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A Hispanic Stanford grad goes undercover in Central CA as a migrant farm worker. (approx. 3600 words)


Submitted:Jun 29, 2012    Reads: 24    Comments: 2    Likes: 1   


Beaner

"Una cervaza por favor."

The bartender turned without a word and pulled a beer from an iced compartment below the bar, uncapped it with one swift move and slid it in front of me.

"Two bucks."

"Como?"

"Come on beaner, you heard me, dos dolares."

I reached for my wallet, plucked a five dollar bill from it and slowly slid it toward him. He rang it up and just as slowly slid the three dollars in change back to me. I glared at him from behind my Ray Bans and watched him watch me carefully fold the bills and put them in my breast pocket. Tip THIS, Gringo asshole.

He had no idea that I could speak English better than he could. For that matter, the table of fellow fruit pickers I was returning to had no clue either. It was one of many secrets I was holding close to my vest as I went through the demeaning experience of being an undocumented farm worker with no rights and no real avenue to earn any.

I looked the part. Long sleeved plaid shirt, dirty jeans, scuffed boots two sizes too big, and the straw hat ubiquitous in the fields on both us fruit grunts and the boss men. They knew me as Louis.

My Spanish was flawless as well, and traveling in both worlds for most of my adult life had given me a decided advantage, which I took whenever it proved worthwhile.

I could affect a swarthy, northern Italy look when I did not want to be immediately catalogued as wetback. And I could, as I did now, look completely convincing as a migrant farm worker whose only interest was a mattress, money to send home, and cold beer once the whistle blew at 3pm each afternoon, soaked with sweat from the triple digit temperature here in the central valley of California.

My Stanford pedigree would hold little water, if they knew, with these salt of the earth men who grin at me as I sit back down at our large round table. There are 8 of us. They are drinking pitchers of the cheapest beer, while I have opted for bottled beer. I run the risk of raising suspicion with this gesture, but I simply can't drink that swill.

Only in knowing that this was a temporary assignment, an infiltration that might shed some positive light on the whole immigration issue surfing across America, could I put up with this life style. It truly is no way for anyone to make a living. And when white America rises in mock outrage at these men taking jobs from good old white boys, I want to puke. I've been doing this for over 3 months, and not only have I not seen a single gringo climbing these ladders and partaking of this backbreaking work, the guy across the table, Hector with the broad shoulders and bandito mustache, who's been doing this for 21 years, has NEVER seen one.

The conversation rarely ventures further than work or women. Of the two, I'd prefer to talk about work only because I need the background data for my project.

My project? Well, it began as a possible assignment financed by the government to find out what, exactly, the life of the average migrant worker was like. But the more I communicated, via email, back and forth with the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) representative responsible for getting this project off the ground, I began to sense he didn't really want the truth, just a glossed over version so he could go back to his superiors with something.

So, after telling him to kiss my UPS brown ass, accompanied by an attachment of a picture of my UPS brown ass, I decided to go it alone, fund my own effort, and turn it into a book. I had my dad's blessing.

I didn't really need the money. My old man, also a Stanford alum, had made a killing before the Dot.com bubble burst at the tail end of Clinton's stint in the White House, and had settled quite comfortably about 2 miles from campus in Palo Alto, in a subdued little neighborhood with his one acre piece of land and semi-palatial estate. I was raised in a household where both the exterior and interior of the house were maintained by brown people. Dad made sure not a sliver of elitism ever crept into my outlook on our fellow Hispanics.

He'd chuckled when I told him of my plans, ribbing me about "going from The Farm (Stanford's quaint nickname for the sprawling campus) to the farm.

So this self-appointed journey would not prove too demeaning. Anybody who graduates with honors from Stanford as I did knows the benefits of hard work. This type of effort simply involved more sweat.

I was hired on about six weeks ago, and endured the fraternity-like hazing period these rough-hewn men put any new member through. I survived. Identity secure as 'one of them'.

I've even grown used to the almost ridiculous Mariachi music that blares out of Hector's alarm clock-radio each morning at 4:30am, signaling the start to another day. Hector owned a four bedroom house, semi-dilapidated, but nonetheless inhabited by anywhere from 12 to 15 men each night. The hygiene of both the house and men was dubious at best, and this often proved to be my toughest hurdle. My mom (and her brown helpers) ran a tidy household, with bedsheets changed twice a week, toilets cleaned DAILY, and floors swept and mopped every Wednesday and Saturday. Vacuuming, of course, was done every other day.

