With Moises at the wheel, they came in their burgundy Dodge Caravan. They bought it secondhand the year before, and still not licensed, they drove it fourteen hours straight up the I-5 from central California in one shot. Down Scholls Ferry Road through Hillsboro, Oregon, they rolled through a typical suburban scene, one box store and strip mall after the next, one housing development after another, until, just out of town, they turned down a gravel driveway and into the labor camp: two dozen or so white painted wooden cabins with a big common bathroom in the middle.
Here, at the end of Rainbow Lane, tucked into a bow in the Tualatin River, Moises Merino’s journey stopped — for a time, at least. Over the next six weeks, he and his family of five, plus his sister-in-law and her four children, would share cabin number fifteen. They’d live in this camp and pick blueberries by the bucket until the berries ran out, nine people in a twelve-by-twenty-foot room jammed with two bunk beds and a single gas burner for cooking.
Not that different from their home village in southern Mexico, but a long way away.
The path Moises beat from San Martin Itunyoso, in the forests of Oaxaca’s Mixteca Alta, to the berry fields on the outskirts of Portland is no Oregon Trail, but a 3,000-mile patchwork path of back roads and interstate highways, foot trails through the desert, black-topped farm roads, and multi-lane freeways. Though contained entirely within North America, the path crossed many worlds — from some of the most isolated communities in Mexico’s southern forests to some of the most sun-flecked suburban scenes.
Oaxaca is Mexico’s second poorest state, leading nearly one-third of Oaxaca’s population to emigrate: an estimated one million people. Some communities have lost over 80 percent of their population and have been left little more than ghost towns.
Oaxaca is also one of the most culturally fertile areas on earth, hosting a bazaar of cultures and languages, sixteen in all, with countless local dialects and variations. It’s also home to some of the world’s richest farming ground: the Mixteca, a mountainous region in the state’s northwest, is the birthplace of corn cultivation, and still today, countless varieties and local strains of the crop can be seen — blue, red, yellow, white, and it seems every color in between — filling the hollows and decorating the hillsides surrounding the region’s cloud-shrouded towns.
Oaxaca’s agricultural fecundity gave rise to some of the oldest and most resilient cultures in the Americas. The Mixtecs, one of the few meso-American cultures to successfully fend off conquering Aztecs, have the only written history in the western hemisphere that dates back over 1,000 years. But the Mixtecs’ roots stretch back even further, to the very dawn of agriculture, when their cultural antecedents first coaxed corn from the lowly teosinte, a wispy, weed-like plant that, with careful training, eventually evolved into the corn we know today.
Perhaps nowhere in the world is such a pairing of culture and crop more clear, a people and a plant that literally grew together. But this pairing seems to be coming to an end, a union severed not only by the loss of people to migration, but the disappearance of the soil. Since the time of the conquest, the Mixteca has lost sixteen feet of topsoil to erosion, ruining an estimated million acres of cropland. The cause of this erosion is a topic for debate, but most experts point to the transformation of farming following the introduction of grazing livestock by the Spanish and poorly suited seeds and chemical fertilizers promoted to Mexico’s indigenous communities during the Green Revolution of the 1960s. Today, much of the Mixteca is an “ecological disaster zone,” in the words of the World Bank. But Candelaria Bautista, a Mixtec farmer whose land was destroyed by erosion, may have put it in more culturally relevant terms when she said, “The land was my mother and my father, and it left me.”
The Central Valley: King of Ag
When not in Oregon, Moises and his family spend most of the year in a rented house outside the small town of Kerman in California’s Central Valley. Although the Central Valley’s vast farms plant and harvest just about every fruit and vegetable known to man, and feed nearly half the nation in the process, few crops are more profitable or demand more labor than grapes. Moises and his family are among the tens of thousands of seasonal workers needed to tend the valley’s crop of table, wine, juice, and raisin grapes: they pick the fruit in the summer, prune the vines in the winter, and even pick the leaves, which are washed and sold as wrappers for Middle Eastern cuisine.
