Nothing and Everything

I stayed at the house of a former SAF intern’s mother. The road leaving our neighborhood crossed with another road. That road means more to me every time I think about it. In one direction: The interstate, the city of Columbia, and the new offices of South Carolina Primary Health Care, where I volunteered for the Migrant Health Project. People sat at their desks there in suits, dresses, and ties. Bars, fitness clubs, restaurants, and music clubs were all in that direction.

Columbia was a place of power. The State House stood there, with long sets of steps and tall columns.

Along its sides stood monuments which told an official version of state history. There were monuments to the confederate dead, and to Strom Thurmond. Other monuments  showed African-Americans’ long history from slaves in the fields of indigo, to achievements in the present day. Our landlady, Jennet, told us that in the other direction was “nothing.” For her, as for most people in Columbia it was nothing. It was more suburbs.Then it was sprawling fields of peaches, corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, and plants city people couldn’t tell apart from each other.

The change was nowhere near as sudden as it sounds. The countryside was not a wasteland. Big farms had offices and receptionists. Farmers and ran their fields like factories, only with hotter and tougher work.

The country was more random than the city. Downtown for one town was an old-fashioned-looking block of brick buildings that happened to include a Mexican popsicle store. In another town, the “center” of town seemed to be a white Victorian-style house serving as the office for an IGA store.

It could rain one minute out there, the next minute dust could be blowing around. The workers lived just in just about every arrangement one could think of: trailers, cinder houses, even log cabins in one place.The land was flat, but by the end of that summer, I could not see it as “nothing.” For many of the people I met there, it was everything, or at least everything that they saw of South Carolina.

People who had come from far away to work the land often had no way to drive anywhere else and no reason to do so. To them, the lights of Columbia and the steps of the capital were a faint rumor, if they were anything.

Don’t Take Notes

“Don’t take notes so much when you talk to them,” said Carmen to me in Spanish as I walked back to the van.

“But if I don’t take notes,” I said, “I won’t remember.”

“It’s just too official looking, like a census. It gives the wrong idea mi hijo.”

Carmen was my supervisor at South Carolina Primary Health Care. She was a native of Honduras and liked to call me “mi hijo,” meaning “my son.”

“Take notes after you talk to them, if you need to, but don’t just write things down while they’re talking,” she said.

It was a reminder for me. I was not here to take as many notes as possible and write an amazing story to rival John Steinbeck. I was here to be helpful.

Student Action with Farmworkers put me here with South Carolina Primary Health Care’s Migrant Health Program to register as many patients as possible and drive them to appointments and pharmacies. We registered documented, undocumented, and guest workers alike. Our program hardly covered anything beyond checkups. Farm managers never had to pay insurance, and our program was just there to fill the gap.

If I learned anything from that summer, I learned that I am not an expert and should never claim to be one. Still, I can say what I saw. I saw entire worlds in South Carolina that I barely knew existed.

The Hardest Job

As South Carolina Primary Health Care interns, we had come to the Wal-Mart pharmacy because it was the cheapest around. We were there to help a woman get some medications. Because it was lunch time though, we stopped at the Subway restaurant inside that same Wal-Mart.

She shared stories about her life. She had worked at a bottling plant and at other factories along the border. Now, she was a guest worker who picked vegetables in the hot fields. “Which work was the hardest job for you?” I asked. “The one that I have now,” she said.