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Fall 1999, Volume 17.1

Essay

 

Tim Gilmer photo of Tim Gilmer.

You Have Love or You No Have


Tim Gilmer graduated from UCLA and received a master's degree from Southern Oregon State College. He lives near Portland, where he farms, writes, and teaches writing at Clackamas Community College. He is the recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship in literary nonfiction and has published fiction, essays, and articles in
Weber Studies, Writers' Forum, The Oregonian, and New Mobility magazine.

 

I peered through the kitchen window's old glass. A tissue of frost covered the near pasture. José had not yet set foot outside his tiny trailer, which hunkered near the barn just beyond the walnut tree's umbrella of yellowed leaves. We had work to do, fall cover crops to plant. I grabbed my coat and dirty baseball cap, scrounged a pair of gloves from the laundry room, and went outside. The door's slamming pierced the cold air. José stepped down out of his trailer and headed toward the tractor shed, swinging his arms to keep warm. I caught up with him at the diesel pump just outside the shed.

"Buenos días, José."

"Buenos días, Teem," he said, puffing vapor, eyes wide. "Hay mucho hielo. How you say?" "Buenos días, Teem," he said, puffing vapor, eyes wide. "Hay mucho hielo. How you say?"

"Frost. Ice."

"Oh. Aisss." He hunched his shoulders against the cold. He hadn't had a haircut in five months. His hair formed a dome of curls, resembling a loose sixties-style Afro. To me he looked like an Indio, but the hair and the pigment had come to his homeland of Vera Cruz from the Caribbean—by way of los Negros, as he called them—a few generations back.

"Por favor, José, put the disc on the big tractor and grease it. Ponga el disc y ponga grasa."

"OK, Teem." Shivering, he smiled, front teeth outlined in gold, and approached the tractor, rubbing his hands.

I knew José wanted to go home. A month earlier he had received a phone call from Vera Cruz, from his wife, Servanda—good news: a baby boy—José Arturo—his fourth child. José beamed as he hung up, holding his hands two feet apart, as if telling a fish story. "El bebé está muy grande, Teem. Nueve libras! Muy, muy grande." I got a good view of his dental work all that day. The gold seemed to be part of his personality.

José studied the tractor. "You have some warm gloves, José?" I pulled imaginary gloves on my hands. "Gloves? Cómo se dice?" The word had slipped my mind.

"Guantes," said José, refreshing my memory. "I have."

"Better get them. And come to the house when you're done. Venga a la casa cuando terminado."

"Sí, Teem. Entiendo." "Sí, Teem. Entiendo."

José has called me "Teem" for seven or eight years now. During that time there have been faster transplanters, men with better mechanical skills, women who could pick a few more pounds per hour of bush beans or snow peas, but nobody could touch José when it came to carácter.

He comes to the Willamette Valley by bus from Vera Cruz in mid-May, lives in his trailer and works seven days a week for five to six months, working at a steady pace for eight to twelve hours a day, often doing more than asked. I worry that he needs time to socialize, but he is content to stay on the farm and work. Nearly every dollar he earns finds its way back to his family in Vera Cruz. He does not drink or smoke or spend money on anything but food and the laundromat, with the exception of gifts for his wife and children. Come late October or early November, he boards the bus in Portland for the long ride back to Vera Cruz.

He pays no rent, no utilities, nothing for the use of my truck or my telephone. His trailer is cozy—a sink, stove, small refrigerator, table and bed, a light to read by. Thoreau would envy José's economical ways. He uses the half-bathroom in our house, but has no shower of his own. I offered to build him one in the corner of the barn, close to his trailer, but he insisted he didn't need it. He carries a five-gallon bucket of hot water from the house to the barn, where he mixes it with cold water in a large plastic produce bin and bathes pioneer-style. This arrangement works fine until cold weather comes. Then he showers upstairs in my eight year-old daughter's bathroom. He waits until Lindsey is away at school or gone to a piano lesson or a soccer game and my wife and I are also out of the house, then slips upstairs like a cat burglar, coming and going with no trace. When he leaves, only the water is missing.

Some would say José is entitled to better conditions: a bathroom and shower of his own, a larger living area, regular days off, overtime pay, health benefits. I'd like to provide these things, but I can't afford it, not without government help. Besides, José is contento. He likes working here. We grow organic vegetables on seven level acres and run a dozen head of crossbred beef cattle on rolling hillsides and creek bottom land—another eighteen acres. My wife, my partner, drives the produce daily to specialty markets and fine restaurants in Portland. In the offseason, when José returns to Vera Cruz, she and I both work off the farm.

