Tuesday, June 20, 2000, 12:00 a.m. Pacific
Farm towns undergoing metamorphosis as Mexican workers decide to stay
By Lynda V. Mapes
TOPPENISH, Yakima County - Rosa Mungía struggles through the back door of her house, hefting a 50-pound bag of masa harina for making tortillas. She'll be needing it.
The Mungías live primarily on seasonal farm work. They believe their children have a better life here, where the couple's work pays 10 times or more than it would in Mexico.
They miss their hometown of Pajacuarán and visit every year they can afford it, piling the children in the van for the long drive. But the journey is always round trip: The Mungías have found economic opportunity here. And they believe in helping others do the same.
"When I help I feel better," Rosa Mungía said through an interpreter. "I know what it's like to be with nowhere to live."
And so this three-bedroom house swirls with life on a Sunday afternoon in spring: Rosa, 34, and José, 35; their five children, ranging in age from 11 months to 12 years; and seven renters, all friends and relatives from home.
The pipeline from Mexico
Nationally, 81 percent of farmworkers are foreign-born, and 95 percent of them are from Mexico, according to a U.S. Department of Labor survey released in April.
Most are young, single men, schooled only through the sixth grade. At least 70 percent of the 4,200 interviewed for the annual survey said they found their jobs through family and friends; more than half voluntarily told interviewers they were here illegally.
They need two things to make the trip from Mexico: money to pay a human smuggler to get them across the border, and contacts to ease their way in the United States.
Ramón Barajas, 19, came to join his brother Juan Carlos and uncle José Mungía in Toppenish 14 months ago. His brother staked him $1,300 to pay the smuggler, or coyote. Jose and Rosa Mungía gave him space in their basement for his sleeping bag.
"I wanted to see it," Barajas said of the United States. "And in Mexico there isn't much work. I wanted to be able to send money home to my mother."
Back home in Pajacuarán, his father supports the rest of the family - two more brothers and two sisters - as a garbage hauler, making $40 a week.
Barajas was disappointed when he first reached Toppenish.
"They say it's really pretty here, with lots of places to go," Barajas said through an interpreter. "Then I come here and I'm thinking, `This is el norte?' "
He arrived between the pruning and thinning seasons, during the worst depression in the tree-fruit industry in years. Tree-fruit workers' wages statewide dipped to $362 million last year, down from $395 million in 1998, a record harvest year.
It took Barajas more than two months to find his first job. Instead of sending money home, he was borrowing it from his uncle.
Now, he is working steadily. He and his brother have chipped in to buy a used car. He has discovered American women, and the dance hall in Toppenish.
And sometimes when he gets home from work, on nights when Rosa Mungía isn't too exhausted, there is a big pot of soup waiting.
The field work
On a recent Monday, Rosa Mungía's hands were still stiff from working in the hop fields with her husband that weekend. It is her job to cut and sack the roots that José digs, work done on her knees. They are paid by the root and can make $150 together in a good day, working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
"But we can barely make it home," she said.
Kneeling aggravates the scar from her Caesarean section, still tender several months after the birth of her son. She worked into her ninth month of pregnancy during last year's apple harvest, holding the picking bag, usually worn over the stomach, to one side.
José Mungía does every type of field work, from tying and harvesting hops to pruning, thinning and picking fruit trees. He likes that: "Each day is something different." And he is good at it.
If the work is steady, he can make about $300 a week. He usually works with friends from Pajacuarán, with the fastest man helping the others finish as they prune rows of young fruit trees that stretch for hundreds of feet. The more they prune, the more they earn, at $1.25 a tree.
During peak harvest, Mungía said he can make $500 to $800 a week, getting up at 4 a.m. and picking fruit by the headlights of his car.
But the Mungías go through dry periods. Their renters come and go and can't always find work. The Mungías let them pay when they can; they know how it is.
First days in the United States
José and Rosa Mungía met picking apples in 1987.
Originally from Mexico City, Rosa Mungía was 16 when her father died; she quit school and got work ironing clothes to help support her family.
She was 18 when she was smuggled across the border with her mother and sister. They lived for a time in the women's changing room at a city pool in California. Then a friend took her in, sneaking her through the window of her rented room to sleep. Even though the woman who owned the house had a room to spare, she wouldn't rent to Mungía. "She said I would seduce her husband."
José was 16 when he came to the U.S., illegally, with his father. He passed the naturalization test in 1995, but was denied citizenship because of a drunken-driving conviction in 1991. He is eligible to take the test again this year but doubts that he will.
"It's not important," he said.
The Mungías bought their house two years ago, scraping together a $4,000 down payment from earnings in a cherry harvest, a loan from friends and their Visa card.
They pay the $764 monthly mortgage - their monthly bills total about $1,500 - with the help of their renters, each of whom pays $75 a month in rent, $35 for food and $30 in utilities. As soon as they can afford it, they want to fix the sink in the house's only bathroom, and the shower in the basement.
The living-room trim is decorated with green spray paint, and a philodendron twines along the ceiling. A framed print of the Last Supper hangs over a small kitchen utility table - the Mungías' only furniture except for the couple's bed, a dresser, a high chair and crib for their baby and mattresses for their children.
Rosa is waiting for her turn at the revolving family fund, a total of $2,000 in cash collected weekly from a circle of relatives in Toppenish. She wants a dining-room set and some living-room furniture.
Home away from home
On this Sunday the house bustles.
Seven-year-old Prisilla parades in Rosa's high heels; Jesse, 10, is dressed in his soccer uniform hours before the game; baby Daniel chugs across the carpet on chubby knees; renter Leon Herrera sits on the floor watching home videos of his wife and five children in Pajacuarán. His housemates tease him because he watches the videos so often.
The house empties for the afternoon as everyone heads to Toppenish High School to watch the Pajacuarán soccer team play their arch rival, San Gregorio, a neighboring village in Mexico.
The Mungías try to take Sunday off, unless they need to pick up extra work to make ends meet.
Now that migrant workers are arriving for the growing season, Rosa Mungía has work at a Toppenish preschool for migrant children. She remembers keeping her eldest son in a box as she picked fruit, tugging the infant along as she moved down the rows.
"We suffered a lot because there was no one to take care of the babies. That's why I enjoy this job now," she said. "I know what it is like for your children to beg you to not wake them up and take them with you."
She ducks into her bedroom to retrieve her 1995 GED certificate. Her dream is to take classes at Heritage College, a private liberal-arts college in Toppenish. Even though she has worked at the preschool for seven seasons, earning as much as $9 an hour, by 2003 the center will require that she have an associate of arts degree.
Rosa Mungía's visa is good only for employment. Without a permanent-resident visa, she isn't eligible for tuition assistance from Heritage, and she can't afford the $13,500 tuition.
"I don't want to leave for the field," she said. "But I want a savings account even if I have to kill myself so I can go to college."
Last winter, she began English language classes at the local junior high. She hustled down the fluorescent hallways one night to class, leaving the baby in a room swarming with immigrant children.
Down the hall, José Mungía watched his teacher work a math equation on the blackboard, part of a lesson for his GED. He bristled with frustration at the struggle of caring for his children, looking for work and trying to get an education.
"I have kids who have to eat. What are we supposed to do?" he asked the teacher as his classmates nodded agreement. "How is it possible to do all this?"
Once the fieldwork season began this spring, both José and Rosa Mungía dropped their classes.
"I was going to work 12 hours, and didn't even have a chance to eat dinner before going to school," Rosa Mungía said. "I did it for two weeks and couldn't keep going. It made me sad."
Lynda Mapes' phone message number is 206-464-2736. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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