Central Valley, California
We demanded, we begged, we guilt-tripped our parents for money. We had reached the age where we cared about our image. We no longer accepted garage sale clothes or Kmart blue-light sale items. We wanted the hip-hugging, sailor-pant flap Chemin de Fer jeans, we wanted the upside-down-U-stitch-on-the-butt Dittos, we wanted the iconic Ralph Lauren polo, and we wanted the clunky Connie Clogs. We wanted the clothes our American middle school classmates strutted around in.
But our parents were frugal. Over a span of thirty years, they had risen from working in the peach, apricot, almond, and walnut orchards to working at the Hunt-Wesson tomato cannery, and now they guarded their money like dragons guarding their treasure. With five children to raise, they had zero sympathy for our frivolous desires.
My sisters and I didn’t give up. We sulked, we raged, we cried. We drove our mother crazy while our father worked.
One Saturday morning, a solution came to Mom while she washed dishes in the sink. We were lounging on our plastic-covered, tropical-flowered couches, having just feasted on Eggo waffles and Lucky Charms. Our tan legs glistened with lotion, and our brown hair fell over our shoulders with streaks of orange from the Sun In spray we used to highlight our hair like Farrah Fawcett’s. We flipped through Tiger Beat magazine, mascara-caked eyelashes fluttering as we debated which Hardy Boy was cuter.
“Huercas huevonas,” Mom said, with enough anger in her voice to make us look up. “You need to work!” she shouted at us, still scrubbing with a steel-wool sponge. Big blue rollers wobbled in her jet-black hair. “You have forgotten how you got here.”
“We’re in school,” I said. I was the bravest sister, and defended us against our oppressive parents as needed. “Plus, we’re too young to work. It’s against the law,” I added imperiously. I was a know-it-all, too.
“That’s not what Comadre Oralia says.” A wicked gleam flickered in Mom’s dark brown eyes.
We felt fear clamber up our tanned legs, fill our full bellies, and latch onto our chests. What was our mother planning?
Mom had commiserated with her comadre Oralia Garcia about their ungrateful children over café con leche and pan dulce one Friday morning, after they had sent us off to school. Oralia Garcia’s children demanded money too, she told our mother, also named Oralia. In between sips of coffee, Oralia Garcia told Mom that she had heard from her cousin that the Muller Berry Farm in Denair, a mere fifteen minutes away from our small farm town, Hughson, needed documented workers to harvest their boysenberries. The previous year, the Muller farm had lost a third of their workers to la pinche Migra, and because boysenberries have a short harvest season, rows and rows of berries rotted on the vines.
“Comadre Oralia says that kids as young as twelve can work in the fields with their parents’ permission,” Mom crowed.
I was twelve, Mirna was thirteen, and Sonia was fourteen. We escaped to our bedrooms. Maybe she’ll forget if we clean up our rooms, we whispered desperately. If we empty our overflowing bathroom trash can. If we hang our laundry on the clotheslines without her nagging us. Like little Mexican Cinderellas, we dashed about, cleaning.
We showed Mom the perfectly made beds, the laundry drying under the bright sun, the sparkling clean bathroom sink and toilet. She raised her pencil-arched eyebrows and smiled. We sighed with relief. Our mother had wanted this American life for us. She wouldn’t betray us and force us to work in the fields like she had.
Our parents had been migrant farmworkers alongside their parents beginning in the 1950s. They had followed the crops from March until September, up the Imperial Valley, to Fresno, Watsonville, Modesto, and finally to Hughson. One scorching summer, our parents met while picking peaches atop tall ladders. They fell in love covered in peach fuzz, dirt, and sweat, they liked to joke. They married when Mom was seventeen and Dad was twenty-two. In the next eight years, they had four children and lived in the Empire migrant camps while they worked in California. When Dad landed a job at Hunt-Wesson, and our maternal Abuelita Arsenia gave them money from her house sale in Reynosa, Mexico, our parents bought their first American home. A few years later, they bought a second home, and when my father was promoted to supervisor at Hunt-Wesson, and Mom started working at the cannery part time, they bought our current home, their American dream home. A brand-new three-bedroom, two-bathroom in a development where a peach farm had once stood, where our parents had once worked.
