Commentary Stories

Virtual Fence, a Border Tale

IMAGE: Border patrolman opens gate to a dirt road next to the Mexico-United States border fence.


NOTE: The following piece is one of several fiction stories that I called “Border Tales” when they were first written. I began creating them in 2006. The topics are based on events that were current at that time. Unfortunately, the problems aired then are still with us today. The writing is based on real dilemmas that affect us all. It is work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents are products of my imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.



National City, California. Circa 2006.


“Why do you say it’s not a real fence?” asked Carlos.

“Because it isn’t,” answered Jeff, an agent with the Border Patrol. “It’s just a virtual fence, you know, a sort of make-believe fence that is real, but it isn’t.”

“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Make believe? Real, but not real? C’mon man!” Carlos still did not understand what Jeff was talking about.

“Ok, Carlos,” Jeff replied. “I said sort of make believe. I should’ve said a fence that is there, but it’s not really physically there.”

“You mean, like an invisible fence?” Carlos asked.

“Yes, that’s it, like an invisible fence,” Jeff replied. “But one that will help us stop illegals from crossing the border.”

Both Jeff and Carlos lived in an apartment complex on the east end of National City, not too far from the San Diego-Tijuana border. The people that rented the apartments were mostly connected with the Navy or the Border Patrol. The proximity to the military installations and the border area made it convenient for them to live there.

“I think I get it, now,” Carlos said. “The fence is not really a fence; it’s really a line on the ground telling people not to cross it. You know? A line, like those imaginary and invisible lines we used to point to with our fingers to tell others not to cross them when we were kids?”

“And if they crossed them, we’d kick their butts,” Jeff corroborated. “Yeah, the virtual fence is basically the same thing, but on a much larger scale, of course.”

The fence that they were both discussing was, according to the government and other folks in favor of it, an electronic tracking mix of devices that was to be built along the Mexico-U.S. border to warn the border patrolmen of possible incursions of unidentified objects and people coming from Mexico. The ploy had been pushed by a number of congressmen and senators with close ties to government contractors who had built a number of these gadgets to be used in war operations. Some of the devices were judged to be at best faulty, after having been tested in actual war, but were still being described as cutting edge technology by the contractors and their insider allies – the spineless folks we often vote for to protect our rights and our money in the halls of the nation’s Capitol.

“So how does this virtual fence work?” Carlos asked.

“I don’t know for sure,” Jeff said, “because we don’t have it yet. But, from what I understand, once in place, the virtual border fence will track the illegals as they enter our territory.”

“For how long?” Carlos asked.

“For a little while,” Jeff replied. “But, hopefully, we’ll be able to catch them while they’re being tracked.”

“What if they get out of range from the tracking system or what if more illegals than you and your partners can catch come across at the same time? What do you do then?” Carlos continued his questioning, playing, as he often did, the Devil’s advocate.

“Then is business as usual,” said Jeff. “That’s what we do now when we’re overrun by too many crossers. We just catch as many as we can and hope that the rest can be caught later on at work sites.”

“You mean, during your show of force raids?” asked Carlos.

“Yeah, Carlos, during our workplace raids,” Jeff replied, sounding somewhat upset. “Yeah, the raids, the ones you call ‘chicken shit raping’ of your people.”

Carlos had been in the Navy for over three hitches and was currently assigned to a ship based at the 32nd Street Naval Base in National City. Originally from Mexico, Carlos was a naturalized U.S. citizen who hadn’t forgotten his roots or wasn’t afraid to rally for the rights of what he often called his brothers and sisters that crossed the border looking for work. While living at the apartment complex, he repeatedly discussed the issues affecting the undocumented with many of the border patrolmen that also lived there. During some of these discussions, sometimes under the influence of mind altering malts and spirits, Carlos had become acquainted with some the joys and fears that filled the cop-like minds of his green-uniformed neighbors. Most of the border patrolmen liked Carlos, though, especially those that praised the food that both he and his wife prepared for the weekly by-the-pool potluck parties. They also liked his sense of humor and his ability to deflate heated discussions with his timely one-liners.

“Okay, Jeff, I won’t mention the raids to you anymore,” said Carlos, displaying his usual disarming grin as he mimicked the arm movements that normally adorn a heartfelt hug. “That’s my virtual abrazo, Jeff,” he added.

Jeff laughed, but insisted on talking about the recent raids the Border Patrol had made on several day-laborer centers in San Diego. “It’s our job,” he said. “We need to show the illegals that we mean business.”

“You mean business as usual, right, Jeff?” Carlos told his friend. “You know, a few mean raids that scare our people half-to-death, as you guys, the enforcers, just go on with your own lives while most of those living in the shadows of what many call legitimacy, suffer from never-ending traumas caused by the ever present fear of not knowing when the next raid is going to come about. Right, Jeff?

“C’mon, Carlos, you’re getting too damned serious,” his neighbor replied.

