Back when I used to live with Mama in Tennessee, she told me:
Perlita, you might as well get used to it, you can’t get everything you want in this life. And when you do, don’t think it’s easy. For our family, nothing has ever come easy.
I don’t remember when I first began picking tomatoes or pickles or onions, because ever since I was born, it is all I can remember. Crops. Plucking them when the sun isn’t awake yet. Coming home when the streets are dark and quiet and the roads are empty. Crops. Buckets full of them. Bruises on my shoulders from where the plastic digs deep. Crops. All I ever dream about. Green. Everything green.
Back when I was little working with Mama, the cotton plants looked like skyscrapers. Then I moved up North in Michigan, where Papa is—for the strawberry harvest—then to Texas, with my Abuela, where I’ve been ever since. She often tells me stories about Guatemala, how she would pick corn and lettuce with her sisters—from when they were too little to enroll in school until they were all pregnant, round as watermelons, crouching in the field. Abuela carried Mama in her stomach through the whole corn harvest, painfully bending over her growing fetus. They didn’t have anything but family then, but Abuela says that in Guatemala, life wasn’t as bad as it is now. They treat us like animals here, she says, call us Mexicans just because we’re brown, tell us to go back to Mexico, where we’re from, even if we’re not. They tell us we’re not welcome here. I’ve always known it—that I’d never fit in here. The first time someone said that to me was in Tennessee. The son of the farm owner whispered it to me when Mama couldn’t hear. Go back to your country.
He didn’t know that I was born here too, in Tennessee, in the same country as him, except not in a warm hospital bed but in the back of Papa’s truck.
Abuela works in the onion fields, like Maria and Luz, my cousins. Luz always cuts herself with the big scissors they use to cut onion stems. She holds onto the gash for a second or two, then scoops a handful of sand from the ground and pours it over to stop the bleeding. I saw her do it that week I worked the onion field with them, when Maria was in labor with her fourth. Cuidado! Abuela had said from a few feet away, even if it happened all the time and we were used to it. She was crouching in the mud, surrounded by onions dismembered of their stems. Poor Abuela, with her bad knees, inches deep in the muck.
I used Maria’s name at dusk, when I handed in my buckets at the front of the line, even if I knew she’d have to cash in the check for me at the end of the month. I was only fifteen and couldn’t do it myself.
I know I’m stuck in the tomato fields because I’m a little bigger, stronger, than the rest of the women in my family. God gave you strong arms as weapons, Papa used to say, back in Michigan. I saw it as a curse. I envied my cousins, even if they were bent over all day ripping onions from their stems, their backs arched like bridges like mine. I wished I was smaller, that I couldn’t easily carry a bucket of ripe tomatoes on my left shoulder. That I wasn’t forced to work with a bunch of men who had no interest in talking to a girl they didn’t know, whose father didn’t work beside her, a girl who’d moved from Florida, to Tennessee, to Michigan, and now to Texas. A girl who wasn’t Mexican.
Sometimes the smell of the tomatoes makes me want to vomit.I slip on their rotten peels, the seeds oozing beneath my bare feet. After thirteen hours working in the sun, it dries like paste and clings to my skin like resin. Abuela uses bleach to get the stink off me. Even soap won’t do.
The doctors say it might be the bleach, or the pesticides, drizzled onto our heads from airplanes high above, that are to blame for the skin on my arms peeling back in layers. It’s gotten worst in the last couple of years, since I’ve been in the tomato fields. Sometimes I even get so dizzy I think I’m going to fall. Especially when it gets hot in the summer, with all thoses gases thick like fog in the air, you really can’t breathe at all.
I don’t tell Abuela this, or Mama, when we speak on the phone, because I know they would send me to school. School. Carrying books instead of broken buckets, sitting all day instead of crouching.
I don’t tell Abuela or Mama this because I know they need my sixty four dollars a week. I stay because of that. I use the strength and the arms that God gave me as weapons, and I dig deep into the tomato plants.
© 2014, Johanna Grea