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Book details heartbreak, pride of migrant workers
'With These Hands:
The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today'
by Daniel Rothenberg
Web posted on: Friday, November 20, 1998 3:25:33 PM EST
(CNN) -- This work presents the world of migrant farmworkers as a complex social and economic system, a network of intertwined lives. The book includes the voices of the growers, farm labor contractors, union organizers, government investigators, coyotes, doctors, teachers, and workers' families living in other countries. This book presents the complex world of migrant farmworkers in vivid and human language.
Each year, over 1 million migrant farmworkers and their families
labor in America's fields and orchards. They stoop among long
rows of vegetables, filling buckets with produce under the stark heat
of the summer sun and the bitter cold of late autumn. They climb ladders
in orchards, piling fruit into sacks slung across their shoulders.
They prune vines, tie plants, remove weeds, sort, pack, spray, clean,
and irrigate. They travel across the nation, drifting from one field to
another, crossing state lines and international borders. Farmworkers
labor in every region of the country, wherever there are fields to be
planted, tended, or harvested -- in isolated rural communities, within
the shadows of great cities, scattered among suburban tracts.
I Earned That Name
Few Americans know much about the world of farmworkers -- their
struggles, their travels, the key role they play in our lives. Farmworkers
provide the hand labor necessary to produce and harvest the
fruits and vegetables we eat, and in this sense, they are bound to
every consumer in a direct, almost visceral manner. Every orange,
peach, tomato, or watermelon we purchase was handpicked by a
farmworker. Every pepper, apple, head of lettuce, or bunch of
grapes -- pulled from the earth, plucked from a bush, or picked from
a tree -- was harvested by a farm laborer, a member of the poorest
and most disadvantaged class of American workers.
Each year, migrant farmworkers fan out across the nation, traveling
the country in a collection of old cars, buses, vans, and trucks.
They pass through thousands of communities, finding temporary
homes in labor camps, trailers, or cheap motels, sometimes sleeping
by the side of the road, under bridges, or in the fields and orchards
where they work. Every year, the $28 billion fruit-and-vegetable
industry spurs the mass movement of workers and their families.
They arrive where they're needed, guided to the fields by intermediaries
and informal networks, by necessity and, at times, desperation.
James "Shorty" Spencer Jr. Angier, North Carolina
It's Sunday afternoon at the height of the tobacco season. The
sky is clear and the sun, though low in the sky, still shines brightly.
The air is beginning to cool and there is a lazy, relaxed mood to the
labor camp. Workers lounge around, talking, sitting under trees,
watching television, sleeping, and drinking.
James "Shorty" Spencer has been up since the early morning. Instead
of resting, he went to a nearby pond, returning to the camp
with a bucketful of small, silvery fish. Spencer has just finished
cleaning and scaling the fish, covering the finger-sized filets with aluminum
foil. A dog passes by, snapping up the insides of the fish from
the ground by Shorty's chair. There are flies everywhere.
Spencer is a small, dark, wiry man. He has a thin goatee and
wears an oversize baseball cap. He gestures wildly while he talks,
making picking motions with his hands, pausing dramatically, and
grinning. Spencer ran away from home when he was ten years old.
Since then, he has spent his whole life working in the fields, spending
the winter months in Florida and traveling up the East Coast
from early spring through late fall. Spencer moves from one crew to
another, living almost exclusively in labor camps. He is now forty-one.
Spencer has no mailing address and no set home.
I am a real migrant worker. I earned that name. I been knocked down
with the bruise. I been kicked down with the bumps. I fell a lot. I rolled.
Yes, I stumbled. I got my little nose scarred up. I got knocked in the
But, I didn't steal, see. For a workingman, the money you earn is good
money. Just going out and pulling a gun sounds good. You sure can get a
Cadillac in one walk. "Let's hit this store." Boom, bam! But, it ain't
no good. Once you learn that pulling a gun ain't good, there's nothing for you
to do but to get your hands in order. Fast hands -- quick on pulling leaves,
quick on picking oranges, quick on cutting cabbages, quick on picking
bell peppers, fast on peaches, superfast when it comes to the potatoes.
