The Young Hands that Feed Us []


By Karen Coates and Valeria Fernandez, Pacific Standard, July 9, 2019

It was the last day of March of 2018, the day before Easter, the season of onions. By mid-morning, 16-year-old Berenise had already loaded a few pails. She held sharp, rusty shears that demanded careful precision; one slip, and they could take a finger. Berenise worked alongside her 10-year-old brother, Salvador, and her parents a few paces away. Sunlight beamed across mile after mile of flat green fields, broken only by a few dirt roads. When it's harvest time like this, multigenerational families, from young children to grandparents, cluster among the furrows. The land is scattered with plastic pails, packing crates, and a few blue porta-potties. Onions blanket the ground, as far as the eye can see; the air smells sweet and sharp. Human backs form U-shaped curves of habit, heads covered in hats and hoods, pants and fingers stained with chlorophyll and mud.

This particular scene unfolded near McAllen in the far southern tip of Texas along the United States–Mexico border, but it repeats itself, in field after field, day after day, across more than a million acres of farmland in the Rio Grande Valley. It goes on and on until daylight fades or the very last vegetable is picked and crated—whichever comes first. In this field, Berenise and her brother had developed a routine: grasp an onion, shake the dirt, cut the greens, snip the roots, toss the onion into a bucket; when the bucket is filled, lug it to a plastic crate as tall as their hips, hoist the pail, and dump the load. A full crate earned the family $16.

"If you work hard, it's good," said their father, Salvador Sr., 43, who was willing to publicly share most every detail of his life and his job, except his family's last name—because he and his wife are undocumented immigrants from Veracruz, Mexico. "The work in the fields—it's rough," he said. He had been doing it for the last three years after his work as a mechanic fell through; since then, he has worked the fields and taken jobs fixing cars on the side for extra cash. "If I had documents, I would have a steady job."

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