What Needed To Be Done
The strike began on the hottest day of the season when the temperature topped out at one hundred and three. A handful of pickers gathered in front of the farm. An hour before lunch, the shoulder of the two-lane road was lined with workers carrying handmade signs.
It didn’t take long for the five-man local police force to arrive. The officers, who mostly dealt with domestic disputes brought on by too much cheap wine, had never been called to a strike. They looked to the chief for direction.
Chief Joe Gonzales, Jose Angél Gonzales at birth, had driven to the farm with every intention of disbanding the rally. Expecting a handful of troublemakers, Chief Gonzales was unprepared. A crowd of men, women and children, edging up to seventy-five or as many as a hundred, were pumping signs. A TV crew had already arrived and set up.
Gonzales pulled the car over to the shoulder and watched the dust fly. Where had all these fuckers come from? The police chief didn’t have the slightest intention of stepping out of the air-conditioned car. Instead, he got on the radio and called Lieutenant Calderón, who’d been the first officer to arrive.
“They’ve come from all down the valley,” Calderón informed his boss. He had the same sing-song way of speaking as Gonzales.
“Who organized this? Hell, these people can’t even read and write.”
“I know, sir.”
Calderón cleared his throat and coughed. The chief was tempted to scold the lieutenant about smoking for the umpteenth time.
“Sir,” Calderón said, once he’d cleared enough phlegm from his throat to let out a raw croak. “Looks like this guy at the front’s been talking to the TV people. Must’ve gotten the others riled up. D’you want me to bring him in?”
Gonzales reluctantly pressed the button to release his seat belt.
“I’m coming out.”
* * *
Everything became clear to Alejandro after he had been picking strawberries going on eight hours. A battered straw hat shielded his face from the burning sun. His back and faded blue knit shirt were soaked.
Alejandro stood midway back in a line of other brown-skinned women and men, mostly silent. He watched as one worker after the next stepped away from the front, walking with measured steps, heads bowed, some even shaking.
The man seated at a scratched wooden desk set down in the dirt barked in Alejandro’s direction.
“I am Alejandro Murghia Lopez.”
“Murghia Lopez,” the man muttered back.
Several bills were pulled from a gray metal box. Narrow compartments separated the denominations. The man did not bother to count the money out. Instead, the dark, fat hand slapped the wrinkled wad of bills onto the scraped wooden tabletop.
“Next man,” he announced.
Alejandro picked the money up. Before stepping away, he began to count. It didn’t take more than a minute to conclude that he’d been shorted.
“Excuse me,” Alejandro said, as the next worker was stepping up.
The paymaster gave Alejandro a look that told the young man he’d better not take long.
“This is not enough,” Alejandro said right out.
* * *
The reporter, Margie Sloan, had driven south on the interstate and then east on the winding, two-lane highway. She was one of only two or three reporters who spoke Spanish well enough.
That morning, she had put on a sleeveless white sundress. Her feet were cool, in a pair of white, low-slung sandals.
In her late forties, slim, with shoulder-length hair highlighted a pale ashen blond, Margie still caused men to look a second time. She had never married, but it wasn’t for lack of trying guys out.
Margie saw the workers a quarter mile ahead, on the shoulder of the flat-as-a-pancake road. As she got close, she could hear their chants, though she couldn’t make out what they were shouting.
She slowed the car, looking for a place to pull over and park. As she headed onto the shoulder, she noticed a man walking in front. He wore a straw hat. Around his neck he’d tied a faded red scarf.
* * *
Alejandro talked to some of the other men the evening he was shorted. He learned that he wasn’t the only one. The paymaster was skimming a good fifteen to twenty percent off everyone’s wages. In quiet conversations, Alejandro helped each worker do the multiplication and add the numbers up.
Alejandro did not know if the owner was aware of what the foreman had done. At the end of the evening, sitting under a sky so stuffed with stars Alejandro felt his heart shove some combination of joy and an oversized sorrow into his throat, he understood what needed to be done.
