The workers pushing the burras waddle the carts across the irrigation ditches.
  • The workers pushing the burras waddle the carts across the irrigation ditches.
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Between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m. every day of the week except Sunday, the neon and fast-food desert oasis of Calexico, California, is invaded by a ragged army from Mexicali. They stream through the turnstiles at the border crossing armed with short knives sometimes cinched to their belts in homemade leather sheaths; sometimes they carry their cuchillos — 18 inches of metal rod with an L-shaped grip and a flat, rectangular blade — protected by aluminum foil, stapled cardboard, or wrapped, oiled cloth. Not everyone carries these, but most sling along white plastic grocery bags. The bags contain gloves, bandanas, fruit, rations of tortillas, thermoses of coffee, tea, or even carne asada. From the north, armadas of school buses converge on south Imperial Avenue, and foremen, work bosses, disembark with clipboards to greet the several hundred men and women who silt up in the parking lots of the state Employment Development Department, California Supermarket, Burger King, Circle K, Pizza Hut, and 7-Eleven.

I fall behind the others in my rhythm of search, step, step, turn, bend, cut, lift, search…mostly because my back, arms, and knees protest this activity strongly.

Many of the foremen and bus drivers acknowledge familiar faces with nods, grunts, jokes, and good-natured insults: “What? You want to work again? You worked last week. Get in the bus, and keep your palo in your pants; I got two women today.”

At exactly 2:00 a.m., I line up in front of the buses with the others.

Each bus takes on anywhere from 20 to 50 men and women to harvest cauliflower, lettuce, broccoli, or asparagus. The work will begin at dawn. Today most of the crews are heading to the asparagus fields. There are more than enough workers for the bosses to choose from. There always are. Many are turned away. Among those who are hired, several scramble aboard the buses to curl up on the seats and get extra hours of sleep. The others wait, nursing cups of coffee in the starkly lit Burger King or squat on their haunches on street corners waiting for new contractors to arrive in vans, station wagons, and buses. Mostly men, they are dressed in Levis, boots or sneakers, imitation Members Only jackets, layers of shirts or ponchos. Some wear cowboy hats, others baseball caps. Only a few are bare-headed. Most wear bandanas around their necks or trail them from pockets. The men, from age 16 to well into their 50s, look fit, tough. And they are. The women seem every bit as used to very hard work but dress with touches of color, lace, or hair ribbons.

Who gave you permission to work here? I hired 20 guys for this block. I see 21. Nobody hired you.” “No, I just wanted to see what the work is like. I’m writing a story.”

At exactly 2:00 a.m., I line up in front of the buses with the others. Some hardly spare me a glance; others take in my fatigue shirt, L.A. Angels baseball cap, black Levis, and week’s growth of beard and clock me for a gringo right away. To an Anglo, I could have passed; but to a Mexican, I might as well be Pat Boone. The bosses look up from their clipboards, meet my eyes, and dismiss me. When I ask them for some work, they pretend I’m not there. I try to tell them I would work for no money, but my mediocre Spanish coupled with the alien concept of working for free, registers, perhaps, as “I want to work because I have no money.” One bus driver says, “You have to have a lot of practice. The work is too hard.” I tell him I can do it. He looks at me and grins; the men in the seats behind him lean forward, looking me over. The driver asks, “What side of the tree do you pick the espárrago from?” I smile back; I’m pretty sure the stuff doesn’t grow on trees, though I am by no means certain. The men around the bus laugh; I join them. The driver says, “Look, I am full. The patrón wants 20 guys. I already have 20. Try across the street.”

Asparagus spears are more fragile than they look.

The group of men on the opposite corner are sitting on the curb or standing beside parked cars. Someone says we were waiting for a person named Rita, though it isn’t a woman. Fifteen minutes later, a school bus pulls in the lot, and a Mexican man in a cowboy hat, denim jacket, and steel-toed boots steps out. He nods to the workers he knows, jotting their names down without having to ask what they are. He pauses momentarily as a turquoise border patrol car cruises slowly past, playing a light over our faces. The car stops and two agents step out. No one leaves. One agent walks among us saying, “Buenos…buenos…” to those he passes, looking everyone up and down. When he walks by me, he asks, “How’s it goin?”

By 4:30 a.m., I am a little desperate. No one will take me on. Later, a foreman tells me that it’s very rare that gringos seek out this work. When they do, they’re invariably crazy, union activists, or both, and most contractors avoid them. Nobody hires trouble if they can help it. Eventually, I approach a man with a sheepskin jacket, who has hired on a full crew and is now alone, smoking a cigarette, tapping his fingers on his clipboard, and humming a song about “…palabras de amor.” I tell him I am writing a story and wanted to know what it is like to work in the fields. Could I please come along, work for a day or two for free, and learn?

“You can talk to Rebecca, she’s the contractor. Ask her. She’ll be at the fields. Follow the bus if you want. We’re leaving pretty quick.” I park behind the white bus with the words REBECCA NIGOS stenciled beneath the windows. Most of the men inside are asleep.

Eventually, the bus pulls away, and we head north on Route 111, past the El Centro turnoff and into Brawley. By now, it is about 5 a.m. The bus stops at a closed market/gas station with a rack of pipes and faucets near the gas pumps. Three men step out of the rear door of the bus and begin filling orange plastic five-gallon containers with water. The word CHAVEZ is stenciled in black on each of these. When they are loaded, the bus continues north.

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