In this house, the toilets backing up was almost as regular as Hector's alarm clock. Bedsheets were scarce and never clean, the floors were our beds, save for an unconstitutionally thin mattress which smelled faintly of urine (not mine), and our refrigerator was inhabited by more roaches than Cervazas.

In other words, it was similar to my Frat days at Stanford.

So I adjusted, if not quite seamlessly, at least by deciding to suffer in silence. Bitching and whining rarely improved anything.

Once a week, I'd gotten into the habit of defumigating the refrigerator. I'd given up my daily verbal threats of defenestration to the roaches. They would scuttle away smugly secure in there indefatigable existence. They were so ubiquitous; I'd even started to step over them as opposed to crunching them underfoot. It was their house too. They were interlopers, just like I was.

Our days would start with a depressing ride, all of us crammed into a dingy, backfiring step van that would drop us at whatever field needed tending that day. We'd disembark, looking like sleepless zombies, stretching, yawning, and trying not to smell each other. Jokes of a decidedly non-sophisticated flavor were offered up as an attempt to make light of the fact that it was not yet light. Anyone with a particularly dark hue of cordovan skin was always encouraged to smile so we could find them. We often would start using weakly-powered flashlights. We all were ambivalent about the coming light, because with the sun would come the heat.

There was usually a boss man present, sometimes two, so slacking wasn't really an option. I saw a couple of guys try to sneak a cat nap under a cherry tree once, and they were simply fired on the spot, with the boss man gunning the engine of his shiny new Dodge Ram pickup out the dirt road and turning toward town, clearly intent on getting two replacement workers within minutes. He'd usually succeed.

This was a rare occurrence, however. The brown work ethic, especially among its lower classes, puts the American lower class work ethic to shame. There is simply no comparison whatsoever.

I began to feel a kinship with these men. I was fascinated by the weekly trips each Friday on payday to the local post office, where their cash was bundled up, stuffed in a manila envelope and mailed back across the border. Sure, they would palm off enough money for beer and the habitual late night taco or burrito from the elongated step vans that cruised the streets at all hours of this little agriculture town, but their loyalty to family back in the homeland was admirable and touching. I went through the motions, performing the same perfunctory task, making sure no one saw the Palo Alto address on my envelope. I know mom and dad were giggling every time they opened one of these envelopes and pulled out the grimy, wrinkled and often torn tens and twenties, dad thinking 'time to restock the bar', and mom grinning and probably singing out loud, 'baby needs a new pair of shoes'.

The few times I tried to engage one of my colleagues in talk of their future, other than Hector, no one was looking beyond the next day.

Hector was the kind of guy I would find interesting no matter where I encountered him. He was dumb like a fox, keeping his shrewdness under wraps except to the very astute observer. I recognized his duplicitousness because I was practicing my own form of it.

One night, nursing night cap beers on his peeling front porch, two ready-for-the-bon-fire wicker chairs barely supporting our listing bodies in the late night, still 80 degree temperature, I asked him what his ultimate goal was.

He looked quizzically at me, took a final pull on his can, crunched it in his meaty fist, and tossed it into the front yard. Then he grunted.

When he spoke, he spoke English to me for the first time. I was stunned, but tried to hide it.

"Gringo, what the fuck you mean 'goal'?"

I watched him in the darkness, looking straight ahead.

"I'm no gringo," I said in Spanish.

He laughed, got up and went into the house. Appearing moments later with two more beers. I nodded and took the one he handed to me.

"Shit homegrown, you about as wetback as Geraldo Rivera. You ain't fooled me from the very beginning."

I popped the top on my beer and took a long drink. Buying time.

If he knew all this time, and had chosen not to reveal me, there was no reason now for him to have changed his mind.

I spoke English.

"You got me. But I ain't no Gringo."

Again he laughed. "I know that. I ain't blind. But you ain't no farm worker, Holmes. Where you go to school? Up north?"

"Stanford."

He grinned and nodded knowingly. "Ah, The Farm. And now you are literally on the farm. Why?"

"It's complicated, Hector."

"Take it slow for me then. No sesquipedalians, ok, Hombre?"

Astonished, I looked at him, a huge grin spreading on my face like spilled wine.

His baleful stare was softened somewhat by a toothy grin and bright eyes. "Cal, class of '82. We beat your soft white asses in the Big Game 3 out of the 4 years I was there. The AXE was practically enrolled at Cal, hombre. Go Bears."