“Serious? You damned right I’m serious! You’re killing my brothers and sisters, Jeff,” said Carlos. “With fear, with family separation, with uncertainty. Your actions are no different than those taken by our government during the Viet Nam war, when we dropped napalm and cluster bombs on innocent civilians, on children. Remember that little girl in that infamous photograph? That little Vietnamese girl that had to get rid of her napalm stricken clothes and ran naked away from her burning village? Remember? She was an innocent child. Remember her, Jeff?”

“I don’t. I’m too young. It happened before my time.”

“But, it happened, Jeff,” Carlos replied. “And there’s nothing virtual about that reality. Or about the Border Patrol raids and fear tactics I’m talking about. And all the other acts that you and your buddies carry out with the excuse of protecting our borders. They’re real, Jeff. And just as bad as what our government did in Viet Nam.”

“Why are you so serious today, Carlos?” asked Jeff. “What happened to your sense of humor?”

“My sense of humor?” Carlos replied.

“Just call it virtual, just like your fence. It’s there, but it’s not really there.”


AUTHOR: Pedro Chávez


Commentary Tales

The Tireless Honeybees from Mexicali

IMAGES of the bees drawn by a young artist from Hungary, Rebeka Schoffer, for this blog. Art property of Pedro Chávez.


During the very, very early 1940s, a group of bugs (dragonflies, cicadas, and butterflies) came to Mexicali to invite that valley’s honeybee swarms to come and help pollinate the farm fields across the border. Their own bees had been recruited to go fight the Big Bug War, across the big pond, and for a while now most of that farmland had been without the services of those flying insects whose expertise was needed to spread around the pollen. The Mexicali honeybees had been known to work hard and for long hours, just like all the other bees in Mexico.

The Mexicali bees declined the offer from the American bugs. They said that they were happy spreading pollen in their own valley’s cotton fields.

“But that work doesn’t last very long,” the bugs from the north replied. “Once the cotton blooms, you have no work left to do.”

In a way, the bugs from the American side (Imperial Valley) were incorrect. The bees had plenty chores to do throughout the year in that area on the Mexican side. After the work ended in the cotton fields, the bees continued their pollinating activities on fig and pomegranate trees, on grape vines and “nopaleras” (gatherings of cactuses) that grew everywhere.bee-2

On the other hand, the bugs were also somewhat correct. The fertile valley on the American side was flush with all types of crops. Besides a few cotton fields, in that land were cultivated carrots, tomatoes, oranges, wheat, barley, lettuce, and many, many other farm products. It had year-round work.

Due to the nagging and persistent insistence from the bugs from the north, the bees from Mexicali eventually agreed to help them pollinate their fields. A few days later, in early spring, thousands and thousands of bees, accompanied by their appropriate queens, left their hives behind and flew north. At one point, as they continued their aerial exodus, the massive amount of bee swarms darkened the sky over the then meager border fence.

Once at their destination, the bees went right to work. They carried pollen from here, from there and tirelessly took it to other plants all over that land. A few days after their arrival, the fields in that valley regained their color and by the beginning of summer, the fruit grown on that earth showed the results of the hard work done by the Mexicali bees. The watermelons were huge and so was the grapefruit. The cantaloupes were also big and juicy; the alfalfa fields were green and full of life. The entire Imperial Valley had regained its past glory.

Two, perhaps three years later, the American bees returned from the Big Bug War and wanted back their jobs. The bugs in charge of the Imperial Valley fields told them that there was enough work for everyone and that they could toil right along the Mexicali bees. The American honeybees, however, did not want to share the work with their counterparts from the south and accused them of stealing their source of employment.

“Besides, they’re illegal,” the American bees complained. “They’re from Mexico and must be sent back to their country.”

Because their complaints fell on deaf ears with the bugs in charge, the bees from the north went to court and demanded that the Mexicali honeybees be sent home. The bugs in charge counter suited, claiming that the American bees were not as good as the ones from Mexico when it came to the task of pollinating.

“Our fields and our harvests are so much better now that the Mexicali honeybees have been doing the spreading of the pollen,” the bugs in charge told the court.

Tired of the war of words and of so much ill will, the Mexican bees told the bugs in charge that all the members of all the swarms that had come from Mexicali had agreed to go back home.

“We don’t want to stay where we’re not wanted,” they said.

bee-3The bugs in charge tried to convince them to stay, but to no avail and soon thereafter, in the same manner that they traveled on the day they came to the north, hundreds of swarms darkened the sky again as they flew south. Once back home, the Mexican honeybees noticed that the Mexicali Valley desperately needed their help, their pollinating expertise.

Although a few swarms had stayed behind to care for those fields, it was too much work for them and had therefore been unable to spread pollen in the entire valley. The workload had also grown. Just like in the north, the region to the south had decided to diversify its crops. It grew melons now and all kinds of citric fruit trees: oranges, grapefruits, and lemons. Instead of mostly cotton plants, the valley was now peppered with fields of wheat, barley, alfalfa, and corn.

Regardless of the heavy workload, the Mexicali honeybees welcomed it and were happy to be back home. They felt good. They belonged there, they said. They were also appreciated at their land.