We had a few worry-free days, until Oralia Garcia, looking like Suzanne Somers with her long blonde hair and bubble bangs, descended. According to her, Mrs. Muller said that all we needed to work were our birth certificates and Social Security cards. What about Beronica and Robert? I asked triumphantly. Who is going to watch them if we are all working? Beronica was nine, and Robert was six. Again, that intremetida Oralia Garcia had the answer. Mrs. Muller said they could stay in the rows and play quietly.
Lots of people brought their small children into the fields, Mom told us. “You were lucky the migrant camp had a school,” she said. “Or else you would have been in the orchards with us.” I remembered the one-room school; it had been my favorite place. We ate French toast, scrambled eggs, or oatmeal for breakfast; peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwiches for lunch. The classroom was full of colorful beanbags, easels, tempera paint, crayons, pencils, coloring books, and picture books. Our long-haired, free-spirited teachers taught us the alphabet and numbers.
The following day, to our horror, Mom and Dad headed to the post office with their tiny security box key. They retrieved our birth certificates and Social Security cards: four girls born in Modesto, California (a fifth daughter, Lidia, would arrive a year later), and one boy born in McAllen, Texas.
Mom and Dad kept their own Social Security cards and green cards in their wallets until they became American citizens in 1996. They had never intended to become citizens; Dad dreamed of returning to his beloved Mexico. That changed in 1994 when Proposition 187, the “Save Our State” initiative, passed with 59 percent of Californians voting in favor. The proposition would prohibit undocumented immigrants from receiving public health and education funds, and force police and teachers to verify and report on the immigration status of suspected undocumented people, including children. Unease settled upon my parents. Even though a federal district court judge stopped the implementation of Prop. 187 the day after it passed, Mom and Dad became citizens to safeguard their rights.
School ended the first week of June, and the berry harvest started the following week. The timing was perfect, our parents sang with delight. “Time to teach our hijas chifladas a lesson,” they said, arms crossed, chins held high.
We cried out, we fought back, we pleaded.
We can’t work in the fields! It’s too hard! It’s embarrassing!
You can’t drive us! You don’t have your driver’s license, we said to Mom.
She swatted away this last hope like a pesky fly. The police understood the needs of the farmers and the shadow labor community they relied on. If they pulled over every Mexican on their way to work, there wouldn’t be any food on dinner tables, Oralia Garcia added with a laugh. We cursed the day Mom had befriended Oralia Garcia at the cannery. They were both seasonal workers, and didn’t get called up to work until late in the summer—plenty of time to make their ungrateful children suffer in boysenberry fields.
We prayed for divine intervention. A broken arm or leg to stop our mother from driving. A bug infestation to wipe out the Muller’s berries. At night, Mirna and I lay in our twin beds and whispered into the dark room. There was no way our beautiful, proud mother and her equally beautiful comadre would go back to work in the fields they had worked so hard to escape. They were scaring us, that’s all. We would have to stop asking for expensive clothes.
“Not me,” Sonia said in a quiet voice. She sat on the edge of my bed. In the shadow of the hall light, her freckled face held an unfamiliar look. “I can’t start high school in my old clothes. I will work in the berries.”
School came to an end. Our classmates talked about all the fun things they would do that summer: hang out at Turlock Lake, visit Marriott’s Great America, and—a few lucky ones—vacation in Hawaii or Mexico. We signed our Emily J. Ross Middle School yearbooks with friends. Mirna and I were all over the girls’ sports section, our brown faces standing out in photos amidst all our rubia teammates. We played volleyball, basketball, and baseball. We were natural athletes; Mirna was fast, and I was strong. Despite splitting our elementary school years between Mexico, Texas, and California, we assimilated quickly into our American schools. In 1976, when Dad landed his year-round job at Hunt-Wesson and the peso collapsed in Mexico, he and Mom decided to stay in California permanently. Two years out of our Mexican habitat, with kind teachers and friends guiding us into life here, we quickly morphed into Americans.
Americans who didn’t work in the fields.
The night before our first day of work, Mom instructed us to lay out our clothes, because we would rise at 4:30 a.m. Boysenberries had to be picked in the coolness of the morning and early afternoon, before the scorching sun made the plump, thin-skinned berries too soft to pick without damaging. And, even though we would be in the fields, Mom said we still needed to take the time for una manita de gato, because looking presentable never hurt anyone.