One day, not long after receiving word of his new son, José told me one of my workers—Juana—eighteen years old, was pregnant. Not by José, who is faithful to his wife, but by a boy who accepted no responsibility. I had suspected something for months: her loose clothes and puffy face; her prettiness, turned sour. She took less care with her long black hair. Her mother confided in José while they were picking lettuce one morning, and that afternoon he told me. He also told me that she was already seven months along and her father, amazingly, did not know. He had not been told because they—Juana, her mother Fransisca, and four other brothers and sisters—feared him. When he drank he became abusive. They let him believe that Juana was becoming gorda—fat. They were afraid to tell him that his firstborn, "his little girl," prisoner of his will all her life, had finally broken away and committed the ultimate sin. It would bring unspeakable shame. So the precious new life growing inside her had become a dark family secret. If the father found out, or suspected that others knew before he did, no telling what harm would befall whoever got in the way of his drunken temper, including the innocent baby.

Juana behaved strangely, wearing sweatshirts and oversized jackets on shirtsleeve days. She pulled her hair back and stopped wearing make-up. On weekend planting days when her father sometimes joined the family to help, Juana often worked next to him, her face fixed in an angry frown. It was like some anomalous Elizabethan play: a girl dressed as a boy, a baby hidden in the womb, everyone in the cast aware of the masquerade, everyone except Juana's father, Mario.

The contrast between babies disturbed me: José's little one safe in his wife's arms in Vera Cruz, the product of faithful love and sacrificing parents, facing a secure future in a relatively poor country, while Juana's unacknowledged baby—the product of her need to escape her father—hid within, an American citizen-to-be with—as yet—no future.

Juana had not been receiving medical care, no vitamins, no special diet, no restrictions on work or lifting. She was in denial. Fear ruled, and the result was inertia.

I called a pregnancy crisis center, then met with Juana and her mother at the corner of the barn, out of sight of the other workers, protected by overhanging walnut branches. I offered them a piece of paper with the crisis center's telephone number on it. Perhaps, I said, you could call and arrange an appointment. Juana's eyes would not meet mine. She crossed her arms in front of her and looked away. Up until this moment, they thought I knew nothing of Juana's pregnancy. Her mother, Fransisca, took the paper and thanked me.

The next day José told me neither Fransisca nor Juana could drive. Wherever they went, Mario took them. That afternoon I told them I could provide transportation at mid-day to the crisis center or the Salud Medical Clinic in Oregon City. They had only to ask. They thanked me, but made no committment. Fransisca said she was afraid; they had to be very careful where they went and who took them. If Mario found out, he would be very angry. Fransisca would have been pretty, but her face was marked by patches of dark pigment from working all her life in the sun, and her eyes smiled sadly. When Fransisca said the word "fear"—miedo—Juana nodded in agreement, her eyes meeting mine for the first time, making sure I understood.

Mario seemed an unlikely villain. He was very short. Jose referred to him as a chaparrito—literally "little scrub oak." He was slightly overweight, with bloodshot eyes, a thin mustache, and stocky arms. We got along well. He never acted unkindly toward anyone in my presence, never a hint of temper. When Fransisca or Juana did not work for me, he found work for them elsewhere. They were always busy, even on Sundays, since they were not a religious family. Mario worked full-time at a nearby nursery. They had recently moved into a better rental house. Besides Mario, Fransisca, and Juana, two other children worked and contributed to the family. I assumed they paid no taxes, since Fransisca claimed five deductions on her W-4, and Mario probably claimed deductions as well. They were legal residents of the United States, having immigrated from Oaxaca some years ago. I had seen their documents. Something made me wonder if they were authentic, but I am no expert; I accepted them at face value.

José, on the other hand, has been fighting deportation for the last two years. The INS claims he did not qualify for a special worker program that ended in 1986 because of insufficient work days during the legally determined period—one year—that they used to determine eligibility. José claims he worked sufficient days, but cannot prove it on paper. He is one of thousands of workers whose legal status remains in limbo pending final decisions by the INS Appeals division. José's Spanish-speaking attorney is a popular man these days.

The summer José learned the INS had revoked his temporary work permit, I found him sitting on the steps of his trailer late one day, reading his Bible. I asked if he was worried. After all, he was going up against a mammoth bureacracy. I had found out just how mammoth one day when trying to make a phone call in José's behalf, getting lost in a maze of prerecorded messages, in English, which covered countless laws. Anyway, this day José did not seem like himself, so I asked if everything was okay.

"Sí, Teem," he said, "todo está bien." I noticed he had received a letter from Mexico, so I inquired if his family was okay. "Sí," he said. Then he added, being sure not to cause concern on my part, that his mother had just died. Here he was, thousands of miles from home, working his heart out to provide for his family, with no life of his own other than work, with the INS telling him he did not qualify to stay and work even though he had been working every year in the United States for the previous twelve years, telling me that his mother had just died, and that everything was okay—"todo está bien."

I told José I would help him however I could. If it came down to it, I would testify in court on his behalf. I told him American Justice is—at times—deaf as well as blind. The truth is, if character were the test of eligibility for citizenship, millions of American-born citizens would be deported immediately, while José would move into the first vacant house.

