Our Stories, Our Lives

Originally published on “Into the Fields,” a blog about my time as an intern through Student Action with Farmworkers.

We visited the camp at which Juan worked. A recording of Banda music with loud horns was playing. People were talking. Juan said that there was too much noise at the camp. So we drove away from it.

We stopped in the parking lot of Juan’s farm’s packing plant and offices, but Juan said that he was afraid of us being questioned for being in the parking lot so late at night.

So, we talked instead on the bleachers at Pelion Park, a place that Juan did not know, but which Pedro found by GPS.

While we spoke, the light dimmed, and the background noise of birds changed to insects and barking dogs. We started by talking about family, which for Juan was important. He came to the U.S. to earn money so that his family could have a better life.

He said that if he had a choice, he would live in Mexico, because there people celebrated more. The theme of “distracción” as he called it (which in English would better be translated as “diversion” than distraction) came up repeatedly, as did the theme of time.

For Juan, the pace of work in the fields seemed far faster than the pace of work in construction, a field in which he also had experience. I thought of the workers I had seen picking corn and throwing it on a conveyor belt at the fastest pace possible. Some people think country life is slower paced than city life, but that’s not always true.

Juan did not feel like sharing any jokes that field workers use to pass the time, because he said that it was easy to forget them when concentrating on other things.  He mentioned that had now gone 5 years without drinking or smoking, because of work. He knew quitting was better for him, but it made him sadder about life. He later said that sports worked just as well as drugs and alcohol for those who do them.

“Yo soy una persona muy tímida” he said at the end of the interview, meaning “I’m a very shy person.”  He talked in a calm, quiet voice, and sometimes stuttered before coming to a particular point. However, he seemed eager to share his thoughts on life. “Te voy a decir una cosa” he said repeatedly,  “I’ll tell you one thing.”

The documentary of Juan’s life is not yet online. You can see some other SAF interns’ documentary projects here.

Fast and Slow

Originally published on “Into the Fields,” a blog about my time as an intern through Student Action with Farmworkers. For the full version of this post with a video that shows the pace of industrial corn picking, click here

Some people call the country life slow. In some ways it may be slow. People do talk slower, and nothing is a block away. Evenings and time off from work can be slow too. Too slow. If you can’t drive anywhere, you are stuck sitting around in the evening, watching TV, listening to music, or trying to strike up conversations. I sat with the workers in one camp, on a plastic bucket like them, as the light died down. As far as work goes, though it’s as fast as any factory or holiday-season checkout line, only with heat thrown in to make it worse. They do get breaks for water, but there’s nothing slow about the work itself.


Originally published on “Into the Fields,” a blog about my time as an intern through Student Action with Farmworkers.

Before I go any further about South Carolina, I should mention that most of the time I wasn’t alone. Like all Student Action with Farmworkers interns, I lived and worked with another intern. My intern partner was Pedro. He grew up in Georgia and cut tobacco for a living. He was now in college preparing for a career in medicine, possibly nursing or medical translation.

In college I had always traded on self deprecating humor and nervous stuttering apologies to get what I wanted or needed. Pedro was the complete opposite. He traded on deadpan bragging humor and measured words. If I had to sum Pedro up in one word, it would be “driven.” He was always figuring out ways to make our projects succeed. “I don’t like being told I can’t do something,” he told me.

He wasn’t driven in a nervous way though, or at least he did not show it. He was able to relax in his time off, even if his idea of relaxing was to go to Charleston or Burlington or check out Columbia’s nightlife rather than just spend the night at home.

Many of the SAF interns like Pedro had come from similar situations to the people we were helping. Throughout my time in SAF, I spent time with people who had worked in fields or greenhouses and had now moved on to college. It struck me that what we were seeing was not exotic to them at all. It was life. It wasn’t just about wanting to see the conditions of farmworkers. It was about giving back while moving ahead. It was about being driven.

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.

SAF internship

I’m no longer in Mexico, but talking to migrants in Mexico inspired me to get an internship with Student Action for Farmworkers, here in the U.S.

“Every time we sit at a table at night or in the morning to enjoy the fruits and grain and vegetables from our good earth, remember that they come from the work of men and women and children who have been exploited for generations.”

-Cesar Chavez