A few years later, some bugs in charge from the north returned to Mexicali to again invite and try to persuade those bees to help pollinate the Imperial Valley fields. They claimed that it was too much work for the bees from the north and after the Big Bug War, most of those bees had become lazy and unwilling to work long hours.

“We need you,” one dragonfly said. “We won’t allow our bees to get in the way and we will care for you and protect you.”bee-1

“No, thank you,” replied the bee in charge of speaking for the Mexicali honeybees. “Besides, why would we want to return to the north? So we can be insulted again and be called this and that and be told that we’re not the same as the other bees from that place?”

Although the dragonfly and other bugs from the north insisted on convincing the Mexican bees to return to Imperial Valley, those bees were set on their decision, which meant that they would forever stay in that valley to the south. They continued to toil there and with their help that land grew greener and with the passing of time that valley in Mexicali became filled with imposing, formidable and luscious vegetation.

As it is often said at the end of a tale in Spanish: “Colorín, colorado, este cuento se ha acabado.” (End of story).


Commentary Opinion

Friendship Park, but Only for Some

IMAGE: Old border fence at Border Field State Park, between San Diego and Tijuana, next to the Pacific Ocean. iStock photo.


NOTE: I wrote this (unpublished) column in 2009, just before Friendship Park was closed so a new border wall could be built. The park was reopened, but the sadness remains in this southwestern corner of the United States. A world divided by the whims of humans. The Mexican next door to the south, America to the north.



Mexico is on the other side. Through a chain link fence I can see its people, its buildings, its beach. I can smell the food waiting to be sold from hot grills, attended by men and women trying to fill the beachgoers’ needs for something to eat. A snack, a meal. Something to be shared with the rest of the group, with the family.

I can also hear the sounds of blissful music, played on loud speakers that contribute to the festive occasion. It is mostly Mexican, banda, rancheras, but spiked with vallenato and other tropical sounds. Uplifting notes and beats that sift through the fence, migrating north without a visa.

Not far from me, but on the Mexico side, the Playas de Tijuana bullring rises above a nearby lighthouse and a line that slices the land into separate political entities. America to the north, Mexico to the south.

A few steps from the bullring, towards the west, the land drops and turns into a strip of sand, repeatedly bathed by the Pacific Ocean waters. Today the waves are tame and soon turn into innocent foam as they timidly try to climb the steep earth at the bottom of Playas.

On my side of the fence, the place is called Border Field State Park – or Friendship Park as some of us call it. It has a border monument, number 258, which defines the boundary between Mexico and the United States. Surveyors from both countries, after the Mexican American War, were involved in drawing the original divider, a manmade line that tells us where one country begins and another one ends.

“How are you?” I asked the border patrolman inside his vehicle, perched on a cliff facing the ocean and the poles on the water that define the border.

“I’m fine,” he said. His last name was Aguilar. It was embroidered on his nametag. He was born in Tijuana, I later found out, after chatting with him for a while.

“Do many people get across here,” I asked again.

“Not really, they’re not supposed to, but once in a while they do,” he replied. He also told me that on that day eight people were caught a few miles north, in Imperial Beach, who had crossed the border at the spot he was in charge of watching.

“I don’t know how they did it,” he continued, “but, it makes me look bad.”

While I talked to him, a woman with three children getting ready to go down the cliff and to the beach, asked him in Spanish if it was okay to walk down.

“Go ahead,” he said.

“Isn’t the beach water contaminated?” I asked him.

“It sure is,” he replied. “Especially when it rains and the Tijuana River drags bad waters into the ocean.”

As I was about to walk down the cliff too, the patrolman turned his head towards a poignant place on the fence. People on both sides were talking to each other across the wire divider. One man, a tall white man, was holding a baby in front of him as he quietly chatted with a woman on the Mexican side. She poked her fingers through the wire to caress the baby’s face. She was the baby’s mother, I found out later. It was an emotionally moving sight. Instead of walking down the cliff, I decided to walk towards the place where the people were gathered.

What seemed like a religious group was sitting on a circle next to the fence, singing quiet songs, led by a woman with a book in her hands. They were praying, I noticed. They wanted to stop the U.S. government from building a triple security wall that was to replace the current one. Part of the plan was to temporarily close the park.

As I surveyed the area, I noticed a man with a popsicle cart on the other side, not that far from me. I hadn’t had a Mexican style “paleta” in a long time, so I decided to find out if I could buy one from him.

“Sí,” the man said. I could buy it. Coconut was my favorite flavor. I was lucky; it was available.

“¿Cuántas quiere?” he asked (how many).

“Just one,” I said.

I wondered how he would hand me the popsicle across the small holes in the chain link fence, but before I could finish my thought he had already walked a couple of meters to his right where some links were missing and proceeded to push the popsicle across this supposedly impenetrable international wire divider.

“¿Cuánto te debo?” I asked him. I needed to pay him.

“Diez pesos,” he said. Roughly eighty cents at the going exchange rate.

