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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

There are few landmarks. Darkness stretches to either side. The horizons are clusters of distant lights winking miragelike. The bus continues for another half hour, past Westmoreland, where we turn onto a black, featureless dirt-and-asphalt track called Lack Road. The bus makes a left turn at nowhere, and we drive past nothing for several miles in dust that rises in the headlights like charcoal fog. At the intersection of nada and void, the bus turns left and rumbles along for another few miles. At one point it stops, and four men scramble out in a drill that is precise and economical. They sling two portable sanitation units on a trailer and hitch it to the rear of the bus. Within two minutes, we are heading into the night and dust again.

At the left side of the road at what seems to be an arbitrary point — Why here? What’s different about this patch of dust and blackness from any other we’ve passed? — the bus stops and the men clamber out, stretch, spit, light cigarettes, scratch. We were here. Wherever here was. No moon, just star-shot blackness overhead, nothing to break the line of low, flat fields to the right. Nothing seems to be growing here, just fallow rows of dirt, lighter patches of starlight against darker umbras of furrow, the smell of turned earth and fertilizer, the odor from the portable toilets now being used by the 18 men and two women. The smell of an asparagus field is that of earth and shit.

To our left are a copse of dead trees, some rusted-out tin-roofed shacks, and junked cars. One man breaks away from the group and walks purposefully into the gnarled tree line. Just to appear, equally purposeful, I follow him. He puts on gloves and uproots one of the thin, dead trees. He tosses it to me. I grab hold of it — it is surprisingly light — and stretch, cough, buying time: What do I do with this? He pulls up another tree about the same size and heads back toward the bus, his breath condensing against the starlight. I follow with my tree. He begins stripping branches. I imitate him. Someone hands him a roll of toilet paper, and he uses it as kindling. The paper catches from his match, licks at the small branches until the fire rises to our waists. Sparks burst and flounder upward toward the stars, far more of them than in San Diego — or Calexico. The men and one of the two women gather near the fire, stretching their hands toward it, revolving in wordless unison to warm their backsides.

Fire-rose light spreads across the undersides of clouds to the east, and an older man with a poncho and ranchero’s hat tosses a refrigerator shelf onto the burning tree limbs. He removes several tortillas from a plastic bag and lays them on the metal. From a thermos, he extracts a few chunks of still-warm carne asada with the blade of his buck knife. He tastes it, nods. Some of the others hand him money, peso notes and American coins. He makes tacos and hands them to the paying customers. His son produces bottles of Pepsi and sells four of them for a few coins. One man wearing a baseball cap that bears the legend Mi vida es un Madre (My life is one Mother) talks about the time he was with a woman in Mexico and had to use a plastic bread loaf wrapper and rubber band for a condom. Laughter and coughing. The older woman, maybe 40, grins, exposing a gap in her front teeth. The younger woman (20? 30?) steps out of the toilet and joins the group at the fire. The comedian lowers his voice and now entertains only those close to him.

A smudged cotton dawn gradually reveals endless brown fields criss-crossed with access roads and other buses, like ours, trailing Porti-Sans, in the distance. The hundreds of seagulls wheeling over the fields seem anomalous in the middle of this desert valley. They settle on patches of asparagus that grow in single spears like hearty weeds. Every few inches is either an asparagus spear jutting defiantly from the dirt or a blackened stub where a plant had been burned to fertilize the earth around it. An asparagus farm is neither aesthetic nor appetizing, except possibly to seagulls.

At a word from the foremen, everyone boards the bus once again, and I follow in my truck. We drive past identical blocks broken only by irrigation ditches and access roads. The bus stops 100 yards or so from a tree line with hundreds more seagulls and some gutted, rusting trailers. Racks of empty wooden boxes marked with the name of a farm are set up along the side of the road, waiting to be filled with crops. Each box would hold 25 pounds or so. Next to the boxes are four burras, wooden pushcarts painted the color of dried blood, with one small tire in the front and two wooden legs toward the rear, beneath the handles.