Shaun Cassidy, Parker Stevenson, Scott Baio, Donny Osmond, and the Bay City Rollers looked down mournfully at us from our smooth white bedroom walls. “Money Honey” played on the turntable as we sifted through our drawers for our most worn-out jeans and T-shirts. Mom gave us our Dad’s old flannel shirts to wear, and bandanas to keep our hair out of our faces. She handed Sonia a wide-brimmed straw hat, to protect her from getting more freckles. She told me and Mirna to wear our baseball caps. We refused. Our baseball caps were sacred! We were making a name for ourselves in school because of our baseball prowess. It was bad enough that we would work in the berry fields; it would be soul-crushing if our teammates found out. We went to bed with baseball-sized pits in our stomachs.
We heard the jarring alarm clock at the same moment the familiar aroma of sizzling onions, chorizo, and coffee reached us. We dressed in front of the mirror in Sonia and Beronica’s room. We wrapped our hair in bandanas, and half-heartedly applied mascara and lip balm.
Mom and Abuelita Arsenia bustled around the kitchen, preparing our work lunches. Mom had enlisted her mother’s help to watch Beronica and Robert, and to help us pick the berries. Our kindhearted Abuelita didn’t want to teach us a lesson like our parents did—she only wanted to be part of our lives. Before we moved across town, she had lived next door to us for years, and we all missed that daily connection.
We crowded around the kitchen counter to eat the plump conchas, marranitos, and pineapple empanadas Dad had bought from La Perla Mercado the day before. Mom scrambled eggs into the skillet of onions, chorizo, and cubed potatoes, while Abuelita tended to the flour tortillas puffing up on the comal, and poured coffee laced with cinnamon into a blue thermos. Mom loaded the chorizo and egg onto the hot tortillas. She and Abuelita folded them expertly, then wrapped them so tightly with foil that the burritos would stay warm for hours.
“Vámonos, patitos,” Mom said. She grabbed the mochilla loaded with our almuerzo and led us outside. Little ducklings, she called us. She loved to tell us that when we lived in the Empire migrant camps, Sonia, Mirna, and I would waddle behind her to the community bathrooms. People would smile and say that we looked like three little ducklings following their mother. When she was feeling bitter, she would tell us that some people used to call us “the ugly ducklings,” because we were dark. She badgered us constantly to stay out of the sun. We told her that being tan was in, that our schoolmates wished they had our coloring.
We followed Mom out into the brittle dawn air, and climbed into the back of the green Ford truck, through the brown camper shell gate. Mom started the engine to warm up the truck, then dashed back into the house to get Beronica. Abuelita carried Robert, who looked, with his blond curly hair and light skin, like a cherub in her arms. He was the only one in our family who didn’t have dark skin or hair. The only good thing her drunk of a father passed on to her, Mom would say when anyone asked. Abuelita handed our little brother to us through the camper gate. Beronica’s big round eyes opened briefly, before she fell back to sleep next to Robert on a pile of old blankets.
We sat with our knees to our chests and watched our home fade from sight. The road crackled beneath us, and we prayed for a flat tire. A scattering of stars and a fading quarter moon were receding from the black sky, abandoning us to our fate.
“This reminds me of our trips back to Reynosa and Aldamas,” I whispered. Sonia and Mirna nodded. It had been two years since we had been outside in the dark of the morning, two years since our final migration back to our parents’ hometowns in Northern Mexico. Two years since we had driven three days across the Southwest to extinguish the final flicker of hope Dad had of making a life for us in Mexico.
The streets were empty and quiet as we drove. On Santa Fe Road, we were joined by a dairy truck, and two farm trucks carrying solemn laborers. When we parked near the large whitewashed Muller Berry Farm sign, the first rays of dawn illuminated the sky in purples and pinks. Oralia Garcia pulled up in her little yellow Datsun, with her daughter and son slumped in the backseat. We glared at Oralia’s kids, and they glared back, each thinking it was the other Oralia who had gotten us into this predicament.
Mrs. Muller, bundled in a sheepskin coat, Levi’s, work boots, a knitted red cap, and gloves, greeted all the workers in decent Spanish and assigned groups to rows. We prayed she wouldn’t put us near the road, where people might recognize us as they drove by, busy with their American lives.
“Nice to see you girls helping out your family,” she said to us in gravelly English.
