a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Trees were lush with green leaves and vibrant fruit. Acres upon acres rolled full with peach, pear, plum, cherry and apple trees of countless varieties. The orchard crops are a source of pride and celebration all spring, summer and harvest-time fall. There was the bloom of spring, with trees blossoming pearly and pink in rhythm with the wildflowers sprouting from the foothills of the Columbia River Gorge. Then there was the succulence of summer, when fruit came into ripeness and heaved on branches underneath a blue sky broken not by clouds, but the glacial mountain tops of Mt. Adams in the north and Mt. Hood to the south. Now, the starkness of trees in late fall is something else altogether. Maritime northwest weather leaves the area surrounding Hood River in fog most of the time. Hood River, an affluent and touristy town of the Columbia River Gorge, is also the start of the illustrious 41-mile stretch of highway sidled up alongside orchards known affectionately as the Fruit Loop. Clouds hang low over the river while Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood go unseen in the white-gray sky for weeks on end. The trees, unclothed by leaves and barren of fruit, are perhaps the only sharpened aspect of the landscape in the hazy fall. Countless acres of orchard land sprawl onto sloped hillsides and flat fields. Their branches appear arthritic, strained by the weight of fruit through the growing season and clad by mist-sopped, darkened bark. Their dormancy will last through spring, disrupted only by the pruning of skilled and often migrant laborers, an important population in the bountiful Fruit Loop.
While the laboring men and women who climb ten-foot ladders to prune trees on either side of the Fruit Loop go largely obscured by tree canopy during peak fruit season—first cherries, then peaches, then apples, then pears, then more apples—the fruit itself is celebrated, eroticized almost. Before arriving to the Gorge, I hadn’t ever bit into the bright orange flesh of a tree-ripened peach. The taste of sweet fruit satiated my tongue. The rolling hills of orchards enchanted me. I felt privileged to be serving a volunteer year with a nonprofit working to make the regional food system more equitable. I was delighted to begin work around hunger relief and local economy building through farmers markets and programming.
Our first staff meeting featured “the season’s first Gravenstein apples. Aren’t they just gorgeous?” A coworker flipped open her pocket knife, cut it into the flesh of the apple and slipped a slice into her mouth seamlessly while carrying on conversation about the need for fresh, local produce in every corner store. Fruit stands, vineyards and cideries stand ready to accept tourists around every bend of highway, but when doors close for the winter the rural areas rely on corner stores for food. I listened first, then sliced a piece of the Gravenstein for myself. The fruit, like most food specific to a given place, is interwoven into the culture of the Gorge. I wanted to help bring pears, peaches, plums, and more to those who don’t have time to admire the way a light hits a bowl full of apples because they’re hungry and go straight for the bite. Increasing access to produce for the low-income population is vitally important and the work centered on just that. But, I thought, what about the hands that pick it?
On August 18, 2017 I accepted a mentor’s invitation to attend a community event in one of Hood River’s local parks. Flyers announced the cause of celebration: Dia Festivo Para Trabajadores del Campo, Feast Day for Farmworkers. Local restaurants donated buffet tables of tortillas, carnitas, salsa and cake. Organizers called in a Mexican dance troupe from nearby Portland to dance in fluorescent, fringed costumes through the grass lawn where attendees were seated. I sat on the grass that day, shaking my foot to the rhythm, sorting through my feelings toward the one-day celebration for a workforce of extraordinary strength that had been so far unmentioned. I tried to remind myself it is easier to scrutinize a place I am not from, that I would be there as a guest for one year to serve.
A table of immigration lawyers were chatting with passersby on the lawn not too far from me. They passed out a handful of what looked like business cards to each person while I watched until an introduction from friends allowed me to say hello. The business cards handed to me were not business cards at all, but cards for non-English speaking people to present upon encountering law enforcement. They read:
To whom it may concern: Before answering any questions, I want to talk to an attorney at Immigration Counseling Service. I will not speak to anyone, answer any questions about my immigration status, respond to any accusations, waive any of my legal rights, or consent to any search of my person, papers, or property until I have first obtained the advice of an attorney.
I listened with deep sadness while the lawyer gestured at the patchy crowd on the lawn and explained that the park would normally be brimming with families, but fear was rampant. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) could raid the space at any moment and send indocumentados off to Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Center (NORCOR) for indefinite detention in The Dalles, a town just 25 miles down the Columbia River. The irony of farmworkers and their families not wanting to attend their own party hung heavily.
