Written in 2008 by FLOC Founder President Baldemar Velasquez
This coming Sunday I will move into a labor camp in the most difficult time of the year. North Carolina leads the nation in heat stroke deaths, many of the past cases happen in July and August when men are not only battling the heat but also nicotine poisoning.The field workers FLOC represents in North Carolina harvest 26 different crops ranging from cucumbers to tobacco to Christmas trees.In my farm work history, I’ve worked in all those harvests or close to them, including row, bush, and tree crops, but never anything close to tobacco with its particular challenges.I feel compelled to experience what these workers go through in what is considered the worse, the riskiest, and the dirtiest of the jobs.
My sense is these men are generally getting a bad rap.Listen to the talking heads on radio and TV, railing against immigrants, both legal and undocumented, doesn’t seem right or truthful to me.I will spend a modest week working with them and hope to write to the public what these men go through, their hopes, expectations, their tragedies, and their humanity.It will allow me the privilege to speak more knowledgeably on their behalf as president of their union.
I hope to send out a nightly message and the end of each day to a select list.It is my desire to shed light from the inside, a life that most stand in judgment of without the courtesy of walking for a season in the other’s shoes.
Day 1: July 27, 2008
I arrived this evening and was received warmly by the workers that are to be my work companions for the week.”El Caballo”; (the horse) who will be one of my roommates, went out of his way to make me feel at home.There is no air conditioning so the North Carolina humidity makes you feel like you’re in a soft bake.I’m fortunate that I’m in a very decent camp.There are four sleeping rooms with five beds each but there are only three of us in our room.Each bedroom has its own shower and toilet which gives this camp a top grade for amenities.The concrete block building has a full kitchen and a common area that is used for eating and recreation.Despite the heat and not having lived in a labor camp for many years I feel very blessed indeed.I know how bad some camps are who have a lot of undocumented workers.Their conditions have not progressed much since Edward R. Murrow produced his “Harvest of Shame”.
The building is set back about 40 yards from the country road on the edge of a wooded area and not far from the tobacco fields that I will enter in the morning.I received some coaching from El Caballo about clothing and hats to avoid contact with the tobacco leaves as much as possible.He will fit me with a make-shift poncho from a plastic trash bag so that the morning dew doesn’t soak my clothes.
The men here hail from San Luis Potosi and Durango.I’m anxious to learn about their lives and what leads them to sacrifice being away from their families for so long a time.It is easy to discern from a distance about survival and hunger but what people don’t see and understand is their humanity.I see in many of these men the haunting loneliness of being torn apart from their families and still putting on a courageous face on this reality.Each man has loved ones whom they’re sacrificing for and I hope they can share with me who they are and what they desire for them.
They are a far cry from how they’re portrayed by the talking heads on radio and TV.They are made out to be suspected as law-breakers and possibly terrorists when in reality those who can come with a visa to work have done so but our country makes it impossible for those who can’t because unlike other markets (commodities and financial) the labor market is not “free” and very restricted.Those other workers come any way they can fulfilling what always drives markets that is the law of supply and demand.The men I’ve come to know are respectful and extremely law-abiding.They know that running afoul of the law can jeopardize their sacrifice to their families.
Well, the fans that are humming are serving as a beckoning lullaby and it’s getting on to 11:00 pm and 6:00 am will come quickly.Thanks all for the thoughts and especially to the prayer warriors for the week to go well and edifying for the workers and the farmer who we are serving.
Day 2: July 28,2008
A thunderstorm swept through the area last night with loud clapping thunder and flashes that turned the night to day. Sleeping in my corner next to the window a light spray awakened me and had to close the window until the heavy rain stopped.It cooled the evening to make it easier to sleep.The lack of sleep didn’t help me today.It was as challenging as I remember.
We woke at 6:00 am with bustling around getting dressed and ready for the day.We loaded into three separate vehicles and El Caballo ushered me into the old beat up van. Around 7:00 am we arrived at the farmer’s house to pick up the water containers and filled them with water and ice.The men found me some rubber boots and a roll of plastic bags to fashion a poncho for me to wear.The all had their wardrobe of the same handy except El Caballo who had left his rubber boots in the rain last night and discovered that they had water in them.He went out in his tennis shoes.
The short drive to the first field was through a lengthy winding entrance from the paved country road that characterizes many North Carolina fields, somewhat desolate and seemingly consistent with being out of sight and out of mind.
The rows were long and very wet and I looked at them like I remember the first looks I always took at a new crop in my youth doing cotton, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, peaches, oranges, grapefruit, etc.The job was topping, suckering, and weeding.The flower had to be broken off the top and the suckers had to be gleaned from the leaf.The suckers look like little shoots of romaine lettuce that will turn to flower if they’re not taken off the top of the tobacco leaf.El Caballo, other men who are called Panza (because of his belly), El Niño (The child) because of his boyish face, and one who the farmers call Rudy were my coaches today.They gave me a little training on proper ergonomics on snapping the flower off with your whole hand after they noticed that I started using my thumb and fore/index finger.They said I’d regret it later when my fingers would get sore.The men talked, sang, joked, and chatted some nonsense the entire day.They asked me lots of questions about the union, but I kept diverting the conversation to their families and personal tragedies.El Nino was divorced last year.He remains a loyal father by supporting his four children ages 17, 16, 12 and 4.He is determined that his kids get an education and not be left in dead end jobs in Mexico.He feels being the U.S. for so long a time did not help his matrimony, but lack of jobs in Mexico led him to enter the H2A guest worker program.Panza on the other hand is proud of his daughter, who will be graduating from law school and has to come up with $2500.00 (US) for the graduating fees and finishing expenses.
