What I learned in the garlic fields

FERN Talks & Eats • Nov. 3, 2014

Brooklyn, NY

I was honored to take part in a live storytelling event hosted by the wonderful Food and Environment Reporting Network. Below is the text of the story I performed.

Rosalinda is fourteen when I meet her. She has brown skin and black hair and eyes so pretty that even when she wears bandanas over her face in the field, you can tell she is beautiful.

Inez is fourteen, too, with the same brown skin and black hair that Rosalinda has, but her eyes aren’t as big, her smile not as wide.

They both change my life forever.

I meet Inez at her house, because I live there, along with Inez, her parents, her two brothers, her two sisters; a family of two parents, one infant and one toddler in the second bedroom and the four or five men who sleep in the garage. I think there are seventeen of us sharing one bathroom and one kitchen, which are both shockingly clean. Most nights I eat with them and I can’t believe my good luck because the home cooking that comes out of the kitchen is relentless: sopas with fish and chile, Mexican rice, and, OK, dona maria store-bought moles. (even farmworkers have limits). I’m in love with the homemade flour tortillas that come with every meal. I am grateful for the meals, because I am always hungry after a day in the fields.

I meet Rosalinda there, in the garlic fields, she sets her buckets up next to me in the dirt and starts asking me questions. What is your name and where are you from and why are you here and don’t you want to work in a store instead (everyone always starts with this, working in a tienda).

And I say “No, yo tengo muchas problemas and no quiero hablar de eso.”

No, I have a lot of problems, I don’t want to talk about it.

There’s a pause and I try to think of the last time I talked to a teenager and what do you ask them. I’m 32, so it’s been a while. And the only thing I can come up with is a question that feels like it is part of a really bad, ‘how to go on a first date’ article. I ask her: So, what kind of music do you listen to?

And she looks at me like I am a little crazy, which frankly she probably already thinks anyway because I’m a white girl with papers working in farm fields, and she says primly, Christian music. We go back to cutting garlic.

The garlic has long, papery stalks, the kind that dry out and bleach to white and then you could, if you wanted, braid them together. That’s what farmers do in places that may see rain. When farmers began to grow garlic in America, they were out in the green hills of the east, and you harvested the garlic and braided its stalks and hung it to dry in a barn and let it cure. If it gets wet it will rot.

But we are in the Salinas Valley and nobody worries about too much rain in California, which is why all the big garlic farms are here. It is 2009, a year before the big drought begins, and here when the garlic is finished growing they just turn off the water in the field and let it sit. Farmers come in and cut the soil beneath it loose with machines, and then men walk through the fields that are a half-mile by half-mile, one row every fifteen or twenty feet, waking 65 miles of rows of garlic, bent at the waist, uprooting the garlic and laying it out to dry.

Rosalinda and I and the other pickers come later. Some workers are fast, but Rosalinda and I work slowly because she is young and weak and I am not so young but I am still weak. We cut off the thatch of root at the base, and then the stalks, snipping them into five gallon buckets, one dollar sixty for each one we fill. When I finish my first day, I have ten buckets. Rosalinda, I think, had seven. We were there for nine hours.

I work the math out later and since each bucket weighs about 25 pounds, I know that while I earned $1.80 an hour, and Rosalinda earned about $1.25 an hour, we each earned the same six cents for every pound we picked. When I see the same company’s garlic sold in a Walmart six months later, it costs $3.39 a pound.

I don’t know that on my first day, though, when Rosalinda sits down next to me. Mostly what I know is that she likes Christian music.

I go home and I tell Inez that I met another girl her age, and her eyes widen with interest. Her job is to cook and clean, and as she puts a stack of those flour tortillas on the table, she tells me she wishes she could go to work in the fields instead.

I meet Rosalinda’s parents, who are picking garlic, too, and we become friends. Some days I give them rides to the fields, and they help me with directions. We share food at lunch. Rosalinda tells me about how she wants to go to college and be a translator, and her parents want her to be a nurse. Inez’s parents aren’t like that; her job is to cook and clean and, I figure out, get married soon. She doesn’t go to school. She’s been learning how to make tortillas since she was ten.

This realization makes me feel many things. I feel angry. I feel humbled. I feel grateful. I feel sad. And while I can tell you that it made me realize that not just my life in the fields, but my life in general, is possible because of people like Inez, who work to feed people like me, that’s almost incidental.

Most of all I feel alone, because I am suddenly conscious of the vast chasm that separates the experience of my friends from my own.

This persists for a few days. And then something happens to help me level out. I can’t say snap out of it, because that wouldn’t be right; I didn’t, and probably won’t ever, forget what I learned from Inez.

So lunch hour comes one day in the field and Rosalinda’s dad decides to work through lunch. I’m walking to my car to get my food and as I pass Rosalinda’s family’s, she is sitting there and eating her lunch. And I hear something unmistakable coming from the radio.

It is Jay Z, rhyming, “If you got girl problems, I feel bad for you son, I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.”

I stop. I say to Rosalinda, “That doesn’t sound like Christian music.”

She looks down at her food, like any kid who’s been caught in a white lie. You know, you didn’t LIE LIE, but you kind of fibbed, like the dog ate my homework? It’s that look.

“I tell my parents this is Christian music,” Rosalinda says. For a moment I picture her dad, full-cheeked and smiling, driving down the highway with Jay Z blaring.

“Your dad thinks this is Christian music?” I start to giggle.

She nods. “Yeah. But he’s taking English classes,” she says, starting to giggle, too. Now I am moving into full-on laughter, tears welling up in my eyes.

“I have to figure something else out soon,” she says.

When we are done laughing, that chasm is still there. There’s no way to make it disappear. But it feels like, for a moment at least, I got to meet my friend in the middle.



Follow Tracie

Follow Tracie on Facebook
Follow Tracie on X (Twitter)
Follow Tracie on Instagram
Get Tracie's Newsletter