“You sell a lot of paletas at this spot?” I asked the man. Only on weekends was his response. I also asked him if he had ever been in the United States and his reply was that he used to come across everyday to work as a gardener, using his local passport, but that in 2002, he wasn’t able to renew the passport after it had expired.

“The rules changed,” he said. “The U.S. customs people wanted to know where I worked in Tijuana and how much money I had in the bank,” he explained. “I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t work in Tijuana and I had no money in the bank.”

“You think you might come back some day?” I asked.

“Está canijo,” he said. It would be tough.

As I walked away from the area, I noticed a few families gathered around some of the stone picnic tables at the park. A man lighted up one of the public grills and pulled several steaks from an ice chest and threw them on a plate next to him. As he continued his chores, two small children ran to and from the area where he stood and the place where the land made a sudden drop onto the beach below.

I wondered why anyone would hold a picnic at this place, at such a barren patch of land next to a contaminated beach. And next to a heartbreaking scene of human suffering. Maybe it was the ocean view that attracted folks to the park. It probably was. There’s something about the sea and those illusory images that get lost far away in the horizon. There’s also the eternal cool breeze from the Pacific and its chilly waters, the ocean battered and cooled all year long by the Humboldt Current.

But if you were to ask me, it wasn’t my kind of park. To begin with, there were way too many border patrolmen lurking around. It felt like a war zone. Or a prison or a POW camp.

As my eyes surveyed the coastal rim that repeatedly caressed with its sea waters the dry reddish dirt at the beach, I saw patrolmen there. They were camping on the sand, along their parked vans. As my eyes turned east and to the south, more vans were perched on the red dirt hills next to the road that led to Playas on the Mexican side. Not far from that vantage point, and to the north, I noticed more than a dozen other vans, somewhat camouflaged, but not well hidden behind the chaparral, guarding the eastern perimeter of the park.

Less than one hundred and seventy years ago, people roamed freely at this place we now call Friendship Park. There was no border, no border patrol, no fence.

If we were to go back no more than four hundred years, this park was just plain old land next to the ocean. That belonged to everyone.

AUTHOR: Pedro Chávez


Commentary Opinion

The Lure for Cheap Labor

PHOTO: Mexican worker in the service industry. iStock Images.


There are tons of Americans that complain about the undocumented immigrants and their presence in this country. They want them to go back to where they came from. Basically, they want to get rid of the masses of people doing the work most folks in our affluent nation won’t do, the cheap labor that fattens the bottom lines of a great chunk of corporate America.

Politicians pandering to those Americans parrot the cry. It’s crazy.

My question is, if those farfetched wishes were by some fluke become reality, where would we get the workers to replace the undocumented? From main street America? From the inner cities? From Africa? The Middle East?

Ten, maybe twelve million immigrants are living in the shadows in America today. Many of them are Mexicans. They are here, but they lead a clandestine existence. They’re here filling the labor needs of our country, but they are denied many of the simple things we take for granted.

In most states, they cannot get something as essential as a driver’s license. They still drive, though. They’re also denied a social security number, but they still work and some pay into the plan. In many cases, the undocumented figure out a way to come forth with the documents needed to verify their right to work in the United States.

If there’s a will, there’s a way.

In some cases, employers get around the requirement to verify employment eligibility by contracting those labor needs with third parties, shifting the verification responsibility to others. The scheme works in an array of ways. That’s how malls get cleaned or cars washed at auto dealerships in the part of the country where I live. That’s also how a lot of construction chores or other work gets done. The undocumented mow lawns, wash cars, lay carpet, install wood floors, put up fences, or climb on top of homes to repair or build roofs.

Contrary to popular belief, they also pay taxes, in different ways. They indirectly pay property taxes when they rent a home or pay them directly if buying one. They pay sales taxes and pay more taxes when they buy gas for their cars or pay their phone bills. Since many of them use bogus social security numbers, they’ll never be able to collect a dime from the Social Security Administration or get the benefits of Medicare. They pay into it, but will get nothing from it.

It’s good for the social security fund, though.

The undocumented work hard, too. Some have two, sometimes three jobs. A full-time and a part-time job during the week and another part-time on weekends. Because of the meager wages most get, they usually need more than one job to provide for themselves and their families.

Although many jingoist Americans will never accept this fact, the undocumented add wealth to the U.S. economy. The value of the services and products created by their work increases the total amount of our gross domestic product. When the undocumented spend part of their earnings on certain products and services, they again help increase the value of our nation’s gross domestic product.

There is no doubt; America is a wealthier nation because of the contributions to the economy made by our brothers and sisters living in the shadows. Yet, some folks want them deported, to pull them from their roots and send them back to their countries of origin. It’s sad.

One part of America has lured them here with work, but another part, the one that doesn’t understand the paradigm, wants them to go away.

Commentary Stories

The Trek North: Part Six

PHOTO: Fig tree like the ones in Figarden, California, in 1962. Getty Images.