Eighteen days later on September 5th, Trump announced his decision to end the program allowing migrant children on a pathway to citizenship, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). I found myself this time at a much different community gathering put on for many of the same people as Dia Festivo. I showed up to a gymnasium in a nearby town seven miles away from Hood River where orchards edge against highway and grow across the road from an elementary school. The town is home to a majority Latinx population and the house I moved into three weeks prior. The same lawyers occupied tables, adding a slideshow projection to discuss the realities of those affected by Trump’s repeal. You had to reapply for DACA status before October 5th, meaning if your status expires before March 18, 2017 you had one month to reapply for an additional two years. Kids sat stony-faced in rusty folding chairs, reminded that if they are caught with such an infraction as drinking underage, they won’t face a ticket or slap on the wrist, but perhaps indefinite detention or possible deportation. I went home from that meeting with more cards.
My volunteer service picked up during this time, with farmers notifying me of their surplus apples and pears still hanging on the trees. Gleaning, the act of harvesting what would normally go to waste in an orchard, farm, or even a backyard garden, and redirecting it to food banks, was one of the most empowering tasks in my service. Producers gave me a date to harvest, I recruited volunteers, and we showed up to pick. On October 4th, the day before DACA renewal was due, I expected to welcome a few volunteers to the private orchard where we’d glean crisp Asian pears and perfectly round Gala apples. Not one volunteer showed up. I was not angry—it was only three trees and I was happy to be out of the office —but darkly amused by the no-shows. If this were a harvest day and migrant workers did not show up, they might be threatened with termination and, consequently, deportation since many work under a visa validated only by labor performed for the farm that requested them. In such cases, they lose their housing, legal status as a “guestworker,” and often, their owed wages to that point. I decided to pick the pears and apples myself, trying to focus on the fact that the fruit was going to a senior center that evening.
I walked over to the old gray shed on the orchard property and found a ten-foot ladder. Though it was lightweight, I situated it on the ground clumsily and knocked fruit off the branches to the ground. If I were a farmworker, would the cost of bruised apples come from my paycheck? I admired the yellows, pinks and reds painted on the surface of each Gala, and ate as I picked. Juice dribbled down my chin as I remembered how my mother used to pack me an apple, a bag of chips, and a sandwich every day for lunch; it was never a question whether we had food to pack a lunch. I often threw the apple into the trash without a thought. She usually bought Gala. I suppose my taste evolved.
I never carried more than was comfortable up and down the ladder and I took pictures as I went along. A raindrop clung to the bottom of an Asian pear. The green-brown skin in the foreground against the cerulean sky would look great on the website. While walking the boxes of pears to the car and admiring the surrounding trees, my shoelace caught a plastic sprinkler head and snapped it clean off. I panicked and considered standing it back up as if I never broke it. What was the cost of repair and would I have to pay the orchardist? My worry didn’t last long. The landowner came home soon after I finished loading the fruit into my car and assured me not to worry. She even gave me a cabbage from her garden.
A few weeks later, I coordinated another glean—this time with the help of plenty of volunteers. Gorge residents and I worked for three hours to pick two thousand pounds of Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apples. Young women posed for pictures proudly, fruit in hand, and I felt mild pride for our picking enough apples to distribute to thirteen food banks and pantries. Picking, sorting and weighing demanded my attention under the canopy of tree branches. Later when I called my mother, I explored the thoughts rolling around in my head all day long. I needed to express the fear felt by those around me, my neighbors in the valley. I told my mother, whose Mexican-American parents worked industrial factory jobs after their parents worked on farms, not to worry about me from so far away in Chicago, but for my younger brother with darker skin who reads as Mexican. Worry for the eleven million people in this country who are scapegoated as the cause of hardship created by this nation’s great inequity. My mother told me, as she so often does, to think of happy thoughts, to not concern myself with such colossal problems because “you can’t save the world. I don’t want you to try to save the world and be devastated when you find out that you can’t do anything.”
Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams glint like diamonds out of reach for so many who will never have the time for hiking or the money for skiing. Their glittery tops are visible even above the rows of orchards where fruit is picked by a force constantly under threat of deportation, of suspicion. My mother, who was grinding peppercorns on the molcajete last time we talked, listened quietly while I stated that the fruit here is no longer sweet to me. The population that feeds us lives in fear while I pat the backs of volunteers for picking the amount of fruit in several hours that one laborer might pick in less time. I wept to my mother in the most pathetic reaction to our food system as it is, trying to communicate how disillusioned I was with the remarkable gulf between agriculture in my life and the lives of those around me. I spent one summer sowing seeds into organic soil and talking to chickens with a light heart, finding relief from the shallow anxiety of an overwhelmed college student. I learned beginners forest maintenance with a kind-hearted farming couple who worked in the names of peace and climate change mitigation. I spoke through pitiful sobs and asked my mother questions she can’t ever answer. How could farming, a force so personally redemptive, be so wicked to the most vulnerable among us? Why should we not pay mind to people living in uncertain exploitation?