While the men talked the time went by quickly in the morning. If it hadn’t been for the plastic, I’d be drenched in the morning dew.The downside was around 10:30, I hadn’t noticed that the others had already shed the ponchos; I was too busy learning to recognize the suckers from the leaves and trying to keep up with the others.I started feeling very, very hot, like in an oven, and somewhat sick.I thought of waiting to get to the end of the row to where the vehicles were parked so I could take off the plastic.I changed my mind, and took it off and stuck it in my belt, and within minutes I had a new lease of life.
We worked until around noon when the farmer showed up with food.He had lunch bags with a variety of choices.Being one of the last ones to reach him after washing hands, I got one of the last bags with chicken tenders and French fries.I devoured the chicken and a couple of fries and washed it down with unsweetened tea.About 30 minutes later we were back in the field.I felt born again; the food and the break restored my enthusiasm.Around 3:00 we finished the field and drove to another one.The break between fields was welcoming because of the searing heat that was upon us.I don’t know how hot it was but probably in the 90’s.We tore into the next field and around 5:00 I hit a brick wall as the heat was just unbearable and was feeling a little nauseas.We were just finishing what everyone thought was the last row for the day so I sauntered over to the water and the bathroom.While everyone arrived and started washing up the farmer arrived and asked all to do another round!After four cups of water and a little cold Pepsi which I tried to stay away from all day because soft drinks dehydrate, I thought I needed a little sugar to revive myself.Well we sucked it up, went back in and the farmer joined us in the job.El Nino had been driving a tractor prior to this last round and had seen me come out of the field.He offered compassion to me by telling me to take the row next to him.He would help me catch up if I got behind.Surprisingly, the water, sugar and the short rest period gave me the second wind I had been waiting for all day.
We finished at around 6:30 and made a slow drive back to the camp.After being in the camp for a short time, El Nino and another man nicknamed “Chemo” weregoing into town to the Piggly Wiggly grocery store.I asked to go along because I hadn’t brought any food supplies last night and wanted to have something so I could share with the men and not mooch off of them.It also provided me with the opportunity to visit the dollar store to get a white cap, gloves and a couple of bandannas for work gear.I had brought a Cleveland Indians ball cap (dark blue) and nothing to shield my neck so I now have a sun line there.The white cap and white bandanna will be tucked under my cap to shield my neck (used to do it all the time in the fields.)While at the Piggly Wiggly, Chemo asked me to help translate so he could send money to his son in New Bern, North Carolina.I did the translating, and El Nino helped him fill out the western-union form for sending the money.
All day I was nervous about the nicotine and tar.The “Green Monster”; as they know it is nicotine poisoning ingested through the skin.I was lucky to find some light gloves with grips on them.They’ll get wet but at least there would be a shield from the tar and nicotine.I got a set of three pairs so we’ll see how they work.Grabbing the suckers might be problematic because some of them are very small.
I thought today about the wealth of the tobacco companies.Having attended RJ Reynolds last shareholder’s meeting in their opulent building in Winston-Salem a couple months ago, I wonder how there can be such a disconnect with their abundance and affluence with the lives these men have?I hope to talk more to the farmers and their struggles in maintaining this opportunity for these men, as they too are often not taken into account in securing a dependable labor supply.The monolithic tobacco companies could make things more bearable and secure for both farmers and farm workers if they wanted to.I hope we can make them listen.As usual, there are a lot of talking heads, misguided thinkers and bureaucrats who weight in when it comes to public policy but have little knowledge of the daily struggles of those who have to”dig in the trenches”.
Finally, I thought of why God created this plant that ends up in a product that is roundly villanized.I read a story last week in the Toledo Blade of how it might give us a product that could attack cancer tumors!I thought that there might be a glimmer of hope for this plant in God’s redemptive nature.It also does not take away from the noble efforts of the men and women who grow the crop and the men who cultivate and harvest it to raise their families.They have my profoundest respect.
Day 3: July 29, 2008
At 6:30 am I was already clammy from the humidity and dressed in my next set of shirt and trousers which is almost a must unless you want to wash every night.You can’t help but get tar and nicotine all over so careful avoidance and contact minimizes the ingestion.I’ve always done well with poison ivy so perhaps whatever helps my body fight this stuff is helping me now, but I don’t want to push my luck.The gloves I got yesterday helped a lot, they worked great. I was able to pluck the smallest “retornos” as the men call the suckers, as the grips did what I thought they would.I was then able to avoid direct skin contact with the leaves and stalk.I did have to throw them away tonight as they were pretty sticky and black with what would have been on my hands.I’ve got two more pair then I’ll have to pick up a couple more to last me the rest of the week.The white cap and handkerchief stuffed under the back of my cap covering my neck worked great too.My neck didn’t need anymore sun, it was already pretty red but not burnt.Being a “guero”, that is a term for a light skinned Mexican, we don’t burn easy but will get red.I guess I’m a bona fide “redneck” now.
I did much better today as it wasn’t wet this morning so I didn’t have to wear the plastic trash bag and there was a cloud cover most of the morning.We start every day with a stop at the farmer’s shed where he has one of those restaurant-type ice makers.We fill the water coolers with ice and water for the day then direct to the field.The little dew on the grass was all the wetness we encountered.Apparently the moister the day before was from the thunderstorm that hit Sunday night.Anyway I was glad I didn’t have to put on the trash bag.