Just make those hands real slow when it come to stealing. Let your
hands be quick on getting it right. Don't let them be quick on getting it
wrong. That's all you got to pray to God for. He'll hear you.
You see, I got all the right licks and all the right moves because I am
a real migrant worker. Around here, when I'm stripping tobacco, they call
me the Bear. I stick my hand in the bush, and whap, I got all these
leaves. Say you got twenty-seven stalks of tobacco on this bush. Twenty-seven
stalks. A little bitty hand like this here won't get it all, will it? Can't hold
it. Ain't no way. Well, I go down about eight here -- ktch, ktch -- eight
here -- ktch, ktch -- eight here -- ktch, ktch -- get the three out the
top; I got twenty-seven. With the move I show, you get all of 'em in one wipe. I
got all these leaves in my hand and I am proud to step back from the stalk -- because
I am a real migrant worker.
Suppose I wasn't no migrant worker? I'd be tired. I'd be bushed out.
I'd be blowing out my breath. With the move I showed you -- when you hit
it rushin' -- your arms be full of tobacco. See what I'm saying?
I bet you not an exercise person you know could sand lug all day. Sand
lugging is when you get the four leaves off the bottom of the tobacco
plant. You don't touch no more leaves, just the four off the bottom. If you
can do that there for eight or ten hours, then you's a good one.
Potatoes? If you can run to that truck every fifteen minutes with
about seventy-five pounds of potatoes, then you's a good one. Cutting cabbages?
If you can pick that cabbage up and sling it at that truck while the
wagon's moving, I tell you, you's a good one. Orange picker? You reach out
there and snatch your orange, grab the limb and shake it down to the
ground, and fill that bag up in fifteen minutes, you's a good one. That's
when you could name yourself a real migrant worker.
Now, Bo Jackson can't deal with no migrant worker. Could Bo Jackson
crop tobacco in a-hundred-and-five-degree weather? Carl Lewis can't
deal with no migrant worker. Tony Atlas? I look at that man. I sit down
and analyze him. He got all the muscles in the world, but with all the
muscles he got, he can't deal with no watermelon thrower. There's no
way. I mean it ain't for him. Arnold Schwarzenegger? I'd like to see him
run from six o'clock in the morning till seven o'clock at night with a
bucket of potatoes on his back. He can't do it. There's no way. Now, he
could probably pick me up with one hand, couldn't he? But he couldn't
tote that many buckets of potatoes 'cause he ain't no migrant worker.
See, Jesus Christ work in mysterious ways and once he plant that
seed in your head, then you is you. You got that thing. You can't be nobody
else. That's why this name, migrant worker, stands tall.
Man, I've been in the migrant stream for thirty years. I done did it all,
all kinds of work. I look straight at migrant work. It don't make no difference
what situation we in. Sometimes, the sun is too hot -- ooh, God is
shootin' that heater down on there, ain't he? Well, the heat might beat you
about twelve noon, but then Jack Frost might come out there and hit you
in the head with a bat at five. Now, Jack Frost don't play. I've picked potatoes
when it's been so cold that I was scared my hand was gonna come off.
You've got to judge yourself. Do you need a pair of shoes this week?
Better get you about four or five buckets of potatoes. Do you need something
to keep Jack Frost from really knocking you down? Better give me
ten, eleven more buckets. It's just a mind game that God's got on this
earth. I'm telling you the truth. If you don't believe in God, if you don't
believe in Jesus, the season ain't friendly. Every night I go in there and
lay down on my bed, I pray to God, "Don't let me forget to tell you thanks
and tell my father to please remember me." I never forget them words.
If a man want to be a man, he better hurry up and make up his mind.
