Persevering through tough jobs

Posted Aug. 20, 2009, at 6:36 p.m.

Lorenzo began his life as a migrant worker at age 7. He has hauled watermelons, picked apples, and bent over the vines of tomato plants to pluck the round fruits on endless, hot days.

For years he went from harvest to harvest, one of the shifting, nameless kaleidoscope of migrants, Americans of the lowest economic echelon and foreign workers with temporary visas working in the U.S.

Now a man in his 40s, he has a fixed residence and works as a businessman somewhere in Texas. But part of his soul was irrevocably shaped by the migrant life. Every summer, he returns to this small patch of rural Maryland to run a migrant worker camp — a camp that once was run by his mother.

“Somebody should take care of these guys,” he says. “Being a migrant is a lonely business, full of backbreaking work; many have families back home. They’re good men, and good workers.”

The work these migrants do is almost unimaginable to me. They get up at dawn, head out into the fields and gather ripe watermelons — enormous and heavy — heaving them up and into the bins pulled by the one large tractor. When a harvest is at its peak, they may work 15, 16, even 17 hours a day, seven days a week, some-times without a break. When things are slower, they return to the camp for their lunches, sharing a common meal during the hottest hour of the day before returning to work.

Sue, a nurse practitioner with the migrant health program whom I am working with, tries to catch them during these short lunch breaks. “Who needs their blood pressure checked?” she asks. Anyone with health questions, injuries or illness steps forward.

Lorenzo’s two Chihuahuas, Lola and Leila, run around the camp, playing with the migrants. “The workers dote on them,” he tells me, nodding to the dogs. “There isn’t that much out here for entertainment — just the crops and us — so they need whatever fun and distraction they can get. I bring the dogs out here for them.” Lorenzo has gone to great measures to make his camp as homelike as a migrant camp can be, painting the buildings cheerful colors, even making watermelon slushies to bring out to the workers on very hot days.

But not all of the migrant camps we will visit this week are like that. One group of migrant workers does not come in from the fields until sunset; when they do, they are greeted with a series of cramped, derelict quarters, where doors hang from a single hinge and insects scurry in the corners. When we arrive, a line of exhausted men quickly forms. In the fading light, a half-dozen men take off their boots to reveal blackened toes. Their work requires that they stand in water all day, and no matter what we do for them, we are hard-pressed to reverse the trench-footlike conditions that result.

Another common ailment is skin irritation from the pesticides in the fields. We instruct workers to wash as thoroughly as they can before doing anything else after work. “Scrub everything, a few times, and change your clothes,” Sue tells one young man. His wife and child also are living in the camp for the duration of the harvest; we tell him to be sure to wash and change before he hugs his young son. None wears gloves or protective gear as they work. There is a single shower for 16 workers.

The overseer at one camp eyes us suspiciously as we leave. “He asked me once why we waste our time with these people,” Sue told me he said. “As though they weren’t human — and as though they weren’t working so hard.”

Life isn’t easy for this mobile community. They do work that no one else wants to do; they struggle, and they persevere.

I return home that night and I am struck by the relative luxury in which I live: the ease with which I switch on the light, the cool hum of the air conditioner, the clean, unshared kitchen and the freshly washed pillowcases on my bed. I will not be forgetting the faces of those farmworkers soon.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. E-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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