On good days, I accepted the mountains into my vision and honored their beauty. I can’t save the world, but I can at least try to understand one place’s relationship to its immigrant population. I didn’t get angry at myself for just recently learning of César Chávez’s saintly contributions to advancing farmworkers’ rights. As a girl, my mother wasn’t allowed to eat grapes—her father stood with Chávez and farmworkers as they boycotted grape growers. I delighted in Chávez’s dedication to nonviolence, a belief on which I tried to center my life for a short time. On good days, I was proud of the fruit that we picked for the food banks that shouldn’t have to exist.
On bad days, I was enraged by surface level talk on Latinx people in the United States and the cruelty in our nation from those who want to build a wall. A bad day meant I was pathetic, overcome by some warped form of white guilt and questioning whether I even had the right to claim Hispanic/Latino as my identifier. I fixated on how I was told that trees must be full enough for volunteers to feel their participation in a glean is “worth the effort.” We worked together to pick up pears that fell through the bottom of a weak box while entire fruit pallets overturn on Highway 35 and the rest of the Fruit Loop. Are the countless tons of pears, apples, peaches and plums littered in piles onto the sides of highways across the northwest, picked almost entirely by brown hands, not worth the effort to save?
The disregard for our food’s labor force can be traced through history. Most obviously, slaves were the base of our nation’s economy and modern forms of slavery still oppress African Americans. Asian immigrants faced exploitation in the western United States, too, even excluding the horrors of Japanese internment camps. Braceros, meaning migrant laborers, were brought into the United States through a series of legislation known commonly as the Braceros Program which started in 1942. The start of World War II meant labor shortages, and with Japanese laborers then imprisoned, women were not the only group called upon to keep the economy productive. Fear of labor shortage in low-wage agriculture jobs had the United States calling on its southern neighbors to head north. The stipulations of Mexican laborer arrivals appeared generous; the US government promised free and adequate housing plus a fair wage. However, such agreements rarely held true and farmworker activist César Chávez called upon all farmworkers already in the US who were not part of Braceros to rally against this misleading program that exploited workers brought by it and undercut the wages of an almost exclusively Mexican-American workforce. Braceros were prohibited from striking and, because of the total dependence on employers, were helpless when wage promises were broken. Thanks to the efforts of Chávez and the organizing directed by United Farm Workers labor union, the program ended in 1964.
Nowadays, migrant workers are brought in, in increasing quantities each year until Trump’s crackdown caused further labor shortages, through the nation’s H-2A Agricultural Guestworker program. H-2A as it stands now looks remarkably like the Braceros Program with the same promised conditions to recruited workers. Farms who enlist the help of “guestworkers” are eligible only after proving that such jobs cannot be filled by American workers. By law, these employers must offer free housing, food and transportation. Are the people being recruited south of the border, and perhaps all over the world (a great number of countries are eligible for the program) aware that the promises of arrival to the US will so often be broken? That the fruit they and their families pick might be unaffordable to them in the stores? That because their coworkers often have no legal right to be in this country and they won’t either once harvest season ends, ICE agents might pay a visit to their cluster of migrant housing? They called them “picker shacks” here in the Gorge. I’ve seen a few off the highway through the veil of trees. Laboring hands, mostly migrant, stained black from cherry juice, might slip from a ladder. Sustained injuries will not be met with workplace compensation or healthcare—what will be their occupation then? Maybe once they heal they can work in one of the massive distribution plants sorting the near-perfect fruit from the majority of blemished fruit. An injured person might still be able to repair the massive fruit crates in which the fruit is shipped across the United States while stomachs remain grumbling in the Gorge.
