Sunday, July 20, 2014

Shades of Grey

Last Friday Ramon Torres told me to “fuck off.”   

There I was … walking on the road below my house.  Mr. Torres and his band of bright-eyed idealists were standing next to the only entrance to the Sakuma Farm Office where workers come to get their pay.  The “bright eyes” were handing out flyers; stirring up the dissension that already hangs over our community like a dirty cloud of smoke.

Mr. Torres, the group’s leader, was arrested last year for domestic violence.
FACT: Ramon Torres, the president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, was arrested by Skagit County Sheriffs on August 30 for assaulting his wife (Case Number COOO62705) at the farm workers camp at Sakuma Brothers Farms. According to the arrest report, Torres had pushed his wife, Deanna Torres, as well as “hit and pulled (her) the previous day.”

Perhaps I was lucky he just spat the “fuck off” at me instead of pushing me down.
The Gringo shall be better prepared for Ramon, cobarde wife beater, next Friday.

The “bible” for Ramon and his band of rabble rousers is a book written by my “adopted son” Seth Holmes, who came to our valley a decade ago to write about the Triqui workers from Oaxaca.  It would become the dissertation for his doctorate in Anthropology.  He was already a physician. 

Seth is a brilliant, compassionate man, who has stayed in my home a number of times.  He and his book are pictured below.  He is currently an Associate Professor at UC Berkeley.
One page in the summary of that book is written about me.  And the leader of this group of rabble rousers tells me to “fuck off.”  He obviously didn’t get the memo.

*** A copy of that page is included at the very end of this post. ***

Everyone knows many of the workers from Oaxaca are illegal.  Third party groups do the actual hiring and checking of SS #s so the farmer has deniability.  The farmer always used to provide free, primitive housing for the workers and their families.  Local churches could have helped with the housing, but they were busy pouring money into Guatemala … for all the good that did.

Nonetheless, it was a strange kind of win-win for everyone.  These workers had a job and could support their families.  Some stayed on after the season to work at the farm or in other local places that regularly hire illegals, rented apartments in the area, and their children streamed into our schools.

With the education they gained, many of the children grow up to have better jobs and better lives.  Our country benefited because our produce remains affordable; and the workers pay into the Social Security system (with their bogus SS #s) but they never collect.  The farmer was able to stay in business in spite of rising prices for everything.  Our residents have the pleasure of living in a lovely farming community, with views from our windows like this …
. . . rather than places like Arizona where old farms are now retirement communities like this …
There are certainly some problems with this arrangement:  (1) The workers received low wages for hours of back-breaking work; (2) Local schools are now burdened with a glut of kids who have no support system at home and slow down the class progress for everyone; and (3) Local hospital ERs are so full of illegals without health insurance that those of us who pay taxes and do have insurance have to wait five hours sometimes instead of one.

But it has worked and we have all managed.  The Oaxacans are nice people – shy and most generous -- and only some have learned English (their third language after Triqui and Spanish).  The kids, with their shiny black hair and big brown eyes, are just like any other kids.  They laugh and play ball and have fun like kids all over the world.

The farmer, Steve Sakuma (pictured below), has often told the story of how this group is the last in a long line of foreign workers.  Early ones came from Norway or Russia; later ones from some Asian countries; and these mostly illegal workers are from Oaxaca.

By the way, this “farmer” is also a retired US Army Colonel who served his country for more than two decades, and deserves our respect for that.  

One would think the instigators would have picked a better representative, to cut a deal with a man like Steve Sakuma, than a hooligan like Ramon Torres, who hurts women and sprays local residents with obscenities.
If I were Sakuma, I would not even waste my time talking to that group.

But that is his business.  For me, a long-time resident who loves living in this county, there are many benefits to how things have worked.   And the frosting on the cake is that in the summer I get to buy delicious, just-picked berries, at an affordable price.  Sakuma berries are the very best!
Last year, this group of outside instigators, with Seth’s book in hand, picked this particular farmer to boycott, convincing the workers to strike and causing much upheaval in our community.  They want to unionize the workers, which seems beyond ludicrous to me.

