It was 10 years ago that I first became aware of widespread violations of the minimum-wage law in the chile fields.
The notebooks I filled at the time remind me what it was like. There was a guy named Lorenzo in Deming living in a dowdy motel who said he was getting $20 to $50 a day that season, when in other years he could make $80 some days. Another man in Hatch said he was grossing $18.20 for eight and a half hours, and yet another man, $20 for six hours. Two young guys who were just beginning to pick in Deming claimed they had made $7 for five and a half hours. The minimum wage was $4.15 at that time.
That year, 1995, was also the first time I met a chile grower. It was a pretty extraordinary meeting.
A 60-ish Anglo man, who probably was one of the managers on the farm, said he would call ahead to the grower's office for me on his cell phone. I don't know if he actually called, because when I got to the office, it was obvious I was not expected.
When the receptionist announced to him the arrival of a person writing a story about farmworkers, the man panicked and sputtered and asked that I talk to him over the intercom, even though he was just a couple doors down the hall. I giggled with the receptionist over his flustered reaction.
I told him I had talked to a farmworker outside who said that a lot of pickers were getting sub-minimum wages, and pointed out a man he claimed had gotten $16 for six hours. The grower said that was wrong, and against the law. But he didn't do anything about it.
I then went outside and sat in my car, writing notes. A young Mexican guy walked by, and I started talking to him from my window. While we were talking, the grower's face suddenly appeared in the window. He pushed his way into our conversation, not excusing himself. I got out of the car to talk, and the grower stood beside the young man, acting as if he was speaking on his behalf, with much bluster and arrogance.
The grower pulled out all the stops in his own defense, saying that what he made was only one percent of the assets he had, that a lot of farmers were growing grains instead of chile because it wasn't profitable. He said that the pickers often work only six hours, and that they exaggerate the number of hours they actually work—by, for example, eating lunch (here the young Mexican said quietly, "Yes, if I had a lunch I would eat it," slyly telling me that workers often don't eat lunch in the fields).
All the time the Mexican was nodding and saying, "Si, si," as if he was supporting the grower. There was little choice on his part, because of the grower's psychological and physical dominance. He excused himself and backed off, looking at me with an amazed, conspiratorial smile.
Almost a year later I found myself talking to the young man again in a trailer park, but didn't quite know who he was until he said, with an incredulous voice and look on his face, "Don't you recognize me?" He remembered very well the overwrought conversation we'd had with the grower.
I'm not relating this incident ten years later to humiliate any individual, or to denigrate a culture—the cowboy/farmer culture is a great culture. I've always felt the farmers may very well be decent, fun, intelligent and kind in other contexts, and I have experienced that. I've even been the recipient of extravagant generosity from a man in that grower's family, when my car broke down. He drove me to work, towed me to the garage with his truck, and even loaned me money for repairs.
But the encounter has always dramatically represented to me the exploitation in the fields, the dirty little secret that's been going on for decades, and that has never been written about in the mainstream press. It illustrates the way some of the growers roll out every reason they can think of to justify sub-minimum wages, but won't admit to anyone that it's going on.
One major grower went so far as to bring his wife-to-be into a field and show her a fieldworker receiving a check for $139 for one day's work. The highest amount I've ever heard someone earning in a day is $100, and this was in just two cases. I've spent a ridiculous amount of time asking fieldworkers how much they make.
I do believe some growers really don't know what's happening in their fields. They will speak to a few workers, but look so obviously like the man in charge that the workers are intimidated from telling the truth, afraid they'll lose work.
It's not the only kind of illegality occurring in the fields. There are contractors who don't record the work with the Department of Labor, and when the worker goes to collect unemployment in the off-season he gets only a fraction of what is due. And it's not the only issue. A greater problem in Deming is that field hands often work four, three or even fewer hours, earning too little. This is because chile processors don't schedule the work with enough consideration for the worker.
It's pretty clear that fewer workers are getting sub-minimum wages now than a decade ago, because the jalapeno crop has largely moved to Mexico, and sub-minimum wages were more common with jalapeno than with the long green variety. But workers are still collectively being deprived of tens of thousands of dollars every year.
Farmworker activist Ruben Nunez in Hatch estimates that 30-40 percent of the workers there get sub-minimum wages. Less than a year ago, when I asked a major grower in Hatch if he ever gave sub-minimum wages, he answered, "Nope." But I had just recently talked to someone who worked in a management position for him, and he said sub-minimum wages on that farm were common.
When most people steal money by breaking and entering, embezzling or cashing fraudulent checks—any of the ordinary ways—they probably either go to jail or change their identity and hit the road. Taking money from impoverished farmworkers might get you a minimal fine if detected. If you're really good and persistent at it, what you get is respectability, a nicer car or house, and maybe a road named after you.
Sometimes justice never comes, I guess. But the truth can be told for the present and for the future.
Borderlines ciolumnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.