* * *
Joe Gonzales strode across the highway, sweat gathering under his arms and in a broad circle fanning out from the midsection of his back. Under his uniform, the chief had on a bulletproof vest, which made him feel as if he’d stepped into a sauna. Gonzales had taupe-shaded skin, black hair and dark eyes, and resembled the men gathered up and down the shoulder. He spoke fluent Spanish, the language being the first he’d learned before heading off to kindergarten. He was, however, a good half-foot taller than most of the men and had wide, strong shoulders and thick arms, from working out four days a week in the police gym.
Gonzales spotted Alejandro at the front of the line. As he’d been trained to do, Gonzales quickly sketched a silent description of the guy in his mind—five-four and slight, brown skin and brown eyes. He figured this guy was in charge, by the way the small man held himself as if he were tall.
“Buenos días,” Gonzales said to Alejandro.
Alejandro turned to the police chief and smiled.
“Buenos días,” he repeated back.
Gonzales stood with his elbows out, both hands pressed against his pants pockets.
“Tell me,” the chief said, looking up the line of strikers and then down. “What’s going on here?”
Alejandro caught his reflection in the policeman’s sunglasses. The glass was metallic blue, like two narrow rectangles of sky. When the officer turned, strikers appeared in a crowded line, looking more powerful on that blue background than they did in real life.
“We do not want to be out here,” Alejandro said, in a quiet and exceedingly polite voice. “But we have no choice.”
The chief picked at a front tooth, with the squared-off nail on his index finger.
“And why is that?” Chief Gonzales asked.
“Talking does not bring change. We are poor, but that does not mean we must work for nothing.”
Gonzales let his eyes travel down the line again, as if to assess the strikers’ financial status. From that silent glimpse, the chief agreed that these were people from the poorest, most dusty corners of Mexico.
“Is the owner not paying you?” Gonzales looked off in the distance, while Alejandro stared at the blue strawberry fields reflected in the glass covering the policeman’s eyes.
“He promises one amount. But after the fruit is picked and the workers are paid, the amount is much less. So we have decided. The fruit will get soft and rot, unless he guarantees that we are paid what we are owed.”
Gonzales looked down at the ground. He had on a fine pair of leather boots made specially for him in San Antonio. Dust covered the toes. He could tell that before long, the sides would be lightened to a fine, chalky grayish-brown.
The chief shot his gaze down the line one more time. Without warning, he found himself with an unwanted lump in his throat. Get a hold, man, he silently warned himself. The problem, and Gonzales could see it now, was he knew that what this small, serious man had told him was true. But too much attention and sympathy for these guys, and Gonzales would be out of a job.
* * *
Alejandro liked the police chief from the start. It’s true that he was only a poor farmer, who had reluctantly crossed the border to pick whatever fruit was ripe, in fields that didn’t belong to him. But Alejandro had been born on a cloudless night, at the instant when the moon reached its peak of fullness. His mother, who stood a mere four foot seven and three-quarters inches tall and hardly appeared older than a child, repeatedly assured Alejandro that a baby born with the light of the fat moon pouring down could not become anything less than a man who would make his mark.
Early on, Alejandro and his mother understood that the boy had a gift. As his mother liked to boast to the other mothers in Teptapa, he could see underneath the surface of things. For instance, when the carnival came for two weeks every July to Rio Bravo, north of Teptapa, Alejandro won nearly all the prizes. He could guess how many blue glass marbles were contained in a jar, and he knew exactly how many pounds each of the town’s mothers weighed.
More importantly, he could tell when a man was lying. It wasn’t the surface of a man’s face, the lines or dark moles, that gave him away. With the use of his mind, Alejandro could probe deep into a person, all the way down to his heart.
That is what Alejandro did in an instant with Chief Gonzales. He saw that this man might be able to help the strikers out.
* * *
Margie walked across the hot black highway at about eleven o’clock. Under her feet, the road softened, as if the highway would soon turn into a river of flowing tar. She carried a large black leather bag over her right shoulder, which held a small tape recorder. She also carried an Olympus digital camera.
A tall police officer was standing next to the man Margie hoped to interview. No one talked honestly when the police were around, Margie knew. Over the years, Margie had been surprised at how much perfect strangers were willing to reveal. She did not attribute this to any special ability of hers but rather to the fact that most people were lonely and craved attention and the opportunity to share stories about their lives.
