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The farm I worked at sits on the south bank of the Tualatin River. Photo: Internet

The farm I worked at sits on the south bank of the Tualatin River. Photo: Internet

This August I scored a position as a seasonal agricultural laborer at a farm in rural Washington County Oregon. I either caught a ride, or bicycled eleven miles into the countryside, arising very early because blueberry picking commences at six am. A day spent in the country under the health-giving sun, is really a treat. Eight hours of berry picking is easier than eight hours of landscaping, which is what I usually do. Each morning as I locked my bike, I noticed that everyone else arrived in mostly shiny new cars. Only one other person came by bicycle.

I’ve lived under the poverty line my entire adult life, and I’ve seen a lot of change on the lowest rung of the labor ladder during my lifetime. In the 1980’s when I lived in Key West Florida, there were plenty of unskilled labor jobs available. The employers treated us like expendable dirt, but at least we had a choice about where we wanted to work. All that has changed in the last 35 years. American women under the poverty line are fast-tracked by employment agencies into two job categories: telephone customer service, and caretaking of the old, the very young, and

The berry fields where I worked.

The berry fields where I worked.

the disabled. I loathe talking on the phone, and having spent the last 20 years caring for aging and ailing pets, I feel like I’ve paid my dues in that area. I like to work outdoors.

When I was a child in Oregon, before they changed the labor laws, children were the berry pickers. There were few Latin Americans in Oregon at that time, and a large part of migrant labor was white. We all picked berries, because it was just part of being a kid back then. And it wasn’t just children picking crops. In her book Onions in the Stew, Betty MacDonald writes about picking peaches for a commercial grower on Vashon Island in Washington State in the 1950’s. The biggest change since my youthful days of bringing in the sheaves, are the sounds of the modern berry patch. Ringing phones echo across the fields against a soundtrack of Mexican radio station music.

I grew up in 4-H and later in high school I was a member of Future Farmers of America. I’ve cared for livestock most of my life. I would love to have a job in agriculture. But if you’re a poor American and want to work on a farm, you’re SOL unless  you have relatives who own a farm or ranch. American businesses don’t want unskilled American labor. When I make a telephone appointment for a job interview, all the personnel department hears is my Hispanic surname. The look of shock and horror when I show up and they see my white face, is priceless.

My 4-H pin and my FFA Greenhorn pin.

My 4-H pin and my FFA Greenhorn pin.

In April of 2010, I was hired sight unseen by SBM Site Services for a janitorial position in a large office complex. Our cleaning team consisted of an Arab man who was very polite to me, and the rest of the employees were Mexican. Once my co-workers recovered from their shock, they began a champaign of bullying designed to make me quit. The gringa posed a threat. What if she contacted ICE about the illegals working at SBM Site Services? (not that ICE would have actually done anything). When they realized that I’m a lot tougher than I appear, I was fired by my Mexican supervisor Rudolfo. I filed a claim of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and eventually won a pittance of a settlement.

I had heard horror stories about the EEOC, which I now tend to believe. The rudeness of the Seattle office was beyond belief. My investigator Toni Haley was hostile to me from our first conversation. She refused to follow the leads I provided, and accepted the lies

Lunch time... for everyone but me. Due to my strict health regimen, I eat one vegetarian meal per day in the evening.

Lunch time… for everyone but me. Due to my strict health regimen, I eat one vegetarian meal per day in the evening.

of my former employers without verification. Three times she told me she was closing my case, and three times I told her I would go over her head if she did so. One of our telephone conversations actually dissolved into a shouting match. I had naively expected a modicum of decorum from federal employees, but that is not what I experienced.

Four months after I won my paltry settlement, a group of Mexican Indigeni laborers on an Oregon Christmas tree farm won a $110,000.  settlement after they were harassed by their Mexican supervisors. One might wonder why Mexicans would harass other Mexicans – however, in Mexico discrimination against Indigeni (Indians) is rife. There was a lot of self-congratulatory crowing by the EEOC in The Oregonian newspaper after the settlement was announced, and The Oregonian  made much of it. The Oregonian was interested in my story too… until they discovered that the person who had won the settlement was white, at which point they dropped the story like a hot potato. As a white person with a Hispanic surname, I have witnessed this kind of bias more times than I care to recall. The only conclusion I can draw from this experience is that if you are Indigeno and your Mexican supervisor bullys and harasses you, the EEOC will bust their butts to help you. If however, you are white and your Mexican supervisor bullys and harasses you, expect to fight for justice every step of the way.

In early 2007 I spent a lot of time driving my immigrant husband around as he applied for work. Sometimes he would enter the building of a potential employer, only to return after a few minutes. When I questioned him about this, he said that if a business had a majority of Hispanic workers it indicated to him that many illegals would be working there. If this was the case it meant a sweat shop with countless labor violations, where no-one complained for fear of losing their job. It also meant a Hispanic overseer who job it was to quash descent and keep any complaints from reaching management.

