Valley Voices

Mexican workers drawn to harvest California crops despite hardships and talk of a wall

Fresno Bee file

There’s a stretch of Highway 99 in the middle of California where the new plantings of almonds at last give way to vineyards. This is where Selma, raisin capital of the world, still lives and dies by the grape. When the berries sugar up fast, as they have this year, harvest comes early.

The season finds the farmer at his most sour, contemplating an age-old question: Can enough workers be rounded up to pick the crop? He knows from empirical evidence that few citizens of the United States are willing to do the work. He knows that Selma’s salvation lies across the border.

When a grape grower plows under his father’s vines and plants almonds, he doesn’t speak of heartache or profit or pests or the need to save water. The reason, he’ll plainly tell you, is labor. A nut doesn’t require a hand to pick it. Because a machine does all the work, nothing bleeds in an almond orchard. The grape harvest, on the other hand, remains a race against rot: man against sky, man against fruit, man against man.

My father’s father, Aram, used to tell me how brutally the sun in the San Joaquin Valley beat down on a man who had lost his country. He had come from Istanbul in the summer of 1920 on the word of his uncle who swore that the grapes in this new land were the size of jade eggs. The uncle had lost his wife and two children in the Armenian genocide and had no one. He picked up my grandfather at the train station in Fresno, drove him to a vineyard in Weedpatch and when that first harvest was done told him he wished the train would have dropped off a sack of potatoes instead. My grandfather joined a legion of fruit tramps – Volga Germans, Japanese, Filipinos and Sikhs – who threw their fates to the fields.

By the time he bought his own 20 acres of grapes to lay in the sun to make raisins, the leafhoppers were plenty and the farmhands few. Only one country could still be counted on to send a steady supply of its most desperate to pick the crop. It’s been the same for the better part of a century. Every day in August, in the still dark of morning, the men and women from rural Mexico, curved blade in hand, fill up the vineyards on both sides of Highway 99. That they come without legal documents, with a smuggler’s debt hanging over their heads, is the shame we try to bury.

Growing up, I learned that a quarter of the food in the American diet came from our fields. How that food moved from earth to table wasn’t something we were taught. At Malloch Elementary, I threw touchdown passes to a new kid named Jorge Alvarez who showed up a month late for the sixth grade. He knew enough words of English to understand my play-calling. Streak left. Streak right. Man, he could fly. He was here and gone in a season.

The men and women who planted, irrigated, sprayed and picked our crops remained phantoms. The farmer himself didn’t know them. He had hired a labor contractor as his go-between. On our way to Disneyland, we must have blinkered our eyes heading down 99. We didn’t see the tumbleweeds at roadside and the strip of parched earth that separated what remained of the desert from the perfect rows of irrigated agriculture. We didn’t see our creation, much less the figures bent under the canopies of vine.

Then one day, they walked out of the fields and materialized in our streets with signs protesting their short-handled hoes and Third World wages. Suddenly, you were either with Cesar Chavez or against him. My grandfather began to write poems about his “brown brothers and sisters under the sun.” My father the lapsed grape grower kept trying to bring in El Chicano to perform at his nightclub. Such were our gestures.

On a recent Saturday morning, the car radio blasting the hot air of a cockeyed presidential campaign, I drove to the outskirts of Selma, past the packinghouse where I boxed peaches and plums as a kid, and came to a stop in a vineyard where the raisin harvest had begun. The thermometer had shot beyond 100 degrees for 14 straight days. Already, three farmworkers across parts of the Valley had died in the heat. The vineyard road was lined with last-leg Honda Civics. I stepped onto the fine, powdery loam and picked a dusty row to walk down. All was quiet. Not a worker could be seen.

A few yards inside, I heard the faint sounds of banda and followed the music to a cellphone in the back pocket of a skinny young man. He was wearing worn cowboy boots, torn jeans, one long-sleeved shirt over the other and a San Francisco 49er cap splattered with grape juice mixed with dust. He had parted the leaves and canes and was crouched completely inside the vine, hacking away at its purple bunches with one hand and letting the bunches plop into a plastic tub he held with his other hand. It took him 48 seconds to fill the tub. Then he bent over in the opposite direction and spilled the fruit onto a paper tray in the row’s middle, in full sun. This was the oven where the grapes would bake – 14 to 18 days – into raisins.

I introduced myself and my Spanish translator. He said his name was Uriel, and he was 21 years old and had come from the Mexican state of Guerrero, where his family had lived forever in poverty. Four years ago, after finishing the ninth grade, he decided to follow the well-worn trail that had once sent his father and older brother north. He hired a smuggler, a coyote, to get him past the border’s barriers. The $4,000 fee was double the price from a few years ago, but there was no haggling. These weren’t the coyotes of yesteryear. They were now at the command of the drug lords; two commodities crossed the border at once to satisfy America’s twin lusts.

