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Excerpt: ‘Chasing the Harvest’

Editor’s note: The following has been excerpted from a longer chapter featuring the Arroyo family: Maria Ayala Arroyo (46), Pedro Ayala Hernandez (55) and Guadalupe Ayala Arroyo (21). Read more oral histories like it in Chasing the Harvest by Gabriel Thompson (2017 Verso Press). Read our interview with Thompson here.

Farmwork is often a family affair. Parents bring their children to labor alongside them in the fields. Workers learn about a job opening and tell their relatives, the word spreading quickly from uncle to aunt to cousin. If a crew sticks together long enough, it may find that most members are related to each other in one way or another.

Such is the case for the crew of the Arroyo-Hernandez family. Maria and Pedro came to the United States in 1994, 10 days after getting married in Mexico. Their plan was to stay for a couple of years, save money, and return to Mexico to open a business. Then they had their first child, Guadalupe, and those plans changed. For more than two decades, they have traveled across the Coachella and Central valleys with a grape harvesting crew filled with siblings and cousins.

When Guadalupe turned 16, she joined them in the fields, adding another family member. Guadalupe—whom her parents call “Lupita” as a nickname—is now completing her senior year of college at Cal State Long Beach; her parents continue to follow the grape harvest. Over several conversations, the family talks about the daily challenges of being a migrant farmworker family, the dramatically different opportunities presented to the younger generation, and how, no matter how much schooling one may have, a day in the fields will always be an important educational experience.

“I wanted to do soccer and act.”

Guadalupe: I was born in Indio in 1994. We lived in an apartment complex with over a hundred apartments. Mostly farmworkers lived there. It was a two-bedroom with a small living room, a small kitchen. My cousins lived there, and we’re about the same age, so we’d play with Barbies and normal girl stuff. Ride bikes. Go to the park.

In the summer we lived in a labor camp in Edison. The cook lady at the camp was also my babysitter. She had a bell that she used to ring. One of my first memories at the camp was to walk around every trailer and ring the bell to let people know that food was ready. Everybody in the trailers worked for Giumarra. The camp was right in front of the Giumarra office, surrounded by vineyards. There was a trailer full of restrooms, and another trailer full of showers. And then there was a bigger trailer where they set up the kitchen, and that’s where they had benches where we would sit and eat.

Our trailer was basically the size of a college dorm room. When I wasn’t helping the cook she would send me back to her trailer and I would watch TV or play with my dolls, something like that. When I was eight or nine, my parents decided we couldn’t live there anymore, that we had to find something better.

Maria: One of my husband’s nieces took care of her, but there was nothing for the kids to do at the camp. They could only go out to play in the dirt, throw water at each other. There were no playgrounds in the camp, nothing. We lived for about six years in that labor camp, and Lupita’s sister Marlene was born. Then we learned that apartments existed in Arvin. Those apartments have beds. They have things that make living in them possible. Then Arvin’s apartments were demolished because they were too old—they were made of decaying wood. So the growers sent us to the labor camp in Shafter. Then my other daughter Jasmine was born. We lived there for three years before going back to Arvin. That’s where Lupita began going to school.

Guadalupe: I went to schools in Indio, Shafter, and Bakersfield. They were completely different school systems, so I’d fall behind, because they were doing things that I didn’t know how to do, because I hadn’t learned them.

When I went into middle school, I lost the electives I had chosen. I wanted to do soccer and art. I wanted to be part of the Associate Student Body program. The school didn’t allow me to because I was supposed to be there at the beginning of the year. When I came back, they gave me a new schedule and it was nothing like what my schedule looked like before. I was really upset. I talked to my parents about it. It took a little bit of convincing, because they didn’t know how it would work, because we had never been apart from each other. But eventually they gave in. They thought it was the best for me, too, for my education.

Maria: Switching schools made life complicated. The credits can’t be transferred, and they lose everything and have to start from scratch, with the basic classes. It’s a huge problem. So one year, Lupita would go back early to Coachella with my sister, and then one year with me, and so on. My husband’s brother used to say, “I’ll be happy if my daughters finish high school.” And Lupita would say, “No mami, I want to keep studying.” She’s always wanted to go to college.

Guadalupe: Ever since I can remember, both of my parents would always tell me, “You have to go to school so you can work in better conditions than what we’re working in.” So I feel like it’s something that they inculcated in me. That there was no way out but going to school.

Maria: From the time she was in kindergarten, I went to the meetings of the migrant program, all the time. They told us about the help that we could get, the financial aid. The migrant program has helped me to be more awake. Because you’re basically asleep, you don’t know anything, and they kind of wake you up and tell you about these steps that you have to follow.

“You Think You’re Ready to Work?”

Guadalupe: We were living in the Arvin camp when I started to work. I was 15 and saw that most of the cousins that I hung out with, their parents had already taken them to work. They’d come home and tell me stories of how they’d hide from the supervisor, or how they threw grapes at each other. Just funny stories, ’cause most of the crew was family. So I’d hear these stories, and I’d be like, “Oh Mom, take me! I wanna go too!” They didn’t wanna take me. They were really hesitant. But I kept bugging and bugging them. They were like, “All right, you think you’re ready to work?”

On the first day, my parents tried to teach me how to pick. But I wanted to be a packer, because my cousins were all packers and I wanted to be close to them so we could talk during work. I got my dad mad, ’cause I kept telling him, “I don’t know how to do this; I wanna pack!” Eventually my mom gave in. She took me to the table where you pack and taught me. There were a lot of family members and they were like, “Ohhh, watch out for the newbie.”

My parents were both picking, and I was packing, and I came out to be really good at packing. When I’d finish packing I’d scream, “Grape!” And everyone would be laughing ’cause they’re like, “Oh look—she’s a newbie and she’s really good.”

That day, we sat down to have lunch in the field, and I was so surprised—the workers didn’t have any tables, or anywhere to sit. They just had to sit in the shade near the grape vines on the ground and eat. I think that was one of the biggest “wow” moments that I had that day, when I saw my parents having lunch on the ground.

It was probably around two in the afternoon when my legs started getting really tired. And since I had finished packing the grapes that I had, I was like, “I’m just gonna take a seat.” My cousin was the mayordomo. He saw me and he’s like, “You know you’re not supposed to do that. You can’t sit down on the job.” I was kinda scared, ’cause I was tired at that point. I just wanted to sit down—it was hot.

That first day was super life-changing, eye-opening for me. Sometimes when I used to stay home I wouldn’t clean the house, and my mom would get really mad at me and be like, “Why haven’t you cleaned?” And I’d make an excuse, because I was watching TV or something. On that first day, as soon as we got home, I made sure my sister cleaned. I knew how tired my parents were from working ’cause I had to go through it myself. It made me value my parents a lot more. I had no idea how hard my parents’ work was. I mean, I knew it was hot, but that was about it.

Pedro: How could I forget that first day? We worked for a...

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