Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Every year from April to October, the Sánchez family traveled—crowded in the back of trucks, camping in converted barns, tending and harvesting crops across the breadth of the United States. In 1951, Saúl Sánchez began to contribute to his family’s survival by helping to weed onions in Wind Lake, Wisconsin. He was eight years old. In this excerpt from Rows of Memory: Journeys of a Migrant Sugar-Beet Worker, Sánchez invites us to appreciate the largely unrecognized and poorly rewarded strength and skill of the laborers who harvest the fruits and vegetables we eat.


The Mexicans that the sugar-beet companies recruited back then to work in the sugar-beet fields did not receive the same treatment that was given to the Russian Germans brought from Europe. The companies did not lend them money to buy land; they did not offer them any equipment, seed, or utensils to help them work the land bought with borrowed money…. In place of loans, they received credit in company stores to obtain their foodstuffs while they completed the harvest. And they were not paid until they finished…. They did not live in town either; there were separate labor camps for them to keep them apart from the white population. The only tools the companies allowed them, which were also purchased on credit from those same well-stocked stores, were the ones perfected earlier by the Japanese: the short-handled hoe.

For a person to be stooped or arched over (“stooped steep” as people would say with a touch of ironic humor) while hoeing with a hoe that has a ten- or twelve-inch handle for as long as eight, ten, or even twelve hours a day is how I would define the word torture…. It was a punishing way to make a living.

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