Friday, March 31, 2017

ON CESAR CHAVEZ DAY, A MIGRANT TALE

                                                                                              The Field

He had grown to like the dirt.
It felt coo  in the dusk of the morning hours, and the moist, dark, loamy soil stirred buried memories that those before him had left lodged in his subconscious...the smell of wet dirt after a rain shower, the wet clay on the banks of a moving river...
Still, he was too young to understand or grasp their meaning.

As he grew older, perhaps he’d grow too mature and forget. Crawling around the well-worn path in front of the house, he inspected a black, furry caterpillar as the insect scurried toward refuge under the boards of the migrants’ shack in an instinctive anticipation of the searing orb in the eastern horizon. Long before the rest of the family rose from their slumber, the baby left his mother’s side on the mattress on the floor and crawled about the house, and just outside.

Inside, signs of movement indicated the toddler’s siblings were stirring. Yawns and groans of tired disappointment came from the younger ones. The older workers sat on the edge of their cots with an air of quiet resignation. The work would be hard, the day long, but the work had to be done. There was no need to justify the task. That led nowhere.

The rosy aurora of the gathering day caught the baby’s attention as he gazed eastward. The stars, still visible, were losing their brightness as the light approached. They would not return again until darkness, when the workers would alight from the station wagon after working in the fields.

Already, sitting on the edge of his cot, Andres felt tired. His dreams had been of plants last night again. Rows and rows of plants stretching into an endless horizon filled his dreams, and yet, as endless as the verdure appeared, each leaf on each plant seemed distinctly separate.

The images remained vivid and clear as he looked across the table at his parents and siblings over the vapors of the steaming cup of coffee, the daily ritual that started their day. He felt bare and exposed in the dim light of the gathering day. Any other normal kid his age should be getting ready for school, or for another long vacation day in summer. Maybe another family would be working in the field next to their’s. Perhaps even Rosie’s family...

The caterpillar had reached the soft, cool dirt under the rotting house door steps by now and in its insectal wisdom peered out at the world and its birds, and that dangerous rooster out by the barn. It could not be seen and it felt secure in the cool dankness.
Now drifting, Andres’ thoughts were lifted and carried to the migrants’ distant home in the south by the soft heat of the warm coffee aroma which tickled his chin with its vapory fingers.

Hers hurt more after the first few days of beating the dirt with the hoe, thought Viola, kneading the flour tortilla dough in the kitchen. She made a mental note to bring it up to her mother as they worked and talked in the sun of things private in the realm of their femininity. Later, when they returned home and went to school, she’d hide her calluses under her books as she made her way to another class. 

She’d beg her mother to insist on something else than the petroleum jelly, even if it only cost a quarter. In her mind, she dared to visualize having some of the lotion in the opaque silver bottle held by the gowned lady as she laid sinuously lengthwise along a plush divan in the television commercial.

Her mother’s hands now held a foot-long piece of a round pole that had been part of a spring-operated window shade. The experienced movement of the hands moved the palote effortlessly, it seemed, rounded the hand-shaped mounds of flour dough that Viola kneaded into what appeared to be so many stemless mushrooms. Her children were already tired, she though. But she knew the labor of the day was still ahead and she hummed a hymn to the soft smack of the round wood on the flour. Cuando alla se pase lista...

The father made sure he hadn’t forgotten the list. To make things easier, the fieldman had suggested to him that as the head of the household, he only write two social security numbers instead of all the workers’. There was the delicate matter of child labor, and besides “they’ll have enough time to make money for their retirement themselves.” But they were so reluctant to rise every morning when they got ready for work. Not that he couldn’t understand. He had tried to instill in their young minds the necessity of their situation. Still that didn’t prevent them from asking optimistically at the end of the week, especially that Andres, for a whole dollar. He patiently explained that there was no money for trivial expenditures, and after the first denial, there would be no more requests.

“That’s the last time I’ll ask for money,” Andres reasoned. He had constructed instead a barrier that stopped pain and denial that even his older sister could not penetrate. Not that she hadn’t tried.
But he was always so quiet, thought Viola. Even in the field, he worked apart from the rest. When the other four paired off, he remained the odd one in the five.

Every morning, as if he could have told time, the infant wandered away of the mattress. But he couldn’t and he would crawl out and away from the thin sliver edges of the already-sharpened hoes leaning against a wall, their sharply filed edges linked somehow to something gleaming and small that he had found under the tall man’s basin. It had stung when he grabbed at it and turned his little fingers red. From that he had learned about sharpened steel, and he stayed away from sharp silvery things.

Lost in the minute gleam of a ray of sunlight on the chrome hood ornament of the station wagon, Andres dreamed again. For a moment, he felt as if the vehicle had softly and fluidly glided to a stop while the rest of the world rolled by. Only the shadow of the trees at the edge of the field brought him out of his brightness as the wagon came to a rolling stop as the tires crunched on the small clods of dirt of the newly-cultivated soil.

