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.