Someone offloads a carton from the bus. It is filled with cuchillos, asparagus knives, for those who have not brought their own. I pick up one and examine the blade; it is dull. One young boy produces a filing stone from his pocket and expertly runs the file ever the tip of the blade. He eyes my knife and smiles but does not offer me the stone. I barely have time to put on my gloves and I am following the crew to the edge of the field.

Without any signal, we wade into the dirt. I watch, imitate. Feet in the furrows to avoid trampling the crop, select a healthy-looking green asparagus (as opposed to yellow) and one that isn’t curved into an S shape, hold it beneath the tip, and wedge the cuchillo blade at an angle where the asparagus meets the soil. When your hand is filled, you lay the plants in a small mound along the top of the row. My mounds are smaller than everyone else’s. How can they hold so many of the things before forming a pile?

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. I have been at it for less than ten minutes.

The kid ahead of me, with the filing stone and a nascent mustache, grins back at me, exposing two missing front teeth. “What are you doing, man?” he asks.

I shrug, smile, pointing at the ground with my knife.

“Hold the espárrago like this.” His thumb and forefinger form a collar where he grips the asparagus at its thinnest point, just beneath the tip. This allows more of them in your hand at one time before you have to set them down. I was holding them at the middle. “You never did this before.” It wasn’t a question.

“You have to go faster; Alfredo will fire you.” He continued to work while he spoke. “Don’t pick those small ones. Nine inches, no less.”

How are you supposed to do that? No one seemed to be measuring the things. I try to gauge nine inches, but the spears in my hand were of wildly different lengths. To keep from being too obvious, I hurry ahead, leaving behind a few yards of unharvested plants. It takes half an hour for the crew to cross one quadrilla (the width of 20 men or 40 rows). We now stand at the tree line, with the Salton Sea visible in the distance. A great blue heron is startled from its perch and wings over the still water. In a moment, it is followed by an egret the size of a child and the color of fresh snow. I stand looking after them and feel my clothes clinging to me with sweat. Dirt-colored perspiration falls from beneath my baseball cap and collects at my nose and chin.

The workers pushing the burras with some seven to ten boxes of produce waddle the carts across the irrigation ditches on thin wooden planks. There they are offloaded in stacks to be collected by forklifts later. Once the boxes are arranged, we walk to the next quadrilla and begin working new rows back in the direction from which we had come. My back is now singing glissandos of pain; my knees and shoulders feel as if they would lock up permanently at any moment. Search…step, step, step, bend, cut, step, bend, cut.

A shadow blocks my view of the next several feet of asparagus plants. The foreman, Alfredo, stands over me. He wears a straw cowboy hat, a clean white jacket, and faded Levis. His face is mottled with either a burn scar or some birthmark. His mustache is thick and long, slightly upturned at the ends, like Pancho Villa’s. His eyes glow darkly from beneath heavy brows. He holds out his hand for my cuchillo. This is it. I’m fired. He points to a piece of black electrician’s tape along the length of the knife. “Nine inches,” he says. “Here,” he takes the cuchillo and holds it beside a spear of asparagus. “Like this, see?” The spear is a little over the taped nine-inch mark. He cuts it, reaches to measure another one. Too short. He plays the cuchillo briefly over two others and settles on a third, cuts it. “You see?”

“Yes. Thanks. Sorry.” I bend to resume working. I have barely managed to keep pace with the others along this quadrilla, and I am again losing ground. When I fall behind or grimace with pain or straighten my back, I feel conspicuous, fraudulent, weak.

“Wait,” Alfredo says. I now realize he is the same foreman I had spoken to in the dark last night in Calexico. “How are you feeling? Sick?”

“No. No. My back hurts a little bit. It’s okay.”

“You take some aspirin later. Everybody takes aspirin.” He grins. “Maybe you should work the burras. It’s easier.” His grin exposes perfect white teeth. He waves me to one of the carts back on the access road. “Put about seven boxes on there and push it out to the first pile of asparagus. I’ll show you what to do.”

