Monday, June 19, 2000, 12:00 a.m. Pacific
'I need the work, they need the work done'
By Lynda V. Mapes
MANSON, Chelan County - A dirty towel covers a window, and the linoleum is worn to the concrete; one bare bulb lights the room. The garbage can in this labor-camp cabin is a plastic grocery bag nailed to a strip of plywood on the wall.
Herrera is an undocumented worker who dwells in two worlds: His family is in Mexico; his paycheck is earned in the United States.
"We are born under one flag, and another flag gives us food," Herrera, 42, said through an interpreter. "One sees us born, the other sees us die."
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates there are 6 million illegal immigrants in the United States, including 52,000 in Washington. The Washington Growers League estimates the number is much higher.
Herrera has and worked in the Yakima Valley since his marriage 17 years ago, staying linked to Mexico by his two luxuries in life: long-distance phone calls and home videos, which he watches at his landlord's house in Toppenish.
He is both beneficiary and victim of an immigration policy that is lax enough to let him work here but tough enough to make it hard to go home.
If he could, Herrera would work the agricultural season in Washington, from April through October, then return to his home in Pajacuarán, with its two bedrooms, open-air kitchen and outdoor latrine. But with payments to human smugglers, or "coyotes," as high as $2,000 to sneak him into the United States, he has felt trapped here, sometimes for three years at a time. He last saw his family in April 1999.
And though Herrera lives and works here illegally, he said he isn't afraid.
"Everyone knows who we are. There is freedom in this country. What can they do to me for telling the truth? What's the worst thing? . . . They send me back to Mexico."
Indeed, with 275,000 people smuggling themselves over the U.S.-Mexican border each year, deportation would be viewed by some as both an inconvenience and a blessing. It would interrupt the work but provide an all-expenses-paid trip home.
And finding work in the fields is seldom a problem, despite the bogus papers that Herrera knows fool no one.
"I need the work, and they need the work done," he said.
A lonely existence
Herrera shares one of 10 cinder-block cabins in a labor camp in Manson with three other workers, all from the same village in Mexico. They each pay $25 a week for the cabin, above the resorts and vacation homes of Lake Chelan, for three months as they prune fruit trees.
Herrera fries pork in a battered skillet on an electric stove with two working burners, pouring glugs of Wesson oil on the meat. He and his cabin mates chipped in on a used TV, purchased for $30. The cabin has cable, and they watch the lone Spanish-language station. His work clothes serve as his pillow, folded in a pile on a bare mattress.
A strong stink of urine drifts in the door from a pair of filthy outdoor bathrooms.
Herrera doesn't mind the lack of privacy. "This way I don't feel so alone."
Among his few personal belongings is a red vinyl photo album of family pictures, brought from a basement room he rents in Toppenish, Yakima County, where he lives between field jobs.
Herrera looks at the pictures every morning and night.
He ties his clock, with an electronic rooster alarm, to the springs of the bunk bed above him. "This is a sound from my village," he said, grinning as he sets off the electronic cock-a-doodle-doo.
In Pajacuarán, in the state of Michoacán, his wages for farm work would be $5 to $10 a day. In Washington, pruners make from $6.50 an hour, the new state minimum wage, to $7.25 an hour. A fast cherry picker working a heavy crop on small trees can make as much as $100 a day.
"It's better off for me to be here," Herrera said.
Although many immigrants eventually bring their families, he wants his five children, ages 4 to 16, to grow up in Mexico. "Children lose respect for their parents here," he said.
But life in two worlds comes at a price. The latest video from home shows Herrera's youngest daughter's 4th-birthday party. He missed it. He also missed her birth.
"I wish they were here. I wish I was there," Herrera said. "But before, it was worse. They didn't have enough money."
In a good year - working through the high-season harvest months and doing sporadic pruning and thinning jobs in the winter and early spring - Herrera said he will make $10,000 to $12,000. His best year was $16,000. Last year was a depressed one for the tree-fruit industry and for Herrera: He made about $8,000 and was able to send little home.
He keeps expenses to a minimum, paying his landlords in Toppenish $75 a month for sleeping space in the basement, $30 for utilities and $35 for food.
