The View from the Ground
From the lofty perspective of chile growers and processors, agricultural labor is no problem. For farmworkers, the view is different.
Adrin Acua of Palomas is working in the chile fields in Mexico now, earning $9 a day. He works down in Colonia Guadalupe Victoria, a half-hour south of the border.
It's hard for him and his family after he's worked in the fields in the US. But now he can't go to the other side, with the increased law enforcement on the New Mexico border and the imposing metal fence. They struggle to eat now, especially in the winter, the off-season for agriculture here.
His 96-year-old grandmother Eloisa lives with them. She has always lived in Palomas, even when it was eight miles south of where it is now. The Acua family thinks she may be the last survivor of the Pancho Villa attack on Columbus in 1916. When she was two, the family fled to Ascension for four years.
There used to be three springs of water down there, and they ate well despite a life that was "very humble," she says. They grew beans, tomatoes, lettuce, beets, barley, radishes, chile, cantaloupes and a long list of other things, besides raising animals for meat. Her family ate better than a lot of people eat now in Palomas, where hunger is rampant.
Adrin's brother Sergio is working in construction in Columbus, but isn't sure how long the work will last. The brothers sit around the air-conditioned living room of the plain but comfortable house with their retired parents.
Adrin's son, about 10, spins his hands like a pinwheel in his cousin's face, and gets spoken to sharply by his father for interrupting a guest.
This is a "good family." Adrin's father Oscar tells me, leaning into a conversation with me over the arm of his chair, that his sons aren't involved with drugs. This seems clear from the unselfconscious honesty in their eyes. A few people were shot about a block from their house last year, and they remember it vividly.
Colonia Victoria has been a place to which Mexicans from southern states like Veracruz or Oaxaca were bused up every year to work. The farmworkers, mostly Indians, are so short compared to the relatively tall Chihuahuenses that you felt as if you were passing into another realm or another country when you drove through the quiet tree-lined streets.
Adrin tells me that the growers in Colonia Victoria pay "los del sur" (southerners) less than they pay the many Palomenses who are now working there because of hard times. They pay them $5 for the same length of time the Palomas people work to earn $9 — working till 1 a.m., after starting at the crack of dawn. He says the growers exploit the southerners.
But the sureos end up earning more than the Palomas workers because they're stronger and able to work longer hours. They often earn $10 or $20 a day, depending on the conditions in the fields.
When I was in Guatemala in 1985, I read an article about Guatemalans who were working in the fields of Oaxaca because they earned a little bit more there than at home. A grower kept them in a building with no food for a couple days before they were paid. This chain of exploitation snakes all the way to Guatemala.
The growers and processors tend to view this situation as if they were in an airplane, and see it as a beautifully dovetailed system of supply and demand.
The farmworkers, with a very on-the-ground view, can't help but see it as exploitation, although they're glad to have any work at all.
Almost next door to the Acuas is one of the many motel-like buildings where Mexicans who work in US fields stay. By the end of my conversation there are four of them who sit and talk with me, three of them shirtless in the golden heat of the humid evening.
They are getting ready to rise early the next morning to work — usually at 5 a.m. but sometimes at 2 a.m. when they work in Hatch.
One new development over the past few years is that the growers don't supply free buses to the fields any more. The workers pay $5 to ride with someone else.
"We have to pay to work," quips one man named Isidro.
I've always liked the light sense of humor the farmworkers have about their bad work conditions. They don't wring their hands or exaggerate.
I ask Isidro why he doesn't work in some other state where he could earn more money, and he says that in California the contractors pick 20-year-olds to work in the fields. "Somos chuecos," he grins — chueco meaning "crooked" or "malfunctioning." He looks to me as if he could be as young as 50.
With so much less chile being planted in New Mexico these days, work for the fieldworker is very scarce. One of these men says he's working three or four days a week, and I've heard a man in Deming say he's working only two days a week.
One man says he thinks the price they're paid per bucket has gone down. But another says it has gone up a little. They basically agree that they are earning the same amount, while the cost of living has gone way up.
The Sin Fronteras center for farmworkers in El Paso says such workers are actually earning substantially less than a few years ago, from an average of $6,000 a year down to $5,280.
Isidro says he got $30 a while ago for six hours' work, and the contractor changed the hours on the wage stub to three. Practices in the fields are exactly as they were over a decade ago. Minimum-wage laws are almost always ignored.
The men usually complain about their pay, but another very important issue is their lack of Workman's Compensation rights in a job that has a high rate of accidents.
Although in general there is an enormous wage disparity on the border, as everyone knows, the gap is closing right now with chile. The shortest guy in the group says that if he works only three days a week and someone in Colonia Victoria works six days, the gap might not be very wide.
The Acua family, meanwhile, sees little future for Palomas, and are setting their hopes on their mother getting US citizenship in a few months to relieve their economic pain. This would mean the rest of them might be brought across the border, too.
I ask them where in the US they 'd like to live, and they all agree — "Anywhere!" they say, the sons waving their arms.
Maybe they'll worry a little less if they make it.