At the first mound of harvested plants, he bends and shows me how to grab them. “Make sure they are all facing the same way.” He scoops up the pile with both hands and taps the bottoms lightly against the side of the wooden crates, making them more uniform in length. “Lay them in the box in the same direction. If any of them are too big, too long, to fit in the box, cut the ends like this.” He shows me with his knife. “You have a knife?

“When Rebecca comes, you better talk to her. Maybe she doesn’t like you here. I don’t know. Me, I don’t care. I’m a writer, too. I write songs, baladas, mariachi songs and other things.”

He strolls beside me as I push the burra, stopping and squatting to take hold of a bunch of spears, tap them against the wood, lay them in the box, and sometimes cut the ends. Asparagus spears are more fragile than they look. They snap in my hands whenever I try to hurry. Alfredo says we are picking Brooks asparagus today, and he gestures to a field in the distance where another variety called Harley, or 57, was grown. Asparagus grows very quickly. Tomorrow he would have another crew in this same field picking just as many spears, they grow that fast. Would I be coming back tomorrow? Maybe I would like to hear some of the recordings he has made.

My spine is now one lance of constant pain, but my shoulders and knees are numb. As I push the burra, filling the 25-pound boxes, it becomes more painful and difficult to make any progress through the soft earth. When all seven boxes are filled, the load would weigh almost 200 pounds. And the wind is kicking up, blowing dust in 30-foot sheets across the fields. I hadn’t worn a scarf or bandana. The others all have theirs up over their noses now. The two women look like Arabs, their faces covered with clean rags they had apparently fashioned for such occasions. The dust settles in my eyelashes, nostrils, and then my teeth whenever I try breathing through my mouth, I blink constantly and have to keep my head down, eyes fixed at a spot between my feet. But the pain in my back increases and shoots through my neck when I can’t hold my head upright.

I stop and revolve the baseball cap on my head so the wind won’t catch under the bill and blow it off. Alfredo is no longer beside me. I can hear a chorus of muffled curses on either side of me. I find myself joining them in Spanish, because it seems natural and it helps.

We fall into a rhythm of cursing, bending, spitting, lifting, tapping, and eventually laughing in staccato bursts. We finish the block in a fugue of pain, dust, sweat, and tired laughter.

A man named Chuey helps to off-load the burra and stack the crates. He loads me down with ten empty boxes. I can’t protest. The others carry ten.

The work continues for another hour. The wind dies and springs up again in fits. We stop for breakfast around 9:30. Some go into the buses, others lean against the tires, while still others line up in front of the Porti-Sans and the orange water containers. All I can think of is getting to the orange water coolers with the word CHAVEZ stenciled over them. As I wait behind two other men, I point at the water and ask, “Cesar Chavez? Does the Farm Workers Union provide these?”

“No, this Chavez is a subcontractor, Juan Chavez, Another guy. He rents the water jugs and the toilets.”

Oh. I bend to drink from the plastic spigot, and those near me say, “No! Wait!” Chuey holds my hands away from the spigot, “Wash first. There’s a lot of chemicals in that fertilizer, man. You’ll get sick.”

Water, Cheez-its, and an apple suffice for breakfast. It is what I have. I don’t eat much. I feel stoned with exhaustion. When it is time to go back into the fields, I try rehearsing a graceful retreat. I don’t want to collapse out there in front of the others. But finally, I move in stiff resignation back to the burra and load up with empty crates. Half an hour later, I am loosening up a little but figure I have another 15 minutes, max, before I freeze like a contorted scarecrow out here in some hideous, permanent posture. All I can think of is that these people are doing this for $4.25 an hour. After taxes, about $20 a day. Maybe that’s why there aren’t many bars, discos, antique shops, and hair salons in Calexico. Maybe that’s why there are just cheap motels and fast-food restaurants that specialize in egg-and-biscuit breakfasts for 69 cents.