Working as a helper on a fig-picking tractor did a lot for me. More than anything, I felt good about getting a check each week. Every Saturday I would ask my father to take me to the small store in Figarden so I could cash it. I usually bought a soda and an apple turnover, sometimes other things. One had to buy something to get the check cashed. By the way, I really got to like those turnovers. They were tasty. I had seen them at the store the first time we went there to get food essentials on credit. I really wanted one then, but I knew I couldn’t have it. It’s weird. Sometimes you want something you can’t have.

The helper work gave me confidence. It was like a test, sort of like jumping off airplanes, like Billy did when he was in the Army. Not everyone could do it. I think my parents were proud of me, too. One evening, I overheard my mother telling someone else at the camp about my job and about how tough I was and that I hadn’t quit. It made me feel good. Besides, I really liked my job.

One day, though, I thought I was going to have to go back to picking figs by hand. It had been less than two weeks since I had started working on the tractor when Billy told me that we were going on strike. It surprised me. It had to do with demanding a raise for us two helpers, from one dollar to a dollar and a quarter an hour. The tractor operators were paid more than that and were fine with their pay, but both decided it was time to pay the helpers more money. My counterpart wanted it; he had been making only a dollar an hour for several years.

When the foreman, who was also the son of the grower, came by the orchard to check on us, he found us sitting down by the tractors. The operators told him about the work stoppage and the reason for it. They stated their demand for higher pay for us, the helpers. My English skills were very limited then; I just understood a few words. One word said by the foreman stuck in my head, though. He called us “bastards.” Once the son of the grower left, I asked Billy to translate the word for me. “You don’t want to know,” he said. I later learned what it meant.

We went back to work soon after the tractor drivers talked to the foreman. He agreed to talk to his dad and to be back later that day with a response regarding the raise. I felt good going back to work right away and liked the possibility of getting a raise. Close to quitting time, the foreman returned and told us that his father had agreed to raise the pay from a dollar to a dollar and five cents an hour. He added that if we didn’t like it, we could leave. We stayed. Just before leaving the orchard, the foreman called us bastards again.

That was a memorable summer. Besides learning about strikes, I also learned how to drive Billy’s car in the orchards’ dirt roads. Billy showed how to shift gears and how to apply the clutch. His car had a standard transmission. That’s what most cars had then; there were very few automatics. It was fun driving the car. One day, though, I hit a short pole that I hadn’t seen as I was backing up. I felt really bad. The pole made a big dent on the rear, left fender. Billy just laughed when he saw it and told me not to worry.

I also made some progress learning English, not from Billy and the other two workers, but from a big guy that used to come by to pick up the boxes we filled up with figs and other junk. He was young, around twenty years old. I exchanged a few words with him and found out that he was going to Fresno State College and that in the summer he worked for the grower. He didn’t know Spanish, but when he spoke to me in English he pronounced the words very slowly to help me understand them. I was surprised; I was able to comprehend most of those words. Maybe it was the way he said them or the way he tried to explain things with his hands. It’s amazing how we can communicate with others with the aid of body and facial expressions.

I don’t recall his name, but clearly remember the way he picked up a one-gallon jug of water with his forefinger and drank from it. He was big. He worked hard and fast too. He would pick up those heavy boxes like they were nothing. Sometimes he would pick up two at the time and hand them to the driver, who was on top of the truck stacking them.

It was truly a memorable summer.

Commentary Stories

The Trek North: Part Five

Tractor in an orchard. Getty Images.

On the same day that we started working picking figs by hand, I was offered a chance to become a helper on a contraption that swept up the figs off the ground. It was late afternoon when a man working for the grower came looking for me at the orchard where several members of our family and myself were still learning the ropes of our job. The man had met me before at the camp. He had mentioned, in passing, the possibility of needing a helper for one of the two fig-picking machines. He had heard that the previous worker, a local man who did the job the year before, was probably not going to return. But he still had to confirm it.

The job involved hard work, he said, but thought that I was big enough physically to handle it. I think he was just trying to build me up so I would take the job if available. It made me feel good, though, to know that a perfect stranger would think that I was fit enough to do a man’s job. I was only sixteen.

Once offered the opportunity, I accepted it. It paid a dollar an hour and I would work directly for the grower. Our mother and father liked the idea of me working by the hour. So far that day, we hadn’t made much money picking figs by hand.

I joined the other three members of the crew the following morning. All three spoke Spanish and were of Mexican heritage. I was assigned to work with Billy, an operator of one of the two tractors. I can’t remember the names of the other driver and his helper, but they were both from Arizona. They spent part of the year in central California following different crops.

The contraption consisted of a tractor with a sweeper and a trailer behind it. It moved up and down each row in the orchard and picked up figs along with dirt and all kinds of trash lying on the ground. A conveyor belt brought the mix from the sweeper to the trailer and deposited it in wooden boxes that I had to place under an opening at the end of the belt. It was dusty back there. I don’t remember using a mask or gloves, but I probably did. The opening had a rubber and canvas flip cover that prevented the mix of figs and other stuff from flying in different directions.

