Speechless. Overwhelmed. Those are the best words I can come up with to describe my response to what I witnessed today when I got to go to the farms with Ben, one of the Puente staff in charge of outreach. But first, Monday:
Monday I spent my day at the Puente office working on the activities and discussions that I will facilitate with the high school student leaders on Wednesday. I also did some odds and ends jobs for Abby while she is away such as researching inexpensive start and finish lines for the Second Annual Puente 5K/10K Fun Run/Walk. It was a pretty standard day at the office, and truthfully the Puente offices are quite as bustling on Mondays as other days. When I left Puente, I had dinner in San Mateo with a new friend who has been in the United States for 10 years. He came from Oaxaca, Mexico, which is where he was born and raised for the first 19 years of his life. I must have asked him a million questions about his life at dinner, and his story is truly inspiring. I was amazed at how good his English is considering he knew zero English words when he arrived 10 years ago. He said working in the restaurant industry was one of his greatest teaching tools because you learn so much vocabulary in a restaurant by doing the job of serving people but also by listening to casual conversations and business meetings, etc. Many of his siblings now live in the U.S. as well, but his parents and youngest sister still live in Oaxaca. While his story was very interesting and inspiring, it was totally unlike what I saw on the farms today.
Today I started my day at Puente with a meeting with the Academic Director again. She and I spoke about my thoughts for Wednesday’s activities with the senior youth leadership. (There are five soon-to-be high school seniors in Puente’s program this year.) She briefed me on some of the things that the seniors were anxious about as they prepared for their senior year including writing personal statements, preparing for the ACT, navigating course registration for their senior classes, and also how to get through their “senior paper,” which evidently is a school-specific culminating paper that all seniors at Pescadero High School must complete. After that meeting, I spent some more time working on 5K/10K tasks that Abby left for me. I did some online publicity work getting information about the race posted on as many event sites as possible for San Mateo County. I also compiled more financial data about the possible start/finish line markers, which could include pennants, an inflatable arch, an inflatable sky dancer, etc. Then, I continued preparations for the meeting with the seniors.
The day concluded with my trip to four different farm sites. This is part of Ben’s job responsibilities each week, and I was fortunate enough to get to tag along. Without a doubt, my experience would have been much different without Ben because Ben has done such an amazing job of building rapport with the farmworkers. They trust him immensely and are clearly happy upon his arrival. My observations were contingent on this trust and rapport as I am very white and affluent and female and don’t speak Spanish. Without Ben, there is no chance that the farmworkers would have been comfortable enough to be themselves and interact normally around me. Ben was able to introduce me as a friend who works with Puente and because of his relationship with each of the workers who he knows by name, I was not perceived as a threat.
Out of respect for the farmworkers’ privacy, I did not take my camera around their homes and places of employment. However, what I saw will be forever engrained in my mind. I will do my best to paint pictures for you with words.
The first farm at which we stopped was primarily a flower farm. Many of the farmworkers were just finishing their “shift” around 6 PM when we arrived; their shift started at 6 AM that morning. We pulled into a farm filled with rows upon rows of green houses full of beautiful flowers. On the opposite side of the drive from the green houses were semi-truck trailers being loaded full of flowers to be shipped out early tomorrow morning (around 2 AM). The flowers were mostly in pots and wrapped to be sold at stores like Home Depot and Lowes. I asked Ben how far away he thought this particular shipment would go and he suspected only as far as the Bay Area, but I’ve got to tell you there is something that becomes really personal about a pot of flowers that looks exactly like what I would buy at Home Depot in Noblesville or Indianapolis when you’re simultaneously looking at the men who care for and harvest them. At this particular farm I did not see any residential space for the farmworkers, just sheds and garages and the greenhouses. The men were excited to see Ben arrive. One farmworker in particular, who has to walk a lengthy distance to the fields where he does the bulk of his daily work, was particularly anxious to see Ben because Ben was bringing him a bike today. The bike program is something I really love about Puente. In addition to repairing damaged bikes for people in the community, Puente also takes bike donations in order to offer transportation assistance to the farmworkers and their families. In addition to the gentleman receiving a bike at the first farm, Ben also spoke with about 6-7 other farmworkers. Some just wanted to have casual, social conversation with Ben, and another had specific questions about a packet of papers he received from the county government. I wasn’t sure exactly what the papers were about or what they were asking the gentleman to do, but it was clear that he was asking Ben to help him navigate the bureaucratic system. In general the men were congenial despite my presence there as a stranger. When we left, one even said “thank you very much” to me in English.