We reddened with embarrassment. She assigned our family, mercifully, to two rows in the middle of the twenty-acre farm, which was laid out in quadrants separated by irrigation ditches and dirt roads.
Mom instructed us to grab some wooden boxes, each two feet by three feet, and eight inches deep. We each carried one; she carried three. Robert and Beronica dashed into the row, Abuelita rushing after them with her own box. Some of the other workers looked at us quizzically. We looked like them, but our English made us different. And the way we carried our boxes—like they were a burden instead of a lifeline.
If we weren’t being forced to work, it would have been beautiful. The ruby- and onyx-colored berries glistened with dew. The perfect rows of vines stretched out under the pastel-colored sky like ribbons in a watercolor painting. The sweet aroma of the vibrant berries, mixed with the thick, green vines and soft soil, would become our summer scent.
Mom began picking in the middle of the row. Her veiny, brown hands weaved in and out, up and down over the berry vines. It reminded me of how she had tightly braided our hair for elementary school, so we would reflect her tidiness and discipline. She instructed us to space out and get picking. We heard the silent “huercas huevonas” in her command.
Picking boysenberries required dexterity and a light touch. We didn’t know that, and Mom hadn’t warned us. She wanted us to suffer. Go in too fast, and the sharp thorns pricked into your fingers. But you couldn’t wear gloves, because the berries were too thin-skinned and any rupture would accelerate their rotting. Boysenberries have a two-day shelf life once they hit the grocery store, so workers would lose pay if their boxes held too many damaged berries.
We picked, and picked, and picked.
We got pricked, and pricked, and pricked.
Time ticked away at a glacial pace.
Time pounded our legs, our backs, our arms.
One hour passed.
One box filled.
We each carried our first precious box, trembling with the delicate berries, across the ditch bank for Mrs. Muller to check. She sat with a stack of wooden crates as her desk, puffing away on a cigarette, stamping workers’ yellow cards with the number of boxes filled. She looked down at our boxes and shook her head. “Need another inch, sweethearts.”
We walked back to our row, praying no one had witnessed our shame. Mom shook her head. She had already gone to Mrs. Muller twice with her boxes. When she came toward us, we thought we were in for it, but she took some berries from her box, filled each of ours, and sent us back. I wanted to cry.
“We must have looked pretty pathetic for Mom to feel sorry for us,” I said to Mirna and Sonia.
“She is embarrassed for us, Nora,” Sonia said, shaking her head at me. She picked faster.
Two hours, two boxes.
Three hours, three boxes.
Four hours, four boxes.
We stole glances at each other. This was torture. Our backs ached, our feet ached, our fingers throbbed, and our stomachs grumbled. Meanwhile, the two Oralia’s shimmied down the rows like line dancers. They talked in whispers and periodically burst out in muffled laughter. Only the tops of their heads were visible over the five-foot-tall rows.
The sound of a whistle pierced the air. Our fifteen-minute break had arrived. It felt like recess. Gracias, Cesar Chavez!
We eased our tired bodies onto the damp dirt amongst clumps of dandelions and crabgrass. Mom poured coffee into Styrofoam cups. Tendrils of steam swirled up enticingly, releasing the coffee’s rich scent. From that moment on, coffee became sacred to us. We inhaled the sweet aroma, sipped the warm liquid, passing the cups around. Abuelita took the foil-wrapped burritos out of the mochilla and handed one to each of us. We peeled back the foil and took bites of the creamy egg, chorizo, and papas burrito. Nothing had ever tasted so good. Why had we ever abandoned our mother’s Mexican breakfasts for Eggo waffles and Frosted Flakes?
While we ate, Beronica collected yellow dandelion flowers and made mini bouquets. She handed one to each of us and blessed us. Robert raced his Matchbox cars around a track Abuelita had dug for him in the soft soil. We finished eating in silence, in the shade of the berry vines. We wanted to hold on to each minute for as long as we could.
A whistle sounded and Mrs. Muller’s voice rang out: “Back to work!”
Sunshine now poured over the berry fields, adding another layer of misery to the work. The Central Valley sun is ever-present and unflinchingly hot. We stripped off our flannel shirts and tied them around our waists. Sweat formed like veils on our faces.
We had three more hours of work. How would we survive?