Husband and wife hoed as one. Already, the harmony of sounds of those used to working together was set. The girls could be heard over the wide outstretches of the rolling fields and Andres’ discordant thumps, however separated, remained attached to the beat, if only by the long thin green string of a sugar-beet row.
“I can’t figure him out,” the father confided to his wife. “The rest of the kids make a racket when I have to discipline them, but not him. When I spank him, he just stands there and look and me. He doesn’t even cry.”

I feel like you’re hitting me, she thought, hoeing pensively besides him in her row. “He is different,” she finalized, forgetting her aching hands and fingers.
Yes, the new one on television, thought to herself as the blister finally popped and the clear fluid dribbled down the shiny varnished handle. The hand adjusted automatically to protect the tender part and the harmony was reestablished.

Andres was thinking of pyramids. And sugar beet fields. Somehow, he associated both with a deep hurt that felt as though a live ember had been embedded under his right shoulder blade and no matter how much he turned or moved his arm, he could not dislodge it. The sun, the steady numbing rhythm and the hard unyielding dirt brought back forgotten numbness and reminiscent pain. And walking, always walking. Andres felt so short at the end of the day that the trees at the edge of the fields seemed double their size, an he imagined himself dwarfed by the six-inch beet sprouts. Immersed, he worked.

Lying on a blanket on the cool dirt floor, the toddler looked at the silvery television screen while his nine-year-old sister who watched him during the day swept the kitchen floor. It was only a small set, and to him it seemed like a moving hole he could not put his hand through. Each time he grasped for the furry animals and the funny people, his hand would be rejected by something smooth and cold which he did not understand.
“I can’t understand Andres either,” his mother answered his father. “But he seems to hurt a little more than the others,” and left unsaid that she perhaps understood him a little more than he did.
“What hope should I have in him?,” the father answered, deftly slicing two beet plants with a steady scrape. “He is the oldest male and he somehow seems detached from the rest. Why isn’t he like the rest of the others? Look at Pancho and Rosalio. They already drive their families to work in the morning, and by the look of things it won’t be long before my compadre will be a couple of daughters short. Maybe next year the new couples will come along with him. It’ll be tough to beat them then. They’ll be on their own list on the field man's paper.”

“Andres was telling me last night that the paper said you cannot work them all day long,” she spoke after a while. “He said it was something he read on a wall at the sugar-beet plant.”

And the field man had ignored the notice and had listed just two names and disregarded the rules posted on the wall, Andres was thinking. He hadn’t protested because his father had gotten the contract on the 15-acre field they had seen along a deserted rural Nebraska road. He tuned in to that sphere of his mind where he co-existed among the notions, emotions and indifferences which inured him to the pain and allowed him to tolerate the constant and back-breaking abuse upon his child’s frame. The hoe blade echoed and resounded in his ears as he moved enveloped by the smothering blanket of heat that gave the end of the field and the distant hills an ondular dimension.
The wavy pattern of the crimson and yellow fabric had caught Viola’s  attention over at the five-and-ten in Scottsbluff. She was sure that with some scissors and threat she could fashion something nice, perhaps some sun bonnets for her sisters and her mother. She’d have to do it alone because her mother could not understand the lines and arrows of the structured pattern. But now the thought of sewing made her hands ache again and the constant friction of the hoe handle on her hands rubbed her skin raw and caused it to break, making her thoughts jump sharply to the smooth lady in the television.

Idly, the toddler crawled to the door and looked outside. The caterpillar was a round, dark doughnut barely visible in the shade under the steps by the door. A cool wind was playing the treetops and a cloud hovered some distance away. The baby closed his eyes and as he started dozing off, he eased into a vision of a crystal-clear drop falling into the middle of a bright, white daisy with a fiery center.

The workers stood huddled under the trees and felt the sudden rain shower cooling their aching bodies. The passing rainstorm provided a needed rest and they refreshed themselves with a gulp from their water jug. Andres took a long, cold swallow and he felt the hot knot travel down his throat into his stomach and then expel itself in a soft inaudible sigh as his mind turned green.        
            


 

  

3 comments:

anthony zavaleta said...

Juan I was honored to march by his side when he came to Brownsville. I was also present at the La Casita farm strike in Río Grande City and witnessed a Texas Ranger shoot and kill an innocent farm worker !

Anonymous said...

Mr. Montoya, I am glad that I actually took the time to read the entire feature for it is one that many of us can relate to and take to heart. It offers no chismes nor gossip en ingles, y es la verdad. Keep writing these type of stories and I am sure your excellent writing skills will be noticed by many you seem to knock you down at every chance. Good picture of you with Mr.Chavez.

Anonymous said...

Juan chingao hay esta la prueba, alguna vez fuiste joven....
Buena hostoria

rita