D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e      february 2005

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Life on the Line

Turning chiles into products, strangers into people you know.

I've worn the rubber gloves, face mask, protective lenses, hard hat, plastic apron, earplugs, hairnet and sturdy shoes you need to wear for a job at the chile processing plant.

I've felt like a Muslim at Mecca, when they walk in an immense wheel of humanity around the Kab'ah, enveloped in a large white cloth that covers economic and cultural differences.

Usually when I see people from the chilera outside work, I stop and stare before I go up and say hi. It's surprising how much hair style determines overall appearance. They are almost unrecognizable without their casco, or helmet.

That Mexican man in the supermarket line, who at work I had thought looked almost like an Anglo, has jet black hair. That woman from Palomas who looked so plain with her casco on has beautiful honey-brown hair and looks like a Madonna with her child on her lap.

People who work at the chileras are almost entirely Mexicans with little education, many of them illiterate. Spanish is the lingua franca, although many more people are able to speak English here than in the fields. I have a degree from a liberal arts college, and have no children. Most women there—the ones that I knew—had their first child when they were about 15.

From the standpoint of labor rights, I was always interested to see what work at the chile plant, Border Foods, was like. But the times I've worked there it's because I absolutely needed to because I was in debt. I basically felt as if wild horses were dragging me. I was sometimes crying on the way there. Well, to be honest, sometimes yelling or swearing.

Once, I was going into the plant with a grim look, maybe with a tear still on my eyelashes, to face 10 hours of manual labor, when a man with a bushy moustache shrugged his shoulders and grinned broadly at me as if to say, "Aw, don't take yourself so seriously. We know it's rotten work, but it's fun." (Or words to that effect.)

He was right, it is fun. I shook off my martyr complex and strode in with a little lighter step.

Horseplay is Border Foods' middle name. Guys are always coming up behind other people to shake them, shout in their ear, cuff them on the side of the head, tap one shoulder when they're on the other side, or make their knees buckle from behind.

I remember the 30-ish guy named Raul who imitated the famous Mexican comedian Cantinflas with his low-slung pants and the little dance he did when he swept up a can. He'd kick it in the air and it would land in the dustbin. It makes me wonder who was the original, Cantinflas or guys like Raul.

And there was Delia, the young woman from Cuernavaca, who had a lively way of acting out chicken jokes, that made us all smile at each other.

There were times when we all got involved making little rabbit ears or antennae with tape and putting them on top of someone's casco without their knowing it. Or sometimes sticking a tail on them. It really took a lot of subtlety and deftness, even acting ability.

One of my favorite people was Luz, a thin Indian woman from Mexico City with whom I worked the first year. We worked in the "hot box," a room still sweaty-hot when we came in for the night shift. Luz and I sat chatting as we kicked off our shoes (against the rules) to feel the delicious coolness on our feet.

When we were working with her jealously guarded piece of metal with tape wrapped around it, used as a cutter, she'd utter in a dramatic, husky voice, "Agarralo!" (grab it) whenever we moved to another area. We had some good giggles.

I got talking with a married guy, Jose, a Nahuatl Indian who had been an eyewitness to the massacre at Tlaltelolco in Mexico City, from 10 stories up, when he was 14. He is one of the two or three people in my life with whom I've had a conversation where time truly flew—making a half-hour pass like seven or eight minutes. (This was a tough one for me.)

Once a guy beside me on the chile line kept making inane, amorous comments and asked for a ride home, when he really had his own car. I almost left work because of it. When I finally rejected his advances, there was a brief stunned look on his face.

When I got to the parking lot the next day, he walked right over to me. He had a tear in his eye and respectfully asked my forgiveness. The night before, he said, he had a dream that he killed his son. I've never seen anybody change so completely and so quickly, so sincerely. We laugh about it now.

In retrospect I was like a miner, exploring veins of humanity, mining into a nasty-smelling, clanking, noisy, roaring chile plant to find seams of gold. Mining into "them" to find "us" (maybe "us," who read this paper, and "them," not).

It would be dishonest of me to say that I always have a lot to say to people whose lives are so circumscribed by family and have so little education, when I live in a world of books. Often I'd spend lunch time sitting out in my car.

Or that I always get along with them. At times "they" can be small-minded, obscene, corrupt or crude. I once had my keys stolen from me, and strongly suspect it had something to do with my having been given a cushy job on a machine with lots of down time.

But overriding all that by far is the kindness, generosity and friendship I experienced. There are monumental differences sometimes, but sometimes they seem small.

There are people like Ruth, so full of grace and humor, always rushing to smooth over hurt feelings. Her son took classes in computer repair in Juarez so he could fix computers in the US. He sat and read flyers on investment at lunch.

There was the illiterate man Jose, whose son was a teacher in Chihuahua. There was Clementina, whose sister worked in Boston, where I lived for 18 years. And Valente, whose son was an engineer in Arizona.

I, after working there so long, now have a commonality of experience with them. I saw Maria a while ago, looking positively middle class in her simple black dress, buying tiles in Deming. We stopped to chat about job openings at the chilera and an arrogant chile grower we both know.

"We" and "they" are really, concretely collapsed into one here in Deming. It's a little scary.

Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming, where she writes the Borderlines column
periodically for Desert Exposure.


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