Sunday, June 18, 2000, 12:00 a.m. Pacific
Needed but often illegal, they pick our crops, pine for home
By Lynda V. Mapes
In the next few weeks, as many as 20,000 farmworkers will fan out across Eastern Washington for the intense cherry harvest. By the time the apple harvest finishes in late fall, 125,000 seasonal workers will have labored there -- as many as 70 percent of them illegally.
Today The Seattle Times begins a four-day series about the lives of these farmworkers, and the underground economy that supports Washington's largest industry.
They come in waves, following friends and families from rural villages such as Pajacuarán, in the state of Michoacán, which sends a third of its residents to work in the U.S., carrying or sending back the seeds of a middle-class economy.
Many crossed into this country illegally, gaining residency or citizenship over time. Their stories are as individual as their names. But together, their lives bear witness to the cycle of Mexican immigration and settlement in the United States, the transformation of communities on both sides of the border and the immigration practices that frustrate workers and growers alike.
Ramón Barajas is the rookie. Just 19, he came to Toppenish, Yakima County, 14 months ago to see the world and make money to send to his mother back home in Mexico.
Lack of legal work papers hasn't stopped him. Although he spent two months looking for a job, he has now earned enough to buy a used car.
Leonardo Herrera has worked in the United States, never legally, for almost 20 years. He is typical of undocumented farmworkers who dwell in two worlds: Mexico is where he lives. Eastern Washington is where he works.
He is both beneficiary and hostage of an immigration policy that is broken enough to let him work here, but rigid enough to make it hard to go home to see his wife and children.
Rosa and José Mungía's roots go deeper in Eastern Washington. They have legal papers, and American-born children. Mexican is who they are, but American is where they are headed.
The Toppenish home they bought on farmworker wages houses not only their five children, but Mexican workers new in the pipeline.
José Luis Alejo worked his way from illegal picker to U.S. citizen and foreman in a small family orchard, where his bosses provide his family a house and medical benefits.
He and other Mexican foremen provide a key link to labor for Washington growers. He hires friends from his hometown in Mexico, knowing many are illegal, and makes no apology for it.
Martín Rodríguez is a U.S. citizen who has pruned, thinned and picked his way to financial success on both sides of the border.
After 17 years of work in this country, much of it illegal, Rodríguez has funded a middle-class lifestyle for his mother in Mexico. Now the foreman of an orchard in Manson, Chelan County, he has made sure his children will have the advantages of U.S. citizenship.
Jesús Silva, 78, has retired to relative prosperity in Mexico after a lifetime of work in Washington fields.
But Silva's children, who one-by-one came to this country to work with him, make their home in the Yakima Valley and only go to Mexico to visit. His grandchildren are leaving the fields. His great-grandchildren are bound for American universities.
The Silva family is the Mexican immigrant story run its course. As Jesús Silva's descendants work their way out of agriculture, new workers take their places, beginning their own climb up the U.S. economic ladder.
"If you want to demonstrate the dependence the industry has on Mexican immigrants, it is very, very clear," said Mike Gempler of the Washington Growers League, which represents about 800 agricultural employers on labor issues. "They are the work force."
Washington growers say they have an adequate labor supply for the time-sensitive and physically exhausting harvests only because much of that labor is illegal.
Mechanization offers no short-term solution. Of Washington's major fruit crops, only grapes are harvested by machine. All berries, hops and fruit trees rely extensively on hand labor, from planting through harvest.
It is hard work, stooping to divide hop roots and cut asparagus by single spears.
Tedious work, training thousands of hop vines one at a time on their trellises, or twisting blossoms off fruit trees to thin the crop.
Dangerous work, pruning fruit trees, the cause of more eye injuries than any other job in Washington east of the Cascades.
And low-wage work.
Washington's tree-fruit wages remain among the lowest yearly wages in agriculture, in part because of their seasonal nature. Annual earnings by field workers and pickers averaged $7,995 in 1998, according to the state Department of Employment Security.
Poverty by any measure. Unless you are from a rural village in Mexico.
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