He owns no car, instead paying friends to drive him to work. Phone cards to call home are $5 for 45 minutes. He tries to limit himself to one a week.
The cost of living in Mexico is well within U.S. farmworkers' wages.
The electric bill in Pajacuarán is about $7 a month. Propane for cooking is about $14, water about $9. Labor is cheap: Building a simple house costs $15,000 to $20,000. Herrera's biggest single expense is paying the coyote to get across the border.
"If it cost less, I could see my family more. I could go back home when the season is over, then come back for work."
Fake papers no problem
Herrera usually uses a fake Social Security card to get work. He bought the card on the street in Los Angeles in 1980. It took less than an hour.
He also once worked under another man's name and valid Social Security number.
He said he avoids employers who use the Social Security Administration's electronic employment-verification system, which allows employers to know on the spot whether a worker's number matches his name.
"Usually all they want is the number," Herrera said. "They don't want to know if it's good."
He is paid by check. Taxes and Social Security are deducted just as if he were legally employed, since that is what his employer determined by hiring him.
Herrera won't earn unemployment payments, welfare or other benefits and services unless he does so fraudulently - something he said he has never done.
Since first crossing the border in 1980 in search of work, Herrera said he has survived a host of dangers along the U.S.-Mexican line: gunshots fired over his head by the Border Patrol, steep ravines in the dark, tunneling through sewer systems.
"When you first make the journey, you put all your faith in God. Go to church. See your mother. She wishes you luck, then you step out of the house and take whatever comes."
One year he tried 17 times to get across, getting caught and sent back each time. He has learned that climbing barehanded over barbed wire is easier if you use your shirt to cover your hands.
"It's better to die of a gunshot than to watch your children go hungry," he said. "There are thousands more of me who think the same thing."
Herrera saves his pay stubs to document his work here, hoping some day there will be another federal amnesty. He was home in Mexico during a critical phase of an amnesty granted in 1986, so missed his chance to be legalized.
Life without father
In her open-air kitchen in Pajacuarán, Navidad Herrera, 34, slaps fresh tortillas flat with her palms, then roasts them to steaming puffs on an outdoor hearth fired with corncobs and mesquite.
Smoke from the neighbors' cooking fires drifts through. The sound of rooting pigs mixes with crowing roosters and blasts of trumpets from a roving mariachi band far below in the town square.
"We miss him," she said of her husband, as their daughters shell green garbanzo beans in their bedroom, listening to a booming tape of the Backstreet Boys sent from America by their dad.
Everyone in the family works to stretch Leonardo Herrera's wages.
Navidad and the eldest girls, Navidad and Susanna, 14 and 12, shell beans for 10 pesos, or about 10 cents, a bucket. Fernando, 9, is one of a troop of young boys who cruise the town square with beat-up wooden boxes of shoe polish and brushes. The eldest, Leonardo, 16, cleans the town's Catholic church.
Navidad says the separation is hardest on the young ones. But, like her husband, she thinks it is better to rear their family in Pajacuarán, where children are allowed to work with their parents and discipline is not frowned upon.
"Here you can give them your own teachings," she said.
Bricks for a bathroom
Tin cans planted with geraniums and purple petunias decorate a low brick wall that separates the Herreras from the neighbors. A pallet of bricks out back, shaded by papaya trees, is both an accomplishment and a hope.
Herrera bought the bricks to wall in the family's latrine with $250 earned last year during the hop harvest in Grandview, Yakima County, and with earnings from pruning fruit trees in Chelan County. This month, he sent home $800 more for the bathroom.
The bricks will replace the flattened milk cartons and roofing materials that now enclose the bathroom, where Herrera's 4-year-old, María Flora, holds a curtain across the outhouse door for people inside. The shower is a Clorox bottle with nail holes punched in the bottom.
"The littlest girl cries a lot," Navidad Herrera said of their youngest. "She talks to him on the phone and says, 'Daddy, Daddy, Mom is making tortillas every day, why don't you come home?'
"And he says, 'You have to understand why I am not there. It is for you.' "
Lynda Mapes' phone message number is 206-464-2736. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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