Because we did not see residential space at the first farm, I left feeling burdened by the experience but not like how I felt by the time we left the second farm. I felt a little emotional as we left the first farm for many reasons, such as feeling really grateful that I know someone like Ben who is my age but has dedicated his life to serving this particular marginalized population, seeing the joy in the farmworker’s eyes and on his face as he spun the pedals on his new bike for the first time around one of the greenhouses, and for the wonder of the incredible amount of manpower and labor it takes to produce the vegetation that people like me take for granted every day. The second farm instantly triggered my emotions again because as we pulled in, I realized that I had driven past this farm dozens of times everyday that I drove to and from Costanoa. It is set off of Highway 1 just far enough that you cannot really see it unless you know to look for it. As I shared my astonishment with Ben that I had driven past this farm so many times but had no clue what it was or that it was even there, he looked at me and said, “You and everyone else in the area.” As we rounded a corner of the drive, Ben pointed out two run-down looking houses. (I use the word house loosely here because in a different context one might choose the word “shack” to describe these particular residences. However, knowing the context and the real people who live inside, I have a hard time dismissing these homes as “shacks.”) The two houses that Ben pointed out are the homes of two of the youth I had met earlier last week who will be serving as student leaders for Puente over the summer months. Talk about a dagger to my heart. These very normal looking teenagers live in places that look so much different than the normal, comfortable clothes and shoes they wear: run down, poorly constructed, decrepit. We drove past the two houses, parked the Puente truck, and approached on foot a long narrow building that reminded me of a revamped chicken coop. As we walked inside, Ben yelled a greeting down the hallway of the building to let the men inside know he was there. As we made our way into the first room on the right, I realized what purpose this building has: it is residential quarters for the farmworkers. The room we entered was a communal kitchen space where three men were cooking for the others in the barrack. When I use the word barrack, what likely comes to your mind is something equivalent to what the Jews might have lived in at concentration camps during the Holocaust or perhaps what slaves on large plantations might have lived in if they didn’t have families inclusive of a wife and children. If that is the image that comes to mind, you are right on. My heart completely sunk as I realized what I was walking into. It then quickly turned from sinking to breaking as Ben introduced me in Spanish to the three men preparing that evening’s meal, they reached out their hands to shake mine, offered me a chair, and welcomed me into their home. Although I did not fully understand the conversation Ben had with one of the men making dinner, I know it had something to do with helping him get to a dentist due to some pain he was having in a tooth (or some of his teeth). As Ben discussed, listened, and offered assistance to the gentleman, I looked around the kitchen in which I was sitting. The table on the left hand wall was made of wood and looked like it could be 50 to 100 years old. The wooden chair I was sitting in felt like it had been worn down by years of use and hundreds of people taking a load off. Both of these pieces of furniture reminded me of things I had seen in historic sites that try to represent what life was like in the 1800s. There was something similar to a stovetop we would see in our houses or apartments next to a dual-burner camping-like stove sitting on a countertop all fueled by gas running through a tangle of thin hoses that had been rigged for the purpose of cooking larger quantities of food at the same time. The stovetop and camping burners were on the long wall I faced as I turned and entered the room. The rest of that wall was filled with a large sink and another tabletop surface in the corner. The right hand wall had a stool upon which Ben sat, and another table filled with cooking devices. Some of the things I recognized were a radio/CD player (of which I have the very same one in my classroom at NHS), a George Foreman grill that looked like it came straight from a landfill it was so well worn and dirty, a blender that looked like it had never been touched, and other miscellaneous well-worn kitchen items. Along the remaining wall where the doorway is cut out was a final bit of counter space filled with more kitchen gadgets. This is where these men prepare their meals everyday. The ceiling of the kitchen was plywood boards nailed to whatever surface is behind the plywood. The floor was dirty linoleum. But for these farmworkers, this is home. Despite the unkempt and ragtag dishes, tables, and cooking surfaces, the smells of whatever the workers were cooking were incredible. They had some produce available to them, but it certainly