‘Tending Hands’ on Public Radio International

Me and my dad about 1970.

I’m thankful to Public Radio International’s Anglilee Shah who read my original post and reached out to me to feature it on PRI’s website.

“When I was 10 years old, I began working regularly with my family as a migrant farmworker. I’d done it previously, but only on Saturdays, to help them catch up when tornado warnings ended work early or when the patches of weeds were particularly thick. The summer of my fourth grade year, it became my full-time job. ..”

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Read about this blog’s singular focus.

My other blog, The Latino Writer, features some of my work and essays outside this area of focus.

Tending Hands

READ: How the produce aisle looks to a migrant farmworker | Public Radio International

Credit: Mike Blake - Reuters

Vegetables at a Whole Foods Market in La Jolla, California. Much of its produce comes from the state’s Central Valley, where it’s picked by migrant farmworkers. Credit: Mike Blake – Reuters

The fields my family worked required weeding with machetes and garden hoes. I still remember the taste of the pesticides and coughing my throat raw after a crop duster would fly over us and spray. Sometimes I didn’t know if it was sweat or pesticide residue that caused the burned in my 10-year-old eyes. I’m thankful we never picked fruit or vegetables, though my best friend did and he still has problems with his hands to this day. He doesn’t think it’s related to his farmwork as a teenager, but I know better.

There are many life-threatening dangers for children and adults in these fields. This PRI story notes one — that sometimes the people who work the fields cannot even afford the food they tend.

I’m not going to say that I whisper a prayer with each apple I put in my grocery cart, but I often I think about the hands that weeded, picked, and packed the fruit and veggies. I look at the colorful shapes and I calculate the difficulty of tending and picking certain fruits over others. Sometimes the stickers will note from which state the fruits came. My mind forecasts the temperature there. Do they have to bundle up to keep the hot sun off their backs or do they have to wear extra socks to keep their toes from the cold?

At the meat cases I routinely think about the men and women who work in cold meatpacking plants and that they surely cannot afford the meat they process because I certainly can’t. I imagine the assembly line as it moves carcasses through the plant with each worker slicing, cutting, chopping, packaging until the marbled meat reaches my store.

Sometimes I have to push those thoughts and images from my mind because people aren’t supposed to contemplate how their food came to the grocery store and, honestly, sometimes I just need to get out of there.

It’s when I’m at home cooking that I allow my mind to consider the food before me. As I slice onions, cilantro, red and green peppers, as I smash and chop garlic cloves, I thank the hands that brought me this food and I hope they are well.

Of course there are times when food sits in my refrigerator too long and I have to throw out wilting spinach or rubbery carrots. It’s frustrating not just because it’s wasted money but because instead of eating a salad, I ordered a pizza. It’s also disrespectful to those who put their bodies and their beings at risk in order to bring that food to market. I’m literally throwing their efforts in the trash.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have deep thoughts about my food each and every time I walk into the store. It’s only been since I’ve started leading a writers workshop for migrant youth. They make me think, they make me remember. I want to be more mindful about my food, the food they and their families help put on my table.

I try to say hello to the produce workers sorting and stacking the fruit in the store because usually they’re Latinos. Sometimes it’s just a head nod, sometimes they help me pick out the best veggies. Most of the time it’s just me wanting to acknowledge them as fellow farmworkers because … well … they are.

Brown hands tend fruit in the fields, brown hands tend them in the store, and my brown hands tend them at home.