Shedding workers

It can get claustrophobic inside a loaded boxcar.

There were hundreds of crates of melons stuffed into a Southern Pacific railroad car waiting to make a cross-country trip to breakfast tables back east. I was icing the car down after having loaded it during a sweltering summer in Glendale, Ariz. So, during a break, I was staring out the doorway to the loading dock beyond when I saw at first a couple of people, and then more, running past the car. Did the old wooden shed finally catch fire?

Being an easily scared teenager, I started running away from the shed, too. The fleeing white boy later made for a great story among the illegal immigrants with whom I worked. It seems the immigration cops were doing their regular raid on this produce company, and a yell would go up through the shed, and those without legal immigration status would scramble every which way in an attempt to avoid the aggravating, and costly, trip back home to Mexico and the dangerous return trip back. For the immigrants, it was the cost of working in the United States, and for the agricultural businesses, losing a few workers during a raid and then claiming ignorance of their status was a cost of doing business.

Out in the fields, the costs appeared much higher. While driving trucks back to the shed, I would watch crop-dusting planes laying down a cloud of pesticide onto fields. The arid winds would shift, and I would sometimes see fieldworkers running, this time for ditches and canals with water, so they could jump in and wash off the poison.

Years later, I would hope that the American system of using illegal immigrants would somehow change and that workers’ conditions would improve. Maybe not (see “Las mujeres problematicas”). The illegal immigrants from Mexico whom I met were usually hardworking, but they never seemed to improve their lives here, because they were sending money home or always on the move because of the immigration problem. Certainly, they weren’t becoming the owners of the agricultural businesses where they could determine fair working conditions.