Featured Artwork: “Mammon” by David Weinholtz
After retiring, I moved to a rural property nuzzled by acres of strawberries. I was surprised the first time a dozen Mexican farmworkers arrived with spring. These laborer’s gently comb tawny mulch from plant crowns. Snippets of Spanish songs waft across fields as they heave ten-foot irrigation pipes off trailers and assemble them like a Lego set. From my patio, they appear content as they toil between rows of serrated strawberry leaves swishing in the cancan breeze.
They remind me of my energic young sons on long-ago treks to local pick-your-own farms. I taught them to select strawberries in full crimson blush, avoid the white-tipped ones. We cupped tender berries in our palms. Severed their stems with thumbnail pressed against index finger. We gorged ourselves on fresh fruit before I crushed the remaining bounty and mixed it with pectin. Divided it into preserve jars that I froze. I could defrost the scent of summer during shivering winter. I forgot my slick perspiration. The throb in my back and leg muscles after a mere ninety minutes of effort. I didn’t think about the workers’ existence after they left the field until the spring of 2020. Nations erect fences too porous to contain a tiny virus. Desperate fruit farmers lobby for an agricultural exemption.
Now I see these unmasked laborers arrive with the pink blush of sunrise. They travel shoulder to shoulder in the back of trucks without seatbelts. Weed between plants with the energy of my once-young sons until the trucks transport them away at dusk. We never talk but I become familiar with their mannerisms. Stalky Bonifacio wears a red toque and squats. Blue-hoodied Rogelio bends forward. Juan, the tallest one, spreads his straight legs in a wide V. He laughs and holds his bushel of weeds aloft like a trophy before he dumps it at the end of each row.
White freckled fields replace flowers with berries. These agro-athletes two-handed pluck berries hidden beneath trios of leaves. When winter looms, workers tuck plants into a blanket of straw for protection before flying home. While fixing my sump-pump, the farmer’s brother explains, “Sure they’re paid less than minimum wage but room and board is free. Most return every year.”
The Canadian government deems these temporary foreign workers as essential skilled labor and requires a 14-day quarantine after arrival. We protect ourselves with white-topped precision. How do we treat agricultural workers severed from their families? We crush them together in trucks. Pack them in houses containing twenty men. Fail to supply protective equipment. Ship Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, Rogelio Muñoz Santos, and Juan Lopez Chaparro home from southwestern Ontario in coffins. All to satisfy our appetite for affordable strawberries cared for tenderly to avoid bruising.
Poignant and beautifully written. I live in coastal SC where workers come to harvest fruit and vegetables. While thoughts of the conditions in which they live, and the families they leave to come here run through my head, I admit those thoughts are fleeting. After reading this essay, I suspect those thoughts will remain longer, having read you eloquent work.
I, too, will think more carefully about the cost of strawberries. My cost is meager compared to that of the migrant workers.
Loved the turn this piece takes from the beginning to end. I was initially not fond of where “I thought it was going”. Then the dip into reality was powerful. Thank you!