We heard the rumbling of a work truck approaching. We glanced up, and saw four teenage boys in the truck. Four cute teenage boys. Two in the cab, and two on the back tailgate, baseball caps on, legs dangling lazily above the dirt embankment. Their tan arms were looped over large orange plastic water barrels. These were the Muller brothers, plus two friends, and they would make the rest of our summer picking berries bearable. We were pretty—gracias Mom and Dad—and drew boys’ attention. Thank God Mom had forced the bandanas on us. We wiped our sweaty faces, stood up straight, and acted like we didn’t see them driving by, but we saw that they had noticed us. We darted glances to each other, we couldn’t suppress our smiles, and we couldn’t wait to talk about the boys later, when we were alone.
The first day ended with a whistle at noon. We collected our remaining berries into three boxes and carried them to Mrs. Muller. At $1.75 a box, working for seven hours, we each made $12.25. (We hadn’t factored in taxes, a harsh lesson on payday.)
We drove home in the deep void of silence that physical exhaustion brings. When we passed by Main Street in Hughson, it was busy; our friends and acquaintances were out and about. Mortified, we silently cursed Mom for driving so slow. We dropped flat onto the truck bed. Beronica and Robert thought that we were playing, and lay down next to us. We could hear but not see our friends at the community pool: shouts of laughter, screams, lifeguard whistles, cannonball splashes.
Six agonizing blocks later, we reached our house.
We showered and dressed in our terry cloth shorts and matching tank shirts. We trudged to the kitchen and made our signature lunch: bologna, Velveeta cheese, and refried bean sandwiches. We changed the channel from the Mexican news to the Dodgers-Phillies game. Mom grimaced at our sandwiches while she cooked Dad’s meal, slicing carrots, onions, and jalapenos and tending the pork shoulder simmering on the stove. We waited for her to tell us we should learn how to cook real food. But she remained unusually silent. Picking berries had worn her out too. It was only 1:30, but it felt like the end of the day. We sank into our couches like they were clouds.
Dad arrived home an hour and a half later. He wore his white cannery hard hat, and earplugs dangled behind his neck. He put his lunch pail on the counter and sat on the counter stool, waiting for Mom to serve him his carnitas tacos, pickled carrots, onions, and jalapeños, guacamole right out of the molcajete, and a Coors beer. When he finished, he moved to the loveseat opposite us. Robert and Beronica raced over to sit on his lap. He asked us how work was. We knew better than to complain. Fine, we said.
“Que bueno, mijas. You earned your first dollar today.” His handsome, mustached face broke into a proud smile. We smiled too, and thought, Yes, we had earned our own money! “Your mother is a good woman for taking you.” He exchanged a smile with Mom, who was wiping down the kitchen counter.
Sonia, Mirna, and I exchanged smiles too. It had been a while since we had made our parents happy.
Stretched out on the couch, drinking orange soda and eating potato chips, I had my first grown-up notion about my parents. Is this how they felt every day? Body aches, gratitude that the workday was over, and anticipation for relaxing in front of the television? Except that Mom hadn’t relaxed; she had spent over an hour preparing dinner, followed by unpacking the lunch pail, washing dishes, and doing laundry. Maybe that’s why she got so mad at us for not helping around the house? Dad also had more to do after he watched the game with us—he took care of our house and Abuelita’s house. He mowed the lawns, pruned bushes and trees, and raked leaves. He fixed leaky faucets, unplugged clogged drains, replaced lightbulbs, and cleaned gutters. Did our parents have some secret source of energy we didn’t know about? I remembered when Dad first started working at Hunt-Wesson, making more money in a week than he had made in a month in the fields: he arrived home exuberant. America filled him with energy and hope.
The next morning the alarm jolted us awake, and for a minute I felt disoriented. Had the previous day been a dream? Had we really worked in the berry fields? The chorizo-and-coffee smell ended that fantasy. We got up and repeated the same routine, but this time we took more care with our makeup and hair. The Muller boys! Something to distract us from the hard labor ahead.
With each passing day on the Muller Berry Farm, we learned something new. We learned to detect just the right shade of purple, so we didn’t waste time tugging on the stubborn unready berries. We learned to use a stick to part the vines for the hard-to-reach berries. We learned to use the porta-potties early in the day. And we learned the timing of the Muller boys’ drive-by in the work truck, so we could reapply our lip balm. Nothing like a few flirtatious looks to add a little spark to our workday.
