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Harvest of Dreams

Mis abuelos, Jose Ortiz y Maria Louisa Del Rio, on their wedding day.

When my first son was a little guy, about two or three years old, we’d marvel at how he was getting bigger every day, quickly outgrowing the shoes with lights that he loved or his favorite Toy Story sweater. I told him he’d continue to grow and get bigger, and that made him sad. He said he wanted to stay little, he wanted to stay my baby.

“Don’t worry, Fish,” I’d say, using my nickname for him. “You’ll always be my baby, even when you’re big-big.”

“Will I be big like you?”

“Yes, m’ijo. You’ll be even bigger. And Mama will start to get smaller and smaller.”

This seemed to please him.

“Oh, then you’ll be the baby and I’ll take care of you!”

“Yes, Fishy. I’ll become like your baby and if I’m lucky, you’ll take care of me.”

I was thinking of my grandfather when I said this. My grandfather lived into his 90s, and as he grew old physically, his mind grew young –  he lived in a world of his youthful memories, a world shaped by Alzheimer’s.

In his old age, he lived with my mother, who tended to him and suffered through his battles with old demons of his past.

My grandfather was from a little town in Durango, Mexico, near the Texas border. As a young man, he had gone north to work as part of the Bracero program, a U.S. project to bring in strong “arms” to harvest crops. When I was a young girl, my grandfather would proudly pull up his shirt sleeve and show off his muscles, bragging about how he was one of the best cotton-pickers they’d ever seen in Texas. He’d flex his muscles under his shirt and tell us there was rabbit hidden in there. We’d squeeze his strong arms to find the rabbit, and he’d laugh.

My grandfather wasn’t a big man, but he was strong. As with most Mexican families, mine is a mixture of European and indigenous lines. But when I look at my grandfather’s stern face in his wedding portrait, it is the face of a Yaqui warrior that I see. His dark eyes are set. His face is hard and determined

The portrait, with my red-haired grandmother sitting beside her new husband, shows them in front of a simple adobe structure, with a thin fragile looking ramada made of sticks built off of it. After his funeral a few years ago, one of my cousins asked, “Goodness, why did they take the picture in front of that old shack?” I surmised, “Maybe that was the nicest building in the town.”

My grandmother, who descended from Irish blood, had suffered in poverty before her marriage, and there were hard years to come for her after as well.

The family grew to have six children, and they lived a life that bridged the two sides of the border, with my grandfather migrating with the crops and sending money home. Then, later, with my grandmother and the children, including my mother, joining them to work the crops across the West.

The family settled down in the center of California, buying a two-story white home near the center of Lindsay, a farming town that still explodes with the fragrance of millions of orange blossoms each spring. That’s where I was born.

My mother’s childhood was one of little money and lots of hard work. Though she had dreamed of becoming a doctor, there was no chance for her to go to college. The family managed to send two of her brothers to college in Mexico: One became a teacher, but he was still a young man when he died in a school bus accident; another studied architecture but then suffered an attack that left him unable to ever work. In any case, in her youth, women were expected to marry – not go to school. So, when my mother became a mother, she was determined that her children would lead different lives.

She had paid attention to the local school system, and noticed something that uneased her: Mexican children were tracked into inferior classes, not the ones that would put them on a path to college. She decided the key to success was to make sure her children became American. They would speak English. They would go to college. They would not work in the fields.

And so, that is how my brother and I grew up. My mother, who learned English on her own, mainly by watching American TV, spoke to us only in English. Schoolwork came first for us and for as long as I can remember, it was just a given that my brother and I would go to college. My mother would have liked one of us to study medicine, but it was more important that we went to college for any thing. It was the path that would take us away from the fields. Her plan worked.

When I’d return home on my college breaks, I’d visit my grandfather, who was so pleased that I was studying, no matter what major it was at the time: Business, communications, political science. It didn’t matter.

“Just do well, m’ija, and get a good job – one where you don’t have to be outside all day.”

By the time I was working as a journalist, my grandfather’s mind was slipping away. I’d visit and he’d ask if I was still in school. I’d explain, “No, Grandpa, I’m working now.”

“Oh, what do you do?”

“I’m a journalist, Grandpa. I write.”

“Oh, do you work in an office?”

“Yes, Grandpa. I usually work in an office.”

“That’s great! Good! An office job! That’s good. Don’t go to work in the fields, m’ija.”

I thought of all this again when, the other day, I came across a trailer for a documentary called “The Harvest.” It looks at the lives of American children who are growing up picking crops, literally the fruits and vegetables that the rest of us in the United States put on our tables.

The lives of the farm workers are often told in stories and films, and yet, very little actually changes. The hard lives suffered by the likes of the Joads in “The Grapes of Wrath” are the reality for families living today.

Children still work long hours under physically burdensome conditions. Families still follow the cycle of the crops, praying that their cars and trucks will make it to the next job. Teenagers are still uprooted from their schools in order to help support their families in the fields – disrupting their educations and their ticket to a different type of life.

I haven’t seen “The Harvest” yet, but one thing that I think separates this documentary from others I’ve seen is that the children featured are speaking in English – American-accented English. It’s one thing to see farmworkers telling their stories in Spanish, but when they are children whose voices sound like the voices of children anywhere in the United States, the impact is wider. When a story is told in a way that makes one feel – “Wow, this could be me,” or, “This sounds like my family,” the chance for empathy is stronger.
My first son is now 11 and just an inch shorter than me, if that. He’s grown up speaking English and now also speaks Spanish because he’s been in a dual-immersion program since he was in first grade.

I shared the trailer for “The Harvest” with him, knowing that he would relate to the kids because they are roughly the same age and look pretty much like kids in his own school. He was moved by it, clearly surprised by the reality of kids like himself living in such a different world – one that he sees from afar when he goes to my parents’ homes each summer to spend his break with them in my hometown.

I think about my grandfather, who in his final years, I would find sitting on the  sofa in my mother’s home, dressed, ready to go to work. He’d wake up each morning and put on his field clothes and then sit on the sofa waiting for his ride to pick him up. He relived the daily routine that had consumed his life – one that that had given his grandchildren a chance at a different life.

When I passed, he’d brag that he was the strongest cotton picker of the whole crew.

On the days he recognized me as his granddaughter, he’d ask if I was still in school. “No, Grandpa, I’m working now.”

“Oh, where are you working?”

“I’m a journalist, Grandpa.”

“Oh, do you work in an office?”

“Yes, Grandpa. I do. I usually work in an office.”

“Ah! That’s good, m’ija. Working in an office, that’s good! That’s good work. … Keep that job, m’ija. Don’t go to work in the fields. You don’t want to work in the fields.”

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