Sunday, June 15, 2014

Golden Onions

Olga García Echeverría


When I was a kid, my father worked at a warehouse, barely making enough money to support our family of seven. Yet, every September at the beginning of the school year, he somehow managed to buy all of us—Anna, Terry, Chuy, Mario and me—something new to wear. The summer I was seven, my father gave us an ultimatum. "Si quieren nueva ropa en Septiembre, van a tener que venir conmigo a piscar cebolla."

We were East LA city kids. We didn't know anything about working in fields. Plus, we hated onion. We avoided the kitchen whenever raw onions were sliced. We gagged when onions were cooked. We cringed whenever we found traces of onion in our food.

That all started to change the day our father told us about picking onions in Bakersfield. The idea of leaving Los Angeles for a week and earning our own money was exciting. Together, we figured, we could pick hundreds, even thousands of onions. We marched around the house, chanting, “We're going to the onion fields! We're going to the onion fields!” As our departure date approached, we envisioned plush green fields, making tons of money, and buying lots and lots of new clothes.

In Bakersfield, we were greeted by the pungent smell of onions. Heat waves rose from the ground like smoke. Layers of dust covered first our shoes and later our faces and entire bodies. Sweat seeped out of our pores and soaked through our clothes in patches. My parents and older siblings made their way down the long rows, bending and pulling and cutting, stuffing onion after onion into the large sacks they dragged. My younger brother and I played tug-of-war with the onions we yanked from the earth. They were stronger than we were. Mostly, we helped our mother drag her sack along and ran amok whenever the foreman appeared and half-heartedly shooed us away. There were child labor laws, after all, and we shouldn't be picking.

That evening, after a long grueling day of work, we whined. We could all die of heat strokes we told our parents. The palms of our hands were beginning to blister. Our backs ached. Our feet throbbed. Our sunburnt faces and eyes stung. We wanted to go back to LA. We would wear the same clothes for another year if we had to, but please, please, por favor, we wanted to go home.

Our mother instantly sided with us. "¡Válgame Dios!" she said as she stared at our miserable faces. But our father shook his head. "¡No aguantan nada! Un día en la pisca y se andan muriendo. ¡Ha! No saben lo que es tener que trabajar.”

It was true. As kids, we sometimes did homework or chores, but mostly we played, ate, and watched TV. In contrast, when he was growing up, poverty had forced our father to drop out of elementary school and work as a farm hand in Mexico. He tended to crops, cows, goats, chickens, and horses. In his early 20's, long before he married my mother, he crossed the border into the United States and worked as a migrant worker, picking lettuce, tomatoes, oranges, peaches, grapes, whatever was in season. Our father had worked hard all of his life, and he knew the earth in ways that we didn't.

The next morning, as we waved goodbye to the fields, we laughed. We hadn't gotten rich in the onion fields like we imagined. Instead, we looked like a bunch of dirty scarecrows driving away in a station wagon. The smell of Bakersfield clung to our clothes, our hair, our skin; we reeked of a thousand onions. I doubt our earnings in the fields that one day were enough to pay for even the gas to and from Bakersfield, but when September came around, our father once again managed to buy each of us something new to wear.

Juan Manuel Garcia Vasquez
April 27, 1927 - September 27, 2013


Anonymous said...

Wow. So many of us take it all for granted and yet others are still having to endure the physical toil. Thank you for giving voice to these realities and honoring the hard work that our men engage in to support our families. Adriana

Amelia ML Montes said...

Gracias for helping those of us who are sons, daughters, grandchildren of immigrants, of farmworkers--not to forget the very hard work la pisca is all about--how our gente continue to feed this country

Anonymous said...

My Irish immigrant grandparents died young of tuberculosis. Today I became aware of what it's like to be exposed (very briefly) to the onion fields. Thanks for the lesson. I do admire your dad and what he did for his family. Con todo respeto juan sanchez

Eloise said...

Sounds like tough work. I can't imagine the strength and family dedication that it took for your parents to hang in there.