“I came for just a year, and then the year turned into another year and another year and another year,” Uriel said.

He shared an apartment on the other side of the Valley with three farmworkers who were here alone, too. The drive to the vineyard took him 45 minutes in the dark, but he would have traveled farther because this farmer was paying by the piece. If he worked through lunch, nine hours straight, he would make more than the minimum wage. He would make 260 trays, or $105. This was more than he earned from a week’s labor in Guerrero. In the good months here, he was able to send half his paycheck back home.

The next row over belonged to Ponciano, who had crossed the border by himself when he was 12 and had worked the last eight years picking mandarins, blueberries, pears and apples. This was his first stab at raisin grapes, and he found the work miserable. He’d be lucky at day’s end to have made 200 trays, $75, he said. He sat on a jug of water eating a fried chicken leg. A handsome kid with seen-it-all eyes, he said he was looking for a wife to keep him here.

“I know there are better days coming soon,” he said. “If I can help it, I will not go back.”

He whistled to Jose, deeper in the vineyard, to join him on his break. But Jose had arrived from Mexico only a few days before and owed $3,000 to a friend who covered his border crossing. “My friend told me that the grapes turn into gold in California,” Jose said. “I came to find out if that was true.”

The sun was not quite overhead but already it felt like a furnace. There was one row where a grape picker had laid out the paper trays far in advance. This strategy seemed risky, for it had the potential to break a man’s spirit, to underscore the long quarter mile of row still to go. But as I watched the tiny figure covered in hoodie, hat and bandana, I could see that it was ingenious. It allowed the worker to build toward a trance of picking, filling and dumping that never broke to put down a tray.

I walked over to introduce myself and only then did I see that the picker was a woman. Her name was Maria and she had been working in the orchards and vineyards for 11 years. Her husband worked beside her. Together they could make $175 a day. “I don’t work as fast as I used to. I am 30, old already.”

She had awakened at 3 in the morning to fix lunch for herself and her husband and also to cook the food the babysitter served at home to their three children. During the harvest, she said, the routine never varied. After work, she washed the stains off her hands and face and prepared dinner and the next day’s lunch and gave the children a bath and tried to find a half hour to herself to think about something else. She thought about her dreams. Her children were born here, they were U.S. citizens, they would learn English and go to college and never work a day in the fields.

“Will they allow us to stay?” she said, her voice pleading.

His name had not come up, but she was speaking of Donald Trump and all that he had unleashed in the country. He had held a rally in Fresno before the harvest, and growers cheered and waved “Farmers for Trump” signs. Even some Mexican Americans had climbed aboard. It made no sense to her. An edict that sent the workers back to Mexico and a wall that kept them from returning? Who would pick the fruits and vegetables? How would the cities, much less the farms, survive?

“The man has a rock for a heart,” she said.

“Let them build a wall,” Uriel shouted from his row. “We will be like Spider-Man and vault it.”

“I’m afraid of heights,” Ponciano said, laughing. “We will be like gophers and tunnel underneath.”

“Don’t they know that they can’t keep us out?” Jose said, his face to the sun. “We are Mexicans.”

My visit was costing them time, money. I thanked them and got into my car and drove off. As I crossed the Kings River, I thought back to 1994, to the wake of another election, when I walked into a coffee shop in Selma to meet with a bunch of growers. I was then a journalist for the Los Angeles Times and wanted to hear their feelings about a controversial measure on the California ballot – Proposition 187 – that was going to deny public schooling and other benefits to illegal residents. The measure had passed emphatically. I was surprised to learn that some of the farmers had voted for it.

At the counter sat the biggest fruit grower in the Valley, a soft spoken Lebanese-American who knew my family and pulled me closer. Let me explain, he said. The farmer and the Mexican were engaged in a century-long game. As rich as the farmer might be, his workers could bring him to his knees, if they realized their power. The farmer didn’t like feeling vulnerable. He supported the proposition because he knew that even if it went into effect, nothing would change. Law or not, the Mexicans would keep coming to the farmer’s fields. But he wanted them to always feel a little “iffy.”

Twenty years had gone by, but this winter, he and his sons were preparing to pull out every last acre of their table grapes. They were laying off 2,500 workers. They were making plans for their next generation. They were going to fill up the land with nuts.

Mark Arax, author of “West of the West,” is working on a book about California’s water wars, to be published by Knopf. Contact him at