In 2004 my old horseshoer retired, but I was able to find a replacement without much trouble – a gentleman in his forties. As he worked on my horse he said that he had only been a farrier for a few years. When I asked him why he had gone into the business, he told me that he had been let go from a huge local tech company and been replaced by an Indian national who was willing to work for a smaller salary. His exact words were: “I figured that being a farrier was one of the few jobs an Indian national could not take away from me”. The unpleasant truth is that business wants immigrant employees – both legal and illegal – and our government is willing and happy to oblige.

When the immigration reform bill passes – and like Obamacare, it will pass in some form (executive order perhaps?) because it has already been decided by the powers that be – it will only formalize the changes that have taken place (by design) over the last 40 years. The endgame is a biometric ID for all Americans. It will begin with “show me your papers” when you apply for a job, and then spread to all aspects of American life. In my view, beefing up the border is more about keeping the sheep in the pen, rather than keeping the wolves out.

So here’s to blueberries! A source of income for the poor, and a superfood chock full of good things for optimum health. Enjoy the blueberry season while it lasts.

Oregon blueberris. The fertile soil of the Willamette Valley enticed the Oregon Trail pioneers ever westward towards the setting sun.

Oregon blueberries. The fertile soil of the Willamette Valley enticed the Oregon Trail pioneers ever westward towards the setting sun.

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George Bailey and Clarence OdbodyI’d like to share an experience that happened to me in Mexico, in April of 2009. This story illustrates two points:

That the kind words of a stranger can be enough to save a life; and even when you’re 99 percent sure your prayer won’t be answered, it still may be answered at the eleventh hour.

Before I departed on this particular trip, I told a Mexican friend that I was going to try and find his village in central Mexico. He laughed and told me I would never find it, because it’s so remote he had never even seen it on a map. Well, to me this was a challenge. Finding obscureGeorge Baily and Clarence Odbody towns and remote places is my special forte.

I reached the town about noon on a hot Sunday in April. I parked my car and headed first to the park. A soccer game was in progress, and I stood near the goalie and watched. During a lull in the action, the goalie spoke to me in English. His name was Beto, and he had lived in the United States in the past. When I explained that I was looking for the sister of my friend, he offered to help when the game ended. Beto didn’t recognize the last name of the woman I was looking for, but he felt someone on the team would probably know the family.

As I waited for the soccer game to end, I wandered the streets of this small town. I passed a house where the inhabitants were enjoying an alfresco lunch. There were many people, and two guitarists were providing live music. Apparently, an obvious American was a rare sight strolling the streets here, and a woman hailed me in English and motioned me into the yard. This was Kathy. She had met her Mexican husband about ten years prior in the United States, and they had recently returned to his village to build their retirement home. I gratefully accepted a plate of food and a cold beer.

I talked with Kathy for several hours, and somehow we got on the subject of destiny. She then told me one of the best stories I’ve ever heard. Here it is:

Years ago, Kathy worked in New Orleans as a waitress on the night shift. One night on her way home from work, she felt strangely compelled to stop at a bar in her neighborhood. She had passed this bar hundreds of times before, but had never had an urge to go in. She found herself seated next to a very despondent man. He unburdened himself to her, and she spent the next few hours trying to cheer him up.

Years went by, and Kathy was now living in California. One day she received an astonishing phone call. It was from the despondent man from the New Orleans bar. He remembered her last name, and was able to track down Kathy’s mother, who provided him with a current phone number. He told her that the night they met, he was planning on committing suicide. He had stopped at the bar for one last drink, but after talking with Kathy, he had changed his mind. He said he was calling her to say thank you for saving his life!

I love this story. It brings to mind Clarence, the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. God sends him to earth to prevent George Bailey from taking his own life. Apparently humans can act as stand-ins for helping angels. If you pay attention, you’ll find that life immitates art more often than one would imagine.

 

George Bailey prays desperately for help in Martini’s bar. Have you ever prayed with this kind of desperation? I certainly have.

Later, Clarence tries to convince George he is the answer to George’s prayer. How many times have you been sent divine help, but spurned it?

 

As the sun lowered in the sky, I suddenly realized how late it was. I returned to the park to see if the soccer games had finished. When I got there, all the players had left. I walked around town looking for Beto, and then finally gave up. I had prayed much that I would find my friend’s family, but as I drove on the gravel road leading out of town, I thought this would be one of those times when prayer would not be answered. Suddenly an idea flashed through my mind; I still may pass someone walking along the road who knows the family.