If he wants to live as a migrant, he's got a bucket to carry. And in that
bucket, he has his own soul. The bucket that he's totin' holds his soul
and it's bad when Jesus Christ look at you and tell you to get out of his
line. Good friend I hope you been to all the people in your life -- you know
that your mama like you, your daddy like you, your sister adore you, your
granddaddy wouldn't give you nothin' but a helpin' hand -- still, you got to
have a honest heart.
You see, I'd rather be on one of these camps than in the city. In the
city, you got to seem all cool, calm, and slick. The city is a sink machine,
a big machine that just carries you straight down there to the bottom,
nonstop. Sink you straight up under that ground. The city -- that unendurable
monster -- don't care nothin' about my heart, your heart, or our
neighbor's heart. Now, on a labor camp, you can find peace within you. I'm
a honest man. I want a honest day's work.
I've seen a great lot of change in all these years. Now, the boss men
will put up with a lot of stuff that boss men in those years would never
put up with. You know, back in the time when I first started comin' on the.
season, people were killing people. Killin' 'em. Beating 'em up, knockin'
their eyes out, stompin' down on 'em like a fly. Ooh, Lord, I been on
camps where you couldn't even try to go to town. They hit you, kick you,
stick dogs on you, scare you. I've seen some bad incidents and bad accidents,
and stuff like that is really bad, let me tell you. It's pitiful, man, really
pitiful. It creates a pressure on everything. Man, there's a lot of dead
that people don't know nothin' about. If you go down and dig deep around
these camps, you'll see you some souls still screaming for justice.
Man, I'm telling you the God's heaven truth. I have seen the time it
didn't matter if your tongue was hanging out of your mouth, you better
not go and get no water. You better not even play like you want some
water, 'cause one of them henchmen gonna smack you -- "Ain't nobody
tell you to come over here and get no water, nigger." They kick you, beat
you, knock your eyes out of your head.
Now, it's no problem. Now, I can get some water. Now, if I get tired
and don't feel like I want to work no more, I go in. Now, you can talk to
them and they talk to you with kindness. Now, if anything happen to you,
all you gotta do is run to the labor board. Labor board is pleasing to a migrant
worker. It helps you. Labor board helps to keep your working mentality.
Is it better now? Super better.
You can tell a bad crewleader from a gem very quickly. A bad
crewleader don't have time for you. A bad crewleader insults you. He'll
lash out with dumbness. Some of them scare me with their idea of greediness.
I wouldn't want to be no crewleader. It's dangerous. The
crewleader has to think for all the people, see. He can't have one mind,
he got to have all the minds. A migrant worker is nine thousand times
freer than a crewleader.
Me? I'm working just to keep living in life. I know that. That's what
migrant work is really about. I ain't got to worry about no hotel or motel.
I know people that won't even stay in the missions. They'd rather sleep
out in a field, or in a cock house, because they don't like orders -- "You do
this. You do that. Pick up that shirt. Go there and eat." They just don't
like it. They too independent.
I like moving around. I like traveling. I plan to keep doing this till the
day I die. Right now, I have fun. Oh, man, there ain't nothin' to it. But,
when a migrant worker get old -- forty, forty-five, maybe fifty years old -- he
have to hope that God give him that little extra burst, you know?
There gonna be a day come when I ain't going to be able to really go get it,
you know? That's why I pray. I pray to Jesus Christ every night that I'll
just keep on livin' and stay in that migrant stream.
A migrant worker ain't got no staying place. He'll move on. You know,
if I found a sack of money, I still be trying to go to work today. I'd be
doing something, not just standin' still. It just ain't me to sit around. Still,
I can't buy my own house. I ain't got no car. I ain't got no wife. I ain't got
no children. Wherever I go at, I go for that moment, then it's gone. Just
like with the sea.
Last night, I met a girl. If I had been a stable man with my own
house and land, I could have took her and she would have never escaped
my eyesight as long as God lived. But knowing I ain't able to do those
things, I got to show my love at that moment, by passing with my heart
and letting go. I might see this little girl again before I go, but if I don't,
it's not going to hurt me that bad, because it passes, like with the sea.