The boxes filled quickly. Once full, I had to push them to the left and place an empty box under the opening. The task was made easier by a metal rack with rollers on it and on which I could place up to five boxes: two empties, two full ones, and the one being filled up. Whenever I had an opportunity I would pick up the loaded boxes and stack them on the back of the trailer. The empty ones were stacked on the right side and next to the rack, where I could easily grab them.

It was hard to keep up with the flow during my first day. Besides, it was difficult to see sometimes. There was a lot of dust blowing into the trailer and under my face as the boxes were filled up with the mix. There was also dust coming from the sweeper, which also diminished the visibility, not only in the trailer area, but all around the contraption.

Towards the end of my first day, I was really tired. It was tough lifting those boxes filled with figs and trash after a while. Each one, I heard, weighed an average of seventy pounds. Every so often we had to unload the cargo by a dirt road. It was sort of a break, but not really. Stacking those heavy boxes on the ground was no picnic either. No wonder I was told it was hard work.

After doing the job for a few days, it got easier. My body adjusted and grew stronger. Besides, it felt good being part of that crew. Billy and the other two men told me that most helpers didn’t last long. Most of them quit within a few days they said. They couldn’t handle the workload, they added. Hearing those comments made me feel important. I hadn’t quit yet and wasn’t about to do so.

After a while, Billy showed me how to drive the tractor and allowed me to run it for a couple of rows. He would climb on the trailer and do my job so I could do his and take a break. I felt accomplished driving the tractor. Resting for a few minutes felt good, too.

One Sunday I visited Billy at his home in Highway City, just a few miles south from our camp. He was married and had a couple of children. He invited me so I could see some old photos that were taken when he was stationed in Korea with the U.S. Army. Billy had a lot of pictures. They were of him and his Army buddies. Most of them were Mexicans, I could tell, maybe Puerto Ricans.

At work, Billy often talked about his time in the military and the number of jumps he had made as a paratrooper. He was really proud of having served. He also talked about his two brothers. One of them had also joined the Army and had made over six hundred jumps. That was big, he said. His other brother tried to get in, but wasn’t accepted. He was flat-footed.


Commentary Opinion

The Mexican Next Door

PHOTO: Farm workers picking peppers near Gilroy, California. Getty Images.


I am the Mexican next door. Next to your country, next to your home. To your office, your cubicle, your seat at school. Next to your parking space, your locker, your desk. The one that often speaks in Spanish and laughs loudly when needing to laugh and turns serious when it’s time to be serious.

I am the Mexican next door. Willing to work long hours in the fields, picking the fruit and vegetables that grow abundantly in the Southwest and other parts of this land: The United States of America, a beacon of freedom and a place blessed by the genius and purpose of its founders.

I am the Mexican next door. Working smartly to steal a living wage from a job that pays little, planting, growing and harvesting the crops we all need. Although you often tell me and others that you don’t want me here, I am, in a way, the one that makes the picking of crops happen and allows you to enjoy these treasures pulled from the bosom of our Earth for pennies on the dollar.

I do other work too, mostly menial, the tasks most Americans aren’t willing to do because they’re hard and shamelessly provide at best sordid wages. But, I’m not complaining, really. I am grateful for the work because I need it to support the family I left behind in Mexico. Things weren’t good there. Plain and simple.

I am the Mexican next door, at your favorite restaurant, busing tables, serving you, washing dishes, throwing out the garbage. Cooking. In many cities across this vast land. Washing your cars, cleaning your homes, mowing your lawns, maintaining your gardens. Helping you. Looking after your children. Feeding them, listening to them. Playing with them.

Like many men and women that have come to America before me, I hope that one day you will understand that I do not come to this land for a handout, but for an opportunity. I also hope that I am not treated as a lesser human being because I am not one. I come here to help you and to help myself and my family. I am an immigrant. Rising amongst the tempest tossed masses yearning to breathe free. I am the Mexican next door. Your neighbor, a human being like you. Your friend.

I hope that one day too you will understand that just like most other newcomers that have come here and have helped build this nation, I come here to do the same. I come to work, to thrive, and hopefully to continue to help shape the lofty future of America. And please understand that I will always be next to you: to your country, to your home, your workplace, and your future. I will always be there.

I am the Mexican next door.


Commentary Stories

The Trek North: Part Four

PHOTO: Fig tree with fruit. Getty Images.


It felt good having a place to stay and knowing that soon we were going to also have food to eat. We selected the house that was next to the entrance of the camp. They were all the same, though. It had an elevated large bedroom with a wooden floor and a small room with a dirt floor and open windows that served as a kitchen. It had a wood stove. There was a set of restrooms (for men and women) and showers in a small building in the center of the camp. They had running water. That was good, too. In Mexicali we had an outhouse and only cold water for the shower.

I don’t remember picking up figs and eating them that day, but we probably did. We were really hungry. Besides, there were lots of them all over the ground. Once settled in our new home, our dad and a couple of us went to the store. It was next to the railroad track, on Bullard Avenue, the same road that ran next to the camp. I remember it well. It was a narrow and straight road with miles and miles of fig trees planted on both sides.