As for Mario and his "legal" family, they seem very American. They don't speak the language, but they live the life: they try to be upwardly mobile, have little time or money for church, charities, or volunteering, pay as few taxes as possible, hide the dysfunctional secrets of their troubled hearts, and live from one day to the next.

While José and I were waiting for someone to speak up for the unborn baby, José decided to act. He was finishing up picking the last planting of beans, squatting among the bushes with Eulario, Mario's brother. Eulario had been living with Mario, Fransisca, Juana, and the others for the past six months. José and I had decided that what Juana needed was a mediator to help her disclose to her father the fact of her pregnancy. Eulario seemed a good candidate. While the two men were picking, José asked Eulario if he had noticed Juana's condition.

"What do you mean?" said Eulario.

"You haven't noticed that she looks like she is carrying a baby?" asked José.

Eulario bolted to his feet and stumbled backwards. "Qué!? Nooooh."

When Jose told me this story, I laughed at his exaggerated imitation of Eulario, eyes loco-wide and staring, mouth slack. It was unthinkable that Mario and his brother were both blind to Juana's condition. "Eight months pregnant," I said to José, "and neither one knows it. Cómo es posible?" José shook his head, telling me Eulario would never mention it to his brother. He was leaving for Mexico in three days and had no intention of becoming involved. It would not be right that he knew of his niece's condition before her father did.

I decided to call Ramiro, a man from a local church who was known for helping migrant families. He offered to help any way he could. At noon the next day, Juana entered the house to use the same half-bathroom that José used. As she was about to leave, I asked to have a word with her. I told her I knew of a man who based his life on trying to help others, a Mexican-American, a man of Christ, I told her, thinking that she would feel safe. I told her Ramiro—with her permission—might be able to talk with the family of the baby's father, or perhaps even talk to her father, Mario, but she needed to see him in person. I told her what José had said, that Ramiro was a man "who knew words," someone familiar with the culture, someone with experiencia. While I talked, she bit her lower lip, holding her hands as if in prayer. I offered her the piece of paper with his phone number on it. She took the paper, thanked me, and left.

At the end of the day, I mentioned again my willingness to provide transportation, if she should need it. Once again she thanked me and smiled. It was a pretty smile, one I had not seen in a long time.

I now had hope that Juana would act in her own behalf, but two weeks went by and nothing happened. In the meantime, Juana had taken temporary employment at a nursery, since our season was winding down. Now she spent most of her time at the nursery, working no more than one or two days a week for me. Meanwhile, José learned from her mother that Juana had finally gone to the health clinic, but she did not offer any details.

Juana came to work alone one day, delivered by Mario. She was wearing a man's jacket—probably her brother's—over a sweatshirt. I put myself in Mario's frame of mind and tried to see Juana as a daughter who had grown fat, but I kept imagining the baby. I told Mario I would bring her home after work, since quitting time was uncertain.

Juana seemed content that day. She knew José would do the lifting and the difficult work, that I would not ask her to do anything that might harm her or the baby. I got the feeling from the look in her eye that—at least this one day—she felt like a mother-to-be.

At day's end, I drove her in the pick-up to Oregon City. As we came near the clinic, she said she had to miss an appointment just the day before. Would you like to go now, I asked. Oh no, she could not just drop in without an appointment. But, I said, since you missed yesterday, they might see you. No, she said, thanks but no. We passed the clinic, turned, and headed south on Hwy 213. Just outside of town I dropped her off at her family's rental home. It looked solid, but needed paint. I wondered if anyone was there to look after her. She disappeared into the house clutching her lunch bag, her long black hair shining in the afternoon sun.

 

The first Fall frost arrived abruptly, as if unexpected. Jose's breath fogged the window in the kitchen door. I invited him in and drew a diagram on the back of an order sheet detailing the cover crop plan. I would work the ground with the big tractor and disc, and when the first plot was ready, José would prepare a seedbed, pulling a harrow with the small tractor, while I went on to disc the next plot.

After two days working in the cold, we had planted about half the vegetable ground. José bought a bus ticket to Vera Cruz, thinking we would finish soon. During the trip into town we talked about little José Arturo and José's other children. They were all involved in music and soccer, like my daughter Lindsey. I was surprised to learn that their medical care, as well as Servanda's maternity care, costs nothing. José's family, living in an unpainted concrete block house in a small village in Vera Cruz, had better health insurance coverage than mine.

Before we could finish planting cover crops, the weather changed and the rains came. José took refuge in his trailer for days. Even when the rain let up, the sun stayed hidden. I still had stubble to work into the unplanted ground before José could harrow it, but without sun, the tractor would create a bog instead of a seedbed. The rain never let up. The days grew shorter. I kept José busy with odd jobs around the house and barn. Then the weather turned cold again and the rain stopped, but the ground was still saturated, unworkable. It was now too late to plant. The farming season was over.