But, really, it was spending time around the other workers that acclimated us to fieldwork. We overheard their conversations: overbearing suegras, upcoming bodas, the warnings the Padre preached at Sunday Mass to keep them out of el infierno. And, of course, the latest telenovela developments. The cadence of their voices, this flood of Spanish, made us nostalgic for our Mexican lives. It didn’t take long before most of the workers had heard about the americanas working in the fields because they wanted expensive school clothes. It made Mom someone to be admired. Es bien cabrona, the workers said. She had returned to the fields to teach her daughters the value of work.
“Animo,” the workers would say to us, when we trudged by with our boxes. Animo could mean “cheer up,” “courage,” or “encouragement.” Tired as we were, we couldn’t help but smile and feel strength when we heard this. It made us feel connected, and accepted.
Near the end of the month, on our third round of picking berries, we learned about La Migra. Two menacing army-green vans barreled onto the farm in a cloud of dust. A chorus of whistles and shouts ignited in the fields, warning the undocumented workers to run. “Corranlé!” Mom and Abuelita shouted. People left their boxes and belongings and sprinted down the berry rows.
I felt like crying when I saw two teenage boys cut off at the end of their row by three agents. The boys could have been middle school long-distance runners, but they had stopped to wait for their mother. All three lined up in front of the vans with six others, while Mrs. Muller rifled through her paperwork and frowned at the agents.
Mom told us to stop staring and keep working. Abuelita told us not to worry, that those people would be deported back to Mexico, but they would be back. “A few of your relatives got deported before they got their papers in order. They aren’t defeated, mijas—don’t worry.”
While we picked, I kept glancing at the agents. With their sunglasses, cowboy hats, badges, and holstered guns, they scared me, even though I knew I was an American citizen. I was only twelve. What if the paperwork wasn’t in order, and they forced me into the van? Would they listen to my mother if she protested? Did the van go directly to the Mexican border? I knew Spanish—could I find someone there to help me? How long would it take my parents to find me?
After the van left, full, a melancholy silence encased everyone for the rest of the day. I felt relief and guilt. As I picked, I wondered what kind of home the boys and their mother had left behind in Mexico. What had their dreams been? I wondered which of my tíos, tías, or primos had been undocumented. Had my parents ever been undocumented? Had Abuelita?
I looked over at Abuelita. She was hunched from a lifetime of fieldwork, but never complained. She gathered berries in a plastic butter tub she brought from home, so she could hand the tub to Beronica and Robert, who delighted in helping fill our boxes. Abuelita’s gift was giving happiness and love. I remembered her evening storytelling under our first home’s backyard cherry tree: desert ghosts and buried gold, daring bridge crossings on dark and stormy nights, and encounters with La Llorona. Abuelita entertained us kids so the adults could relax after long days in the fields or canneries, but the adults always lingered in the background. They enjoyed the storytelling too. The stories kept Mexico alive for all of us, helped keep us connected to our parents while we straddled two countries and two cultures.
When we moved into our current house and away from Abuelita, the storytelling ended, and the distance between us and our parents widened. Mom and Dad were excited and proud of their modern house. They loved showing it off to visiting relatives. The yellow stucco exterior accented with fake rocks, the wall-to-wall beige-and-cream shag rug, the rock fireplace with glass doors, the dishwasher, the double sinks in the master bathroom, and the powerful flushing toilets.
What my parents hadn’t anticipated in their ascension into the American middle class was the transformation of their children. They hadn’t known that Sonia, Mirna, and I would lock away our Spanish with our childhood toys and start addressing them in English. Like Los Tigres del Norte lamented in their popular song “Jaula de Oro,” their Americanized children no longer remembered Mexico and did not claim to be Mexican. But our work in the berry fields was gradually changing that. That summer, Sonia, Mirna, and I opened our hearts to the ache our parents felt over losing us to the country that, like the song said, was a golden cage for them.
On the glorious Saturday after our last day of work on the Muller Farm, we danced with joy, anticipating our money. We woke up at a leisurely eight o’clock and asked Mom for chorizo con huevos instead of Eggos, and then thanked her for the meal. When had we stopped thanking her for all she did? We had been huercas chifladas, spoiled girls. We dressed in our favorite outfits: embroidered wide-legged jeans, ruffled prairie blouses, and cork wedge sandals. We lined up at the door. We were going to the new Modesto Vintage Faire Mall! A beacon to every teenager in a twenty-mile radius since its opening the year before.