The field rows were really long so the men had to improvise as to where to move the van and pick-up with the water.It was still very hot but the sun didn’t break through until late morning and then an occasional cover until the afternoon. I wasn’t near as taxed as yesterday and when 5:00 came and went I felt I could still do more.Don’t get me wrong, I was pretty tired and as I was isolated for a while working some 30 yards from the men, I contented myself by singing praise and worship songs.”All Hail King Jesus, all hail Emmanuel, Lord of Lords, King of Kings bright morning star…….”
The day with the men was similar, more training for me, plenty of songs, “platicas” (talking between the men), and sharing about family and friends they left behind.Panza laments about his second daughter who is 17 and doesn’t want to continue her education right now but wants to come to the U.S.He is not an insistent father as he feels that you try to “cosejar” (advise them) when they’re young but when they get “that”; age, there is not much you can do.Caballo recounted his stint in the Mexican military and how the whole country is going to pots because not even the military has been able to reign in the drug cartels.The U.S. government is giving Mexico 400 million dollars in Plan Merida to fight drugs but the military is used to attack civil organization like the teacher’s union in Oaxaca and the fiercely independent farmers in Chiapas.Some of the highly trained military specialists are then hired by the drug cartels because they pay a lot and so the problem just gets worse.Caballo wants his kids to finish school and train as technicians, teachers, or any profession to stay out of harm’s way.
Caballo showed me how to spread the plants to access a clear view of the two plants at a time for suckers that might be lower down on the stalk.We got some rows today that were really nasty, suckers all up and down the stalk so I spent a lot of time underneath the plants.The other part of the job I haven’t mentioned is taking out the tall weeds by hand, root and all, so we’re basically weeding as well.I remember those exact weeds in my hoeing days in Ohio and Michigan.”El Kelite” is what we called it and until today I never knew it’s name in English.The kind farmer brought us lunch again, so I asked him and it was red root pig weed!
I learned today that RJ Reynolds has learned of my working in one of their fields and have started veiled threats. All farmers fear the company and getting cut off would mean certain financial ruin.This was true of the farmers in Ohio during the Cambell Soup campaigns.It is true that these companies have tremendous power but for some reason RJ Reynolds refuses to talk to me as president of FLOC.The company apparently sent a letter to all its growers some months ago warning them not to have anything to do with us.With all this concern to avoid FLOC, why are they concerned that I’m working in some remote tobacco fields.Can someone ask them why the silent treatment, then the gossip behind our back? Seriously, they’re like a bunch juveniles who haven’t matured since middle school.Let’s see if they get more blatant and try to start bullying people around, someone should tell them that it would be a colossal PR mistake.See, nobody likes a bully and it would bring them unfavorable attention since most of their labor supply is questionable in their legal status and they do nothing to facilitate in helping their suppliers comply with the law.What is their procurement system design?Some people refer to it as their supply line.Is it to squeeze the farmer who with all his dramatically rising costs, let him take the risks the climate offers and keep the tobacco workers out of sight and out of mind? RJ Reynolds can do better as I’m sure there are men and women there that have good minds and good hearts.
Day 4: July 30, 2008
Today’s heat was as bad as anything I remember.By 8:00 AM, I was already soaking wet in part because of having to wear the plastic bag again.The dew didn’t last long because the sun was sizzling and as we shed the plastic we just kept on profusely sweating.I was more prepared today with the stuff I picked up on Monday, a bandanna to fashion as a sweat band to keep the sweat from stinging my eyes and putting Gatorade in the pop cooler.The men drink soft drinks in the late morning but I stay away from it and have stuck to water until I remembered to bring the Gatorade that I bought Monday.
By 10:00 AM, the one they call Nino was feeling ill and took an extra water break and I notice another man who’s nicknamed “Chemo” also left the field and went to the water coolers.I had heard yesterday about men quitting on other farms because of the heat.I felt uncomfortable because of the sun feeling like a flamethrower on my back and for the condition of this field.There was a lot of “Kelite” on the ends and so for the first and last 100 feet you had to be bent over between the rows, deprived of any possible breeze smoldering in the hot sand that you dumped on your feet when you uprooted the Kelite.I remembered doing this job in my farm worker past and settled into my spread eagle, jackknifed but straight back to pull the weeds.I did that job first before working my way back down the row to top and sucker.By the time we made a round and a half we took a water break at the far end of the field.The men looked beat, breathing with their mouths open with teeth showing and their shirts drenched in sweat. I thought to myself that this is what happens to old guys when they do this type of work.I happened to catch a glimpse of myself in the pick-up rear view mirror as I walked around to put away my Styrofoam water cup… I looked the same!
These men are athletes in every sense of the word.They’re tough and rugged with great stamina.Most of the men in this group have been working together for some years now so there is a lot of camaraderie.They help each other finish their rows together so they can all take water breaks around the same time.When the rows are especially long, they help the guy next to them to keep up to keep the group in the same part of the field.This adds to the company of tales, songs, and kidding that is constantly humming and makes the day bearable.It’s like a team and the labor camp that we go back to every day resembles a locker room/barracks merged into one.
The farmer came by at noon again with lunch and ate with us.We ate at the far end of the field next to a pine tree forest.The pines gave us a pleasant lunch break site.The shade and the occasional breeze were refreshing… I asked him various questions about the tobacco industry in appropriate pauses between his joking with the men.He was quite forthcoming and honest with facts, that I stored into my RJ Reynolds information bank.Speaking of RJ Reynolds, I realized that they were making me feel like a fugitive.If they’re looking for me, what are they going to do with me when they find me?They could just pick up the phone and call me.