On the day José was to leave for Vera Cruz, I asked him to drive Lindsey to catch the school bus at the end of our driveway. I watched through the kitchen window as the two waited inside the pick-up. When the bus pulled up, José walked Lindsey to the road, holding her hand. I remembered that José's daughter, Rosalina, who he hadn't seen in nearly six months, was the same age as Lindsey. José leaned down and Lindsey gave him a goodbye hug big enough to last until next spring.

On the way to catch the bus in Oregon City, José and I talked. He was anxious to see and hold José Arturo. He was not dark, José told me. He was light, like Lindsey, with blond hair, the only child out of four who favored a Spanish ancestor of his wife's. He couldn't wait to see him. We talked about Juana also, wondering about her baby. We thought it must be due any day. How could her father not know?

We waited at the bus shelter in Oregon City. The thought occurred to me that perhaps Mario did know of Juana's pregnancy, but that the family was protecting him from shame by pretending to us that he didn't know. I asked José if he thought that was a possibility. Perhaps, he said—"Quizás."

"Cómo es posible que no sabe? How can he not know?" I asked. "Cómo es posible que no sabe? How can he not know?" I asked.

José shook his head. "No sé, Teem. I no understand." His brow furrowed and he pursed his lips, searching for the right words. "Mario," said José, "he no is like you or me, Teem. His familia es diferente. Me, I no macho man. Mario, he have—cómo se dice—secretos."

"Secrets."

"Sí, he have secretos. Y por eso, he have much golpes."

"Golpes," I said. "What are golpes?"

José, out of character, answered by pretending to make violent hitting motions with his fists. "Golpes. Muchos secretos y muchos golpes."

"Ahh," I said." I know what you mean. Something is eating him up inside. When he drinks, it comes out. He is...una persona diferente."

"Sí, Teem, es verdad. Is true." "Sí, Teem, es verdad. Is true."

"Quizás Mario y Fransisca no tiene amor verdad," I said. "Maybe they don't have true love."

"Ah, exactamente!" José nodded. This was what he had wanted to communicate. "Teem," he said, "I no macho man. I no have secretos. My wife, she know everything I know. Todo. We are—how you say--compadres."

"Compadres, friends, si, I understand."

"How they can eat at same table, and have secretos? I no understand. I love my children. I love my wife."

"I understand, Jose. You know, it's the same everywhere--Mexicanos, Americanos--there's no difference. Some men talk to their wives, others don't. Some think they are macho. They have secrets. They don't share their thoughts with their wives and children. Then they all have the same secret. It is like a disease, a sickness. They are enfermo."

"Exactamente," said Jose. "You have love, or you no have."

"Yes, Jose, it's true."

"And when you have love, you have happy...how you say?"

"Happiness."

Jose smiled and nodded. "Happy...ness."

The bus arrived and we shook hands. Jose opened the door and grabbed his bags and giftts for his children from the back seat. "Next year, he saed, goldlined teeth shining, "I come again."

"Hasta la vista, Jose. Vaya con Dios. "

I drove south of Oregon City on Highway 213, passing by scattered homes, mostly older. A few had small pastures. I recognized one small home that needed paint. I imagined Juana inside, guarding her secret. Her family, like so many of our families, had settled here in pursuit of happiness--the American Dream. For some it becomes reality; others meet with disappointment. In the end, with the grace of God, I suspect we may learn that the pursuit has less to do with borders and constitutional governments than with the content of our hearts.

 

 

IN THE ORCHARDS OF AMERICA

"The multibillion dollar fruit and vegetable industry in the United States is dependent on the labor of migrant and seasonal farm workers. More than 85 percent of the production of fruits and vegetables in the U.S. relies on migrant labor. Even though farm workers' contribution to agribusiness is substantial, over three-fifths of farm worker households live in poverty. This is an increase from 1990 when only half were living in poverty. The median [annual] income from farm work is between $2,500 and $5,000." — Student Action with Farm Workers, Duke University, http://wwwcds.aas.duke.edu/cds/saf.

"The Hispanic population is among the fastest growing segments of American society and it is also one of the youngest _ with one out of every three Hispanics 15 years old or younger. By the year 2000, the number of Hispanics aged 24 or younger is expected to reach 15 million (or 15 percent) of a total youth population of 98 million…. While progress has been made, dropout rates are too high, health insurance [availability] is too low, and poverty rates far exceed the national average." — News release, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, August 2, 1999

"Mexico is the leading country of origin [for undocumented people living in the U.S.], with 2.7 million, or 54 percent, of the [undocumented] population. The Mexican undocumented population has grown at an average annual level of just over 150,000 since 1988." — U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1996 Statistics, http://www.ins.usdoj.gov.

 

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