When I tell people my family used to pick strawberries in Washington state, most are astonished. It's like they've never met Mexican-Americans that were migrant farm workers. Many assume that migrant workers are all undocumented Mexicans, but that's just not the case. That assumption most likely comes from our country's history, in particular the Bracero Program, which brought millions of Mexican "guest workers" to the United States between 1942 and 1964. But farms obviously still need tending, so the work has continued for a large community of Mexican-Americans, including my family. I was very young when my family did field work, but what I do know lives on through our oral history and in pictures.
For about five years in the early 1980s, we drove from Calexico, California, to Washington every summer because in my family, if someone offers you a job and it pays well, you never turn it down. Once my dad calculated how much we made that first summer, he couldn't pass it up. My parents loaded up our RV with all five of us kids (I have two older brothers and two older sisters) and made the trek.
The town was called Mount Vernon, and home was a slew of row houses that basically looked like cabins. Being the youngest of five, I guess I got lucky. I was too young to work the fields, so I went to school instead. But that didn't mean other young children didn't work. My sister, Alicia, recalls seeing kids as young as five in the fields and was just nine when she started working. Still, she recalls those summers as some of the best memories of her life.
"Other families, they pay thousands of dollars to send their kids to camp where they go swimming and go on hikes. Well, this was our version," Alicia said, who works as a licensed psychotherapist. "I looked forward to seeing the friends that I made there. We didn't see them throughout the year, and some of them became my pen pals, so it was this big reunion each summer."
My sister said as she got older she realized the work that my family did in Washington might be considered "embarrassing" to others. So she never told her friends where she was during the summer. Once she was there she was fine, but when she compared her experience to her friends back home, she felt weird about the work she did.
My sister also recalls some tense moments. "You want me to tell you about the raids?" she says with a hint of laughter.
"We were picking strawberries, and it was like in the movies, it was very surreal," she said. "There were just people running past us and I looked over at my dad, like, 'What is happening?' and it was the INS (The Immigration and Naturalization Service was the Department of Justice) in full force running after people. And my dad said, 'Don't move, just look down and keep working.'"
My family, being citizens, had no reason to run.
Even though you would think that basically all farm workers are undocumented, only about half of them are. According to United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, data from 2012, the demographics of hired farm workers is currently very mixed. The data showed that 45 percent of farm laborers, supervisors, managers are Latinos, 64 percent are U.S. citizens, and 25 percent have some college education.
"Most of the kids at camp were Mexican-American," my sister said. "It wasn't something we talked about, but it was very obvious because everyone was very young and spoke very fluent English. I didn't know which parents of those kids were undocumented. I just assumed everyone was like us."
As I listened to my sister share her memories, I couldn't help but think of another Mexican-American farm worker who was, in fact, just like us. Eunice Gonzalez, a graduate at the University of California, Los Angeles, worked the fields with her family too. Gonzalez's story went viral because of a beautiful photo shoot of her with cap and gown, standing among the strawberry fields in which they tirelessly worked for more than 20 years.
“I don’t think people understand how hard it is to be a farm worker," Gonzalez told Vivala. "I was about 12 years old when I began going to work with them and started ponchando — keeping record of how many boxes workers have completed to ensure they’re compensated for the boxes they picked. For a few years I did that but when I got a little older I started picking strawberries. I could only do six boxes a day while my mother did nearly 80 boxes.”
In 2013, I read an essay written by Hector Becerra, a writer at the Los Angeles Times, who went to work the fields for his article. He talked about the arduous labor: "About an hour into the picking, my upper and lower back were beginning to tighten and my legs began to burn a little from the stooping." But the article also talked about the incredibly hard-working people who did this type of work every day and talked about their kindness and good spirit regardless of the pain.
I remember rushing to tell my folks: "Look! This writer wrote about us!"
I guess I was taken aback by the notion that field workers were being
acknowledged. Here was some proof of their contribution to this country,
and I was extremely proud that I, too, was part of that community.
When I think of all of the stuff we have accomplished, like how my parents
always owned every home we lived in, how all of us kids went to
college, and that we're all professionals in a variety of fields, I am
pretty amazed by both the strength of of my family and the way our parents
raised us all to be such hard workers.