“Buenos días,” Margie said to a young man about halfway down the line. “I am a reporter. My name is Margarita.”
The young man smiled at Margie’s speaking to him in his own language and having a name he could pronounce.
“Buenos días,” he said back.
He carried a sign that said in Spanish, “No more exploitation.” Margie asked if she could take his photograph.
“Si,” he said, standing a little taller, as if she’d already pulled the camera out.
Margie made her way slowly up to the front of the line. The tall policeman had moved away by now. A handful of officers were standing along the edge of the highway, one every few yards, like a decorative border to the strikers.
The man at the front was leading a chant. Margie made out the words in Spanish. No more exploitation.
* * *
Gonzales pulled his SUV all the way up the drive. Dust swirled around the car. When he stopped, the beige clouds took a moment to settle down. It didn’t make sense, Gonzales thought, to build such a fine large house and not spend the extra hundred bucks to put in a concrete driveway.
But what did he know, Joe Gonzales asked himself. He was just a police chief in a California farm town that if you stumbled across it, you might think you’d landed in Mexico.
He popped a breath mint into his mouth, his eyes dropping to catch the time. A few minutes after noon. He’d probably find the owner, Rob Henderson, having lunch inside.
This was the sort of thing you wanted to work out before it spread too far. That’s what Gonzales would convey to Henderson at the start. Gonzales let his gaze linger on the house. Stone on the front. A million windows. Enough bedrooms to house twelve or fifteen of those families out on strike.
Gonzales didn’t begrudge the man his money or whatever lifestyle it could buy. No, it wasn’t that. He just didn’t like trouble that made his life hard.
* * *
Alejandro saw the blond woman heading his way. He cleared his throat, letting saliva bathe the back that from shouting all morning was starting to feel raw.
The woman flicked a strand of hair that had fallen over her right eye. She had on small oval sunglasses that were dark. To Alejandro, the woman looked like a movie star.
In her right hand, Alejandro could see that she was holding a small black tape recorder.
“Are you the leader of this strike?” the woman asked in Spanish. He was surprised that a woman with such pale skin could speak his language.
“There is no leader.”
She looked down the line of strikers, just as the police chief had done.
“Can you tell me what’s going on?”
* * *
Gonzales was about to describe the scene on the highway to Rob Henderson for the third time, but stopped to pull a handkerchief from his back pocket and wipe the sweat from his brow. By this time, Henderson had shut the front door to keep the cold air from getting out and joined the police chief in the trembling heat on the porch. Now that he’d been standing there going on fifteen minutes or more, Gonzales could see that the porch wrapped around all three sides. It was—and for some reason this shook Gonzales up—big enough for several families.
“Are you saying this is my fault?” Henderson asked Gonzales before the police officer had gotten a chance to speak.
“No sir, not at all. What I’m saying is this could become an embarrassment for us all.”
“Isn’t it your job to take care of these things, Gonzales? Can’t you make these people leave? Don’t they need some sort of permit to be out there? Hell, if I want to change the porch on this house, the city makes me get a permit.”
Gonzales felt the twitch inside he’d been working hard to control. He clamped down on his jaw and ground his back teeth together. Then he remembered his breathing, a trick he’d learned in an anger management class his wife made him take the last time she threatened divorce. In minutes, Gonzales noticed his breath had calmed.
“With all due respect sir, I don’t see this as a one-time deal,” Gonzales said. “These people are not criminals. They’ve got everything to lose.”
Gonzales stopped for a moment to let his words sink in.
“What I’m saying, sir, is I think this just might be the start.”
* * *
Gonzales’ ex-wife Miranda was at that moment in the center of downtown, unlocking the door to the hair salon she owned with her best friend, Carmen. Miranda had a raging hangover. The girls from the salon had decided to go out, to dance and flirt and have a little fun. Miranda’d gotten dressed up for the first time since her cousin Janice’s wedding, that she’d gone to with Joe. She looked fine in that clingy royal blue dress, having slimmed down, now that she wasn’t making dinner for a husband every night.