After the short lunch break, we tore into the next rows only to be blunted by the sapping heat within the hour.The singing stopped and for once it was almost quiet.We straggled to finish the last rows of the field and loaded up to go to the next field.Again, the short drive revived us, and the men kidded themselves about not falling on our faces and not finishing the job, ending up like those guys we heard about yesterday that only wanted to work half days.”They must think they’re bankers, you know the rich and leisure types that make everybody else do the work”
Around 4:00 PM, a cloud cover refreshed us accompanied by a nice breeze.It was still hot as the farmer had told us at noon that the heat index was around 97 for the day.We were able to finish early, about 5:20 today.I personally was relieved.
This evening, Caballo and I sat and read scripture together.He has a King James Version bilingual bible which is not my favorite but it is good as any for bible study and for learning English which all the men are interested in.I promised “Chemo” I would get him one of those bibles as he keeps asking me what the English words are for any number of things during the day.He made me recite the entire alphabet slowly so he could repeat the letters after me.They were telling me how great it would be if I stayed with them longer so I could give them English classes.
In my farm work background, the third day has always been the make it or break it day.I’m hoping my body remembers that rule tomorrow.
Day 5: July 31, 2008
I’m getting more organized every day, as today I remembered to put two bottles of Gatorade in the soft drink cooler with ice to supplement my water intake.This farmer complies with all the field sanitation standards and has plenty of water in the fields, but no one uses the porta-john unless he really has to.It’s just too hot in there but we pull that stinky thing on a trailer with a pick-up all over the fields.One worker asked me about it and why it was necessary.I assured him that in other parts of the state and the country not only is it not as hot as here, but there are women farm workers and that the law was very necessary.I told him how critical I used be with farmers when my mom and my sisters had to look for areas in corn fields and woods or some secluded area to go to the bathroom when we were doing field work.I told him how it took 12 long years of hearings to fight for us Mexicans and other farm workers to finally get a Federal judge to make the regulation.It’s embarrassing to think that this was the public policy debate for that long.
It’s impossible to keep really hydrated as the heat I think hit 100 today.If it didn’t, then it was probably that much and higher because of the fields we were working in.Some places whee surrounded or next to wooded areas, so there was no breeze.We wore the plastic bags again today and I was smarter about removing it after the first round.Even then the top half of my pants was soaked in sweat by 8:30 AM.It is easy to see how men can die of heat stroke.Heat exhaustion can be compounded by the nicotine which, thank God, has not affected me yet.Rudy, Caballo and Nino were telling me today of men they worked with in recent years, and how they got so sick that they had to leave by the first day.They would come to the camp after doing this work and be vomiting green stuff, and they would get scared thinking they were going to die and leave right away in a panic.
My daughter, Christiana, came today to take pictures of my sojourn in case some of you don’t believe I’m really doing this… just joking, She was a big hit with the men.They were very shy at first, almost as if they had forgotten how to act or speak in front of a woman since they hadn’t seen their wives and children since April, May, or longer.They warmed up, and by the time she left after taking pictures in the field this morning they were waving good-bye with bouquets of the top pretty pink flowers they were topping from the tobacco stalks in the field.
I observed that the most stressful time can be anytime between 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM.This is the time I’ve observed the men being really taxed depending how long we work without a break, and that is largely due to the length of the row.I took my Gatorade yesterday around 2:30-3:00 and with a 5 minute water break it restored me well.Today I put two bottles in the cooler, and I had one at 10:00 and the other at 2:00, with the water I drank it was the best I could do.I say that because without being gross, I learned in my high school athletic days how to measure your hydration by observing the color of your urine.Too much yellow and you need more water.I haven’t had a day that it was ideal.I don’t get really hydrated until I get back to the camp where I chug more water and another bottle of Gatorade.I regret not following through with getting a canteen to bring on this trip.This idea might have some merits as standard equipment for tobacco workers.
I had chicken tenders for lunch again today as I didn’t do too well with the rib eye steak sandwich yesterday.It seemed too heavy to digest under the heat stress we were under.I thought of what I’d rather have, and I was imagining some fidello (thin spaghetti) with a little “carne picada” (hamburger meat) mixed up with garlic and unions in a little tomato sauce.Then some fruit for dessert!Oh my, it was a nice daydream munching on my tenders.We did have watermelon though.Earlier this morning the one they call Shorty had pilfered a watermelon from the farmer who rents the land.The farmer has watermelon and cantaloupe patches all around the tobacco field.He had been visiting our fields the last two days and usually mooches a soft drink (Dr. Pepper) from our cooler when he visits.He likes to talk and is always driving on of those 4-wheel recreational bikes.He was bragging about those watermelon patches and his tomato and jalapeno ones too.He only had to invite us once to take what we wanted.Since we had just finished the field we were in we quickly gathered several plush watermelons, cantelopes and a plastic bag full of jalapenos!Shorty came walking up last as he had gone back to fetch his prize watermelon that he had stashed out of sight.He was smiling from ear to ear in front of the farmer seemingly pleased that he wasn’t stealing it.I told him to put it in the ice cooler so we could eat it for lunch.It hit the spot, lots of water and sugar for dessert that sent us back into the broiling sun.
My body seems to be holding up OK as the damage has been limited to some sunburn on my nose and face, a slight rash on my calves, and ankles and swollen hands.The men say the rash is from the sand and the tiny particles that penetrate your pants when you pull the large stalks of Kelite and all the dirt is dumped on your shins on down.My hands are sore but that is pretty normal because I’ve been snapping tops and pulling Kelite stalks.They do ache at night like any part of your body that’s used after an arduous task.
