living out of a used
Ford Econoline van which I had converted into a camper. I
met sinners and saints along the way, and the experience
of discovering America, Woody Guthrie style, helped to
form my worldview.
In January of 1977 I was in the Imperial Valley of
California working construction- until the jobs dried up
and I went a couple of weeks without a paycheck. I was
getting hard up for money, and somebody suggested I could
work in the fields.
Just be ready at the bus stop at 3:30AM and they take you
to the field. So the next morning I found myself the only
gringo on a bus full of illegal Mexican workers.
Teenagers in the back passed around reefers and listened
to a boom box. Older people, some in their 40s and
even 50s talked quietly. They looked tired and
withdrawn, as if focusing their energies for the
strenuous labor ahead. Few spoke English, but I speak
fluent Spanish, and they treated me courteously if not
We arrived at an enormous field as large as a city; where
rows of cucumber vines were as long as a football field.
Some rows had been picked only a few days before and
hence had fewer cucumbers . Other rows were loaded with
cucumbers. Here the pecking order somehow came into play
and I was assigned the thinner pickings, along with the
stoned teenagers and a couple of old campesinos.
But we got to work. They give you a ten-gallon plastic
bucket and a little card. When you fill the bucket, you
carry it to the end of the row, and give it to a guy on a
truck, and then the foreman punches your card once. Then
you take your bucket back and repeat the process. On
three occasions, I brought in my pickings, and the
foreman, a kindly old Mexican man, looked around
furtively and quickly punched my card four times and
motioned me to keep quiet. He was trying to help me
because my row was more difficult to work than the
Around noontime, the sun got brutally hot. A flatbed
truck came for us. We climbed on, and it brought us to
the farmhouse. Exhausted, we got in line.
Two ranchers in cowboy hats were sitting at a folding
table. When it was my turn, I presented my card. One
calculated it and the other guy handed me a little manila
envelope. Nobody had asked for a social security number
or even my name.
When I opened my envelope, there was 10 bucks and some
change inside. So even with the foremans help,
I had earned about a buck an hour. Later I had a
headache, a backache and dysentery.
I didnt see any criminals that day, only people
trying to make an honest buck. Everybody in the Imperial
Valley knows that illegal aliens do this work. And the
Border Patrol doesnt bother them much when there is
a crop in the field. Illegals are tacitly legal, while
they are needed. And when the harvest is over, they
become lawbreakers again. Its no wonder then that
Bush, and Clinton before him, refused to lift a finger on
immigration reform. The status quo keeps wages down and
increases profits for their corporate pals.
So before we follow Howies and Savage Nations
daily exhortations calling them all bums, criminals, and
parasites-and running them all out, we might ask
ourselves who will do this work. Whose jobs are they
taking? Who wants their kid to have a career in a
slaughterhouse? Or an assembly line. Or a meat packing
plant. Or fast food restaurant. Or a brake -lining
company. Or on a corporate farm picking cucumbers for a
buck an hour?
Imagine a law that would create 12 million felons
overnight- like the atrociously conceived house version
of the immigration bill which would create chaos, be
unenforceable and necessitate selective enforcement
according to police discretion and political expedience.
We need real immigration reform, not a reactive,
ham-handed approach, based on political posturing and
rhetoric, but reform based on incentives for going
through the system, not around it. We need to resolve our
own contradictions too because while people want on
orderly immigration process with clear legal standards,
business as usual works just fine for this
countrys moneyed interests.
I suppose the New World Order will be setting us up for a
1930s style depression one of these days. When that
happens, I hope I never have to work in a cucumber field
But if I do, Ill want to see Howie Carr and Savage
Nation there. They say hard work never hurt anybody. I
wonder if thats true.
Mark Palermo is a professor at Northern Essex Community
College in Haverhill and is the past vice-president of
the faculty union. You can email him at email@example.com.
*Send your questions comments to ValleyPatriot@aol.com
The May, 2006 Edition of
the Valley Patriot
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