I laughed. "Class of 2001. We won the AXE all four years I was there. The AXE was enrolled. Cardinal Rules."

"You still ain't told me your gig? What the fuck you doing here?"

"Can I trust a Cal grad?"

"Absolutely not." He could slip back and forth between his pigeon English and perfect enunciation of the King's English effortlessly.

"I'll risk it. I'm researching for a book I'm going to write. About this whole experience, from the migrant worker's perspective."

"Ain't Cesar Chavez done that years ago?"

"Ain't things changed?"

"Not really," he said, pulling on his beer. "But don't worry Geraldo, your secret's safe with me. I'll even help you, if I can."

I put my palm out and he slapped it lightly, a soggy pop emanating from our sweaty hands.

He looked straight at me and said, "Did you really sweep us all four years?"

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

The shaky alliance forged with Hector held up over the next few months. I gave him no reason to question my commitment and even stepped in and helped him quell a one-man uprising when one of the workers got in his face and questioned his authority, which was simply unacceptable protocol in the fields.

It was on the verge of getting physical when I steered the obviously upset worker away, speaking softly to him in Spanish. I knew he had five kids back in Oaxaca who needed every single penny he sent south, and gently reminded him over and over how much he needed this job, and how easily he could be replaced. I'd seen before what a poor career move it was to get on Hector's bad side. His status was, of course, unofficial, but his seniority was rarely if ever questioned among his peers. And Hector knew he had the total support of the boss man. You don't survive 21 years in this business without knowing how, when and where to butter your bread.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

One of the more astounding aspects of this way of life was how rarely any of these men got hurt. And when the rare injury occurred, the boss man himself always took complete control. He had a local doctor on his payroll, and things would be taken care of quietly, efficiently, and with a cash transaction that would be the only necessary 'paper' work. It was quite an effective system, for lack of a better word, and I was continually amazed at how this entire industry was allowed to fly beneath the nit-picking government radar. The stealth under which they operated could not have been accomplished without at least tacit approval from the government. 'Looking the other way' was the catchphrase of almost every day on the job. Sure, state, county and even city inspectors would occasionally pull up to the job in their government-issued 4 cylinder little trucks. They would climb out, their self-important smug grins firmly in place.

Our boss man was a Sikh named Singh. A tall, lanky turbaned man who'd nurtured a trusting kinesis with Hector over the years, watching it evolve into a symbiotic relationship that worked amazingly well for both men. He carried lots of cash, for obvious reasons, and the brazen nature in which he would hand over a fistful of Benjamins to these greasy inspectors let everyone know how things worked.

As long as Hector kept us in tow, on time, not goofing off, Singh was happy. He even left the job site once in a while, trusting Hector to maintain his status with the workers as 'in charge' without official presence or endorsement from the boss.

Hector had warmed even further to me after I'd helped put out the fire with the angry worker. He made sure I got the freshest, coolest water jug near me at all times, and would often whisper things like "Bartkowski was better than Elway" when he walked behind me down an aisle of fruit trees.

Of course, it wouldn't be prudent to fire back at that point, but we'd often end up on the porch at evening's end, and then I would let him have it.

"Isn't Bartkowski dead? While Elway sits at home polishing two Super Bowl trophies?"

To which he'd respond, barely able to hide his exasperation, "Elway LOST 3 Super Bowls before Terrell Davis carried his ass to the last two. You Stanford fucks have very short memories."

Laughing, I'd inevitably come back with, "You know how you can tell a Cal grad? He's the one who picks his nose to make sure you see his ring."

And he'd riposte with "Stanford grads are so cheap they sew rubber pockets into their jackets so they can steal soup."

Two college grads living in a house full of men who never got past the 4th grade.

I don't think I'd have been able to finish my planned six month tour of duty had it not been for those nights on the porch, the littered front yard bathed in such a bright swath of moonlight that we could read the labels on the discarded beer cans.

It kept me sane.

One night, as my exit was approaching, I told him I would be leaving soon.

"You got enough material, Steinbeck?"

"I believe I do. And I don't think I could have stuck it out without you, Pancho." I held my hand out; he hesitated, and then shook it.

I looked at him, holding his gaze.

"What?" he blurted out.

"Sesquipedalians?"