Although there has been some stressful moments from the heat, the men’s attitude of helping on another makes a big difference.When you’re pressing for a water break, the men who finish first come back and help the rest.This has helped me since earlier this week I had to struggle to keep up with the rest.As I’ve gotten accustomed as to what to look for, I’ve been able to keep pace especially with rows with a lot of Kelite.I remember more and more doing it in my younger years and have recovered my efficiency at it.I’m a regular weed eater but it is harder on your back which is a little tight but it works.Caballo and one they call Negro (The black one) told me the reason they help each other stay close as a crew.A little after 3:00 PM a welcomed cloud cover came upon us as a thunderstorm was raging northwest of us.Shortly after that another wave of darker clouds moved in on us that had rain.The guys said that it made it simpler to get everyone in vehicles at a time like this to get out of the field together when everybody’s in one place.Well, the rains came!This is the earliest time we quit this week, I don’t think we made it to 4:00 PM.
Getting to the camp early, I was able to do a wash with some gift of soap from Caballo for the washing machine which the farmer has here.I brought four shirts to wear every day and today I wore my last one.Someone always invites me to eat with them and today Caballo prepared some meat with papitas (fried potatoes,) frijoles, and a guacamole pico de gallo while I did laundry.After I hung my clothes on the clothesline outside, I had this great meal waiting!
Day 6: August 1, 2008
In waking up at 5:30 AM this morning, I realized that my hands were tingling with numbness.I thought that it was from sleeping on them so I was getting up anyway and didn’t think much of it.As we went through our regular routine getting dressed, getting my café con leche, gathering my rubber boots, bandanna, cap, handkerchief and today three bottles of Gatorade everything was going like a well-oiled machine.It had rained around 4:00 AM so I knew the plants would be soaked and therefore would have to wear that dreaded trash bag.On the way to the field I told the men in the van with me about my hands being swollen as they looked at each other and Shorty responded, “that’s the way we all are”Yesterday the last big field we did the stalks had already been topped by machine so the stubs we broke off were thicker than usual and harder to break.This field was the same and some stalks were too thick to break with one hand and had to use two.As we went into the first row my left hand felt numb again, to the point that I couldn’t feel a thing.I shook it off but the numbness persisted so I asked Nino and Negro about it.They said it would eventually go away after a week or so.Even being reassured, I didn’t feel happy with it.I worked with it down by my side for a while and topped with one hand.The feeling returned so I started to use the hand again.As soon as I felt a little tingling, I moved it down again.After a while I forgot about it and the day progressed without the numbness returning.I probably got distracted by the broiling feeling inside the trash bag.Even with the plastic protection my sleeves and gloves were soaked.Now the gloves help as I’ve said but the nicotine still gets through them and the shirt as well.After I remove the gloves my hands are usually pretty sticky from the nicotine that soaked through.And tonight I had a little rash on my arms and the men warned me not to scratch it.They told me to let my body work it out.It’s one of those situations that you want to scratch real badly but it only makes things worse.
I was wearing the rubber boots because of the mud and water.When I finally removed them to change into my tennis shoes around 10:30 AM there was about a half cup of water in them.I have no idea how it got in there, it couldn’t have been all sweat, could it?
Nino was telling me about his 4-year old boy.He’s the divorced guy who is really attached to his four kids.He sends $500.00 every two weeks to his ex-wife for them and his last conversation with his kids was two days ago.His son wants him to bring an MP3 player because his older sister had been sent one from an aunt in Texas.He says one of the reasons he has to come is because he wants to be able to provide something more than just beans and tortillas to his kids.Especially if they’re going to get an education, that’s not free in Mexico.
The water would not dry from the leaves and most of us wore the oven bags until almost 9:30 until we couldn’t take the heat anymore and discarded them even if it meant we would get soaked with the nicotine water.The men would warn me to spit any water that would get in your mouth because then you would just be drinking the tobacco stuff.Caballo said that’s what happens when your cutting the bottom leaves in the morning, all the water comes cascading down on you and get it all over your body, face, and mouth.Surely as we snapped those tops, water sprayed all over the place and getting down to get the suckers on the bottom of the plant everything on the top leaves did come down on you.Then more tales of the “Green Monster”; of men vomiting weird stuff including gnats that infests parts of some fields.I haven’t said anything about that, but they are pesky and get into everything.Some areas are so bad that during one of our water breaks, in raising a cup from the cooler to my mouth, 5 gnats managed to get into my drink and stare at my nose as I put the cup on my mouth!
I was sure glad to get out of that field, and we got into one with real long rows.The field was known as the airport field.Before it was a field, a farmer had used that strip as his own airplane runway.They were long rows and Panza and Chemo got real far behind because they had the outside rows.The outside rows often have a lot more suckers so you have to spend more time plucking those “suckers” up and down the plant.The men say there are more suckers on them because they get more air, and the deer that come out of the woods who love to chew on the tender plants.I helped them finish instead of taking a water break with the rest of the men.By the time we got finished the other men were already 300 feet into the next rows.The three of us took our water break and I shared my Gatorade with them.The casual conversation turned a little sad when Panza began talking about his daughter who just finished law school.He had told me this several days ago but said that today was her big day.Panza talks with a squeak, kind of like a teenager going through puberty and voice cracking all the time.It made his comments sadder in their delivery.This morning there was a Mass for her in the small village where they live.After Mass, they assemble for the delivery of the diplomas which he said would be happening right now as he pulled his watch out of his pocket to check.As he stared into the blue sky I thought his eyes were watering as he forlornly sighed about wishing to be there.I got a lump in my throat thinking about what he had said about how proud he was of her as the only person in his family that had gotten any education.He ended by saying that it made his sacrifice being here working more than worth it as we walked back into the discomfort of our job.
