Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Produce Section

David Bacon in The Nation, Oct. 24 tells us about indigenous people from Central America and southern Mexico who travel north through Mexico, working on plantations, and on to California. (The full article is available to subscribers only, but if you haven't subscribed yet, now's the time.) Their community endures although their place is lost. One of the places he mentions, on the journey north, is San Quintin in Baja California.

I visited San Quintin some years ago. Heading south from Ensenada, the trans-penninsular highway is a black thread through sand to the horizon. Even the sparse cacti are small and very mean, with needle-like thorns longer than their barrels are thick. Every forty miles or so a sign with a place name points west toward the ocean, marking a barely discernible track of tire marks. Every 100 miles, a Pemex station and a tiny huddle of cinderblock houses, with a patch of wilting cabbages and a starving cow. On this alien planet, battered flatbed trucks with high wooden panels roar past in the single northbound lane, heaped with tomatoes, grapes and bell peppers.

Then you go over a mountain pass and spread out below is a glistening emerald valley. Come a couple of miles further on down the slope and you'll see it resolve into endless rows of tomatoes and grapes, here and there a small cloud of dust raised by gangs of workers. An actual paved side road, the first in a hundred miles, leads toward the ocean. The road is washed out in places, but still passable in our old Buick. Lined by majestic, but dying eucalyptus trees, it leads to a resort called Cielito Lindo -- a cluster of cabins in the style of a 1950s New Jersey motel, a coffee shop, a restaurant and bar, and a campground with RV hookups for surfers. Just across a narrow inlet is a luxury hotel with a helipad, called El Presidente, owned by the Mexican government as a resort for wealthy Mexicans. The sand is just like granulated sugar with flecks of cinnamon, the sun and surf never end. The ocean, frigid from the Alaksa current, keeps the days just warm and the evenings cool in this tropical desert, while three miles inland the afternoon temperatures are 120 degrees.

A jug of water sits by the sink in every cabana. The tap water has been ruined by salt water intrusion, from years of pumping out the aquifer to water the plantation up in the desert valley so the tomatoes and grapes could be sent on to California canneries and wineries. About a dozen American retirees lived in Cielito Lindo, in dirt cheap luxury. They hadn't bothered to learn a word of Spanish. They would order the servants about imperiously in English, and just yell at them when they didn't understand. Back up by the highway is the village, a huddle of 400 square foot cinderblock boxes. There's a grassy meadow with a sign reading "No Cazar," no hunting, and a man sitting on a horse with a gun across his lap to make sure it doesn't happen. The locals have some sagging corn stalks and bug-eaten cabbages, but without any rights to irrigation water, they can barely pull a week of lunches out of the ground in a year. Down the road a bit, and closer to the shore, a weathered sign reads, in Spanish: This is the ejido of the Happy Valley. The government gave this land to the peasants, for ever. Ejidos were supposed to be communal estates awarded to peasants in a land reform program. This land is clay, salted from the occasional hurricanes that wash the ocean over it, deepy gullied, barren and useless.

With my wretched Spanish I got the whole story from the locals. The plantation, and the resort, were owned by a man who now lived in Palm Springs California. In an amicable divorce, he had given his American wife ownership of the resort. Their daughters came down during the summer to spend time with their mother, learn Spanish, and get to know the empire they would inherit. There were almost no working age men in the village. They were all north in California, where the money was better. Those lucky enough to have jobs in the resort or the hotel had better housing on the premises. A few survived by fishing and crabbing in the shallow, muddy bay, and there was the proprietor of the general store and the manager of the Pemex station.

Labor on the plantation was done by women, a few old men, and indigenas from the south, who lived in barracks. The indigenas would learn some Spanish and the ways of plantation labor, before they too headed north for the agricultural minimum wage in the U.S., to be replaced by a new cohort of Mayans. Some old Indian women, instead of working in the fields, would sit on the beach with piles of clams to sell to the gringo tourists.

On the side of every building there were spray-painted slogans of the Socialist Workers Party. But when they counted the votes, the PRI always won.

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