The owner of the small store already knew about us. He told us what kind of stuff we could buy. We picked up a sack of flour, a large bag of pinto beans, potatoes, lard, eggs, butter, some meat, milk, and a few other things. The car still had fuel left, but our dad decided to top it off, just in case we needed it. Once back at the camp, our mother cooked beans, potatoes and meat and made a huge pile of tortillas. I think she used a long, empty glass bottle to roll the dough. Several of us helped.

We had an unforgettable meal that day. The food tasted great. Cooking on a wood stove in an open kitchen, among fig trees, gives food a peculiar flavor. Our mother prepared the beans the same way she had done it before in Mexico, but those beans had a particular scent to them. They were really good. The tortillas were good, too. I ate a lot of them. We all felt tired and full after the feast.

The week went by fast. We had a chance to explore the orchard and other areas close by. We ate a lot of figs and met others that arrived at the camp after we did. They were all Mexican. One family was from Brawley, in Imperial Valley; another one was from Coachella, but was made up of only the father and his four sons. The rest of that family stayed back home they said. Both groups had been coming to Figarden to pick figs for several seasons. At night they would get together and talk and play songs on their radios. I learned a lot about America from them.

On the first day of picking figs, the wife of the contractor joined us, working right along with us. She gave us tips on how to do the work efficiently. She was very nice and spoke some Spanish. She was about thirty, had blond hair and blue eyes. I was surprised to see someone like her involved in such hard work. Although we used ladders to reach the fruit in the trees, we spent part of the day bent down picking up the figs that had fallen on the ground.

I really liked the contractor’s wife; there was a welcoming quality to her. I asked her where she was from; I was curious. She said she was an “Arkie.” I didn’t know what that meant.

“From Arkansas,” she explained in Spanish.

Once we learned the ropes, she left us and wished us good luck. She was very nice. I will never forget her. I wish I could remember her name.

Commentary Stories

The Trek North: Part Three

PHOTO: Figs on a tree branch, similar to the ones we picked in Figarden, California. Getty Images.


It took about an hour to get to Delano after leaving Bakersfield. We were all hungry, but for some reason food no longer mattered much, especially for those of us that were older. We wanted to find work. The local farm employment office gave us the name and address of a Mexican labor contractor that needed grape pickers. It was the address of a house, we found out. He wasn’t there when we got to the place, but his wife was. She wasn’t very nice. She told our dad in Spanish that she didn’t know how to get hold of him and that our best bet would be to return later that day to try to find him.

We waited near a gas station, not far from the contractor’s place. We were there for a long time. We kept looking towards the house, hoping to see someone arrive, but no one did. Late in the day, our dad and I returned to the contractor’s place and were again met by his wife. She was still in a bad mood, I could tell. She also looked mean. She told us to return the following day, but our dad insisted on seeing him as soon as possible. He told her that we needed work. That didn’t seem to matter to her, but to get rid of us, gave us the address of the field where her husband had a crew picking grapes and told us to look for him there the following morning.

Our dad drove to the field. It was easy to find. He had looked up the address on a large map pasted on the inside wall of the gas station. We were all hungry. With the money we had, our parents bought a couple of cans of beans and bread at a grocery store next to the gas station. After parking by the grape field, our mom opened the cans of beans and spread the contents on slices of bread. Once we ate we went to sleep.

The contractor arrived early in the morning, before sunup. We were ready to go to work. I was with my father when he went to talk to the contractor. He told us that we needed to have scissors to be able to work. They were table grapes, he said, and required to be cut with scissors. He wasn’t nice either, just like his wife. Our dad tried to ask him if we could borrow them, but the man didn’t let him talk.

“No scissors, no work,” he said and turned around and left.

Our dad looked sad and dismayed. By the time we returned to the car, he looked pale. He got in the station wagon and told everyone about the scissors and that we would go north to Fresno to look for work. No one said anything. We had no food, no money, no work, and the car was running out of gas.

Before getting on highway ninety-nine towards Fresno, our dad stopped at a ranch. He knew ranches well; he had worked in many of them in Mexicali, in Imperial Valley and other parts of California. He pulled a couple of pipe wrenches that were lodged next to the spare tire, took them with him, and knocked on the front door of the house at the ranch. Soon thereafter a man came out. We couldn’t hear what our dad was saying, but after a while he handed the tools to the man at the door. He got back into the car and drove to a fuel pump next to a shed. The man walked there and filled the tank of our car with gas.

He then waved goodbye and said adiós (in Spanish) and smiled at us. He was tall and light skinned. It was quiet inside the car; no one said much. I felt good, though. It was a feeling of victory, exchanging the tools for fuel. I remember it clearly, as if it had just happened recently. I felt also a sense of relief. There was no doubt that we would soon find work. I think others in the car felt the same way.

