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Or Else. . .

Telling the truth about farmworker issues can
mean getting threatened.


This column is for people who have a taste for action stories. It's about the time I was involved in farmworker issues, trying to raise awareness of them through writing.

Back in 1996 I'd been talking to the fieldworkers of one labor contractor about what they had earned that day, and the contractor shouted me off what he claimed was his property. I suppose it was, although I was on the sidewalk.

I got out of there in a hurry, but wasn't really afraid. I sort of smiled to myself, thinking I had something to write about.

The next night I was home by myself, when a few minutes before midnight

I started hearing a knocking sound on the side of my trailer. The person continued knocking and going around my trailer making similar kinds of noises.

Within a few seconds I was flying to my phone to call 911. The unexpectedness of it is partly why I was so afraid. I still have never heard of anyone being harassed in this way.

I also had been in town only a few months and was lonely and living in a solitary place. I also had heard just that day that this contractor had once raped a nine-year-old girl, the relative of someone I knew. I also had heard that this man had had a farmworker killed in Juarez, over pay issues I guess. (I remember thinking to myself, that's not for me to investigate.)

During the next eight minutes or so, I wasn't really at my best. I found myself in an ungainly crouch with an enormous, uncontrollable quaver in my voice. I tried to say the 91st Psalm out loud, but it didn't come out right.

At one point the person outside made scraping noises on the screen of my wide-open bedroom window. For a while he made scraping noises on my car. For the last minute, just before I saw the flashing lights of the police car, he was shaking the handle of my front door.

Although I told the dispatcher on the phone he was just trying to scare me, I was also telling her everything I knew about the situation, so there'd be at least one person on earth who knew what had happened if I were killed.

The sounds stopped, and the police arrived and found no signs that anybody had been there. I packed up my dog and went to Motel 6 for the night.

Writing about this 10 1/2 years later still causes my heart to beat fast and makes me breathe hard. It wasn't one little bit of fun.

To me this experience was like taking a sounding of the political strata of this area and of the border. The relationship between grower or contractor and workers, Americans and Mexicans, is shot through with exploitation and repression.

The first image that sprang to mind when I tried to grasp the situation was of the contractor going around talking to the growers he worked for, and them telling him to run me out of town.

This was natural, considering an interview I'd had with one grower before this incident. At some point in the conversation, a murderous look passed over his face, I swear, like a cloud, or a serpent. It was very distinct. I had the impression he was as shocked as I was by his reaction because he normally was a decent person. But while driving that night I wondered if I'd be run off the road.

I now realize that the scenario of the contractor going to the growers was highly unlikely. I've learned growers spend little time with the contractors. They just give the contractors the money and let them do their thing, to protect themselves from liability for labor violations.

It also took me a while to realize that this contractor was unique. His violence is not typical.

And after asking people at the farmworker center in El Paso, I've decided the story about farmworkers being killed is probably not true. If anyone would know, they would, I figure.

But it took me a couple years for me to tell my family what had happened because I didn't want them worrying. I couldn't entirely dismiss the possibility I'd be killed. It's difficult to talk about something like this because you're afraid people will think you're imagining things.

I've been harassed in other ways, too.

After working in a chile field one day, I got a call from an assistant of the contractor saying they didn't want me "snooping around in the fields." She went on and on until I said, "Or else what?" and she said, "Or else we'll send someone over to your house and start harassing you." This time I was afraid only for a couple days.

On another occasion I was taking photos of farmworkers in a field when the grower started running toward me with a mad-as-hell look on his face that made me think he was really about to hit me. But he didn't.

Another time I told a grower that I'd worked in a field of his where possibly no one was getting the minimum wage, and he escorted me out of his office and called me a "troublemaker."

About two years after the harassment at my house, I went to a Spanish language school in Zacatecas. My teacher said his father had worked in New Mexico fields years before, and he was moved by my story. But he smiled with me when I said, with light humor, "Sometimes I wonder why I was so afraid of someone running around outside my house making noises." I was never even touched, after all. Maybe I was a bit cowardly. You have to keep a sense of perspective about situations like this, to rebound from the fear and the bitterness.

The chile-growing industry is threatened from China and other foreign producers, and chile pickers here are earning much more than they could earn if they took just one step over the border (and the growers will make all this very clear to you). But no one will ever be able to persuade me that the chile business here is not exploitive and repressive, because I've seen these human impulses expressed so vividly.

These threats and attacks haven't occupied my thinking very often for the past few years. But remembering them can still produce a chill of fear.

Farmworker issues are not written about in the local media at all, and very few people seem to really care. They're buried in the invisibility of the fields. What would it take to unbury the lies and dissipate their stale odor into the New Mexico skies? I personally think everybody would be better off.

Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.


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