You know, everything come and go like that.
I hate to see the tobacco go.
I hate to see the potato go.
I love the moonlight.
There are currently over 1.5 million seasonal farmworkers in the
United States, laborers whose employment shifts with the changing
demands of planting, tending, and harvesting our nation's crops.
These workers have over 2 million dependents, most of whom are children,
bringing the nation's total population of seasonal farmworkers
and their families to over 3.5 million. Migrant farmworkers are those
seasonal farm laborers who travel from one place to another to earn a
living in agriculture. There are 700,000 migrant farmworkers in the
United States, who are accompanied by 300,000 children and 100,000
adult dependents, bringing the country's total population of migrant
farmworkers and their families to over 1 million.
Migrant farmworkers have special needs related to their continual
movement, dislocation, and status as outsiders in the communities
where they work. When arriving in a new community, migrant
workers must find temporary housing, either in labor camps provided
by their employers or in short-term rental housing. If they
don't have their own vehicles, migrants need to find ways of getting
from one place to another, from their temporary homes to the fields,
to stores, from one harvest to another. Since migrant farmworkers
have extremely limited resources and few contacts in the communities
they pass through, they rely upon intermediaries and informal networks
in order to survive. In this way, migrant workers are socially
invisible; they play a crucial role in the local economies where they
labor, yet their struggles are generally hidden from view.
Seasonal farmworkers are the poorest laborers in the United
States, earning an average of $6,500 each year. Farmworkers who migrate
are poorer than settled seasonal laborers, with migrants earning
$5,000 per year. The most vulnerable migrant workers, such as
those laboring for farm labor contractors in eastern states, earn average
annual wages as low as $3,500. Although migrant families commonly
pool the wages of several workers, two-thirds of our nation's
migrant households and 70 percent of migrant children live below the
Farmworkers' life expectancies are lower than that of most Americans
and infant mortality among farmworker children is double the
national average. Physicians treating farmworkers generally compare
their health to that of residents of the developing world. Farm-workers
suffer from chronic infections, advanced untreated diseases,
and numerous problems resulting from limited access to medical
care. Farmwork is the second most dangerous job in the nation.
Workplace accidents, many of which involve children, are common,
and farm labor has the nation's highest incidence of workplace fatalities
and disabling injuries.
Most farmworkers are men, although many women also labor in
the fields. Farmworker families often work together, with children laboring
beside their parents and eventually becoming key contributors
to the family's survival. Forty percent of migrant children work
in the fields. Farmworker families often have difficulty balancing the
economic demands of farm labor with their children's education. In
general, farmworker children do poorly in school. Fifty percent of
migrant children fall below national scholastic averages as early as
the first grade and the majority never graduate high school.
Seasonal farm labor draws workers from a variety of backgrounds
and ethnic groups. Currently, three out of every ten seasonal
farmworkers were born in the United States, a diverse mix of Latinos,
African Americans, whites, and Native Americans. The remaining
70 percent of the nation's farmworkers are immigrants. The vast
majority of immigrant farmworkers -- over 90 percent -- are from
Mexico. Other immigrants come from Central America, particularly
Guatemala or El Salvador, or Caribbean nations such as Haiti or Jamaica.
A small percentage of farmworkers are from Asian countries
such as the Philippines, Laos, and Vietnam.
Farmworkers born in the United States generally hold more-stable,
higher-wage positions, while the less-appealing jobs are filled
with recent immigrants, who are virtually all minorities. These immigrants
generally have low levels of formal education and often speak
little to no English. Nationally, it is believed that at least one in four
migrants lacks working papers, although the percentage of undocumented
workers in many regions is far higher. Over the last thirty
years, immigrant farmworkers have steadily displaced domestic laborers,
even in regions such as the southeast that have long been
dominated by African American crews. Our nation's farm laborers
are increasingly young, male, Mexican-born immigrants.
Copyright © 1998 Daniel Rothenberg.
All rights reserved.