When the sun came shining and I was strolling“Where the heck is this place?!” F, J, and I were driving in circles looking for the farm. A school bus, lines of boots on the front porch, threatening signs, rough fences. All were usually dead giveaways that a labor camp was close by. But we couldn’t find this one. So we resorted to our backup plan. We pulled down the gravel road leading to a small house set off the side of the two lane highway. A young couple came out on the dilapidated front porch. The boy had a cutoff t-shirt that displayed his tattooed biceps, and a baseball cap tilted sideways. The girl clung to his arm as he hollered suspiciously out at us. Abandoned cars littered the back yard. F and J turned and looked at me. We all knew one of us had to take a deep breath, get out, make friends with them, and ask for directions. F was driving and he volunteered. He told us to stay in the car, and offered a reassuring smile to J and I that he would be right back. I knew he was smiling for my benefit, and that he was just as jumpy as I was. He ambled over to the porch waving and offering greetings and an organization ID card, his gentle demeanor slightly easing the frowns of the couple on the porch. They did not know where the farm was, but called out to the girl’s daddy, who emerged from underneath a car in the backyard. My buddy and I freaked out as soon as we saw him. He was huge, a muscle toned backwoods Arnold Schwartznegger, and was swinging what had to be the biggest wrench I’d ever seen in my life as he approached. Although F had volunteered as tribute to get directions, he took a step back, and I wished he’d just run back to the car and let us keep driving in circles. H stayed still after that though, standing his ground while talking from a safer distance. The man turned out to be more interested in mechanics than in wrench fights, much to our relief, and F climbed back into the car unharmed, laughing sweetly at my obvious concern. I felt like I was in a movie. When we went into the street corner tiendas to ask directions, the rooms would fall silent. We were being watched. Men were keeping track of where they’d seen us, what farms we’d been to. Although our visits were perfectly legal, farmers who had something to hide in the way they were treating their workers did not want anybody snooping around. “Somebody’s gonna shoot ya’ll if you come back,” one of my compañeros was told. They’d already been chased away with a shotgun, and I knew this threat was far from idle.
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling“Hey,” I nudged my co-worker P, “those men are watching us, do you know who they are?” Nothing exactly new there, but I was still curious. Two females in camps that were largely men. We were definitely being watched. I was uncomfortable. “Can we wait and go talk to these guys when they have more than just a towel on?” I’d been asking that question a lot lately, as workers emerging from the showers after long days in the sun made me feel a little bit like I was invading their personal space. “Laura, it’s just like your college dorm,” another organizer had asserted, “some drunk, some half-naked, some fighting…yet all living together.” The camps were a place where prayers and prostitutes co-existed, in the strange turmoil that surrounded the hardships of life as a migrant farm worker. Well, it definitely made a little more sense to think of it that way. A college dorm. I could cope with that. But that night we were still especially curious about the group of men off in the distance, who thankfully were completely clothed, and obviously talking about us, although too far off for their words to be heard and translated. They had an air of authority about them that implied they weren’t workers, and probably held another position on the farm. P and I walked towards them, pausing before crossing the dirt path as two young boys raced by on their bicycles, kicking up dust and shouting gleefully. Entering into the dust, we emerged next to the group of five men who were standing in a semi-circle facing us, a few leaning on a pickup truck, and the others near an old yellow school bus, all of whom had their backs to the woods. My co-worker launched into an explanation of who we were, joking along the way, and commanding their attention with her intelligence and compassion. The sound of crunching erupted behind me, and I turned around to see one of the young boys coming right at me, before kicking up his legs and jolting to a stop at the last minute. He was interested in us. In a little bit of Spanglish, I asked him his name, where he went to school, if he was having fun riding around, etc. “Yes it is a lot of fun except I can’t stop because my brakes don’t work so I have to just keep going.” His words were symbolic of far more than the problem with his bicycle. He flashed a smile and sped off again, chasing the sunset that was quickly outdoing him, and yet simultaneously encompassing him in a gentle hug. I turned around. Jeans, boots, cigarettes, and grungy hats, alternating between baseball caps with grease stains and a white cowboy hat that had been covered with a smoky film, likely the result of years of mud coating; mostly late thirtyish looking, with tucked in button down shirts that were hardly buttoned. I was prepped for a confrontation, thinking one might be the labor boss, but instead I was greeted with smiles, handshakes, and introductions filled with “mucho gusto.” P was enacting what Fred Ross called being a social arsonist. Yet with workers like these men, she didn’t have to set them on fire for the cause. The fire was already there, she was simply drawing it to the surface and encouraging them to voice it. Something glistened behind the white cowboy hat, atop the middle man’s head. As it moved and came onto my line of vision, I locked eyes with a strikingly beautiful horse. A gelding, he took a step towards us, and I took a step closer. Horses had that effect on me. My new horizon displayed three horses, all magnificent. Stocky, toned muscles, grazing in a small makeshift corral in the woods. Ears forward, they were listening to our conversation. They likely could smell little but sweat and nicotine. “Me gustan sus caballos.” I like your horses. The man with the cowboy hat offered me a broad smile in return, proudly explaining that he was in charge of caring for the horses. They were race horses, and were being taken to backwoods races, a phenomenon that occurred, to my amazement in metropolises such as Faison, NC, and Goldsboro, NC. Not exactly legal, but with a designated field to meet at, and a betting amount set, definitely unstoppable. The little makeshift corral was essentially three trees that were close together, enclosing the small dusty circle from the rest of the forest. As though the canopy of the forest wasn’t enough, several cardboard boxes that had been flattened so that the Lowe’s logo was still front and center were stretched across the arms of the middle tree. The rusted yellow school bus, paint peeling off the sides, had not seen a smiling child climb aboard in years, and sat abandoned with vines creeping over the tires. It was by the far side of the corral, serving as the left wall. Such a makeup seemed temporary, but had obviously been more long term than one could imagine as the school bus had western saddles slung across each seat, the mahogany of the leather camouflaging the timber colored worn seats. I was invited to come back and ride the horses. An invitation I knew I could not accept. I wanted to go watch a race. My friends shot me a look…
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting“Let me know how you’re doing,” I said. F assured me he would. “We all have to stay in touch. I mean, we went through hell together.”
***The light vanquishes the darkness. The darkness cannot overcome it. There is not just a hell, there’s a heaven too. And it triumphs over all, because the soul is unstoppable when connected to the source of love.
This land was made for you and me