A few minutes later a van going rather fast, came up from behind. As I pulled over to let it pass, it stopped next to my car. Beto was leaning out the passenger window, and he asked if I had found the woman I was looking for. When I answered no, he said one of the soccer team members in the van knew the sister, and if I followed the van back into town, they would lead me to her home.

To make a long story short, I met my friend’s sister, aunt and grandmother; and was able to show them a short video clip of the nephew, grandnephew and great-grandson they had never seen. They were very happy and grateful that I had made the effort to track them down.

If you have a friend from a foreign country, and you’re planning a trip to that country, make an effort to look up your friend’s family or friends. Most will welcome you with open arms. The ones who stay behind really want to know how their loved one is getting along in the United States. Not long after my visit, my friend’s grandmother died. Because a stranger made an effort, she was able to see a video of her great-grandson before she passed. And there’s another lesson from this story: sincere gratitude expressed has the power to move mountains. If the man from New Orleans had not bothered to track down Kathy and thank her, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. If someone’s assistance made a difference in your life, make the effort to thank them… even if you thanked them at the time… and even if it has been years since the event. It’s never too late to let someone know their acts of kindness were appreciated.

 

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echos are truly endless.”           Mother Teresa

 

“Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potentile to turn a life around.”   Leo Buscaglia

George Bailey y Clarence Odbody

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It was December 31st 2004, and I was one month into a three month road trip through Mexico in my own car. Before I left home, I bought a large bag of candy to hand out to any children I might meet along the way; and because the main objective of my trip was a pilgrimage to the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe in Mexico City, I made several color copies of a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe to hand out to adults I might meet, as well. While going through some boxes before my departure, I found a small teddy bear and a newborn baby doll dressed in pink, that I had purchased at a flea market many years before. I added these to the potential gifts.

Cascades Agua Azul

Cascades Agua Azul

New Year’s Eve found me in Palenque in the state of Chiapas. My plan was to leave Palenque early in the morning, and drive leisurely on to San Cristobal de las Casas to celebrate New Year’s Eve; stopping along the way at Misolha Waterfall and the cascades of the Rio Tulija, known as Agua Azul.

I reached Agua Azul in the afternoon, and after taking many photos of the waterfalls, I started to walk along the path that follows the Rio Tulija upstream. It was quite warm, but not uncomfortable. Swarms of bright yellow butterflies kept pace with me, never leaving the trail. Occasionally, large cobalt blue butterflies with shimmering iridescent wings, floated by. After a few miles the path ended at a swimming spot. There was a sandy beach, and the river bottom as seen through the clear water, was firm sand as well. I had not brought my swimsuit, but the day was so warm, and the water so inviting, I stripped to my underwear and dived in. I swam for an hour, one thought never leaving my mind: how grateful I was to be here in this tropical paradise while my friends at home in the United States were preparing to celebrate New Year’s Eve in an icy rain.

Misolha Waterfall

Misolha Waterfall

Back on the road again, I anticipated an uneventful drive to San Cristobal de las Casas. Late in the afternoon the road began to twist and climb into the highlands. At a pull-off, I stopped to have a drink and enjoy the view of the valley far below. I noticed a middle-aged man with a walking stick, slowly making his way up the winding road. As he approached he hailed me with a greeting.

The man introduced himself as Miguel, and paused to chat with me. We were having a pleasant conversation, when suddenly I heard a rustling in the bushes beside the road, and a women and two children stepped out of the brush. This surprised me, as there was no sign of a village nearby. The little girl was about six, and the little boy about five. Their clothing was ragged and their faces smudged with dirt, but their mother clasped each of their small hands firmly, and it was obvious that they were very much loved.

I chatted with Miguel and the woman for a few minutes. The candy was long gone, but then  I suddenly remembered the toys in the glove compartment of my car, waiting for just such a moment as this. I had paid a dollar for each item, but a million dollars could not have purchased the joy in those two children’s faces, and their happy laughter, when I presented the doll to the girl and the teddy to the boy. I then handed both the mother and Miguel a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe, wished them a “Prospero Ano Nuevo!”, and continued on my way.

It was dark and quite chilly when I reached San Cristobal de las Casas, and the vegetarian restaurant where I had planned to celebrate New Year’s Eve couldn’t squeeze in one more person. But as I climbed into bed much earlier than I had expected, my heart was filled with a warm glow, because the image of those two little beaming faces pushed everything else aside. I knew I had just experienced the best New Year’s Eve of my life.

“Every kind act creates a ripple with no logical end.”    Scott Adams

Templo de Guadalupe San Cristobal de las Casas

Templo de Guadalupe San Cristobal de las Casas

This Blog is dedicated to the memory of Ping, my best friend and constant companion for thirteen years. He suffered so much in his short life. I believe he was born on May 8th so that I would recognize the importance of that date when the events of this story began to unfold.

ping_flowers

In memory of Ping

ping_beach  ping_pagoda

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