Waking up this morning, her mouth so dry she could barely swallow and her forehead feeling like she’d been pummeled by a pair of powerful fists, Miranda thought there was something truly pathetic about a woman of forty-five going out dancing to meet guys. She hated to admit it, as she swallowed two ibuprofen and then two more after that, but the guys she had danced with were young enough to be her sons.
Miranda stepped into the salon, pleased to be greeted by the soothing scent of lavender. It was the latest thing she’d decided to try, even though Carmen thought it foolish. At a recent hair show, she’d been impressed with a salon owner from L.A., who talked about the importance of adding value to your services, to make the clients feel special. He’d given examples, like hand massages and warm scented towels laid gently over the eyes while the stylist shampooed. Lavender, he said, was a natural remedy for depression. That stayed with Miranda.
* * *
Margie’s story ran the following day and went out on the wires. She did not mention that many, if not all, of the workers were illegal, though she knew it from observation. The question had not gone unasked.
“Can you tell me,” Margie said to Alejandro, as she held the small tape recorder in front of his mouth. “Aren’t many of you taking the risk that you will be deported back to Mexico?”
Alejandro didn’t answer right off. Instead, he looked past Margie across the highway, to the fields where he knew the strawberries were rotting.
“We came here because we cannot make enough money to feed our families. What is the point to work ten or twelve hours a day in this country, if we still earn nothing?”
Later that afternoon, in the air-conditioned newsroom staring at her computer, Margie debated whether to leave that quote out. She had tried to be objective, as good reporters like herself were taught. But after talking with the workers and driving up the circular drive to the owner’s mansion, Margie had little problem figuring out whose side she was on.
* * *
Gonzales didn’t like leaving Henderson’s porch having accomplished nothing. But he had no choice.
“I won’t take up any more of your time,” Gonzales said.
He held his right hand out to shake Henderson’s. At that moment, the farm owner turned to go back in the house.
Gonzales turned and slowly took the first step down.
“I hope you’re going to make them get a permit, Gonzales,” Henderson shouted.
Before the chief had a chance to respond, Henderson added, “I’ve got some new workers coming in. You might want to have your men on hand tomorrow.”
* * *
Miranda heard the first bus pass the salon, just as she was getting ready to lock up. It was Tuesday night, late for this small town, though it was only a little past nine o’clock. She stepped over to the window, and that’s when the second bus went by.
At that moment, Gonzales was leaving the café, on the opposite side of the street, a block north of the salon. He’d just eaten a combination plate with two chicken tacos and one beef tamale, ample portions of rice, refried beans and guacamole. He’d had time to knock a toothpick out from the clear plastic dispenser by the register and proceeded to jab it into the narrow spaces between his front teeth.
As the third bus rolled by, Gonzales stabbed the point of the toothpick into a sensitive spot. In seconds, he tasted blood.
* * *
Margie Sloan was driving through town, after an unsuccessful attempt to interview the farm owner. Her car was stuck behind a slow-moving school bus. She noticed the police chief standing on the sidewalk, looking in the direction of the bus.
That afternoon, the striking workers had been evicted from houses and trailers on the Henderson property. The night being warm, Alejandro suggested that they camp along the highway in front of the farm. The young man sensed that something bad was going to come down. Being on the highway, they would be the first to find out.
* * *
Miranda saw Joe up the street and considered whether to walk over and say hi. They’d probably fight, she knew, and the minute she thought that another bus rolled by. She could see that the buses had absorbed her ex-husband’s attention. She turned around and locked the salon door.
Gonzales dropped onto the seat of his SUV, shut the door and called Calderón.
“I think we got a problem.”
Calderón cleared his throat.
“I know,” the lieutenant said, his voice, as always, hoarse.
“You know?” Gonzales asked.
“They called here,” Calderón said.
“The Feds. ICE. They’re showing up tomorrow morning to arrest the strikers.”
Gonzales hated having the Feds come in. This should have stayed a local problem. Growers like Henderson thought they owned the town. Henderson even thought he owned Gonzales.
“I’m coming in,” Gonzales said and started the car.
As he pulled away from the curb, Gonzales noticed his ex-wife Miranda in the rearview mirror. He made a U-turn and pulled up alongside her.
“How you doing, Miranda?” he asked, noting that she’d done something different with her hair, maybe a new color.