These instigators don’t really care about the workers.  Many of the Oaxacans can’t understand them anyway.  Many farm workers lost their jobs last year. 

This year, thanks to the instigators, the farm workers and their families have lost their free places to live.  Their quarters were dismal at best, but at least they provided protection from the elements, a way for the family to be together, and a sense of community for the people. 
Now, they sit freshly painted and remodeled … and empty.

The farmer knew they were coming back this year, so he built a fence around the farm office down the street from me.  It reminded me of Auschwitz; I didn’t understand.  Until Friday when the Group Leader demonstrated he is nothing but a hot-head who wants to cause trouble instead of getting a job.

While I sympathize with the people that Familias Unidas Por La Justicia “claim” to represent, I resent their intrusion into my neighborhood, especially when I walk on the same road every day. 
And Mr. Torres picked the wrong older woman to brush off with an obscenity.  Tomorrow I’m buying my first can of mace.
This issue of illegal workers and poor treatment and low wages is not a simple one.  But one that is so entangled with large segments of our economy.  If all 11 or 12 million illegals were to disappear tomorrow, the crisis in many of our industries would be catastrophic for our country.
There is no black and white … this is right, that is wrong.  There are many shades of grey here.  And the last thing any of us here need are outsiders to come into our community with the sole purpose of stirring up trouble.

I was so proud of the book this amazing young man wrote.  Have so much admiration for the person he is and what he’s accomplished. 
It is sad to think the success of his book has harmed the farmer who was generous enough to allow him inside and to harm the community that welcomed him with open arms.

Click on Read More to read the excerpt from Seth's book

Here is a picture of the party we hosted for Seth 10 years ago.  Seth is in back left; I am seated with a black top middle right, surrounded by new friends.

Excerpt from “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies” by Seth Holmes:

"A resident of one of the houses with panoramic views above one of the farm labor camps hosted my birthday one of the summers of my fieldwork.  She supported my inviting people from several different parts of my life, including my mother from eastern Washington, my friends from local migrant and environmental advocacy organizations as well as PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), my friend who kept daily vigil holding signs in front of the County Courthouse (including my favorite hand-written “Don’t Bomb Anyone” sign), and several of the Triqui families with whom I had become friends.  During the birthday picnic of party snack platters made by my Caucasian friends mixed with homemade tacos made by Triqui friends, people from different backgrounds played catch, pet the bunnies on the porch of the house, and attempted to communicate with broken “Spanglish” and body language.  During this afternoon, the hostess of the party began an intermittent ongoing friendship with three of the children in one of the Triqui families.  They often spent the afternoon together in the labor camp or at her house with her bunnies, teaching each other English and Spanish. 

Perhaps because of this relationship, this area resident spearheaded an effort to stop the pollution of and dumping in the slow moving stream running through the labor camp, in which the children often played.  She became notorious enough among some of the farmers and ranchers that she received threats.  Around this time, she began writing articles in the local newspaper.  Some of them were simply fun, human interest stories about gardening or local animals.  However, she was fired shortly after her article specifically challenging the use of the phrase “illegal alien” as unhelpful and prejudicial led to numerous complaints from other county residents.  When I inquired with the editorial staff of the newspaper about her being fired and her well-written critique of the prevalent linguistic symbol of “illegal alien,” I was told that letting her go had nothing to do with that article and the ire it triggered, but rather that “we like to change up the column writers from time to time to be fair.”  This woman has since started her own blog, titled “Skagit Leeks,” in which she discusses some of the interesting, uplifting, and questionable current affairs in the area.  In these ways, human relationship and connection has led to local forms of solidarity that go beyond only what might be considered the pragmatic to challenge power structures and representations that are harmful to migrant farm workers." 



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