We arrived at the Fresno farm employment office about two hours later. It was still early, way before noon. There were several postings on a board on one of the walls. People were needed for different types of work, but were for picking crops two or three weeks in the future. There was no current work listed. Once at one of the windows at the counter of the employment office, the clerk told us about a contractor that was looking for families to pick figs close to Herndon, but that the work wouldn’t start until a week later. He gave us a slip with the address of the camp and the name of the contractor. It was on Bullard Avenue, not far from Highway 99.

The contractor was waiting for us at the camp. He seemed happy to see us. There were a few sheds converted into houses there, six of them at the most, maybe eight. They had metal roofs, but were protected from the heat by the orchard. There were a lot of fig trees. No one was living there yet, but it didn’t look desolate; I don’t know why. We got out of the car and welcomed the shade and the breeze. There were figs on the ground that had fell from the trees. They looked good. We wondered whether we could pick them up and eat them. We were very hungry.

The contractor was slender and tall and had blue eyes. He was very nice to us all and talked to us in broken Spanish. Our father could speak English well and eventually they both conversed in that language. He told our dad that we could stay at the camp, but that work wouldn’t start until a week later.

Once our father told him that we were willing to wait, but that we had no money and hadn’t eaten much the last two days, the contractor told our dad that we could go to a small store in the center of Figarden and get some essential groceries and gas for the car to carry us over until we started working. He also mentioned that he would go by the store and set up credit for us.

We couldn’t believe it. A perfect stranger trusted us and made us feel welcome.

Anecdotes Commentary

Joyful Distractions While Learning English

IMAGE: Scene from the opera “The Marriage of Figaro.” Cherubino (partially hiding), Sussana and Count Almaviva. Author of watercolor unknown.

It’s tough to learn a second language when you’re older.

That happened to me when I came from Mexicali and to America. I was only sixteen then, still young, but when it came to picking up a foreign tongue with ease, I was already too old. Except for our sister Amanda, who was seventeen, the younger boys and girls in the family had an easy going learning the new country’s vernacular. They were immediately immersed in the language at school. It didn’t take long for them to become proficient in it. Not so with us two, Amanda and I. We were old goats, I guess.

That learning curve hurdle didn’t stop us, though, and in the spring of 1963, we both signed up for several courses at Imperial Valley College, near El Centro, California. Among them was a Spanish language class. We took it so we could use the lab next to the classroom to learn English. It was a good call. The professor, John Gardner, took us under his wing and guided us through the learning process.

The lab, however, became a refuge and a place of wonderment for me. Besides a set of 78-rpm records and some reel-to-reel tapes to be used in our study, there were some surprising recorded jewels in that room: LPs with music of the fifties and the early sixties, albums of Broadway musicals, and several sets of recordings meant for learning other languages. I have to confess; I spent a lot of time in that place listening to other stuff that had little to do with the English lessons.

Every time I had a long break between classes or during lunch, I would go to the lab and find solace there. Instead of diving into the assignment, I would first listen to music. There were plenty choices, in different genres. One of my favorites was a Nat King Cole LP in Spanish. The album had some great songs, but the best one was “El Bodeguero.” It’s a cha cha chá, great dancing music with memorable lines, especially those stating: “Toma chocolate, paga lo que debes.”

After listening to a few tunes, I would switch my efforts into learning English. I used a Berlitz language course that came in a box with several records and supporting written materials. Listening to the words and phrases was fun, but it often became boring. The course required students to repeat them over and over again until they were forever stuck in the brain. That repetition soon became unbearable, but I usually tried to continue the drill for as long as I could.

After a while, I would go back to the music or to other language courses. I delved into learning a few sentences in German, some French, and a lot of Italian. There’s no doubt, I procrastinated and wasted a lot of time in that lab. Understanding and speaking languages other than English or Spanish was a lot of fun, though. You could very well accuse me of trying to sabotage my lessons and I would agree with you. But the place was just like a candy store to me. It had a lot of stuff that I hadn’t had before. I had to enjoy it.

The Spanish language teacher, by the way, was also a tenor who had often participated in the school’s musicals. He loved to sing and was about to perform in an upcoming opera, Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” He was to play the leading role. One day during class, a student asked him to reprise a rendition of one of the arias. He acceded and sang it for us. He was good and had a powerful voice. I didn’t fully understand then the meaning of all the words sung in Italian by Mr. Gardner, but that cadence and that delivery stayed with me forever.

In the aria, Figaro makes fun of Cherubino, telling him to stop messing around with women and to go to war instead, as he should. Soon after listening to Mr. Gardner’s performance in the classroom, I looked in the lab for a recorded version of the opera. I wanted to listen to it again. I was lucky and found it. It was an album with the entire soundtrack. I listened to it repeatedly, especially to the aria that begins with “Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso,” and ends with “Cherubino alla vittoria, alla gloria militar.” It was the aria sung by our teacher in class. I eventually learned all those lyrics. It was easy. All it took was hearing them and repeating them over and over again.

That’s how you learn a new language. With lots of practice and plenty repetition.