A TODO MADRE

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by Andy Griffin

Editor's note: This article is a letter Andy wrote to a teacher in Los Gatos. Her class was studying food and she asked "Who are these people that we depend upon to produce our food?" I think you will find Andy's response ‘educational'. Instead of generalizing Andy chose to toss out 10 mini character portraits.

Editor's second note: the correct Spanish for the title would be "A toda madre", but we always hear "A todo madre" from the guys in the field.

Dear Jeanne:

You are asking me to tell your students about who these farm workers are that we depend upon to bring us our food. I caution you that I've never pretended to write objectively. One can generalize and say that most farm workers are "undocumented aliens," from a rural background, typically calling some tiny plot of land in an overworked Mexican ejido their home ranch. But I don't trust generalizations much and I don't feel like defending myself against every specific exception that someone might point out to me.

And I'm biased. My experience is not with everybody in the community of farm workers but mostly with the men. I don't know the women well. A lot of times their faces are quite literally veiled from the sun and from me by scarves that leave only their eyes shining out from under the visors of their caps. Unwrap the women and after peeling away the language barriers, cultural barriers, and class barriers there are gender barriers so tightly wound that it is not often appropriate for me to even try and spend much time with them. If I were a woman I'm sure I'd write with a much different flavor. A series of quick character sketches of individuals seems to me the most honest way of speaking to the question you've raised.

Let me begin with Antonio Rivera because he taught me enough Spanish that a door was opened for me to meet a whole new world of people. "La pala," he said, with great irony as he handed me a shovel. We were digging a sewer ditch together on a farm I worked on north of San Francisco. Antonio was a professional firefighter from Mexico City, better known as D.F. (Pronounced Day-Eh-Fay, for Distrito Federal.) In California a firefighter, deservedly, would earn far more than I ever could as a farm worker. In California I was Antonio's supervisor, but in Mexico I would have been his gardener.

There was Don Manuel, from San Blás, Nayarit, the once-upon-a-time capital of California, and a whole year's round trip by galleon from Yerba Buena. When he wasn't picking vegetable in California don Manuel was a biologist and led tours of ornithologists up jungle rivers in Mexico. Manuel shared the simple meals around the fire every night with the rest of the crew, eating bean tacos, barbecued chicken backs and salsa. But every once in a while I'd drive him over to Berkeley and we'd go to cocktail parties at the homes of scientists he'd met in Mexico.

Juan Macario, by contrast, was from El Salvador. He was illiterate and signed his checks with an X. He had no documents to establish that he was the citizen of any nation and wasn't even sure how old he was. He did his chores with great attention to detail. When he first came to work for us he was so poor he was starving but he was too proud to admit it. I found out he was eating the gophers that I'd asked him to trap out of the potato field and I gave him an advance. Even though he was older than I he always addressed me as don Andrés, as though I were the owner of a vast hacienda.

How about María, a.k.a. Tía Pistolitas, or Auntie Pistols? When her husband was incarcerated in the Mexican penal colony of Las Islas Marías for poppy cultivation she came north to work in the fields. She augmented her income by midwifery, by consulting as a curandera, and by freelancing as a coyote. It must not be easy to be a single mother, an illegal alien, a farm worker and a lesbian all at once but she pulled it off with panache. She did everything from washing lettuce to proffering unsolicited herbal remedies to fellow workers with great force and authority. Scoffers smiled at her antics but everyone agreed that Tía Pistolitas lived life "a todo madre," at full mother, as they say.

Not everyone worked well. There was "El Buyo," a spectacularly lazy fellow from Veracruz, a "Jarocho." Buyo's great amiability kept me from firing him as promptly as I ought to have but in the end I dismissed him and sold him my Volkswagen bug cheap too just to make sure he'd go far. As he putt-putted off I didn't think I'd ever see him again but he did resurface years later as a much fatter and happier bass player touring with a banda group. Everyone one of us has a calling and I'm glad Buyo found his.

Igancio, or Nacho, went back to his home in Puebla to get married after working five years for us. Nacho was a short little guy, really strong, quiet, respectful, and experienced. His family had a farm that produced anise seed for export to confectioners and liqueur makers. He surprised me by purchasing a blackmarket AK-47 assault rifle in San Jose to take with him back to Puebla. Bandits were threatening his family and ranch, he explained, and they were not just going to roll over and play dead like possums.

I don't miss Santos. His name means "saints," and he looks like an angel when he wants to. I've never employed anyone who could work as fast as Santos. His hands seem to move under their own volition leaving his brain behind to scheme. As a young kid, just big enough to stare over the dashboard of a car Santos was trained to steal cars in Mexico City and drive them to chop shops. His skills came in handy once when I locked my keys in the pick up truck Otherwise Santos was a scandal just waiting to happen. When some girl's father wasn't after him the police were. He is in prison now for stealing cars and raffling them off to bar patrons at Club Frontera down on lower Main St.

Santos had a little brother, Nico, who worked for us, too, almost as quick as Santos but not bedeviled by the same demons. Nicolas wasn't much of farmworker though. He was a great soccer player and could earn more by selling his services as a kicker to the various local amateur soccer teams that compete when they would find themselves short a player. And there was Esmeralda who got her papers after five years of trying and is now working as a nurse. And Ismael, too, who plays the Christ carrying the cross for the annual passion play in the streets of Pajaro, the rest of the year he shoulders the burden of knowing his wife left him because he beat her. That's enough for now. I could go on for pages. With each new economic disaster that befalls Latin America new waves of people head north to find work. An interesting question to ask your students might be "Where are you going to go if our economy falls down? What compromises to your dreams of dignity are you willing to make?

Copyright 2003 Andy Griffin

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This is a photo of Don Rogelio, who doesn't appear as a character in Andy's story. He is from Michoacan, as is Tía Pistolitas. We're not sure if they know each other.