“Hey, you!” I hear in English. “What are you doing? You can’t work here.” A short woman with mirror shades, silver earrings, and short-cropped red hair is marching through the furrows. She holds a cellular phone and a lit cigarette.

“Rebecca Nigos?”

“Yes. 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.”

“About asparagus?” She stares at me as if to say, “How stupid do I look?”

“You can’t be out here, if you get hurt, I’m in deep shit. I have no insurance for you.”

“Oh, yeah.” I apologize and try not to smile too much. I could have cried with relief.

As we walk off the field, Alfredo looks at me and shrugs, “Hey,” he calls out. “You come back tomorrow? I’ll bring you some of my songs.”

Rebecca offers to drive me around the 300-acre farm and talk about la vida, “the life.”

“I started when I was about ten years old. In Mexicali. I was born and raised there. My dad used to go up north for three, four months. We stayed behind, my mom and my brothers and sisters. We would pick cotton by hand in the summertime; sometimes we would pick radish or Chinese potatoes, green onions. I came from a big family, six. We made enough money to buy food. We gave it all to my mom. Then my dad got us green cards. Immigration made him. I started school when I was 12, in Calexico. I went two years, then we went up north. At that time, they used to hire kids to pick grapes in Bakersfield. My mom had never done the work before, but then she started, too. It was hard for her, but us kids were used to it.”

As she speaks, she slows her Ford Bronco to shout instructions to the crews. “Eight and a half inches, green!” or “Nine inches. Block five!” She remembers when you had to join the union. “At that time there was big strikes, and if you didn’t want to listen or join, they would follow you, take your license plate number. They would break up your car or your house. It wasn’t Cesar Chavez sending those people, it was just macho Mexicans doing their thing. They caused a lot of damage, but they were good in a way because they made some changes. We never used to have toilets. It was just the bushes or dishpans, you know?”

Are the people in these fields working legally in the U.S.?

“Yes, nowadays. The foreman is responsible. He has to sign an I-9 form stating that he has seen all the workers’ papers. Before, it was a problem, but now they have the amnesty cards. The border patrol hardly ever stops the buses anymore. They don’t waste the time, but just a couple years ago it was the usual thing.”

Why do they do this work? For minimum wage, surely they could find something less back-breaking.

“It’s what they know. They don’t have the education for something else, and there’s no way a machine can do this work. They work six hours, no more. Even if you’re used to it, there’s no way you can work longer than that. Up and down, bending like that. Six hours is it. All for 20 bucks or something. I know it doesn’t make any sense; it’s mostly lack of education. The young ones, maybe they don’t want to go to school, so I got them working, it’s such a shame.”

When asked if the workers out in the field today were unionized, she shakes her head no. Why? “Ask them.” She doesn’t seem eager to discuss the subject. “It makes it harder to get work. The union wants more money. I don’t blame them, but…” She shrugs and points out the Salton Sea. “That water’s so bad you can’t even wash your hands in it. Forget about drinking it.”

Rebecca finally says I can return the next day and observe, maybe pick some asparagus for myself, but I wouldn’t be allowed to push the burra anymore.

Later, at the U.S. Border Patrol office in El Centro, Agent Morrissey corroborates what Rebecca had told me; most of the workers in the valley are indeed legal these days. “The burden of proof is on the employer that they hire legal residents. Otherwise they’ll be fined. There can be some pretty hefty fines. They definitely make sure they have papers now.”

Does the border patrol ever go out into the fields for spot checks? “Yes we do. The last time we did a farm or ranch check, I think we checked — now this is just a ballpark figure — something like six or seven thousand workers, and we ended up with two illegal aliens. Obviously, the law is working down here. Occasionally, we do check the workers on the buses, but by and large, most people are complying with the new amnesty law.”

How many illegals are apprehended daily at the Calexico/Mexicali border?

“Oh, probably 90 a night or so.”