My heart goes out to these men – they are good.They have hearts and deep feelings of loyalty and love for their families.Rudy, the one from Durango is still grieving the death of his 16 year old daughter.She died about three years ago, from cancer.He’s told me about it several times and I let him know that he can tell me about her as much as he wants and that I would love to know about her.I can feel his sadness even though his telling the story is stoic and quiet.
Day 7: August 2, 2008
I finished the last day of work with them men today.We stopped around 3:30 which is customary on Saturdays here because of collecting pay and other week end considerations.I felt a little sad about ending my work with these men even though it got very hot in the hollow where we were working.It was more like a cauldron, but I worked to the last stalk and helped to the last man.I felt like I didn’t want this to end.I felt like I was just hitting my stride and getting used to the physical inconveniences.Most of all I would miss the stories, the joking and bantering, singing and the sharing of their personal hopes, ideas, and the many questions however silly or important.
The final tally on my body was the rash on my arms and lower legs/ankles, four blisters on my right hand, sunburn on my nose, face and lips, and swollen hands that were numb.The hands are probably the most bothersome because if I leave them up for any length of time, they’ll get numb.They were painful this morning which made it hard to close a fist, let alone use them to break off more tops.But when we got to the field I just had to suck it up and start the job anyway.The tops were especially thick today, the kind you had to use both hands to break off.I thought, “this is all I need with the way my hands feel”After a while, it was back to the grind and make the best of things because there is nothing you can do about it except quit, and that wasn’t an option.It got terrifically hot in the afternoon as if the sun was saying; “here’s a little going away memento so you can remember me”.
Early last night it occurred to me how special it had been that the men had been sharing their lives with me, bad and good, all week.Confessions of their lives which they freely shared, many intimate stories, conflicts, ongoing problems, many of which I haven’t had a chance to write about.I wanted very badly to tell them that everything will be OK.That if they worried about their families that they would be safe, if they did something wrong that they would be forgiven and if they had a problem they couldn’t solve, to have faith.God put on my heart to call the only pastor I knew that might come and help me do this and come to bless the men and their families.The Rev. Nelson Johnson had been meeting with the RJ Reynolds Company to advocate a dialogue between FLOC and the company, and after several meetings the company continues to avoid any responsibility for the production of their tobacco.Early yesterday evening I managed to reach the Rev. Nelson Johnson and made the request to come and pray for the workers.After some careful coordinated plans with his schedule and my coordination with the crew, he came.It was a powerful experience.He arrived prior to lunch, and right out there in the middle of the tobacco field we all prayed.He spoke out his heart to God, recalling the many African Americans that toiled these same fields like himself as a youth, the blessing of their families in Mexico, the success of their work, and that the hearts of many would be reached to lift up the yoke of oppression of all tobacco workers, and there might be unity among brown, blacks, and whites in this endeavor.I translated, feeling the same fervor in my heart in Spanish as if the men were hearing two different prayers but yet the same.When we finished I noticed Caballo and Rudy with tears on their faces.Rudy told me tonight that “when he got to blessing the families in Mexico, I’m a man but I couldn’t hold back my emotions because this is why I do this, and also because this man who is not of my race would come and pray these words””Also because it made me feel like somebody out there is listening to us and we’re not forgotten.”
I don’t really understand the entire impact of all this, only that something powerful is moving in the heavenlies.
When we finished today, we drove to the farmer’s house to pick up paychecks.Tte men had been planning a going away cook-out for me, and when I learned of it, I insisted on buying the meat.I called on one of the FLOC staff to help with this, and Frank and Diego did a great job of not only buying the meat for me but expertly marinating it and grilling it for the men tonight.More stories, joking, and carrying on over great food that you can’t find in any restaurant was consumed.Over the music, talking, and grilling, conversations over more serious matters would also continue.Today “Lolo” (who I haven’t written about) would benefit from the “Tanda” and men were paying up. Since the men don’t have bank accounts, they rotate one man of the number of men participating every week who would get $100.00 each from the rest.There are 9 men participating in the Tanda so Lolo got an extra $800.00 this week to send to his family.He will pay $100.00 every week to the weekly beneficiary of the Tanda for the next 8 weeks until it’s his turn again.This arrangement has been popular for many years, and practiced by many Mexicans all over the U.S.It is a good way to save money, not spend it foolishly, and not carry a wad of cash and be subject to robbery and theft.
Speaking of money, my investment in this sojourn has been about $47.00, if you don’t count my getting here.This is only because I made a trip to the Goodwill store on Woodville Road in Toledo and bought 5 cotton long sleeve shirts and three pants for a fabulous price of about $24.00.I was warned that the clothes would be permanently stained to be of any use later and no sense in keeping it.At the end of the season the men usually burn their work clothes.