My grandfather, who proudly identifies as Mexican, wrote me a letter that began accordingly:
It was surprising and thrilling to hear from you. I am sure my prayers have been answered. It is just wonderful that you are living amongst Mexicans. It makes you feel at home…
I know my grandfather meant well and was truly delighted to read how I was gardening, picking fruit, and speaking Spanish. He used to practice with me when I began taking classes in high school. He meant no harm or further messaging in his use of the word “amongst,” but I found myself fixated on his use of it instead of “with.” What does it mean to me to be Mexican? Am I clinging to some ethnic identity from which I’m far removed and for which I suffer no adversity? I was living amongst, in the company of, Mexican people and other Latinx groups in the valley. I will always speak Spanish as a second language with a heavy American accent. I will never work in agriculture for lack of opportunity, but will garden or farm with privilege. I will never have to worry that my house will be knocked on by ICE agents looking for a relative to take away for deportation. Should I have children, I will never suffer a miscarriage due to pesticide exposure while picking fruit. I won’t suffer sexual harassment at exorbitant rates between rows of trees. I will never be regarded with suspicion by fellow Americans for taking their scholarships, social assistance programs, or education funding. I am privileged by chance, by my birthplace.
Even my mother, a second generation Mexican, told me when I asked what it meant to be Mexican, “I kind of consider myself white. I’m American. People don’t think I’m Mexican because I’m not dark. Teachers discriminated against me when I was young because of my name, Mendoza. I worry about your brother and my brothers and sisters. They’re dark. But undocumented kids getting scholarships over my kids? At least they’re getting an education at our schools.”
They are getting an education at our schools. I listened to my mother without much response. Is she not entitled to her own complex feelings on identity? I wept, knowing many migrant children go without formal education. Some travel with their parents from harvest to harvest around the country like the fruit from the valley is shipped, commodities in an economy that demands cheap fruit and cheaper labor without regard for human or environmental cost. We are the product of a society that pits groups, even people within what might appear at surface level to be a cohesive group, against one another so that power structures remain firmly in place. Anyone who shops at a grocery store is complicit.
Ultimately, being of Mexican heritage has afforded me nothing but goodness. My mother brought me up with homemade tortillas and perfectly spiced chilé and love. My grandfather taught me compassion for others when he shared his stories of prejudice from being a dark-skinned Mendoza. I returned home from Oregon to Chicago for Christmas, where my family ate tamales and drank tequila. I left the valley with memories of its beauty and people, too homesick, too eager to start graduate school to stay longer than the volunteer year. I am free to move safely in this country, free from border patrol and ICE and suspicion. I am welcome in this nation rife with fear and scapegoating. I had no say over the color of my skin or eyes, but still I benefit from their lightness.
My grandfather’s letter functioned as a reminder to find joy. If I wanted to live with, as opposed to amongst, I might have tried to feel the love and laughter. I might continue to educate myself and others, but the soil there was already saturated with so many chemicals; I shouldn’t have asked the earth to absorb my tears. Crying cannot change the fact that the life of a farmworker ends, on average, at 49 years old. Reverencing our fellow humans’ struggles is imperative if we hope to change the fact that children learn and play within feet of chemical-sprayed orchards. Countless other migrant and immigrant communities face similar circumstances, the differences being crop and location. Yet, accepting the pots of steaming rice and beans presented at my door by a neighbor was as much an act of solidarity as advocacy or year of service. To be truly with my neighbors is to share in all aspects of life, sorrows and joys alike. To be truly with my neighbors is to listen to the laughter and playful stories of chatting between trees to make the work day go by. Despite the vast differences in our American experience, my life briefly ran parallel to those living in the valley between Mt. Hood and the Columbia River.
With the cloudy gray skies of the Pacific Northwest there to stay well through spring, and the leaves all fallen from the fruit trees’ knotted branches, many migrant workers left to live in picker shacks dotting the land in other parts of the country where food is grown. Some of the workers remained to prune trees standing exposed in the gray perma-fog. Their ladders laid against the side of naked trees standing in straight rows. In winter, there were not blossoms or leaf canopies to hide the force behind our fruit. The splendorous mountains hid deep in the clouds and the fruit was all picked. Workers trimmed trees in plain sight until the first snowfall coated the Fruit Loop and brought another wave of tourists drawn to winter recreation. Trees may go dormant, but the struggle for farmworkers’ rights extends long beyond each harvest season. The misty air made for a spongy soil. My boots sunk deep into the rain-soaked earth with each step. I ran my hand on the mossy bark of a pear tree and hoped against hope that compassion might spread, that human dignity for those who feed us might reign. A lone pear hung from the gnarled branches, lusciously green and coated in raindrops. I plucked it and bit it, surveying the trees in their orderly rows, thinking I’d never stood in a place so exquisite.