did not look like they had any semblance of variety. On one of the wooden tables was what appeared to be chopped zucchini, but I did not see any other fresh vegetables. There were also several cans of Coors original, a beer hard to find in the Midwest but very available around Pescadero and La Honda. Ben shared with me on the way to the first farm that his responsibilities primarily include outreach to the men who are here without their families because without their families, they have fewer opportunities to get involved in social activities and they have less likelihood of obtaining access to social services they might get through the public school system if they had a child in the U.S. who was attending school. Ben shared that for these men with few connections, finishing a day of hard labor often comes with sitting around the barracks or wherever it is that they live and drinking beers with the other men who are single and/or without their families as well. He said if they aren’t doing that, they are on the highest points of the mountains along the coast trying to maintain cell phone reception long enough to communicate with their families in Mexico. I was totally overwhelmed with emotion when we left this farm. As we parted, the men once again shook my hand as a very warm gesture of hospitality.
The last residential place that we stopped was much different from the previous one. It was almost like a small community of little houses all of different colors but mostly the same size (probably about 20’ x 30’ on average). These houses also served as residential space for farmworkers but appeared to be much newer and better maintained that the previous stop. What’s more is that each farmworker and/or family had their own individual space as opposed to barrack-like living. These homes were very close together, and it was clear that the people who live in them are very close to one another. Outside two of the houses, a group of 4 children was playing. The children spoke very good English and even better Spanish. They appeared to be around 5-7 years old, and probably know English so well because of their young age and participation in American public schools. They so easily converted back and forth between languages. While Ben was talking with one of the farmworkers who is a single man, I stood back and observed the children playing wildly and with so much joy and fun. Then, one of the boys did something you wouldn’t typically see a child in the Midwest do. He stopped dead in his tracks in the middle of speeding along the sidewalk on a scooter and shouted, “Policía!” before ducking and taking cover to hide. What is particularly interesting about this scene is that all of these children and their parents at this particular farm have legal status in the United States and have actually been here for several years (I believe Ben said nearly 10). Yet even so, they are accustomed to being around people in their community who have to worry about getting stopped by the police and then arrested and/or deported. It was at this farm that I fell in love with the little boy who was probably 6 years old wearing black athletic pants, a t-shirt, and bright blue rain boots. He was riding around on a small bike part of the time and a scooter the rest of the time, and he was so precious. He kept riding the bike or scooter as close to my feet as possible and then stopping at the last second before he rammed into my heels or ran over my toes. Then he would stop and just look up at me and grin in anticipation of what I was going to do in response to thinking I might get run over. I don’t even know his name, but I wanted to shower him with love and bless him with a life full of resources and abundance. It was hard to walk away from that farm.
As we concluded the rounds for that day and made our way back to Puente to get my car, Ben drove me to the top of a hill that overlooks Pescadero. The view was divine (photos included; click to enlarge). But the significance of the journey to the top of the hill was to see the juxtaposition of wealth in the town. At the very top of the hill was a gorgeous multimillion-dollar home overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Highway 1. It was a massive, beautiful, expensive house. The drive immediately preceding the house’s driveway was a bumpy, ill-maintained dirt/gravel road that led to a rundown barn, a few trailers, and a building that was nearly burned to the ground. This road leads to more farmworker housing. The burned house only caught fire in the last 2 months and caused the displacement of 29 people. The reason for the fire? Too many refrigerators plugged into 1 outlet. These are the living conditions of real people in the United States of America, one of the wealthiest, most affluent nations in the world. How does one substantiate and resolve this in the brain?!
And the most egregious sin of it all is that most of never think twice about where our food might come from or whose hands and labor might have gone into producing the fruits, vegetables, and vegetation that we so love and take for granted every day.
I will never think about those things the same way again. How could I?