And we laughed loud and long. A winner's laugh. Little did I know we would become life-long friends.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

One Year Later

The sonorous bong of my parent's door bell reverberated in the open air foyer. I crossed the Mexican tile floor and opened the door.

"Steinbeck! Or is it still Geraldo? Que pasa, Amigo?"

It was Hector, looking not at all like a cherry picker. He wore a charcoal grey pinstriped double breasted suit, colorful red and black polka dotted tie secured with Windsor knot, light grey show hanky arching boldly out of his breast pocket, and he stepped into the house while gripping my outstretched hand shod in pointed-toe shiny black snakeskin boots. His homage, apparently, to his earthier roots. Or maybe he hated snakes.

"Good to see you, Joe Kapp," I bellowed, grinning and pumping his hand.

"Nice, getting Mexican AND Cal into the reference. I drove my jeep with my Cal license plate frame on it. I thought for sure some pussy Palo Alto cop would pull me over and do a body cavity search."

"You sound disappointed."

He grinned, "Fuck you, Elway. It makes me nauseous just to be in this town. Trees, white people, red everywhere. Kinda how I pictured hell."

"Come on in, Pancho. My folks have been looking forward to meeting you. They want to interview you. Our gardener quit last week."

He laughed, throwing his head back. He was carrying a handled paper bag with the Mollie Stone's label on the side.

I couldn't resist. "How many of Mollie's security detail followed you up and down the aisles?"

"All of 'em. I felt like Juanito Appleseed."

I lead him down the hall toward the study which lead to the back porch, then through it to where mom and dad were ensconced in cushy lounge chairs, martinis in hand, waiting on our guest.

I slid the screen door open and ushered Hector through. He set the bag down and immediately lapsed into his King's English, greeting my folks effusively.

When he was finally seated, I went behind the small bamboo bar and made two martinis of our own. I had briefed my parents on Hector.

As I sat down next to him, he took the proffered drink, tipped it toward me and we touched rims.

He sighed, leaned back and said, "Not bad for a Stanford grad," as he spread his left hand out in front of him, surveying the meticulously landscaped backyard.

My dad didn't skip a beat. "Try to keep your hands off the Peach trees, ok, Pancho?"

"Why do you guys call me Pancho?"

"It always seemed to fit," I answered. "Hector is so 'Bronx Puerto Rican'." My dad nodded.

"Well, I have a confession to make. It's my real name. Hector is, shall we say, a stage name. Pancho Rodriguez is what it says on my birth certificate."

I couldn't stop laughing. "I got my own confession. My name isn't Louis. My real name is actually Geraldo, like you call me about half the time."

"No shit?"

"No shit."

Even my mom laughed.

So much for awkward introductions.

--------------------------------------------------

Things had moved quite quickly once I returned home from my six month tour of duty slogging through the war torn orchards of Fresno.

Writing the book proved much easier than I'd anticipated, and my publisher was elated with my first draft. A quick edit, an even quicker second draft cranked out by me, and to press it went. We agreed on the title of "Mud, Sweat and Beers".

This past week it debuted on the New York Times bestseller list at #8. Hector was elated when I called him and told him, inviting him up for the celebration my parents insisted on throwing for us.

After couple of late night sessions with my dad in his study, I'd arrived at a plan to help Hector relocate back to the Bay Area.

Through his many connections, dad was able to secure a position as foreman at a trucking warehouse in Newark. It paid well, benefits were terrific, especially considering Hector had never had benefits in his life, and he would be on the Cal side of the bay.

I planned on talking to him about it this weekend.

What I wasn't prepared for was his news that he was already moving back to the Bay Area. Hector had no family in Mexico and thus had been saving his money all these years, in a high interest savings account in a Fresno bank. Part of his trip up to see me was to engage me in a house hunting junket.

Once he laid this on me, as we walked around the quiet neighborhood of tree-lined streets, I told him about the job.

He stopped and stared at me. His jaw literally dropping, he backed up a full step.

"I do not need charity, Geraldo."

"It's not charity. It's payment for your help. I couldn't have done the book without you."

"Bullshit."

"Does that mean you don't want the job?"

"Hell no! Of course I want the job." He was grinning like Obama before any of the McCain debates.

"Then stop the faux Berkeley liberal whining, you defensive bastard. Let's go back. We'll toast to your return to God's country."

"Yes, we will do that indeed."

Then.

"What, your old man couldn't hook me up with a job at Stanford?"

THE END





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