“I’m okay,” she said.
“You need a ride?”
“No thanks. I’ve got my car.”
She started to walk away but something made her stop.
“Hey, Joe, did you see those buses? What was that all about?”
“Farm workers,” he said. “Henderson’s bringing them in. Workers went on strike.”
“On strike, huh? In this heat, who could blame ‘em?”
* * *
It was three o’clock in the morning when Gonzales made it out to the highway in front of the farm. He wasn’t sure why but whenever he couldn’t sleep, he liked to hop in the car. That had driven Miranda crazy, his getting up and going out in the middle of the night. She was sure Gonzales had a lover. No amount of arguing could convince her otherwise. Gonzales thought that maybe if he’d asked Miranda to go along, they’d still be married now.
In those days, he craved the solitude and thinking time those middle-of-the-night rides allowed. Now that he was alone, he had too much time.
The headlights picked up dark shapes along the highway’s shoulder. Gonzales slowed down. As he got close, Gonzales saw that the dark shapes appeared to be bodies. He felt the first rush of adrenalin and prepared to make the call.
* * *
Alejandro hadn’t slept much by the time he saw the headlights. He was groggy and tried to make himself more alert, in case the lights meant trouble. Rumors had been circulating that other workers were being brought in, to get the ripe fruit out. Alejandro wondered if those workers might arrive during the night.
He stood up to get a better look. The headlights temporarily blinded him.
The lights went off and the road grew dark. Alejandro watched as the police chief stepped out of the car.
* * *
“This is a dangerous place to be,” Gonzales said to Alejandro when he walked up.
“We had no place else to go. The owner threw us out of our homes.”
Gonzales felt his stomach lurch, and the anger begin to grab at his throat. He thought about his father, how hard he worked, cleaning toilets at the local elementary school. He thought about the owner of the farm, that he hadn’t invited Gonzales inside. He thought about how much he hated when the Feds got involved.
“You might want to get your people out of here,” Gonzales said.
“We are staying,” Alejandro responded. “We are staying until they pay us what we are owed.”
At that point, Gonzales wondered what might be the right move and what move might be wrong. The Feds were gonna come in, arrest all these people and make a big announcement that could jeopardize Gonzales’ job. The Feds would strut around, as if they’d done themselves proud, when Gonzales knew that they would have ignored the whole business if Henderson hadn’t called.
He looked up and down the shoulder at the bodies, most covered with thin blankets. Then he heard a baby cry.
He kicked at the dry dirt, until the impact made his big toe throb.
“The people from immigration are coming here tomorrow to arrest all you folks,” he said, stabbing the dirt with his boot, as if trying to kill something in it. “If you’re intending to stay here, you might at least let the other people know.”
* * *
Alejandro and the men, women and kids left the highway an hour before the sun came up. The young farmer said goodbye to the others and started to walk south, headed back to Mexico.
The night he arrived home, after climbing the mud pathway to the house, he spent a long time hugging his wife and young son. In the morning he rose early, when the sky was still dark. He stood in front of the house and waited, until he saw the orange band of light.
In the next few months, Alejandro worked hard, determined to coax enough food from his crops and handful of animals to feed his family and keep whatever hopes they had for the future alive. At the same time, and unbeknownst to Alejandro, word about the Mexican who had stood up to the foreman and helped the workers demand more pay wound around the strawberry fields, lodging in the ears of the strikebreakers. Sweating in the broiling sun, bending over for hours, their backs aching, throats and tongues dry, their legs and arms bone tired, those men and women dreamed about the Mexican and wondered if he might show up one day.
Some said he was tall and handsome, with a thick moustache like Pancho Villa. Others whispered that he was small and dark—like un Indio, they said, but with a fierce heart. Several of the young women claimed he was single and looking for a wife. An older group of the devout proclaimed that he wore a clerical collar and the workers had addressed him as Father. One or two of the men who were of the overly jealous type began to quietly plot how they might one day speak up and become more admired than this guy.
There was even a song written about the guy. Some nights, when the sky was stuffed with stars, the men would sit outside around a fire and sing the words, while one worker from Jalisco strummed the saddest-sounding chords on the guitar.