The workers investment on the other hand, if they’re legal with an H2A visa range from $500.00 to $900.00, or if you come with a “coyote” to sneak you into the country can range from $2000.00 to $3500.00 to North Carolina.H2A workers have told me that they could get by with about $350.00 for incidentals. One worker from San Luis Potosi broke down the expenses in detail.He told me he first has to pay a deposit at Banamex of $130.00 to guarantee appearance at the U.S. Consulate for his interview, then he would pay about $28.00 for bus fare to Monterrey where he would interview for his visa, then pay $110.00 for bus from Monterrey to North Carolina. The North Carolina Grower’s Association (NCGA), whom FLOC has a contract with, would reimburse the entire $268.00 upon arrival.This would still leave him $82.00 for meals and especially lodging in Monterrey, because what used to be a one day processing is now a two day processing because of the “war on terrorism” and “illegal alien” hysteria.The extra day uses some of the $82.00.When they arrive and receive their reimbursement, they use that money to get them through the first two weeks here before they receive their first paychecks.They usually have to borrow this up front money before they depart from Mexico.The extra amount they borrow is to leave with his wife and kids to survive on until he sends his first money from the U.S.He usually leaves $200.00 which means he has to borrow $550.00 in all.Some workers leave more.The NCGA workers have an enormous advantage because of the union oversight of any irregularities, unlike the many other recruiters working in Mexico.These workers are very vulnerable to criminal types who steal their money by posing as recruiters for jobs in the U.S., and there are still stories come out how an imposter opens an office in a good size town, takes passports and money, and after collecting thousands of dollars from men who think they are being processed abscond with passports and all!FLOC has turned in some of these crooks to the American Consulate and pushed Mexican authorities to enforce their own laws.Mexican enforcement is pathetic; it seems that they only care about their compatriots getting to the U.S. by any means so they can send dollars back to Mexico.Unlike the NCGA all the other recruiters who don’t have a union get away with charging workers above the Consulate fees and legitimate expenses.I did a speaking tour of 4 cities in March of 2007 to warn and educate workers not to pay those fees as it is against Mexican Federal law to do so.Also to report any irregularities among the recruiters who are contracted from the NCGA.A week later our staff person, Santiago Raphael Cruz, was brutally assassinated right inside our office in Monterrey.It has been one of the darkest moments in my life and work.We continue to carry out the education and advocacy work in Mexico that brother Santiago so loved.We remodeled the office, secured it after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights awarded protective measures to us and compelled the Mexican Federal Government to carry them out.They have installed security cameras, provided cell phones for FLOC staff with emergency numbers, and do routine visits to our office.They also must act on leads provided by the attorney overseeing the case for FLOC.The case is ongoing and the authorities have caught and sentence one man to 26 years in prison.Three others are still at large.The FLOC office there is now called the Santiago Raphael Justice Center.
The undocumented workers fare far worse.Many of them do not have the $2000.00 or more to pay the coyotes so they come like slaves to the coyotes and “polleros” who watch over them to collect the fee when they start work.Many end up in perpetual servitude because of the old “company store” routine.It takes them longer to get out of debt as the polleros charge them for everything.For instance, H2A workers enjoy local transportation provided by the farmer.The undocumented has to pay his overseer for transportation not only to the store on the weekend but also the daily ride to work!When they manage to escape this, they end up in our cities and towns doing the more menial and dirtiest jobs, and try to work their way into better jobs only to be demonized by the likes of Tom Concredo, Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannidy, etc, who hide their own immigrant past because their grandparents came through Ellis Island.Where do they think the term “WOP” came from?This was the stamp put on papers during the Italian migration that meant that they were entering the country without papers!
What makes the current situation with the current situation more insidious is its design.Companies like RJ Reynolds knows its workforce is both undocumented and in minority H2A workers.The unlevel playing field of farmers who are trying to do things legally with the quagmire of paperwork and constantly incompetent government bureaucrats with discretionary authority changing rules in the middle of a season, and the other farmers who employ the coyotes and polleros for advantage keeps the company’s onerous control in keeping the purchase of raw tobacco cheap.As long as they keep the farmer on the fringes of survival of the family business, the farmers are too afraid and weak to challenge them for a better deal… and the immigrant/migrant worker is stuck.
With the gazillions RJ Reynolds reported in profits at their last shareholder’s meeting, I wonder what they think the eternal value of all of this might be.
Surely there must be a way to grow our crops in a more just manner.
Reflections: August 5, 2008
I left the labor camp two days ago on Sunday around 1:20 PM.That day, the men had gathered around noon to cook the left over meat from the cook-out the night before.Since it was still in its marinated state it was especially tasteful.I have to ask Frank what he made the marinade with, Nayarit style, from the Mexican state that he is from.The men were cheerful with loud Mexican Norteno music blaring from Frank’s car parked up along side the veranda that the men use as the outside resting and recreation site when they don’t want to be indoors.FLOC staff person Diego was helping grill the meat like the night before, and the men were generally being jovial, somewhat subdued but ready to eat again.I know the feeling from my farm worker past, the day off is to let your body be reconstituted, let your injuries heal, and your allergies and reactions to tar and nicotine/possible chemicals, subside.
Even after two days my symptoms are still apparent.My five blisters on my right hand are still visible but pretty much healed except the large one on my pinkie (little finger) that was exactly ½ inch wide and broke open on Friday without my even knowing it.The new skin underneath is still a little tender.The rash (which I think was mostly from heat) right under my calf looks like it’s healing well but you can tell that it had been very nasty.The “ronchas” or hives/welts under my right arm the men diagnosed as affects of the nicotine.I had noticed them on Wednesday, but just put lotion on them to keep me from scratching them.They have all but gone away now and what remains are small red spots.I am extremely happy that I didn’t get the “Green Monster” (El Monstro Verde) sickness.The other minor irritation had to do with my nose, it got burnt but has peeled nicely and its resiliency ready for more sun.The downside was that during these days I kept swiping my runny nose, especially in the morning, with the back side of my glove and shirt sleeve until I rubbed it raw.I didn’t realize it until it began to get sore on Friday, then I tried to leave it alone.Now a scab has formed and from a distance I will look like I have dried snot pasted under my left nostril.Oh well, I suppose I’ll have to walk around with a little humility.
