In August they begin work early in the morning while the day is still cool. Their songs and conversation, in rapid Spanish, drift through the orange grove, muted only by the rhythmic slam of the forklift loading crates onto a nearby flatbed truck.
For long stretches they climb, reposition, and again climb the wooden ladders, filling canvas bags with oranges. Paid by the bin, not by the hour, some of them bring their wives to help. By noon the temperature has risen to nearly 100 degrees; long shadows fall beneath their broad-brimmed hats, and talk languishes until only the mechanical hoists-and-slams of the forklift penetrate the stillness. They break for lunch — tortillas or a box of frozen chicken microwaved at a nearby market, Pepsi or beer. In the shade of a few oaks that grow beside the orchard, they sit for a brief time, relaxed. And at dusk, when the day’s work is done, they depart among the shadows to their camp. Under the oaks at the side of the grove, a circle of cans and wrappers is all that tells of their passing.
A hot, dreary Sunday, August of 1983. The orchard is empty on Sundays; the men head out to Matics’ Field, not far from the grove or the market, and those who are too old to play baseball or soccer watch from the sidelines, washing down their pistachios or camarones with beer. I was working then as a clerk in the Pala Vista Market, on the eastern end of Valley Center. The market, built in the ’40s, still had only a single ceiling fan to circulate the heavy air, and even the walls seemed to sweat between the cracked plaster. It was my job to restock the freezer with ice. A voice called out to me in Spanish, “¡Hola, amigo! Un veinticuatro de Budweiser, más frio, por favor.” I was preoccupied and about to tell my “amigo” to get his case of beer out of the front cooler like everybody else, but his manner was so pleasant that I yielded and went to the back cooler where the beer is coldest. He wasn’t a tall man; his cowboy hat tipped back, showing an arc of black hair low on his forehead. All his features seemed to push up against that hairline in a big smile. As I handed him the case, we broke into an amiable conversation. His name was Alfonso, age 35; he spoke no English, and, although he didn’t say and I didn’t ask, he was one of the many Valley Center orchard workers who didn’t have green cards. Could he return the favor by inviting me to dinner at his camp? Out of curiosity as well a growing sense of rapport, I accepted.
We met again on Friday afternoon. I followed his pickup out past the end of Vesper Road near Route 6, then down dirt roadways and through the groves to a clearing. A trailer rusted beside two shacks that were probably once tool sheds. Now they housed eight men. I set my case of beer on an old refrigerator while Alfonso smashed jalapeños with the bottom of a jar, adding onions, tomatoes, lemon, and salt. While he made salsa, his young cousin, Adolfo, prepared a fire over an open pit. We roasted thin slices of beef, wrapped them in warmed tortillas, and covered these with salsa. At dusk more families arrived until our number grew to 30. We ate and sang, and late into the night, I climbed with a group of the men to the top of a hillock above the camp. I told them I was glad to have come, and they agreed. The small fiesta we’d had that night was a good one, they said, almost like home.
That first “fiesta” was my introduction to a culture that was living and working all around me, but one I had never acknowledged. And through that year and the next, I came to know Alfonso, not as an inhabitant of one of the county’s murky social substrata, but as a man whose life was split between two lands. I also understood that the way he lived in Valley Center gave only a partial picture of the man; to understand my friend fully, I wanted to see him elsewhere — sitting on his porch, in the front of his house, after a late dinner prepared by his wife.
Alfonso spoke often of San Diego, his hometown in the state of Jalisco, more than 3000 miles to the south of our own San Diego. For 16 years he had been traveling to Valley Center to work, and before that, to Fresno, and each year he left the U.S. to spend four months at home. Over the next months, he often asked me to visit him in Mexico during El Fusion, the week-long January fiesta. He reminded me that it would be much more impressive than those we had shared at the camp, with “más musica, más cerveza, más feliz, combate de gallos, mucho baile, mucha comida, y señoritas.”
One night last November I sat with Alfonso under the glare of a single bulb in his camp shed and listened as the downpour hammered against the tin roof. Alfonso was leaving for the winter, and a number of his friends and relatives had stopped in for a final toast. The men huddled around the table, drinking café con vino, talking about their village of San Diego and the January fiesta. Jose, a young nephew, brooded; he had recently married and wanted to be home for his first anniversary. But, he said, staring deeply into his glass, he could not take the time off from work. I tried to be optimistic. “Trabajando todos los tiempos es malo,” I said.
He looked up. “Tú vas?” he asked.
Alfonso rushed into the conversation, repeating his long-standing invitation. “¿Cúando tú vas a San Diego? Por comida? Nada. Por sueño? Nada. Por cerveza? Nada. Mi casa es su casa. ¿Chansa en enero por la fiesta?”