Mom and Dad came out of their bedroom looking like Mexican movie stars. We admired Dad’s navy blue suit, his thick gold bracelet, his gold chain and cross, his gold ring with an oval amethyst, all handed down through generations. We nodded in approval at Mom’s forest green wrap dress with a white magnolia pattern. It showed off her Verónica Castro figure.
At the mall, our father gathered us in a circle and handed each of us fifty dollars cash! We were rich! He had told us earlier that we needed to pace ourselves—we had each earned about $250 after taxes. We zipped straight to Contempo, a boutique store that Sonia said all the cool high school girls shopped at. Mom and Dad headed to Sears with Beronica and Robert.
In the boutique, we felt like the cool girls—until we saw the price tags. The price of the latest pair of Dittos shocked us. It was ten days of berry picking! We raced to join Mom at Sears. We were going to guard our money too. To our surprise, we saw one of our American classmates there, going through the sale rack. She showed us a pair of lime green Dittos she had found for half off. We went home that day with discounted, off-color Chemin de Fer jeans and Connie Clogs, but no Ralph Lauren polos. “Esas camisetas de hombres hide all your curves,” Mom said. “Why do you want them?” Why indeed? We bought some tube tops instead, which gave our father ulcers for years, but made our mother proud.
On Sunday, Oralia Garcia rushed up to us at Saint Anthony’s Catholic Church before Mass, saying she had some exciting news. Mrs. Muller had chosen us to be part of the crew that cut down the berry vines and rewrapped them for the next harvest. Mirna, Sonia, and I shot each other worried looks. Did we want to keep working?
“They pay by the hour,” Oralia Garcia added. “In two weeks, you will earn double what you made in a month.”
Double the pay—we were in! She warned us that wrapping the heavy, thorny vines made berry picking seem like an easy day playing outdoors, and that the brutal July heat made even the mornings unbearably hot. Mom and Dad told us the decision was ours. It wasn’t a hard one: we loved making our own money and making our parents proud. Plus, if they had endured decades and decades of fieldwork, we could endure another two weeks.
We worked four summers on the Muller Berry Farm, followed by summers working at Hunt-Wesson and the Tri-Valley cannery in Turlock. Experiencing what it took to earn a dollar in our parents’ world meant that we never again complained about buying our shoes at Payless and our clothes from JCPenney’s bargain racks. We also thought about how we wanted to make a living in the future. We all used our wages to fund college educations. Mirna attended cosmetology school and became a hairstylist. Sonia received a business degree and worked for a pension and profit-sharing business. I received a bachelor’s degree in political science and worked for nonprofits. Mom and Dad hadn’t had a choice when they came to this country with only an elementary school education, but they had labored long and hard to provide us with choices and opportunities.
Now, when we recall our time as boysenberry girls, it is usually on a hot June day, gathered in our parents’ backyard. We sit on mismatched chairs, resting our chanclas on the Saltillo tile. Mom waters her prized roses, while Dad barbecues carne asada and pollo. We dip tortilla chips into Abuelita’s famed salsa brava; she is with us with each bite. Plums, nectarines, and apricots from a local fruit stand are piled high in a wooden bowl.
It’s June, so of course, there are boysenberries. We pluck the plump berries from the little green plastic baskets and savor their sweetness. We reminisce about working in the berry fields: the clothes we used to wear, the softball games we played with purple-stained fingers, the Muller boys (one of whom Sonia is still friends with through work), and all of our family members who worked in the fields—with us, and before us. We are old enough now to see our parents’ improbable trajectory: the life they made for all of us. From working in the fields and canneries with limited English, to becoming American citizens who provided a home, financial security, and a life full of dignity for their six children. We are astounded by it, we tell them.
“We had ganas, love for each other, and love for our children. That’s what fueled our dreams, mijas,” Dad tells us.
Mom adds the final truth: “Nothing can stop that kind of power.”
Nora Rodriguez Camagna grew up in the California migrant labor camps, Texas, and Mexico, and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. She teaches creative writing to underserved students through 916 Ink, a Sacramento nonprofit literacy organization. She is at work on her first novel.