My lips were burnt too, but that was manageable. I didn’t put any chap stick on it until Saturday after the last day of work.The disappointment with this had to do with the fact it made eating Frank’s great spicy guacamole almost unbearable because of the stinging on my lips that evening.
The last is the numbness in my hands.Although my hands feel better there is still a lot of tingling especially in my fingers if I leave them elevated for any length of time.I can actually close my fist now, where Sunday I couldn’t possibly do it without some serious pain.The fact that I could work with this condition on Friday and Saturday perhaps had to do with adrenalin kicking in.I’ve been advised that all this is due to temporary inflammation of the nerve in the carpal tunnel that is swollen and will subside in some days.The men said that it will go away in a few weeks.The condition lasting so long is probably due to the fact that continuing to work with this injury keeps aggravating it before it is completely healed.These men are tough, loyal to the work, and, like champion athletes, play through their injuries without complaining.
I am very happy that I didn’t come down in the grips of the “Green Monster” or some of the other calamities these men have witnessed.The men have experience all of the things I’ve described and worse, but still go out day after day keeping their physical trials mostly to themselves.Time after time I’ve heard these same stories and yet the response is always the same, “If I am to live and feed my family, I have no other choice.”
As we conversed the talk turned to money matters.Several of the men had asked me about some of the criticisms of the union and how we had not delivered on a free $1000.00 accidental life and dismemberment insurance policy.Many insurance companies offer this benefit to members of large groups in associations, business clients, and unions.They do this as a lead-in to engage you in a basic policy then try to sell you more insurance.In our case, American Income Life prides itself as an all-unionized company, and markets to union members with this tactic.I myself sit on its labor advisory board.I have made two efforts to register 5000 of these workers into the basic coverage, because $1000.00 may not be much in the U.S. but it goes a lot farther in Mexico in case of an accidental death.Each time, the director of the insurance company told me that the lawyers rejected the effort to register these men because their home addresses would be in Mexico!Since the insurance company isn’t set up to sell policies in Mexico they rejected the lead-in to our members.We argued that they are still union members and FLOC pays the per capita for each of them to be affiliated to the International, State, and local labor bodies separately and not extending this benefit to them as members of the AFL-CIO like everybody else regardless of their race, color or nationality is a form of discrimination.I told them they could still sell them additional insurance while they resided for the five to nine months that they are in the U.S.Well the anti-union advocates used this against us, charging that we lied to the workers to get them to join the union, bringing forth three grieving widows of men that had died in accidents in Mexico over the past two years to attack us, and this continues to be a nagging issue.
I told the men that I was going to settle this once and for all by starting our own in-house program for members who pass away, not just accidental.The first benefit Cesar Chavez organized in California in his early organizing years was a death benefit to help with funeral expenses.I told them that I was donating this week’s earnings in the fields as seed money to start that fund and hope to raise $15,000.00-$20,000.00 quickly and apply it retroactively to the three widows.I already have several ideas of how the fund can be replenished.The men were happy with the report and while they weren’t looking forward to dying they were consoled that as union members, their families would be left with something to cope with in case something happened to them.
Speaking of death, our members in the union agreement with the North Carolina Grower’s Association (NCGA) are especially fortunate to have the full cooperation in worker compensation cases as employers under the agreement.Death and injury are fully covered on all NCGA farms.This is not the case on RJ Reynolds farms that employ many partially documented and undocumented workers.Many FLOC supporters know the stories of the many men who have died of heat stroke and accidents over the last 8 years with their families having nothing to show for it.Urbano Ramirez who was left to die under a tree after complaining to a supervisor of suffering heat exhaustion symptoms.His co-workers found his body 9 days later under the same tree with his body decomposed beyond recognition.They identified him with the ID’s he had in his pockets.FLOC attorney Robert Willis fought his case for almost three years until he won a substantial award for Urbano’s widow.You can hear a song I wrote about this death on an Aguila Negra Band site on My Space that my daughter set up, or get the link through in the FLOC Shop section.
To start with, the RJ Reynolds Co. could at least subsidize the worker compensation premiums to their growers like the Mt. Olive Pickle Company has done under an agreement we signed with them in 2004, so the men could have this very basic benefit.
As we ate the tasty grilled meat the men became more animated as the lunchtime went on.Everyone delayed going into town for their weekly shopping since they knew I was leaving.They normally leave in the late morning and make the day of shopping for supplies for the week and maybe eating out at a local restaurant.They were enjoying the meat and talking both serious and nonsensical things.When it got close to my leaving, all lined up to express their appreciation for my being with them.Solomon, the oldest worker among them at 59 was kidding me about getting his title back as the oldest in the camp after I left, since I am 61.Rudy got overly emotional and enveloped me in a huge “abrazo” (hug) and would not let me go saying, “Eres de buen metal porque te criaron como nosotros” (You are of good metal because you were raised like us).”Por eso ajuantates toda la semana” (That’s why you lasted all week).”Eres puro campesino, tabacalero” (You are pure farm worker, tobacco worker).
Of all the titles I’ve been honored with, Rev, Dr., McArthur Fellow, etc., this one has to be the most personal and most cherished, bestowed by a lowly and humble farm worker whom I profoundly respect and is my friend whom I love.Yo soy campesino, tabacalero.