Stealing Pennies From Chileros

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By Joseph Sorrentino

—In the early morning darkness, Susana Lopez, backpack slung over her shoulder, heads off to a stretch of discount stores on El Paso Street, one of the main gathering places for farmworkers in El Paso, Texas.

Here she joins dozens of other exhausted laborers who woke up at 2 a.m. in the hope of being hired by a contratista, the contractors who provide labor for the region’s farms. Some of the workers pick up a pastry at the bakery half a block away; others grab a burrito from a sidewalk stand. They take their breakfast and sit on a curb or lean against a wall of the Payless ShoeSource and wait. It’s a life of uncertainty. “You never know if there’s gonna be work,” Isidro Mancha, 63, who was born and raised in Albuquerque, tells me.“[You] work with different contratistas almost every day.”

On this late September day, Lopez only has to wait a half an hour before getting picked to hop into a contratista’s van bound for a green chile field in Deming, N.M., 119 miles away. On other days she has waited as long as an hour and a half. Advocates and workers say contratistas choose people they know—those who work fast and, especially, those who don’t complain. Workers call the system, “Tú sí, tú no.” “You yes, you no.”

Sometimes Lopez gets lucky and gets work in Las Cruces, an easy 45-minute drive, but today the trip takes nearly three hours each way. Once in Deming, she and her companions wait in the van or stand at the top of the chile rows, anxious to get started. It will be another 30 minutes before the contratista finally signals that it is light enough to work. Then it is nonstop movement.

By the time Lopez gets back to El Paso that night, she’ll have spent 13 hours just to get paid $47 for six hours of work. And while it’s legal for the contratista not to pay her for those hours spent waiting on El Paso Street and traveling to and from the fields, I find that he may have broken the law in several other ways to keep her day’s pay that small. For New Mexico’s chile pickers, I soon discover, wage theft is as common as sore backs.

Lopez’s pay is too low to afford an apartment, so she stays at a shelter in El Paso run by a farmworker advocacy group, the Sin Fronteras Organizing Project. It houses up to 125 laborers, many of whom have some type of legal status. All of those I spoke with were legal permanent residents, and several were U.S. citizens.

To call the shelter bare bones would be generous. Lopez and several other women share a tiny room next to the reception area that also houses a water fountain; the men sleep nearby in the large main room. There are no beds or cots; everyone sleeps on blankets or thin mattresses placed right on the linoleum floor.

The shelter is crowded, often noisy, and there’s no privacy. With only a few small windows, the air quickly gets stale. But it’s free. “I live here out of necessity,” says Lopez. “If I had an apartment I couldn’t send money to my family”—a 6-year-old daughter and two ailing parents right across the border in Ciudad Juárez.

When I arrive at the chile field with Lopez at dawn on a late September day, the air is surprisingly cool, although southern New Mexico is still seeing highs in the upper 80s. A faint smell of chile hangs in the air. In the dark, I can barely make out the neat green rows that stretch out for acres. Green chile grows low to the ground, so Lopez and the other workers kneel to harvest them, pushing buckets ahead of them as they scoot forward on their knees. The plants are wet with early-morning dew, and workers’ clothing quickly becomes covered in mud.

“You get all dirty,” says Eduardo Martinez, 46, who picks chile to support a wife and two children back in Ciudad Juárez.“You’re like a pig.”

Each time Lopez fills a bucket, which holds about 20 pounds, she hoists it onto a shoulder and hurries to the large crates where she’ll deposit her chile. Workers are paid piece rate, and most New Mexico farmers were paying 85 cents a bucket for green chile this year. (“You wanna make money, you gotta move your fingers quick,” says José Valentes, a slight man of 65 who’s been working the fields for almost 50 years.)

Every time Lopez dumps her bucket, a small plastic token, a ficha, is tossed in; she tucks it in a front pocket and hurries back to her row to continue picking.

In the cool of the early morning, the crew of about 60 workers moves quickly down the rows, rushing back and forth to the crates. Lopez is soon breathing heavily. As the day progresses, the temperature rises, hitting 88 degrees. Exhaustion kicks in, and everyone slows down.

Lopez was told that the crew would work until noon that day. Then 12:30. Finally, at 1 p.m., she calls it quits. “I work until my body says, ‘Stop,’ ” she says. Her legs hurt, her arms hurt; she is spent. She holds out her right hand. It is shaking.

Soon, more workers leave the field. But the tractors keep coming, bringing more empty crates waiting to be filled. No one gets paid until the day’s quota is met, so Lopez waits. At around 2 p.m., there’s a long pause between tractors, and she’s convinced she’ll finally get paid. Then another one pulls up. She shakes her head and mutters “pendejo,” a profane word for idiot. By the time she’s paid, she’s lost yet another hour. For filling 55 buckets, she’s paid $46.75. She worked 6.25 hours and waited another two.

She should have earned much more. With rare exceptions for very small farms, state law mandates that when workers are paid hourly—for example, when weeding a field or picking chile—they must receive the New Mexico minimum wage of $7.50 an hour. If Lopez’s wait time is factored in, her hourly pay falls far below $7.50. That means that, in effect, her wages were stolen.

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Excerpted with permission from In These Times magazine; read the full story here. This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with support from The Puffin Foundation.

Find more of this author’s work at www.sorrentinophotography.com.

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