Here in Fresno County, home of “The Dancing Raisins,” agriculture remains king. Though the county is home to the second-poorest metropolitan area in the nation, it is also the richest farming county in the United States. Its grape crop alone was worth over one billion dollars last year — but the people who pick the crop, like Moises, usually earn just 21¢ per bucket, and the total average annual wage for a farm worker is just $10,000.
The Central Valley’s deeply rich land, tended by deeply poor people, has been a historical constant — an underlying legacy of the heartland of California since the days of The Grapes of Wrath. But vast changes have occurred in the valley since the 1930s. Today, it is estimated that indigenous migrants comprise about 80 percent of California’s farm laborers, over a quarter-million people in all, a demographic shift from the historical migration patterns from northern and central Mexico that has turned traditional labor dynamics and alliances of West Coast agriculture upside down.
Though the Central Valley is the home turf of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Worker movement, few indigenous Mexicans identify with its largely mestizo history. The black Aztec eagle adorning the UFW’s banner has little cultural resonance with southern Mexico’s indigenous people, few of whom are inclined to seek common cause with those outside their tight-knit village networks. Yet it is also this cultural cohesion that many see as the community’s greatest strength, their best opportunity to climb from the bottom of America’s farm labor system. Leoncio Vasquez Santos, himself a Mixtec immigrant and the Executive Director of the Frente Indigena, a bi-national indigenous advocacy group based in Fresno, says, “It is very hard for us to trust. People just look at us as someone to exploit. But we are united. We have an identity.”
Oaxaca: Native Corn
Corn and ancient rites are what bind Mixtecs together. Across the Mixteca, the yearly schedule of planting, harvesting, and tending the crop — from sowing seed just after the feast of San Marcos in late April, to the harvest just after the Day of the Dead in early November — drives village life. Work in Oaxaca’s milpas is not the solitary farmer wresting his crop from the soil, but an entire community effort, in which extended families go from field-to-field exchanging a day’s labor for nothing more than the promise to reciprocate.
On the eve of Day of the Dead, surrounding Moises’s hometown of San Martin Itunyoso, the corn is so thick and tall that the village feels walled in. Roads are lined with the crop, planted right up to the back doors of houses and to the very edge of the cemetery — natural fence surrounding the campo santo, the holy field where one can only see earth, simple wooden crosses, corn, and sky. When dusk falls, a line of people threads through corn to the cemetery, carrying smoking incense and plastic sacks filled with tamales. White wafts of incense smoke rise above the growing corn.
But all is not as it once was. On a hillside next to the cemetery, someone has planted on ground too steep, and the entire crop — still green, with roots still clinging to the earth — has slipped to the bottom of a gully, a tangled pile of broken stalks and half-ripe corn. Looking over the scene, resident Leobardo Nicolas sits on a nearby rock. “This is a town of ghosts,” he says. “All the men have left. They just come back for the Day of the Dead.”
Oregon: Home for Today
Back towards Hillsboro, off in the distance, a blueberry farmer has set up a pneumatic gun. Activated by a timer, it lets off a barrage every quarter hour, the projectile-less explosions sending flocks of blackbirds skyward and away from the ripening fruit.
On his hands and knees, Moises scans the blueberry bushes, searching for just the right fruit to pick. Too green and his bucket will get rejected; too ripe and the berries will smash. In the pre-dawn light, the subtle shades of blue are hard to distinguish, but the field looks beautiful, like a painting, and the scent of ripe fruit fills the air. By midday, the smell will become overpowering, the air so heavy with sweetness that Moises can almost taste it.
By then, his shirtsleeves are stained a deep blue, his fingers changed a strange shade of green-blue, almost the color of a dead man. But his hands keep going, plucking the fruit at a furious pace, his fingers playing the tree like a maestro at the keyboard.
Back home in Oaxaca, he had picked wild moras, the blackberries that grow along the creek banks, but before coming to Oregon, he had never seen a fruit such as this. It still seems strange, beautiful in its way, but also slightly unnatural looking: foreign. He plucks a berry and holds it in his hand, wondering about the white dust that covers it — a chemical, a spray of some sort? But the fruit smells enticing, mature and perfect. His wife looks over and shakes her head. But he takes the berry, wipes it on the front of his half-blue work shirt, and pops it in his mouth. It tastes sweet and wonderful, like something new and promising. But not like home.