Speaking with Delores Huerta, United Farm Workers Union cofounder and first vice president, I ask her what advantages the union offered. “The right to work under a collective bargaining agreement. Rest breaks, a decent time to have lunch, water, sanitary facilities. A lot of this isn’t happening right now. I don’t know where you were, but it’s still a problem. Sometimes they put the restrooms so far away, no one can use them because they’ll get bullied by the foreman. Sometimes there is water out there, but there’s no cups. That isn’t right. The union offers a better wage, a medical plan, pension plan, paid holidays, a grievance procedure.”

How much more in terms of wages can the union offer?

“Well, it depends. We have areas where the contracts are as high as $7.50 an hour. In other areas it’s lower.”

What is the relationship these days between the growers and the union?

“It’s a constant day-to-day struggle. They are always trying to get rid of or get around the union. Even in cases we’ve won through the courts, I’ll give you some examples. We had an election in May, about 500 workers who overwhelmingly voted for the union. The company objected to the election. It’s been over a year, and we still haven’t been certified to represent the workers]. It’s tied up.”

Do the labor contractors avoid the union workers?

“Oh, absolutely. There’s a blacklist. Very definitely, if the foremen or contractors know a worker is union, they won’t hire him; or if they do and they find out, they’ll get rid of them. The [labor] board down in El Centro is really bad; they just routinely throw out a lot of the charges we file. Farm Workers’ Union charge? Into the wastebasket.”

What are the most common grievances the workers have?

“I guess wages are one. Pesticide poisoning is a big one. We had a worker who just died up in Bakersfield from Parathion about a month ago. José Campos Martínez. There’s a big push now on the part of the growers to get rid of local workers to make room for new Mexicans here under the amnesty law. They want the people who are kind of innocent, who don’t know what the story is, what the options might be for them, what’s going on, what their rights are.” According to Huerta, the United Farmworkers Union membership in Southern California is about 15,000 and 100,000 nationally.

Barbara Buck, a spokeswoman for the Western Growers’ Association, whose members cultivate 50 percent of the nation’s fresh produce and nuts and employ 250,000 to 300,000 workers daily, responded: “The United Farm Workers Union shows bad faith and, we think, do not represent the farmworkers in a fair and even-handed manner. They extort a day’s pay out of each of their members to put in a political action fund, and they can get rid of a union member at any moment with very little cause. We have some problems with the way they operate. However, we work quite well with the other farmworkers’ unions.”

As to whether the farmers are welcoming new workers under the amnesty law: “Absolutely. Farmers have taken great strides to make sure their employees are legalized. We have passed out information in Spanish and English to workers and have created a statewide organization called ALFA, Alien Legalization for Agriculture. Its sole purpose was to help workers get legalized. There were a lot of unscrupulous lawyers and people charging very high fees. We offered a way for the farmworkers not to have to pay those high fees, so the farmers were very instrumental in helping people get legalized.”

And Western Growers’ response to Huerta’s assertion that they are encouraging newly legalized workers because of their political naïvete?

“We farmers know that a stable, loyal, local workforce is going to be much more productive and happy and easier to work with. We are pleased that under the new law, we see that the farmworkers are more settled and happier and are willing to stay in one place longer. This is good for agriculture just as it is for the farmworkers.”

The next day, I accept Rebecca’s invitation to return to the heat and dust of the fields; I don’t pick asparagus or push the burras. Instead, I make myself useful by hauling the burras around in the bed of my pickup truck or stacking crates of asparagus for the trucks. Except for Chuey and perhaps one other man, the crew is entirely different from the day before. Alfredo brings a cassette tape and two 45-rpm records of his music. He talks about the difficulties of writing such compositions as “Canto a la Vida,” “La Muerte de un Gran Torero,” and “Ya No Vuelvas Jesús.”

After only two days’ work, it is difficult for me to move without the aid of aspirin. That night, I listen to Alfredo’s songs and soak for hours in a hot bath in a Brawley hotel.

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